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2009 National Book Award Finalist YPL
Interview with Deborah Heiligman

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Photo credit: Matt Peyton

Deborah Heiligman
Charles and Emma:
The Darwins’ Leap of Faith

Henry Holt and Company

Interviewed by Willie Perdomo

Willie Perdomo: In the course of your research, what was the most important discovery you made?

Deborah Heiligman: Of your three questions this is the most difficult for me to answer because I made important discoveries constantly as I got to know Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood Darwin. Practically no day went by without my shouting “eureka!” at a discovery. (This happens when you are using almost entirely primary sources and putting together the puzzle pieces yourself. A dream!) But I guess the overall most important discovery I made was the tremendous influence Emma had on Darwin's work. He wrote his great book, The Origin of Species, in the measured tone he did largely because he was married to a religious woman and did not want to offend her or her compatriots. In addition to that, Emma was his best reader and editor. As she read his book she did not ask him to soften his argument (even though it essentially took God out of creation); instead, she helped him strengthen it by suggesting edits that made his prose stronger. (She also cleaned up his spelling and punctuation.) One has to wonder what this book, and his others, would have read like if he had decided not to marry after making his Marry/ Not Marry list that I open the book with. Or if he had decided to marry someone else. It is so important who you are married to, as I well (and happily) know.

WP: I am an NBF BookUp instructor, and most of my club members would list romance and mystery as their favorite genres. Were you worried that you might isolate young adult readers by delving into historical fiction?

DH: One always takes a chance when writing nonfiction. Fiction just seems sexier, easier to pick up and read. But I love to write nonfiction (all that delicious research!) and I had a story to tell, a story that grabbed my heart and wouldn't let go. It was about two real people, and I wanted to tell the truth, and the whole truth, so I had no choice. But I wanted it to read like a novel, and so I worked very hard to do that as I wrote the book. I was immensely gratified when Booklist put it in their top-ten list of Youth Romance Books ( My next nonfiction project might just be a real-life mystery, thanks in part to this question!

WP: Almost half of the marriages in the United States end in divorce. Charles and Emma lasted 43 faithful years. What do you think modern-day newlyweds could learn from the union between Charles and Emma Darwin?

DH: Yes, I do think newlyweds (and oldyweds) could learn a lot about love and marriage from Charles and Emma Darwin. The two were very different people who had a loving, close, happy marriage. Their biggest difference was in their religious beliefs, though they also had a practical division: Emma was a slob and Charles was incredibly neat and orderly. They made their marriage work by talking to each other about their differences, listening to each other, and respecting each other's point of view. And they put their marriage first, above all else. Even after the death of their daughter, Annie, a death that broke both of their hearts and could have broken up their marriage, they assured each other of the importance of their marriage. "We must be more and more to each other, my dear wife," Charles wrote to Emma. And she wrote to him, "You must remember that you are my prime treasure (and always have been).”

Willie Perdomo is the author Where a Nickel Costs a Dime and Smoking Lovely, which received a PEN America Beyond Margins Award. He has also been published in The New York Times Magazine, Bomb, CENTRO Journal and African Voices. His children's book, Visiting Langston, received a Coretta Scott King Honor. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee, a Woolrich Fellow in Creative Writing at Columbia University and is a 2009 fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He is co-founder/publisher of Cypher Books.


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