A Chat with Author Jeffrey Kluger

TFK spoke to TIME senior editor Jeffrey Kluger about his latest children's book

Jan 05, 2011 | By TFK Kid Reporter Francesco Franzese

Author Jeffrey Kluger's latest book, Freedom Stone, is set during the Civil War. In the story, a 13-year-old slave girl named Lillie goes on a quest to win her family's freedom. First, she must prove that her father, who was killed during a Civil War battle and later accused of being a thief, is innocent. Will a magic stone from Africa help Lillie discover the truth? Kluger spoke to TFK Kid Reporter Francesco Franzese about his inspiration for writing the book.

TIME senior editor and author Jeffrey Kluger holds up his new children's book, Freedom Stone.
DON HEINY FOR TIME FOR KIDS
TIME senior editor and author Jeffrey Kluger holds up his new children's book, Freedom Stone.

TFK:

Many of your previous works have been focused on science. What inspired you to write a book about slavery during the Civil War?

Jeffrey Kluger:

The Civil War is an area that really hasn't been explored in children's literature the way it should be. Most contemporary novels focus on the medieval era with knights and wizardry, like Harry Potter, and Gothic vampire stories. The Civil War was such a pivotal time in American history, and I don't see a lot of children's novels out there focusing on it.

The difference between a book of science and a work of fiction is actually narrower than you would think. In the case of my first book, Apollo 13, an enormous amount of historical research was required to tell the story. The same amount of research is required for a book about the Civil War. Even if there's a bit of magic in there, the book still has to be true to the Civil War. So there's the same kind of reporting and research when writing a novel as there is with a nonfiction work.

TFK:

How did you go about writing Freedom Stone?

Kluger:

It was actually a three-part process. I first came up with the idea when my family and I were vacationing in Paris. One night, I couldn't sleep and the idea of Freedom Stone was playing around in my head. I wrote down some notes about the story. The following summer, when we went back to Paris, I took a small stack of Civil War books with me, particularly about plantations. I spent all my mornings reading them, and I very much enjoyed it. I learned a great deal from them. When I came back in September of 2008, I began writing Freedom Stone, and finished in the spring of 2009.

TFK:

What inspired you to include fantasy elements in the story?

Kluger:

Being a science journalist, there is so much that you write about that's not arguable since science is a non-negotiable matter. I've spent so much of my career reporting, that I enjoy writing a story where I make up the fact in which the laws of physics don't apply and you can introduce magic wherever you want. I find that liberating since I spend so much of my time writing science. Having some realism in there was very important to me too. I don't like people shooting fire or becoming vampires, since that takes away from the story. I like it more when the reader is invested in the characters and the magic is only subtly integrated. You could almost forget that the magic is there and almost believe that it's happening. I feel that it's harder to write like that because I can't rely on enormous magical intervention to save the characters. They still have to rely on their wits, courage and imagination.

TFK:

Do you have any plans for a sequel?

Kluger:

It's meant to be a stand-alone book, but on the other hand, if there was interest in what happened to the characters after the war, I would have a lot of fun writing that. The events to liberate the slaves were remarkable, complicated, joyous and tragic. At the end of Freedom Stone, I did mention that the characters were going to settle in Pennsylvania and having cast that stone, the sequel would most likely take place there, specifically in Philadelphia. The city is just so full of American history, and I could do some research about what it looked like in 1866, after the Civil War, and what it was like for African Americans. The story would be about how the characters are trying to make their lives in Philadelphia. I would have to do extensive research about what northern cities were like after the Civil War and how life there affected African Americans. See, now you've got me thinking about it. I'll probably think about this for the rest of the day!

TFK:

Did you take any knowledge from writing your previous works and use it to better your writing in Freedom Stone?

Kluger:

Almost every book I've written builds on the previous one in some way. One of the things I'd learned from writing my first book, Apollo 13, is that there will be days that writing will be very challenging. There will be days where you'll have trouble thinking about what to write. On those days, I'd just push myself away from my desk and take a breath. The story's all there for me, the history happened, and it's a natural tale. All I have to do is pick it up and weave it into a book that's emotionally attaching, like Freedom Stone. I learned that I also have to build a good skeleton of the story beforehand and focus on just the chapter or scene while I'm writing it.

TFK:

What do you want readers to take away from Freedom Stone?

Kluger:

A couple of things. First of all, I want them to take away the idea of the strength and the courage of the slaves. I still think there are not enough books that focus on that. I also want readers to think about the concept of courage and what can be accomplished when people have the imagination to do it. The era of the Civil War was not just stories of the battle, but of small, incremental moments of people's lives. There was an obligation of goodness among the slaves. The slaves were being oppressed, but they overcame it and found a kind of happiness in the most punishing of circumstances.