“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” These many years later, I can still hear the expression in my mother’s voice as she read aloud the last lines of E. B. White’s masterpiece, Charlotte’s Web. This—and other great children’s books—are still some of my all-time favorites. I was incredibly lucky to grow up in a house full of books and with parents who loved them. In those days, I never thought that I’d become a writer, but I surely knew that I was a reader. Even before I could read on my own, I realized that a good story is something to savor.
I love fiction and nonfiction equally, so why did I decide to write history and biography? I’m not sure myself. I can only say that I am drawn to true tales of the past–memoirs, diaries, letters, eyewitness accounts—because they are glimpses into the mystery of other times and other people’s lives. What did it feel like to be a wrangler and a great painter, like the Cowboy Artist Charlie Russell? What motivated the brilliant and eccentric John James Audubon to risk everything just to paint birds? Writing about these one-of-a-kind characters is equal parts challenge and privilege. And delving into their worlds is the closest I’ll ever get to time travel.
Through my books, I’ve traveled widely and gotten to know some unforgettable people and times. Eleanor of Aquitaine and medieval Europe. Marie Antoinette and revolutionary France. Mary Cassatt and the Paris of her fellow French Impressionists. I’ve had a lifelong love for the American West and have written several books on Western topics, from a history of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War to a biography of the pioneer photographer, Solomon D. Butcher. My latest book, This Strange Wilderness
, tells the story of the groundbreaking ornithologist and bird artist, John James Audubon. It’s always fun to write about artists because their work is not only beautiful to look at, but it bears witness to the times in which they lived. And in the words of the historian Patricia Nelson Limerick, “It is beautiful to bring back history.”