Cynthia Levinson is the author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, as well as Watch Out for Flying Kids: How Two Circuses, Two Countries and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community, and the biography Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can.
The Youngest Marcher, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton, is her latest book and debut picture book. The Youngest Marcher revisits the subject matter of We’ve Got a Job, but for a younger audience, focusing on the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a nine-year-old civil rights activist in 1963.
Describe a typical workday.
I get up, eat a bowl of yogurt with fruit and jam, and sit down at my desk. I stay there until my butt hurts or my knees beg for a break, at which point I walk around the house. Then, I go back to my desk. Lunch, stir, repeat. An hour of exercise. Dinner… Basically, I’m very boring. If I’m feeling especially frisky, I make a cup of tea.
List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
- My Relax-the-Back desk chair. This isn’t particularly meaningful but it sure is comfy.
- Since I write nonfiction, I get panicky if I don’t have my source material nearby.
- Fun art on the walls.
What do you listen to while you work?
Mostly, I listen to the sound of silence. Music, especially vocal, distracts me. There are two exceptions, though. One is that when I’m writing about a particular period or place, I listen to the music of that time. So, when I was working on We’ve Got a Job and The Youngest Marcher, I listened to lots of civil rights protest songs and church choirs. The other exception—grumble, grumble—is that my husband and I share an office, and he can only work to music! Fortunately, he has another office at the university so I get quiet during the day.
What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
Tea. Also, almonds with dried cranberries.
What keeps you focused while you’re working?
Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?
Computer, definitely computer. However, big projects get sketched out on large poster sheets that I lay across the floor.
How do you develop your story ideas?
As a nonfiction writer, I don’t develop story ideas in the same way as fiction writers. In fact, I don’t really develop the ideas for my stories, at all—I find them. In terms of the trajectory of how I tell them, that is, how I decide what events to include and which to exclude, I search for the ups and downs, increasing the heights of the ups and the depths of the downs until there’s a real-life crisis and resolution. The New York Times reviewer noticed this technique and wrote that my biography Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can “moves at a brisk pace, with highs and lows that keep things interesting.” Along the way, I pick out the details that make books come to life.
Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?
Outline! For my first four books, the organization was easy—chronology. The next one, which is an as-yet untitled middle-grade that basically disses the Constitution, is thematic instead. But, there’s still an outline!
If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
As I mentioned, I share workspace with my husband. Whether or not I’d choose to is another matter! However, since we’re writing a book together, the arrangement turns out to be quite handy. He works on the other side of a half-height bookshelf, so I can call over to him, “Do you think we should . . . ?”
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?
There is no “the best.” The value of advice varies according to what I’m doing wrong at any given time. But what’s kept me in my Relax-the-Back until my butt hurts is “Bird by Bird.”