Review: The Many Faces of George Washington

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The first book I down­loaded was one I’d heard about the NFforKids Yahoo group for non­fic­tion children’s book writ­ers. THE MANY FACES OF GEORGE WASHINGTON: REMAKING A PRESIDENTIAL ICON, a mid­dle-grade avail­able on 4/1/2011 from Car­ol­rho­da Books, was writ­ten by friend and for­mer SCBWI region­al advi­sor Car­la Kil­lough McClaf­fer­ty. I found the unique con­cept to be extreme­ly intrigu­ing. The fol­low­ing is excerpt­ed from the front flap copy:

“George Washington’s face has been paint­ed, print­ed, and engraved more than a bil­lion times since his birth in 1732. And yet even in his life­time, no pic­ture seemed to cap­ture the like­ness of the man who is now the most icon­ic of all our pres­i­dents… In 2005 a team of his­to­ri­ans, sci­en­tists, and arti­sans at Mount Ver­non… tapped into skills as diverse as eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry leather­work­ing and cut­ting-edge com­put­er pro­gram­ming to assem­ble truer likenesses.”

I was not to be dis­ap­point­ed, and gob­bled this 120-page book up in a sin­gle after­noon. Equal parts his­to­ry and tech­no­log­i­cal thriller, THE MANY FACES OF GEORGE WASHINGTON bril­liant­ly alter­nates between the his­tor­i­cal con­text of the man and the mod­ern-day tech­niques used to redis­cov­er his real appear­ance. Below, Car­la gra­cious­ly shares some insights and behind-the-scenes infor­ma­tion on how this amaz­ing book came to be.

LT: How did you find out about this fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry of recre­at­ing George Washington’s like­ness, and what made you decide to pur­sue it as a mid­dle-grade non­fic­tion book?
CKM: I love to watch The His­to­ry Channel—which comes as no sur­prise since I write non­fic­tion books about his­tor­i­cal top­ics. One day in 2007, I watched a doc­u­men­tary titled The Search for George Wash­ing­ton. It showed how Mount Ver­non brought togeth­er a team of experts from the fields of sci­ence, his­to­ry, and art in order to find out what George Wash­ing­ton real­ly looked like. Their work result­ed in three life-sized rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Wash­ing­ton at the ages of 19, 45, and 57, which are exhib­it­ed at Mount Ver­non. I was fas­ci­nat­ed by the project. The 3D scan­ner images of the Houdon bust made me sit up and take notice—probably because my first career is as a radi­o­log­ic tech­nol­o­gist. The idea for THE MANY FACES OF GEORGE WASHINGTON: REMAKING A PRESIDENTIAL ICON was born as I watched that doc­u­men­tary. I rec­og­nized imme­di­ate­ly that this new infor­ma­tion dis­cov­ered by the Mount Ver­non team would pro­vide a fresh look at George Wash­ing­ton that would per­fect for a book. I love to write for a mid­dle-grade audi­ence because they already have a gen­er­al knowl­edge of many things, but they are will­ing to add deep­er lay­ers to their understanding.
LT: What kind of read­er do you think this book will appeal to?
CKM: I work hard to make sure my books can be read, under­stood and (hope­ful­ly) enjoyed by read­ers from ten years old through adult­hood. I write sim­ply and explain everything—but I write about com­plex top­ics. What I hope is that a ten year old read­er under­stands the text with­out a struggle—and an adult read­er does not feel they are read­ing a kid’s book. Regard­less of the age of my read­ers, my goal is to inter­est them in a top­ic they didn’t know they would be fas­ci­nat­ed by, and write it in such a way that the infor­ma­tion will stay with them.
LT: I think you’ve def­i­nite­ly achieved that here, through both the way the book is writ­ten and the wide vari­ety of sub­ject areas it cov­ers: art, his­to­ry, sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy. What was your favorite part to research and write? What was the hard­est part for you? How did you deal with that?
CKM: Every part of this book was enjoy­able for me. But if I had to say, it would be that I loved get­ting to know George Wash­ing­ton as I researched his life. I began this project with very lit­tle knowl­edge of Wash­ing­ton or the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. As I stud­ied, I began to under­stand how amaz­ing this man was, and how aston­ish­ing it is that Amer­i­ca won inde­pen­dence. I’ve even come to think that with­out George Washington—the war might have NOT have been won.
CKM: My favorite part relat­ing to the cre­ation of the Wash­ing­ton fig­ures was get­ting to know many incred­i­ble peo­ple involved in the project. I absolute­ly love the folks at Mount Ver­non. Diana Cor­dray, the edu­ca­tion cen­ter manager/special projects coor­di­na­tor, has helped me in a thou­sand ways. It was also a treat to get to know the artists Steven Horak, Sue Day and Stu­art Williamson and watch them work. I now count these amaz­ing peo­ple among my friends.
CKM: The hard­est part was locat­ing many of the peo­ple who con­tributed to the project in var­i­ous ways in order to inter­view them. I kept ask­ing ques­tions and search­ing around until I found them.
LT: Dur­ing your research, what sur­prised you the most?
CKM: The most sur­pris­ing thing was the man, George Wash­ing­ton. He was hand­some, dash­ing, and brave. He was the best horse­man AND the best dancer in Vir­ginia. Today we would say he was a “man’s man”. And the ladies liked him too.
LT: How much time did you spend research­ing over­all, and how long did it take to write the book? How much time did you spend research­ing “on location?”
CKM: This book has tak­en three years from the time I real­ly deter­mined this is the book I just HAD to write until it was released. I’ve spent three weeks in Vir­ginia, at Mount Ver­non, York­town, and Colo­nial Williams­burg. I also spent a week in New York City doing research.
LT: How do you man­age all of the research for a book like this? What’s your orga­ni­za­tion­al sys­tem? Does it evolve over the course of a project?
CKM: My orga­ni­za­tion­al sys­tem is con­stant­ly chang­ing, and I’m always look­ing for bet­ter ways to work. For this book I read more than fifty books about George Wash­ing­ton. I bought most of them off of Ebay and Ama­zon so I could mark them up and make notes in the mar­gins. In this way, I didn’t have to write mas­sive notes; I could just refer back to the books them­selves. Plus I have three huge Rub­ber­maid con­tain­ers where I file notes and research from places oth­er than books.
LT: Did you do all the pho­to research for the book too? Can you tell us about that process?
CKM: From the very begin­ning of my research on a book, I’m look­ing for the right images. It all hap­pens at the same time, yet I under­stand that in the end some images must be delet­ed for space con­sid­er­a­tions in the end. I’m thrilled with the way the book looks. The design team at Car­ol­rho­da did an amaz­ing job.
LT: I agree. The end result is gor­geous! Anoth­er thing I love is the way the book is struc­tured, with the buildup of the prob­lem and their approach to solv­ing it, fol­lowed by alter­nat­ing his­tor­i­cal chap­ters and mod­ern-day re-cre­ation chap­ters. I think this approach real­ly serves to engage both types of read­ers, those more inter­est­ed in the his­to­ry as well as those more inter­est­ed in tech­nol­o­gy, to keep read­ing and learn new things in both areas. Rather than stick to chrono­log­i­cal order or present both sto­ries sep­a­rate­ly, how did you arrive at this par­tic­u­lar structure?
CKM: How to struc­ture the book was one of the most dif­fi­cult issues of this project because the sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tion went back­wards in time, from old­er Wash­ing­ton to younger Wash­ing­ton. I con­sid­ered doing it count­less ways, but each way pre­sent­ed chal­lenges and prob­lems. In the end, Andrew Karre, my won­der­ful edi­tor at Car­ol­rho­da, felt it would be best to go back and forth between the fig­ures and the bio­graph­ic mate­r­i­al. From there, I had to fig­ure out how to make it work. It was a chal­lenge because I had to fig­ure out how to deal with the reverse order of the de-aging process, start the bio sec­tion with young George Wash­ing­ton, and not back­track to the science.
LT: What did you learn from this book, as a writer, that you’ll be able to apply on future projects?
CKM: For my last book, In Defi­ance of Hitler: The Secret Mis­sion of Var­i­an Fry, I researched and wrote at the same time—and I fin­ished that book faster than any of my oth­er books. With this George Wash­ing­ton book, I spent months read­ing book after book with­out writ­ing any text. In the end, this gave me a good foun­da­tion about Wash­ing­ton and the Rev­o­lu­tion, but it slowed down the whole process. I won’t make that mis­take again. In the future, I’ll research and work on the text at the same time.
LT: What was your revi­sion process like, includ­ing how many times you revised and at what stage(s) of the process?
CKM: When I get a good rough draft and I go through the entire thing again and again and again until I think it is right. I revise it keep­ing the entire book in mind since what I write on one page influ­ences what comes lat­er and before. I don’t keep track of how many times I revise the entire man­u­script before send­ing it out—I just keep work­ing until it is done.
LT: Tell us about the pitch and sales process you went through with this book. How much did you have researched and writ­ten when you pitched your agent (Susan Cohen at Writer’s House)? And when she then pitched it to editors?
CKM: I talked to my agent Susan Cohen about it and she sug­gest­ed I write a pro­pos­al. She read the pro­pos­al and sug­gest­ed some changes. I did a lot of research before I was able to write the pro­pos­al in a way that would reflect what I want­ed to do in the book. My pre­vi­ous books were with FSG, but my edi­tor was no longer with FSG, so Susan began send­ing the pro­pos­al out about end of 2008 to oth­er houses.
LT: You men­tioned Andrew Karre at Car­ol­rho­da was very sup­port­ive of the book’s con­cept and also had some input into the struc­ture of the infor­ma­tion. Can you tell us what it was like work­ing with Car­ol­rho­da, and how it might have dif­fered from oth­er pub­lish­ers for your pre­vi­ous books?
CKM: Andrew Karre is an excel­lent edi­tor and has been won­der­ful and. From the first day, he was enthu­si­as­tic about the book and saw the project the way I did. Dur­ing revi­sions, he had sug­ges­tions on adding or omit­ting mate­r­i­al. I con­sid­ered his edits care­ful­ly, but in the end he would give me the final say on what to do with it. He trust­ed me as the author, and I trust­ed him as the edi­tor. It must work both ways.
CKM: My oth­er books have been with FSG. I worked with two dif­fer­ent edi­tors there through the years, Rob­bie Mayes and Bev­er­ly Rein­gold. Both of them were excel­lent edi­tors. I’d say the biggest dif­fer­ence between work­ing with FSG and with Car­ol­rho­da is that at FSG we worked on a phys­i­cal hard copy of a man­u­script and with Car­ol­rho­da, Andrew and I worked on an elec­tron­ic manuscript.
LT: What are you work­ing on next?
I’ve always had to fin­ish one project com­plete­ly before I move on to the next one. Now that The Many Faces of George Wash­ing­ton: Remak­ing a Pres­i­den­tial Icon is out, I need to decide. But it seems I’m not quite ready to let go of George Washington—maybe there is anoth­er book there somewhere.
LT: Car­la, thanks so much for shar­ing such detailed and hon­est answers with us!
CKM: Thank you! It is always so much fun to talk about my books when they final­ly come out.
I encour­age you to find out more about Car­la and The Many Faces of George Wash­ing­ton here!

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