March is National Women’s History Month and to celebrate, I am very excited to host, author Pamela Greenwood on the blog.
Pamela Greenwood grew up in Montana with a book in one hand and a watering hose spraying her dad’s garden in the other. She was curious about the natural world around her, and the things the adults said, or left unsaid. When she first started writing for children, her work was fiction, short stories and what her editor called short chapter books for young readers. Pamela and her coauthor began collaborating on nonfiction picture books on things like bridges, tunnels, airplanes, and robots for very young readers. Then, they stumbled on a book about women spies, and knew they had to write about them.
Pamela is talking about her new non-fiction book for kids, IN DISGUISE: UNDERCOVER WITH REAL WOMEN SPIES.
IN DISGUISE: UNDERCOVER WITH REAL WOMEN SPIES is available at:
Now I’m sure some of you are saying, but wait! The author’s name on that cover is not Pamela Greenwood! Ah! You’re right! And she will share more in the interview!
But, before we get to the interview….Pamela is giving away ONE copy of her new book, IN DISGUISE: UNDERCOVER WITH REAL WOMEN SPIES!
All you have to do to enter the giveaway is leave a comment below and tell us a spy story. This could be a time you “spied” on someone –sibling rivalry is good for this! A person you knew who was a spy or whatever you want us to know about spies!
The book giveaway of IN DISGUISE: UNDERCOVER WITH REAL WOMEN SPIES will run for a week. We will announce the winner on March 9.
Pamela, can you tell us a little bit about your new book, IN DISGUISE: UNDERCOVER WITH REAL WOMEN SPIES
The book is for tween girls, and tells the stories of thirty headstrong and daring women who spied for their country’s freedom. Some were just girls of 18 or 20, others quite old. They span the centuries from the 1600s through today. Okay, we haven’t outed anyone working in the field right now, but have spotlighted Valerie Plame, who was outed in a newspaper article in 2003. Two other current-day women who spied are retired now. (One of them, Jonna Mendez, is the wife of Tony Mendez, the CIA officer who rescued the hostages in Iran in the movie “Argo.”) The spies came from various nationalities and backgrounds: Mexico, Colombia, Europe, China, India, Slovakia, as well as the United States and Canada. They came from all walks of life. You might be surprised to find Josephine Baker, Julia Child, Hedy Lamarr, and Harriet Tubman there, too.
You use a pen name, Ryan Ann Hunter, and write with a co-author, Elizabeth G. Macalaster. Can you share with us a little bit about how this process works? How do you divide up the work? How often do you communicate? How did you decide to form a writing partnership?
When Elizabeth and I work on a picture book, we write every word together, brainstorming, finding the right first sentence and last sentence, sometimes writing whole paragraphs together. Now we write over the phone, because we have to hear the voice. But we met when we both lived in New Jersey, and we’d pause between sentences at Café Beethoven in Chatham to take bites of their wonderful pastries. Eventually, we pass the manuscript back and forth via email, taking turns as editors, but still phoning to read passages out loud.
In Disguise! was a different story. We divided up the women, talked about how we’d structure each story, then went off on our own till we got to the stage of taking turns as editors. We’d still do a lot of reading out loud. We think we channel Ryan Ann Hunter’s voice—which is part me, part her, but something separate from and more than both of us!
We communicate sometimes daily when we’re actively developing a project. But even when we’re taking a break from writing together, we have to catch up on each other’s life and projects –if we don’t talk in a month, say, one morning there comes a phone call. At this point, Elizabeth lives in Vermont, and I’m in Washington State.
In Disguise! Undercover with Real Women Spies is a non-fiction book. How did you research each story? How did you decide what to include and what not to include?
We read everything we could get our hands on. I spent hours at the Suzzallo and Allen Libraries on the UW campus, since I couldn’t check out books from there. I worked with one of my local librarians to find material from other libraries around the world. We studied biographies, journals and letters when we could get our hands on them, websites, and texts about the wars the women served in. We learned about the culture and the customs of the various countries. We poured over maps. We emailed two of the living spies directly. And Elizabeth interviewed one of the spies from WWII, Maria Gulovich, in person. They lived near each other in the Los Angeles area at that point. Elizabeth says it was one of the highlights of her writing career.
Figuring out what to include was hard, because we had a limited word count. Since we were targeting tweens, we wanted to be sure and share information about what each woman was like as a young girl, what growing up in her time was like. We found many tomboys, many highly educated girls, some very wealthy, some very poor. None of them were content to be conventional, to do what society expected.
For the most part, we left out the details of their schooling, their marriages, their children, their ongoing careers. Though we wanted to give a sense of what life was like for them, after their spy missions were over.
Oh, and we mostly left out the women who spied for “the other side.” We did include Mata Hari, Mary Surratt (who was hanged for her participation in Lincoln’s assassination), and Belle Boyd (who spied for the Confederate cause but later married a Union officer and settled into life in the new reunited America).
What was the most interesting thing you learned about women spies?
That they were ordinary women in so many ways. But that they did think outside the box, and think fast on their feet, and that they all were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. Some of them did, and I get chills thinking about it even as I type the words.
What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
Getting it right. Legends grew up around some of their adventures. And some embellished their own stories in the aftermath. Because spies work undercover, much is still unknown. We compared version after version, and we looked to the opinions of scholars. There is one woman, Emily Geiger from the American Revolution, whom a few people still believe never existed. I worked on her story, and was freaked out when I came across that reference. I had gotten to know, and admire, her! After sorting through all the opinions, I decided to join the DAR and others who believe in her existence. Hey, I have been doing genealogy searches on my great grandmother, and cannot find her in any census before 1900. I cannot find any historic documents that prove she existed before that, but I am pretty sure she didn’t drop into Great Falls, Montana, on a space ship.
What advice would you give a young writer?
Read a lot. Enjoy writing but don’t ignore the most important part of the process: revising, or as some people call it, re-visioning. Sometimes you don’t know what the really important part of the story is—what you really meant to say—until you write “the end” of the first or second draft. My coauthor and I figure a minimum of 10 drafts to really make our writing sing.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
Our book has spy-related activities for readers to try. One grew out of our difficulty in finding true information about some of the spies, but it’s really appropriate for Women’s History Month. Lots of women’s stories are lost because they don’t think what they’ve done is important enough to record. We invite readers to interview the adult women in their own lives. There are all kinds of adventures—great and small. And all kinds of courageous actions. The activity ends with this thought: “Who knows? You may find an unsung hero in your own family. You are sure to find girls and women who have done amazing things.”
Thanks so much, Pamela!
Be sure to leave your name in the comment below for a chance to win a copy of IN DISGUISE: UNDERCOVER WITH REAL WOMEN SPIES.
Giveaway winner will be announced March 8! Good luck!