As a fellow member of SCBWI (the premiere organization for children’s book writers and illustrators world-wide), I’ve known Caroline Hatton for 7 years. She’s a fascinating blend of scientific rigor, literary creativity, and writerly generosity. As a scientist, she’s tested Olympic athletes for performance-enhancing drugs that are prohibited in sports. As a writer of fiction and non-fiction, she’s published numerous articles and books for young readers—including a hard-hitting article that grew into her best-known book: The Night Olympic Team: Fighting to Keep Drugs out of the Games.
Q: Welcome, Caroline! Which of your research adventures are you going to tell us about?
A: The research that I was inspired to conduct to write my Night Olympic Team book. It all began with scientist Steve Elliott, who invented a wonderful medicine to deal with chronic kidney failure and cancer chemotherapy side effects. It’s darbepoetin alfa, brand name Aranesp, but we call it NESP.
Q: What first ignited your curiosity?
A: It was a chain reaction. When I worked at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, we lab scientists found NESP in the urine samples of certain athletes. NESP is a blood-booster, designed to treat serious medical problems. It certainly isn’t meant to help athletes cheat by doping themselves with it to boost their endurance! After we discovered this, one night during a lively discussion at the lab, everyone was coming up with brilliant ideas. Some of us dreamed up possible excuses by athletes for testing positive. Others shot back rebuttals. The verbal fireworks sparked such a rush within me that I thought, “Some day, I will write this story for children.”
Q: How did you carry out that notion?
A: First, I told the Olympics tale as an article in Cricket, the children’s magazine. Later, to grow it into a book, I planned to profile each key player, including Steve Elliott, Françoise Lasne who perfected the test we used to find the drug, and my lab director, Don Catlin, whose team found the drug at the Winter Olympics of 2002. Because Steve’s story is so exciting, and revolves around modern sports, it surreptitiously leads students to meet a 6th grade curriculum requirement, by becoming familiar with recombinant DNA technology (a way to cut and paste DNA). Since DNA science has long been the basis of key medical advances, it is an essential element of basic scientific literacy.
Q: What were the challenges of telling Steve’s story?
A: In order to weave Steve’s human-interest background with the technical description of his invention, I needed to psych myself up to interview him. Plus I needed to study enough scientific literature to understand how he’d achieved the feat. His area of science (recombinant DNA technology) isn’t the same as mine (analytical chemistry) , so I had a lot to learn.
Q: How did you go about obtaining the interview?
A: In a brief email, I told Steve that I was one of the scientists on the team that had found NESP at the Olympic Games. I told him about my project and that I was seeking childhood glimpses, defining moments, and character-revealing anecdotes, as well as trials, tribulations, and triumphs. Steve gave me an appointment to come visit one March morning in 2004. Interviewing him was a pleasure, a thrill, and an adventure!
Q: An adventure! Why?
A: Because of the conditions in which I let the interview take place—which I’ll do my best to avoid in the future! He kindly invited me to lunch at the Amgen cafeteria, the pharmaceutical company where he works in Thousand Oaks, California. Lunch was delicious but dominated by crowd noises that made it hard to chat. It was impractical for me to take notes, let alone record anything. I was too intimidated to ask if we could carry our lunches outside. (Absolutely silly, because Steve is such a nice person.)
• Steve generously gave me masses of material—although I could only use those tidbits that were relevant to the arc of my story. For example, Steve told me that he’d received phone inquiries about how much NESP to give to camels in order to enhance their performance in races. That anecdote was too far off the topic of athletes using NESP to win Olympic medals, so I didn’t mention it in my writing. But Steve was clearly shocked by the misuse of a medicine painstakingly developed to help human patients, and I echoed his emotion in my writings about him.
Q: You must have a phenomenal memory. How did you retain all the verbal information you’d just been given?
A: Right after the interview lunch, I drove straight to a bookstore coffee shop and scribbled down everything I could remember as fast as I could: keywords, paragraphs about this and that, in completely random order.
Q: Nerve-wracking, being unable to record Steve’s quotes. Was this the worst interview you’ve ever conducted?
A: I wish! There was a worse one by far. I’d emailed the person I wanted to talk with well in advance and had my tape recorder at the ready. Then I started asking, “What kind of child were you?” Unfortunately, he failed to understand my first two tries at it. When his answers began to trickle out, they were along the lines of “I don’t remember….I don’t think of the past…I don’t want to talk about myself…”
• I began to fall apart—it was all I could do to refrain from running out the door! Taking deep breaths, struggling to get hold of myself, I thought, “Don’t run. Don’t run.” The only thing that kept me from leaving was the thought of all my SCBWI friends, invisibly cheering me on. I’m proud to say that my writing, based on that distressing interview, turned out fine in print. And I owe that in large part to the collective synergistic power of my wonderful writing community.
Q: What else did you learn from that traumatic research experience?
A: My transcript was full of gems. The interview only felt like a nightmare because I was too upset to hear all that was said. A very good thing that I recorded it!
Q: Your best interview experiences?
A: Two interviewees of mine love to tell stories, love to write, and write well. They emailed me several thousand words full of specific facts and deep personal insights. To create my first draft of their profiles, all I did was distill the essence of their stories by selecting words of theirs with a highlighter pen. After revising and polishing, I had their words to re-read, to check authenticity.
Q: What advice can you now share with other writers re: interviewing?
A: If you have zero experience as I had when I embarked on The Night Olympic Team project, list the experts you must interview, then rank them from the least to the most intimidating and interview the victims at the top of the list first. They won’t make you as nervous. They might even put up with all your endless, hair-splitting, follow-up questions!
Terrific advice—and there’s more to come from Caroline in Parts 2 and 3 of our “Fresh Eye” interview. Please come back for more, as we explore the science side of research as well as some piquant personal details from eloquent author-scientist Hatton.