Just the facts: I was born in Seattle two days before Christmas, one of the glut of post-war (for you youngsters out there, that would be World War II) baby boomers. I have two younger brothers. My mom was a stay-at-home, civic volunteer sort of mom who baked chocolate chip cookies (the Toll House recipe, of course) in the afternoons before we got home from school. In August, she would round up all the neighborhood kids and drill us with arithmetic flash cards to limber us up for school. My dad was a physician who researched endocrine physiology with rats and mice in between taking care of human patients. I worked in his lab during my high school summers, executing rats with a tiny guillotine, squeezing blood out of their bodies and snipping their pituitary glands out of their heads.
What else did you do before you started writing?
Almost everything. I was in my late 40s when I started to think about writing books. Before that, I raised a family and worked hard. I have a family of two terrific daughters, one wonderful husband, one charming son-in-law and two extremely cute grandchildren. I’ve always been a fulltime working mother—thirteen years of nursing in a pediatric hospital, then sixteen years of information system technology and business consulting. Before that, I went to college a lot: I have two bachelor’s degrees and two master’s degrees—one in political science, two in nursing and one in public health
Before that, I was part of the rowdier wing of the 1960s antiwar movement. I participated in lots of antiwar and civil rights demonstrations, lived in communes, went to jail in Chicago, visited Cuba in 1969, and was part of the Weather Underground organization. I have my FBI file; it’s over 400 pages long. I’ve donated it to the University of Washington Library, which collects documents from those heady days.
Why did you decide to write books?
I love books almost more than anything in the world. Books have given me so much; I wanted to see if I could give something back. I like the challenge of trying something new. I also wanted to work on something on my own time, where I could poke through my own refrigerator, brew tea exactly the way I like it and do laundry at the same time.
What are you doing now?
I’m trying to write a novel that combines music, women’s suffrage and the early twentieth-century women’s labor movement. I might be biting off more than I can chew. I’m also working on some nonfiction historical stuff about the 1960s (not a memoir!).
What authors do you like to read?
I read a lot of British biographies and autobiographies. English authors tend not to dumb down their vocabularies or plots as much as American writers do. I like to read books by or about women; maybe because so much of my working life has been spent in the company of men, I’ve gotten tired of their world-view.
I collect book recommendations from family, friends and from the Times Literary Supplement, which is a weekly book review from London, similar to theNew York Times Book Review, but much better written and more wide-ranging.
Here are a few favorite authors: Claire Tomalin and Lyndall Gordon write wonderful biographies about very interesting people. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hallis brilliant. Jane Austen is a genius. On the male side, I greatly admire both Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books and Jasper Fforde’s wonderful Thursday Next and her world. I loved Colm Toibin’s The Master, a fictional take on Henry James. I used to like James a lot, but have gone off him these days, partly because he was mean to Louisa May Alcott.
One nonfiction book I highly recommend is Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky about women in the developing world. I wrote a blog.