Follett: Our staff is excited about the upcoming Muppet movie. Did this influence your decision to write about Jim Henson? Can you tell us a bit more about your upcoming biography on Jim Henson? What inspired this book, and were you a Sesame Street fan as a child? And most of all – we want to know who is your favorite Muppet and why?
KK: I didn’t know about the new movie, but I knew that, had he not died prematurely at age 53, this year would have been his 75th birthday. With Jim Henson: The Guy Who Played With Puppets, I wanted to shed light on a person who has done so much for children, a modern-day hero. He was considered peculiar for playing with puppets, but he turned out to be brilliant at making people of all ages laugh. I’m a bit past the Sesame Street target audience, but I remember how progressive this show was when it premiered, how in tune with the spirit of the60s and 70s. The idea that TV could be used as a force for good – wow. As for Muppets, Miss Piggy makes me giggle, but they’re all just so entertaining.
Follett: Please tell us a bit more about your new title, Big Wig: A Little History of Hair. You’ve written elsewhere about your interest in hair. Can you share some of the oddities you discovered? In your opinion, which had a more interesting history, men’s or women’s hair design?
KK: Big Wig combines my odd interest in hair (from when I wrote my first “book” about it in fifth grade - it was just fun to draw) and my love of social history, with the challenge of pursuing one topic through the millennia. You might think women are more obsessed with hair, but in researching hairstyles through the ages, I saw that men are possibly even more so. Male warriors have used hairstyles as a psychological weapon, Aristotle thought goat pee would cure his baldness, Julius Caesar used pee from a bunch of animals until Cleopatra recoiled, George Washington eschewed the big-wig style, the Beatles changed everything with their hairdos… it’s hilarious, and the art by Peter Malone is a riot, with little jokes on every page.
Follett: Do you prefer to write on contemporary biographical subjects such as in the recent release of Jim Henson: The Guy Who Played With Puppets, or historical figures such as Pocahontas and Isaac Newton? As a biographer, what are some of the difficulties and advantages of writing each type?
KK: In general I prefer the historical, long-since-dead figures. We have some perspective on them, and there is usually more material to work with. The more contemporary the person, the more nervous I am. Will the person turn out to have a secret life, perhaps as a serial killer, will living relatives hate the book.…? I really have to be interested to tackle a live person. Hillary Clinton = very scary! (Fortunately, she liked the book – Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight.)
Follett: Do you prefer writing collective biography or individual biography, and why?
KK: With collective biography, my goal is to paint an accurate, high-interest portrait in a fresh way, using a very tight word count. Individual biographies are more luxurious, with the time and the word count to tell a story, pace it and highlight the visuals. I love both forms. Both can reveal the emotional truth about a person, getting at what Tom Wolfe, one of my favorite nonfiction writers, points out about nonfiction: “It is the emotions, not the facts, that most engage and excite readers and in the end are at the heart of most stories.”
Follett: Who is your favorite person you’ve written about?
KK: I don’t write about people unless I like or admire them, so this is a tough call. I’m partial to Beethoven, who gave me so many quirky facts to work with that we were able to get the first Lives Of book published on the basis of a sample chapter about him.
Follett: Do you see yourself writing any more non-biographical nonfiction titles, as you did with M is for Music or A Pot O’ Gold and others?
KK: Definitely. I have a couple in the works right now.
Follett: What is your research process like?
KK: Don’t tell anyone, but I have antennae. When I get interested in a topic, these antennae radiate in all directions – books, newspapers, magazines, Internet, family and friends, experts I know. Mostly it’s a lot of long hours poring over library books – the thicker and more academic the better – gleaning information I think will be most interesting to kids, or scoping the arc of a person’s life story.
Follett: Who have been your favorite illustrators to work with and why?
KK: Except for my husband Paul Brewer, who has illustrated two of my books, I can’t play favorites. I’ve been extremely lucky with artists for my books. Kathryn Hewitt, who paints the famous Big Heads in the Lives Of books, and I go back a long way and we do work together as a mutual admiration society. But most of the time I don’t actually “work with” the artists – everything is handled through the editor. In fact, I only just met Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher, who brought JIM HENSON and two of my other subjects (Dr. Seuss and FDR) to life so well, a few weeks ago. Kind of weird, but that’s the way publishing works.
Follett: Can you share any items about your biographical subjects you wish you could have included in the books, but weren’t able to?
KK: I’m pretty honest about almost anything – I believe young readers deserve a complete portrait of a person – so I don’t have any good gossip for you here, sorry. Except I do feel true pangs when I have to cut so much info I think is riveting in the polishing stage. I invariably want to start up a second book on the person, which no editor has ever agreed to.
Follett: Do you miss your days working with Trixie Belden novels? How is your writing process different when writing fiction versus writing nonfiction?
KK: I do miss Trixie, but it’s fun to run into folks who have fond memories of her. We make rude remarks about how much better she was than Nancy Drew. The tools from the writer’s toolbox are different when writing fiction versus nonfiction, but with nonfiction there’s more of a net. As my very favorite writer, Virginia Woolf, said about the advantage of nonfiction: “I have a net of words which will come down on the idea certainly in an hour or so.” Well, it takes me a lot longer than an hour, but I’m more confident about meeting the challenge. As with fiction, every sentence in nonfiction is there for a reason, reflecting endless choices within a structure designed to meet some challenge. But the goal is the same – evoking that emotion Wolfe talked about.
Follett: Whom would you have liked to read about in a picture book when you were a child?
KK: I might have liked to read about the creators of poems and stories I loved – Robert Louis Stevenson, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Dr. Seuss, Enid Blyton, Astrid Lindgren, so many more. I don’t think we had those sorts of books – I don’t think anyone thought kids would be interested.
Follett: Do you have any other current interests you would like to address in a children’s book?
KK: Lady Gaga, though I have yet to think of a child-friendly angle. In my office I have drawers full of file folders with all the interests I have – enough to last my lifetime and beyond.
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