A former history textbook writer, Steve Sheinkin is now trying to make amends by writing nonfiction that kids and teens will actually want to read. His 2012 bookBomb was a Newbery Honor book and National Book Award Finalist. Other recent titles include The Notorious Benedict Arnold, which won the YALSA Award in 2011, and Lincoln’s Grave Robbers. His upcoming book, due in January 2014, is a World War II civil rights drama titled The Port Chicago Fifty. Steve lives with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, NY. For more info, visit his website.
What are some of the rules your parents had for you as a child?
What’s the worst thing you did as a kid?
Well, I used to do a bit of shoplifting, with a special focus on candy (see above). What was really bad was that I got my younger brother to do it once when we were at the supermarket, and we got caught on account of he started eating a butterscotch candy in the car on the way home and my mom smelled it and, well… it was bad.
What is the most awkward date you have ever been on?
Once on a first date I spent the whole time talking about how much I loved Benedict Arnold. But the funny thing is, we ended up getting married.
After a day of writing, how do you recharge your creative batteries?
Wrestling match with my four year old son.
Favorite TV show?
Project Runway. There’s absolutely nothing I care about less than fashion, but it’s just fascinating to watch them make stuff out of pieces of material. Kind of similar to writing nonfiction, in a weird way.
What initially inspired you to pursue a career in writing?
It’s something I just always wanted to do. My brother and I used to write stories and make little movies together as kids. We tried making movies together after college, but lost all our money. That’s when I started writing textbooks, just to make a living. But then I realized that textbooks are terrible, so I decided to start writing good history books.
What books are you reading right now?
The October Circle, a spy novel by Robert Littell, and Avi’s Crispen: The Cross of Lead. And tons of stuff for the book I’m working on, research stuff.
Name someone who supported your writing journey outside of family members.
A teacher in a writing class in college once told me I “may one day be a fine writer.” Basically, he was telling me I wasn’t good, but might be, if I worked at it for many years. It inspired me.
Was there ever a time in your writing career where you wanted to seriously give up? If so, how did you find the motivation to continue?
Yes, it took almost ten years to get my first book published. Hundreds of rejections. It was depressing, but I always recovered and reworked whatever it was that had been rejected, trying to make it better. But those ups and downs are normal, even after you’ve had some success. I’m working on a first draft of a new book now, and I can’t believe how bad it sucks.
What’s your favorite writing quote?
There’s this amazing book by Scott McCloud called Making Comics about, well, what it says. In the introduction he basically says there are a million ways to tell stories; no right way. “In short,” he concludes, “there are no rules. And here they are.” That’s how I feel about all writing advice. You should listen to it, and think about it, but make up your own mind.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Well, there’s a chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers that makes the case you need to practice something 10,000 hours to get good at it. May not be so helpful, but it was certainly true for me.
What inspired you to write your first book?
Sheer frustration. I hated the textbooks I was working on. I knew I could do better.
What do you think you do best in your writing? Bragging is encouraged.
My best skill is figuring out how to put stories together. I like to take a lot of different pieces and find a way to fit the puzzle together.
What books have most influenced your life?
I think the books we read when we’re young have the most lasting influence. For me, historical adventure novels like Mutiny on the Bounty and The Great Train Robbery were the ones. They made me want to both read and try to write exciting stories.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing? What comes easily?
Yes, the writing. That first draft is a killer. What I like doing is finding stories, collecting tons of material, and then figuring out how to put it all together in narrative form. Once I’ve figured that out, the actual writing is painful.