Christopher Columbus: The Myths, the Mysteries, the Man – An Interview with Author Ronald A. Reis

I recently reviewed Christopher Columbus and the Age of Exploration for Kids: With 21 Activities, written by Ronald A Reis. As soon as I finished my review I made a long list of questions I was eager to ask the author, in the hopes that he would agree to an interview.  I was happy to hear that he was more than willing to do an interview, and I think you’ll be happy too as you read this interview.

Columbus died 507 years ago and remains today one of the most written about figures in world history. How did you choose the sources you used for your facts? And also, how did you keep this process from becoming too daunting?

Image 4When taking on a new subject, and, in particular, a biography, I first go to the Internet and print out various articles. These will be relatively short, but will give me an overview of what I would be dealing with, a timeline of sorts. I then seek out the “heavy volumes,” the so called definitive works on the subject.

With Christopher Columbus, Samuel Eliot Morison’s Admiral of the Ocean Sea, published in 1942, is still the book on the subject. For a completely different take on the explorer, there would be The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, by Kirkpatrick Sale, published in 1990. I read at least 20 books and a dozen “papers” on Columbus and, just as importantly, writings on the time period when he lived. Access to primary material was limited for me, unfortunately.

As far as keeping this process from becoming too daunting, with every book one writes there is a point where you just have to say, “enough already”— finish it up!

Did you discover a great deal of conflicting information about Columbus? If so, how did you determine what was most accurate and what was not?

Most scholars agree on the basics. It is all about interpreting history in today’s light. As I said in the introduction, in 1892 (the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery), it was all about praising Columbus and his accomplishments. A hundred years later, scholars had become more critical. I am all for “revisionism,” if it means seeking the truth. In determining what was most accurate, some writers feel that getting to the most primary of sources is the key. Those sources, however, can have their own, distorted agenda. I think it is more about cross-referencing various sources to see what is true.

How long did it take you to research and write the book?

From the time I began the proposal to the moment I turned in the final manuscript, with all the “other” material, was about nine months (kind of like a gestation and birth). Research and writing go together. That said, I usually spend twice as much time researching than writing. If your research is sound, and you have taken the time to prepare a good, detailed outline, I find the writing itself will go fairly quickly.

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I’m so glad you shared that information. It is so valuable for both students and others who are considering writing non-fiction to understand just how important and time-consuming research can be.

I really enjoyed reading the misconceptions you revealed about Columbus. Of all the myths you discovered during your research, what made the biggest impression on you?

I still find adults who believe that Christopher Columbus sailed the blue to prove the world was round. As I point out in the book, Columbus and almost every knowledgeable person of the late 15th century new the world was not flat. How big the Earth was—that was the issue. Even if Columbus did not know of the North American Continent being “in the way,” his voyage to Asia would have been impossible with the sailing technology of the time. (Magellan found that out crossing the vast Pacific three decades later.) In addition, there is the myth of Isabella pawning her jewels to finance the Enterprise of the Indies. As a writer, it is always fun to tackle the myths.

I found it most interesting that Columbus’ true physical appearance remains uncertain, as no known portraits of the Admiral were ever created while he was alive. Why do you suppose that is?

I do not really know. One clue, that I alluded to in the book, is to remember that in his lifetime, Columbus was not seen as the “great discover” we later acknowledged. Why paint a portrait of him? It is, of course, too bad no one did.

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You tell us that Columbus married Felipa Moniz Perestrello, a woman he hardly knew, and without a dowry. Did you find it a bit odd that after his wife gave birth to their son and died, Columbus never mentioned her in all of his many writings?

I think he was just smitten. As his son, Ferdinand, said, they hardly had a courtship at all. As to her death, remember life expectancies were so short, for a variety of reasons. In that sense, her death was probably not unusual. I think Columbus failed to refer to her in his writings because she played such a small part in the sailor’s life. However, there are those who would challenge that assumption, insisting that Felipa Moniz Perestrello, with her family connections in the Canary Islands, had a great deal to do with Columbus’s subsequent success.

Columbus later had a mistress whom he impregnated but would not marry due to her socioeconomic status. Given the time in history, wasn’t this extremely taboo? Did you discover any information that Columbus treated his “illegitimate” son differently than his older son?

Actually, a birth out of wedlock was not all that uncommon at the time, especially among the more noble classes. On the contrary, the evidence is clear that Columbus was totally devoted to his “illegitimate” son.

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That is very interesting. Until I read Christopher Columbus and the Age of Exploration for Kids, I never knew that some scholars claim Columbus was a Marrano and therefore Jewish. Are these relatively new opinions, or has this been a debated theory for a long while?

This is a relatively new issue. It seems almost exclusively an interest among Jews (full disclosure—I am Jewish). It is curious, given the revisionism concerning Columbus and his effect on what was to come in North America, that a group of people would want to “claim” him as their own. That said, there is no reason to believe Columbus was a Jew; there is no evidence. In fact, I believe it is clear that the Admiral was as devout a Catholic as the sovereigns of Spain or the Pope in Rome could have wanted.

Most of [us] don’t really think about how unsanitary living conditions were back then. Can you tell us why cleanliness was not practiced, and were these conditions to blame for so many of the illnesses people died from during that era?

For most people in Europe of the 15th century, indeed, around the world, life was a bitch. You know, short, brutish, and then you die. Cleanliness was not practiced for two main reasons. One, you could not just turn on a hot shower every day, as it was not available; most people lived in hovels. Two, the connection between the lack of cleanliness and disease was little known.

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For those reasons, I am so grateful I did not live back then! During your research, what impressed you the most about Columbus, the man, and what was his greatest flaw in your opinion?

Columbus was a man who, literally, had explorer in his bones. Virtually every scholar (with the possible exception of Kirkpatrick Sale) credits Columbus as a great navigator. To sail back from the New World to the Old, and miss your chosen destination by only 30 miles, was a monumental achievement for the times (or maybe any time). Columbus would simply not give up. Given his failing  health, he should never have attempted a fourth voyage. But he did. On the other hand, what an ego he had. But it probably took a great ego for man who thought he was right, thought he could sail west to get to the East, to spend eight long years trying to find a sponsor. Again, he never gave up.

I’d imagine writing for children is much more challenging than writing about the same subject for adults. During your writing process, did you ever struggle with coming up with the right way to communicate your thoughts that would be appropriate for middle readers?

With any subject I take on, be it a biography or a book of general interest, there will always be far more information available than I can possibly use. My first job, then, is to determine what I will not require, what not to say. With a book for kids or young adults, this becomes even more important. How to get to the essence of what needs to be said? When you are writing for this age group, you often wonder if the vocabulary you are using and the sentence length will be appropriate. With regard to the former, I use the American Heritage Student Thesaurus, which tends to keep the vocabulary under check. With sentence structure, you want to avoid the long, compound versions. It is the same with long paragraphs. I usually wind up breaking these up.

I love the 21 activities in your book. How did you come up with those, and did you try any yourself?

Coming up with activities for this book was not difficult. I tried to concentrate on “hands-on” activities, things the reader can actually construct, make. Often, I found one activity idea leads to another. The key, I believe, is to let your mind drift. Come at it from different directions. I asked a number of people to give me suggestions and that helped. I absolutely did all the activities myself. Indeed, I made sure many were then carried out by 9 through 12 year olds.

That is impressive! Since there were no photographs in Columbus’ era, how did you find the many excellent illustrations for your book? Was getting permission to use them a lengthy process?

With Columbus and the Age of Exploration for Kids I was lucky, indeed. I discovered a photographic service, Thinkstock, Inc. that for $299 would let me download as many of their photos and drawings as I wanted—royalty free. In turn, many of the drawings came (through Thinkstock), from the Dorling Kindersley RF, the British publisher. Just why they had so many beautiful drawings relating to the book’s topic, I do not know. But I am glad they did.

You’ve written numerous biographies for children. Are there any other biographies of historical figures you’d love to write for kids?

Dozens. We shall see.

What do you most like to do when you are not writing?

Hike in the hills and visit with my grandsons: Austin (19), Theo (9), and Riley (2).

Ron, thank you so much for answering our questions so thoroughly.  It is so rare that an author shares the level of detail you have here regarding your research and writing process. When students – or adults  – read Columbus, they see an excellent end product and may wonder what it took to get the project done. With this interview, you changed all that. I have so much respect for the work you put into this book as well as all authors who write high quality non-fiction books to educate our children so well.

Readers, for more books written by Ronald A. Reis, click here.

 

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  1. Pingback: Five Best Biographies for Children List - All Ages | Smart Books for Smart KidsSmart Books for Smart Kids

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