Research, the magnificent journey
• Welcome to another “Fresh Eye” interview, where we explore the underpinnings of research. Seasoned scientists, educators, and writers have “bloodhound” instincts, far more relentless than google. How do they carry out their research? Why does it satisfy? What can we learn from them?
• Today we’re chatting with Stephanie Lile, who’s honed her research skills for two decades as author, educator, curriculum developer, and museum curator. We’ll hear more about her methods, as well as the scoop on that vintage WWII bomber that heads up this blogpage.
VL: Stephanie, some time ago I attended a lecture by Richard Peck, famed author of A Year Down Yonder and other stories for tweens. He has a memorable way of defining research. In his words: “It isn’t research unless YOU go to IT.” Please tell us about the times where you as a researcher have gone to it. What were the hurdles? And the payoffs?
SL: Ironically, some of my first writing and museum jobs required writing and teaching about places I’d never been. For them, I had to rely heavily on secondary sources. Afterwards, I vowed that in future, I’d find ways to visit places, interact with locals, and achieve a deeper context for my work.
• Often, that meant intense preparation before traveling “to it.” For my young adult novel set in WWII-era Italy, I brought along old photos of the places my dad had visited during the war that I’d identified beforehand through diary entries, troop movement orders—even ticket stubs. At Pompeii, we found the exact location where he’d stood some 65 years ago. On Capri, we found the beach where he swam. Although I was able to retrace his footsteps, I’ll never know what he was thinking as he stood there—or why he went. The experience of place, however, of “going to it,” gave me precious context for the box of “stuff” he left behind and the novel it inspired. And some of my most moving experiences became key elements of the story.
VL: What’s the most unusual place you’ve ever gone to do research?
SL: Probably my trip to Mesa, Arizona, where (via a company called Warbirds Unlimited) I got to fly in a 1943 B-25H bomber. I wanted to experience what my father had—and boy, did I. The tailgunner position, the best seat in the house, had a nearly 360-degree view but I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get into position. Scary to learn how vulnerable it would be during combat. I’d brought along my nephews and niece so they could get a better sense of what their grandfather had gone through—and we quickly learned why the plane had a good supply of barf bags! Even during an hour-long flight, the shimmy of the aircraft, the reek of the fuel, the temperature extremes were rough to take. Horrifying to think what daylong missions must have been like.
VL: What other challenging assignments have you undertaken?
SL: As managing editor of the e-zine COLUMBIAKids, one of my regular assignments is a column called “Collections Conundrum.” Subject of my first piece? The Egyptian mummy that had been in our Washington State History Museum since 1897. I was able to track down an Egyptologist who specializes in mummies from Akhmim, where ours originated. We’ve since collaborated to have the mummy scanned at Tacoma General Hospital. From a column for the magazine, that project has grown into a special mummy exhibit that will open January 2011. I’m curating a section of it, and doing some deep digging in primary sources for it. One of my resources: a transcript of the diary of Allen C. Mason, who on his round-the-world journey in 1891 purchased the mummy, later donating it.
VL: Other examples you’d like to share?
SL: Another “Conundrum” I’m working on is to securely identify the scene in a huge painting by James Everett Stuart. Finally, after getting copies of the artist’s diaries from the California State Library, I found the original name of his work: “Mount Rainier from Elliot’s Bay.” You’d never know it was Elliot Bay, however, since the bay has been industrialized and dredged out since Stuart’s time (1852 – 1941). I’ve come to believe this magnificent painting may well be one of the only images of Elliot Bay in its original state.
VL: As researchers, we all encounter setbacks. We’re like the crime detective who runs out of clues. Or follows a red herring. Can you tell us about one of yours?
SL: Regarding my YA novel, one of my biggest mistakes was failing to interview more WWII Air Corps vets before they passed on. I did manage to get one phone interview with a great guy who’d served with my dad. He filled in many gaps for me that no training manual or Army document could.
False starts occur all the time. That’s what makes research “re-search.” We use the info we have to develop hypotheses about what we think happened—then we go about proving or disproving them.
VL: What keeps you from giving up? Do mistakes, wrong turns, erroneous conclusions ever lead to something fruitful?
SL: My method is to do my research in little chunks; easier to chew that way. I start with a basic search to see what turns up, then work my way toward more specifics. I also search for locals or experts in particular fields to help me.
• For example: while in Italy, I also showed a 1940s-era photo of a statue to everyone I met, asking locals if they knew where—and who—it was. No luck, not even in Rome. Finally I emailed it to a friend on Corsica. Turns out the photo shows a statue of Napoleon—and it’s on that island. That led me to believe my dad saw much more of Corsica than just the base camp. The 12th Air Corps was stationed on Corsica until April 1945. From there, they moved to Ancona, Italy, and stayed there for awhile after the war’s end.
VL: Thanks, Stephanie. We’re not finished, folks. Please return for my next blogpost, Part 2 of our interview with ace researcher and temporary “tail gunner” Stephanie Lile. We’ll be exploring the fascinating secrets of online research and museum collections–and some poignant personal research stories.