Monday, October 29, 2018

Q&A with Mary Morton Cowan

Mary Morton Cowan is the author of the new children's book Cyrus Field's Big Dream: The Daring Effort to Lay the First Transatlantic Telegraph Cable. Her other books include Captain Mac and Timberrr.... Ice Country, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Highlights for Children. She lives in Maine.

Q: You write that you learned about Cyrus Field in the process of researching a different book. At what point did you decide to write about him?

A: When I was writing Captain Mac, my biography of Arctic explorer Donald MacMillan, I traveled to Newfoundland and Labrador to learn more about him. I happened to visit the provincial cable station in Heart’s Content, which I found fascinating.

But at the time, I had other projects in mind, and didn’t think of it again until my editor, Carolyn Yoder, asked me for another adventure biography.

Aha! The transatlantic cable! How could anyone lay a telegraph cable not much bigger around than a garden hose all the way across the treacherous Atlantic Ocean? And why? There had to be an adventure in there somewhere. I delved in. What an adventure I found!

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?

A: Thus began MY adventure! I have always liked sleuthing to get “behind the scenes” stories of people and events. First I take out all the library books I can find and pore thorough them to learn where to search further. I want as many primary sources as possible.

Cyrus Field was born nearly 200 years ago, and I knew accurate research could be challenging. I often find conflict in sources, and this time was no exception.

I drove to western Massachusetts where Cyrus grew up and I hiked in the Berkshires where he had hiked as a young boy. I consulted history experts, Cyrus’s descendants, and staff at Williams College, where Cyrus received an honorary degree.

One challenging chapter was about Cyrus’s trip to South America with artist Frederic Church. Cyrus wrote little about it, so I had to delve into Church’s diaries and letters.

It was on the internet where I did much of my research. I spent many hours at the Bates College library, not far from my home. They have online access to historic newspapers and magazines, and with help from reference librarians, I found and verified hundreds of details. I was able to access speeches and letters, Cyrus’s and others’ diaries from the cable expeditions, and much more.

Another valuable online source was, whose webmaster helped me at many turns.

Photo research helps me “see” the world I’m writing about. My story took place before candid photography, but artists illustrated events in oils and watercolor. I found hundreds of archival illustrations and about 80 of them are included in the book.

Whenever I’m researching, I keep an eye out for quotations I might use to bring my characters to life—quotes that won’t be too stilted for young readers.

I tried one new research technique for this book which worked well—downloading calendars for the years Cyrus was attempting to lay the cable. Some sources only mentioned days of the week when events happened, yet every so often a date appeared. Making notes on old calendars helped me sort out those details.

And Cyrus took so many trips to Europe that inserting travel dates helped me keep track of when he was at home and when he was in England.

What surprised me most was Cyrus’s unbelievable perseverance and determination. He was not a robust man physically, in fact he was seasick nearly every time he crossed the ocean, but he kept going, despite many frustrating delays and problems.

When the first cable succeeded, he was celebrated as a worldwide hero, then when it failed a few weeks later, he was scorned by nearly everyone. Once he was accused of treason, the men suspected sabotage—even then, he steadfastly refused to give up his dream.

Q: What do you see as Cyrus Field's legacy today? What do you think his opinion would be of today's communication technology?

A: Cyrus Field was a pioneer in instant communication, a leader in what is considered one of the greatest achievements of the 19th century, and which became an important link in the first worldwide communications network.

He would be amazed at today’s communication technology, to watch us using cell phones, able to reach anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. He would also be horrified at its dangers. He believed the transatlantic cable would help bring peace; he would despise our ability to manipulate and abuse our technology with evil intent.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I’d like young readers to get a glimpse of a persistent man, and to realize that they too can dream, can aspire to achieve lofty goals, and with perseverance, can achieve them.

I’d also like to have all readers know where Cyrus’s story fits into our county’s history—a time of rapid industrial growth, but also involving a horrific Civil War, complicating his dealings with Great Britain.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: The historical novel I put aside to write this biography now demands my attention. I also have several picture books in progress, and I continue to write nonfiction articles for children’s magazines.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When Cyrus Field set forth to achieve his dream of connecting North America and Europe with an electric cable, little was known about electricity and magnetism. It was largely due to this project that the science advanced at that time, and that the scientific method in general was developed.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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