Heather talks about her new book, LIFT YOUR LIGHT A LITTLE HIGHER, coming in September, 2016!
Q: What’s LIFT YOUR LIGHT A LITTLE HIGHER about?
A: It tells the story of a man named Stephen Bishop who was a slave in Kentucky. He was born around 1821 and brought as a teenager by his master to Mammoth Cave, which was already a big tourist destination in the early 1800s, if you can believe it! People all over the world became fascinated with this enormous cave in the middle of nowhere, Kentucky – as they should have been! We now know that it’s the longest cave system in the world.
Q: Why this story?
A: When I moved back to Kentucky, I took my kids to Mammoth Cave, a place I had visited with my parents as a child. I loved going down into the earth, loved the weirdness and vastness of this underground world. I felt immediately that there were stories down there. I learned about the slaves who were guides and I learned about a group of people who had been brought to live in the cave because their doctor thought the constant cool temperature would cure their tuberculosis – which it didn’t! Most of them died. I knew I had to write about the cave.
Q: How did you focus on Stephen Bishop?
A: A friend and fellow Kentucky writer named Elizabeth Orndorff had written a play called DEATH BY DARKNESS, which was produced at my family’s summer stock theater (that’s another story!) One of the main characters in the play was Stephen Bishop, and I became fascinated by him. I started doing research, although there wasn’t a huge amount since Stephen was a slave and often records were not kept. And since it was against the law for slaves to read or write, sadly we do not have an account of Stephen’s story in his own words.
Q: Why did you choose to tell the story from Stephen’s point of view?
A: All my stories are character driven. When I sit down to write, I may know what I want to write about, but I’m not sure exactly how I’ll tell the story until a character starts speaking to me. I actually first wrote a draft of the book from the perspective of the cave! But I didn’t feel like it worked for kids – I wanted them to feel as engaged about the history and place as I was. When I went back to start a second draft, Stephen Bishop’s voice came to me loud and clear. Right away I knew I was on the right path.
Q: What made Stephen so important to the cave?
A: There were several slave guides, but Stephen became the best known from around 1838 to 1857. Writers of the day who visited the cave mention Stephen’s eloquence and intelligence, his deep knowledge of the cave, his important discoveries.
Stephen was the first to draw a map of the cave and the first to cross the “Bottomless Pit” – a huge chasm that had stopped other explorers. He was the first to discover a new species of eyeless fish and albino crawdads found only in the underground rivers of Mammoth Cave.
Stephen Bishop was an amazing explorer, and yet he never got the credit he deserved because he was a slave.
Q: What happened to Stephen?
A: He married, he had a child. He was promised freedom by his master, but it came only the year before he died. What I find so strange is that we don’t know anything about his death. He was only 37, which is young even for back then. He’d been free for a year. He was loved, he was respected, he was such an important part of Mammoth Cave — they buried him near the original entrance. And yet, we don’t know how he died.
Q: What do you want kids to learn from this book?
A: In most of my picture books, I write about pieces of history that have been forgotten or lost. I want kids to understand that there are other stories out there, amazing stories, beyond what’s taught in history books. History is made up of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Q: Stephen talks about learning to read and write in the cave. Is this part true?
A: According to my research, it is. As I said, it was against the law for slaves to read or write. But white visitors to the cave liked to have their names written on the cave walls and ceilings –historical graffiti! They don’t allow it today! They used a long taper with a candle attached and the flame would burn a line so they could write. Many of the slaves, including Stephen learned to read and write this way, from watching and helping.
Q: The importance of reading was a big part of your last picture book, THAT BOOK WOMAN. Are these books connected?
A: Yes! Reading is hugely important to me. It’s what I love doing the most (if I’m not writing.) In THAT BOOK WOMAN, a young boy surprises himself and his family by learning to love books and reading through the perserverence of one brave book woman. In LIFT YOUR LIGHT, Stephen longs to read and write, but it’s denied to him, so he learns the only way he can.
Q: Any last words about LIFT YOUR LIGHT?
A: I believe there are so many stories out there – stories of people who have been marginalized thorughout history, stories that are so important for us to know, stories that make us who and what we are today. In this book I try to imagine a life from a few written descriptions, from a few facts. In this book, I try to imagine what Stephen Bishop, Cave Explorer and Guide, would have to say to us if history – if slavery — had not silenced him.