Springfield Author David Harrison Publishes 100th Book
Beloved children's author and poet, David Harrison, is celebrating the publishing of his 100th book. KSMU's Michele Skalicky talked with Harrison about his new book, how he got started writing and about the 83-year-old's future writing plans.
You just published your 100th book. How does that feel?
"Well, it's been a long time coming, of course, and I began counting 10 years ago maybe, when I could sort of see that as a possibility. And, you know, years creep by, and a book here and a book there, and as I got closer and closer it became kind of a goal I wanted to accomplish and hoped I could, and so, finally here it is, and I'm a very happy camper right now and enjoying this moment and looking forward to the next book now."
We'll talk about your future plans in just a moment, but did you imagine when you first started writing that you would get to this point where you would have sold 100 books?
"Oh my goodness, no. I was just focusing on selling one (laughs). It took six years to do that. Well, actually, it took more than that, Michele. It took six years to sell a story, but it took nine years, I guess, right at nine years before I actually sold a book. So, at that rate, I'd had to be a very old man to hit 100."
Tell me about your newest book.
"The new one is--I co-wrote it with a professor emeritus at the Ohio State University. She's a language expert. Her name is Mary Jo Fresch, and she's just a whiz, and I love her, love to work with her. She and her husband and my wife and I went to Greece together. This is the seventh book that Mary Jo and I have done together. And, in this case, she wanted to use--this is her idea--she wanted to use similes and metaphors and all the nyms, you know, synonyms, homonyms, you know, all the nyms and other expressions of speech, to help kids really dig down into language and have a better understanding of what it is, how to use it, how it works. And so, my part, as usual, is writing the poems and text and some content for the teachers and explaining how I, as a practicing writer, go about these things that she or he are trying to teach their students. So, I do the writing, and Mary Jo, in this case, does the follow up activities with the teachers, and we make a good pair. I will say, this is not the first book we have done together and so, we're both very pleased with it."
When did you get the news that that (book) had been sold?
"Oh, gosh. This goes back three or four years, I guess. It takes forever for a book, you know, from your head to your hands...so, the book was actually published--what is today? The 17th (November). I guess about 11 days ago now, and I still don't have a sample. The box is somewhere between the warehouse and here. So, I hope each day that I'll actually get to hold this book. There's a conference coming up this weekend, or later this week. It's called NCTE, National Council for Teachers of English, and is the case with all of these conferences these days, of course, it's going to be done virtually, and so, Mary Jo and I will do a virtual visit in a virtual booth for the publisher of this book on Thursday. And so, somebody, the narrator, will ask us questions about the book, and we'll pretend we're right there in front of people. Of course, I'll be here and Mary Jo will be in Ohio, and we'll just do the best we can."
You said the first thing that you had published was a story. What was it and why did you get into writing in the first place?
"That was sort of a quirk because I was a science major. I grew up loving science. As a kid, I collected things. I was really more of a zoologist than anything, and by the time I got to Drury and chose that as a major, I was in the laboratories, the chemistry, and physics and mathematics and botany and so on. So, by the time I got to my last semester as a senior, the dean called me in, Dr. Frank Kleppinger, and he said, 'you're doing ok except you just have way too many courses in science.' And he said, you know, 'this is a liberal arts institution, and you're going to have to take something else this last semester.' So, I just took something else. I took comparative schools of psychoanalytic thought and a course in drama and a course in history and a course in writing. And I had never had anything like that before, but I wrote a story in that class, and, at the end of the semester, the fella who taught it, a professor named Clark Graham, pulled me aside and said, 'I know you're a science major. I think you oughta consider writing.' He said, 'I think you've got the gift of writing, and you need to pursue it.' So, it was that one chance meeting in one class that was a real life changer for me."
And just points to the fact that teachers can make a huge difference in a person's life.
"Oh my gosh. I'm living testimony. And, I didn't start writing immediately because I went from Springfield to Atlanta, Georgia and took my master's degree at Emory University, and I studied parasites, parasitology, and that is what I did my master's degree research in. And then when I graduated I took...a job in Evansville, Indiana with Mead-Johnson. I was a pharmacologist. So, they put me in a lab and I was, you know, working during the day on experimental compounds and see how mice reacted and dogs and cats and so on. And I did that for a few years, but it was there where I really started writing at night, and from that point, 67 rejections later, I finally sold a story to a little magazine. I was paid $5.03."
What was that story about?
"Actually, it was a children's story, and at that point I wasn't writing for children. I was actually writing magazine stories for adults, but somehow, I had a kid sister who's deceased now, her name was Julie, and so the name of the story was, 'Julie Learns to Ride,' and it was about a little girl who was struggling to learn how to ride a bicycle. But her brother, her big brother, and his boyfriend get stuck in a cave, and so Julie learns to ride in order to save them. So, that was my first story."
And, how has your background in biology, zoology, impacted your writing over the years?
"Well, I think in many ways. For one thing, when you study science, you study a method--a method of approaching problems that need to be solved. You learn to be cautious, not to jump to conclusions. You learn to dig for facts to make sure that you have your information right before you start telling others about it. So, the scientific method was something that I've used throughout my life when I was a businessman and wherever else I've been, that's been sort of part of my process for approaching problems. But also just the fact that I love animals. And so, many of my stories feature animals and geology, which was my minor at Drury, and I have books about caves and volcanoes, and, you know, other kinds of geological phenomenon, so it's been very much a part of me throughout my writing career."
And I think I saw that you're 80 now. Is that right?
Will you ever retire? You hinted earlier that maybe the 100th book is not the last book for you.
"No, I have one coming out in the spring and another one either next fall or the following spring, and I'm talking to someone now about the possibility of the next one. I don't know how to stop doing what I do as long as I'm capable of it. Now, there's such a thing as running out of steam at some point, and I could see that would certainly be a possibility, but right now I feel fine. I'm still full of ideas. I love doing what I do, and I get up at 6 o'clock each morning, and I work for seven hours and wish the day were longer."