Catherine Reef interview with David Alan Binder

posted May 1, 2016, 11:26 AM by David Alan Binder   [ updated May 16, 2016, 6:18 AM ]

Catherine Reef interview with David Alan Binder


 The “Catherine Reef” page at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt:



1.     How do you pronounce your name? 

 Follow this link to hear me pronounce and talk about my name:

 2.     Where are you currently living?

 I live in College Park, Maryland.


3.     What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?

 The most important thing I have learned is that there is always more to learn. No matter how long I practice my craft, I will never learn all there is to know about working with language. No matter how many books I write, I will never run out of subjects. Challenges continually present themselves; one idea follows another. As a writer I am constantly learning, growing, and developing. This is one reason I love what I do.

4.     What would you say is your most interesting writing, publishing, editing or illustrating quirk?


We writers all have our preferred ways of working. Some write things out in longhand, knowing their creativity flows most smoothly in ink. Others work best at the keyboard. I find myself in the latter group more frequently these days than in the past, but if I have a difficult concept to explain, a complicated chronology to work out, or an opening paragraph that I want to toy with, it helps enormously to think with a pen. Bound pages are not for me, though. Faced with a notebook, I’m inhibited. I need loose sheets of paper that I can toss out, shuffle, or compare side by side.

 5.     Tell us your insights on self-publishing or using a publisher.

 Some authors have had success publishing their own books. I have never been motivated to try it since I am happy dealing with an established publisher.

 Working with a publisher offers enormous advantages, including editorial input. My writing doesn’t require heavy editing, but I can’t think of a single book of mine that hasn’t benefited from an editor’s input. A good editor will offer suggestions for shaping and polishing a manuscript. He or she may have ideas that never would have occurred to me.

 A publisher also employs designers who turn text and images into beautiful books that appeal to readers, and marketing and publicity people who get books into the hands of reviewers, retailers, and award committees.

 If self-publishers have the funds and to hire professionals and the drive to do a lot of the legwork themselves, then they may well be successful.

 6.     What is the name of your publisher and in what city is it located?

 I am proud to have a long, fruitful working relationship with Clarion Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt located in New York City.

 7.     Do you have any secret tips for writers on getting a book published?      

 This is no secret: it is imperative to have a good manuscript. Publishers are always looking for the next great book, and yours could be it. So make sure your text is well written. Read your words aloud to hear how they flow, cut out what’s extraneous, and hunt down errors in grammar and punctuation. Make sure historical and cultural references are accurate and—if your book is nonfiction—documented.

 Ask yourself too, is my subject relevant? Am I offering something new, or am I rehashing what has been done before or following a tired trend?

 Do your best, and do your homework.

 8.     Do you have any suggestions or helps for new writers? (Please be specific and informational as possible.)

Learn as much as you can. Language is your medium, and the better your command of it, the better it will serve you. Study the basics of usage and style. Read closely the work of writers you admire, paying attention to how they put words together to form sentences and paragraphs. Write some paragraphs of your own in imitation of these writers; it will be a step toward developing a style all your own.

Attend classes, conferences, and workshops. Consult some of the fine books on writing that are available. You can find a list of the ones I like on my website:

Read widely. You can’t contribute anything meaningful to literature without a solid understanding of what has come before and what is being written now.

Write often enough that it becomes a habit. Your day should feel incomplete if you haven’t written.

9.      What was one of the most surprising things you learned about your creative process with your books, editing, publishing or illustrating?

Writing is all about discovery. It surprised me to discover that I am a writer of nonfiction for young readers, as this was never something I had aspired to do. A chance occurrence led me to write my first nonfiction children’s book, and right away I knew that this kind of writing was a good fit for me.

A key step forward in any writer’s career is finding his or her genre and subject matter. I’m not sure any of us get to choose whether we are poets, playwrights, novelists, or nonfiction prose writers like me. The kind of writing we do reflects our interests and aptitudes.

 10.                         Do you have any suggestions for providing twists in a story?

I write nonfiction, but just like a novelist, I love a good story. And because they are drawn from life, the stories I tell always contain twists and surprises. Readers enjoy coming upon the unexpected, but it’s my job to make these encounters believable.

I do this is with careful foreshadowing—presenting historical details or developing character in such a way that the twist, though dramatic, seems to be a logical outcome of what has gone before.

For example, when writing the dual biography Frida & Diego, about the Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, I described a catastrophic event in my subjects’ marriage: Rivera’s affair with his wife’s sister Cristina. I wanted readers to be surprised—even taken aback—by this outrageous occurrence, so I had them discover the affair when Kahlo did, after it had been going on for some time. But I also wanted the affair to be believable, so I laid the groundwork with some foreshadowing. I established Rivera as an unfaithful husband who pursued many women, and I presented Cristina as alone, having been abandoned by her husband, and often present in the Kahlo-Rivera home.

Ideally, the reader is astonished—that’s the fun of encountering a plot twist, after all. But upon reflection he or she should conclude that, yes, it is possible to understand how or why the incredible could have happened. The writer’s task is the same whether the work is nonfiction or fiction. The story must seem plausible.

11.                         What makes your or any book stand out from the crowd?

 A book may initially attract readers because it has an arresting cover and an original design, and I keep these aspects in mind while I am writing. Fortunately for me, Clarion does a beautiful job on book production.


As an author, however, I am more concerned with what’s between the covers. I strive to produce work that is original and of the highest quality. I want to make sure that I am contributing something new to literature in terms of my use of language and treatment of the subject.

 I continually ask myself whether my words, sentences, and paragraphs flow in a way that is both logical and pleasing. Have I been sensitive to the music—to how my words sound? Is my imagery vivid? Is my content accurate, are my sources reliable, and have I documented my research in the back matter? Have I selected images that enhance the text and contribute to the beauty of the book? Nonfiction can be approached as an art form, and I consider each of my books to be a work of literary art.

 12.                        What is the one thing you would do differently now (concerning writing or editing or publishing or illustrating)?

 I would start sooner.

 13.                        What would you like carved onto your tombstone?  Or what saying or mantra do you live by?

 If one day I have a tombstone, it should bear words that my loved ones choose.

 I am more concerned with words to live by now. As a born optimist I have said more than once that we must never grow too discouraged, because we don’t know what the future holds in store. We could wake up tomorrow to a wonderful surprise.

 And I strive always to learn and grow, both professionally and personally. I hope I never become static.

 14.                         What’s next for you, Catherine?

 Clarion will release my young adult biography Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse in November. I am very excited about this book because although there are many works on Nightingale for young children, almost nothing is available for teens. Yet Nightingale’s story is one that will resonate with young adult readers. Who, at their age, has not felt misunderstood by his or her family and at odds with society, as Nightingale did? Who, as a teen, has not felt called to live a life beyond the ordinary? Nightingale, of course, lived that life, and the account of her years in British army hospitals during the Crimean War is both shocking and thrilling.

 Then in 2017, look for my book on Queen Victoria. The queen was a person like no other. I am having a great time writing about her, and I promise you will find the book fun to read.

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