Thursday, April 30, 2015

7 Questions With Author Eric Jay Dolin

1) How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?   
I have always loved stories about the past, especially early sea voyages and the travels of explorers. However, my main interest throughout school, and for most of my career, was marine biology and the environment.   

I grew up near the coasts of New York and Connecticut, and since an early age I was fascinated by the natural world, especially the ocean. I spent many days wandering the beaches on the edge of Long Island Sound and the Atlantic, collecting seashells and exploring tidepools. When I left for college I wanted to become a marine biologist or more specifically a malacologist (seashell scientist). At Brown University I quickly realized that although I loved learning about science, I wasn't cut out for a career in science, mainly because I wasn't very good in the lab, and I didn't particularly enjoy reading or writing scientific research papers. So, after taking a year off and exploring a range of career options, I shifted course turning toward the field of environmental policy, first earning a double-major in biology and environmental studies, then getting a masters degree in environmental management from Yale, and a Ph.D. in environmental policy and planning from MIT, where my dissertation focused on the role of the courts in the cleanup of Boston Harbor.   

I have held a variety of jobs, including stints as a fisheries policy analyst at the National Marine Fisheries Service, a program manager at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, an environmental consultant stateside and in London, an American Association for the Advancement of Science writing fellow at Business Week , a curatorial assistant in the Mollusk Department at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, and an intern at the National Wildlife Federation, the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management, and the U.S. Senate.

Throughout my career, one thing remained constant--I enjoyed writing and telling stories. While working on my dissertation, I realized I had the most fun researching and writing about the history of the degradation and cleanup of Boston Harbor, and was less interested in the policy issues and the hypothesis testing. About that time, in the mid 1990s, I started writing books that focused on history.   
Since then I have written eleven books, including my current project, and all of them have focused on some aspect of American history, which is my main interest. 

I love the process of finding great stories, researching them, and telling them in a way that is fascinating and informative. Despite my Ph.D., I am not interested in writing dense, theory-heavy,  academic tomes. The greatest compliment a reader can give me is telling me they enjoyed my book, and had fun learning new things  about history.

I think it is especially important to make history BOTH fascinating and informative because that is the best way to engage kids and get them to love and learn about history. Over the last 10-20 years there has been an explosion of well-researched, well-written, enjoyable history books that have broadened the audience for history. I am happy to be a small part of this trend.

2)   What role does history play or has it played in your personal  and professional lives? 
My love of history and writing gave me a new career. Beginning in 2007, I became a full-time writer of history books. That was an enormous change in my personal and professional life. I work from home now, and do a lot of the shuttling of kids after I write in the morning and early afternoon. I also do a lot of public speaking. After I publish a book, I go on a book tour during which time I can give as many as 80 talks at museums, historical societies, and libraries.  

I earn less money now than I did when I had a regular job, but I love my work now as I never did before (like teaching, you don’t go into writing for the money). With the support of my wonderful and understanding wife, and the continued success of my books I hope to be able to continue being a fulltime writer for many years to come. Whatever happens, I know I will always keep writing, one way or another.  

3)  Why is studying/knowing history important? 
Knowing history helps one understand current events by offering the background necessary to appreciate how things got to this point. It also makes you realize that many of the problems/opportunities that face us today are very, very old. And by having a fuller understanding of history, I believe it gives individuals and society a better chance of making good choices for a brighter future. But perhaps the most important reason to study/know history is because it is so much fun, and it allows you to look at the world in a more nuanced and richer way. A good history book is as good as the best fiction.  

4)  What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why? 
I love American maritime history, and within that, am most intrigued by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially from the American Revolution through the Civil War—a span that captures the tail end of the great age of sail. I am sure this an outgrowth of my early love of the oceans and marine biology. I live less than a quarter mile from the ocean, and I enjoy nothing more than walking along the beach and thinking about the animals that live under the waves, as well as all the people who made history on the waves (or under it, as the case may be). Nevertheless, I have written “terrestrial” histories, and will probably write more in the future. But my preference is decidedly salty. There is nothing better than a dramatic sea tale.  

5)  Your books cover a wide range of topics.   How do you decide what subject to
explore next? 
 I don’t have a strong background (or much educational background at all) in history, so almost all the topics I choose are things I know very little about at the outset (I wish I had taken more history courses in school!). This requires me to read widely and deeply to get to the point of being comfortable writing a solid narrative. Oftentimes, while working on a book I come across something that sparks an idea for another book. For example, while working on Leviathan , I read a book on early New England history that talked about how the Pilgrims depended heavily on beaver pelts for their livelihood. I knew nothing about this, and wanted to learn more. I read up on the Pilgrims, and then the early fur trade, and this led me to my next book, Fur, Fortune, and Empire.   Then, while working on FFE I learned about the extensive trade in sea otter pelts between America and China, and that got me thinking about the early relationship between these two countries, which led to my next book, When America First Met China .  

Right now I am looking for a new book topic. There was nothing in my most recent book (see below) that sparked another idea, so I am just bouncing around intellectually, thinking about what I like and what might be a good story to tell. This mainly involves me reading a lot and hanging out at libraries randomly wandering through the stacks, and every once in while grabbing a book that looks interesting, perusing its contents, then digging deeper if my curiosity is piqued. Once I find a topic that hasn’t been written to death, and excites me, my agent, and my publisher, and which we all think might find a good audience, then I will have found my next book project.  

6)  What current project are you working on? 
I just finished a book on the history of American Lighthouses. It was great fun to write, and it is a fascinating read (what else would I say!). It is a story about the evolution of the nation, war, technological innovation, marine disasters, hurricanes, and much more. At its core, it is a history about people, including Founding Fathers, brilliant engineers, imperiled mariners, daring soldiers, saboteurs, penny-pinching bureaucrats, ruthless egg collectors, and inspiring leaders. The most important people are the male and female keepers, who, often with the invaluable and at times courageous assistance of their families, faithfully kept the lights shining and the fog signals blaring. The book has well over 100 illustrations, and will be published early next year.  

7)  Where can readers find more information about your books?
For information on my books, please check out my website --   Since you are history teachers, and many of your readers are, it would be great if you could point them to the three videos I made for my last three books. I made these to tell the general public about the books, but I have been contacted by many teachers who said they have used them as a teaching tool to give an overview of the topics covered in my books. 

Here are the youtube addreses where you can see the videos:

No comments:

Post a Comment