- How did you get interested in dinosaurs?
I was seven years old and I was in love! I was in love with a prehistoric beast from the depths of the sea. I was in love with a reptile … a very big reptile … with an attitude problem. I was in love with The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms—a 1953 science fiction film about the aftereffects of an atomic bomb (on, at least, one prehistoric lizard).
I can still remember sitting in the theater, a bag of popcorn clutched in one hand and a box of Milk Duds in the other. I sat in the front row simply because I didn’t want to miss one minute, one second, of this incredible movie about a creature with a propensity to take over the world, or at least, show some uncomprehending humans that reptiles with bad breath deserve some respect, too.
Shortly after the movie begins, “The Beast” is unceremoniously awakened from its Mesozoic slumber by an arctic atomic blast. (To this day, I still can’t figure out why our government would want to bomb the North Pole … and Santa Claus!) Then, as prehistoric creatures suddenly awakened from long peaceful naps are often prone to do, “The Beast” (now, very agitated) decides to wreck a little destruction here and there.
The critter begins making its way down the east coast of North America. In short order it sinks a fishing ketch off the Grand Banks, destroys another boat near Marquette, Canada, wrecks a lighthouse in Maine, crushes buildings in Massachusetts and (eventually) finds its way to New York to induce the usual panic and hysteria in the general populace of that great metropolis (as you will recall, so did King Kong a few years earlier
Sadly, the creature is killed off (at Coney Island, of all places) by a radioactive bullet. With the roller coaster burning in the background, and the credits rolling on the screen, I left the theater … stunned! I had seen my first dinosaur and my first dinosaur movie (of many more to follow). My hands were dotted with splotches of Milk Duds chocolate and popcorn kernels were tucked in the creases of my shirt, but I could care less. I was seven years old and in love with dinosaurs!
- How did you do all the research for this book?
One of the keys of nonfiction writing is to do tons and tons of research and to write it up as though you never did any research at all. That is, to tell a story rather than report facts. Since I’m a neophyte when it comes to paleontology, I knew I would have to gather data from a wide range of resources. Of course, I wanted to interview several people involved in Colorado paleontology, so I wrote to several scientists throughout the state to set up one-on-one interviews. I also needed a lot of background information and immersed myself in all kinds of books from the fictional Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton to the philosophical The Last Dinosaur Book by W.T.C. Mitchell. I also took the opportunity to visit every possible dinosaur museum I could, in order to get “up close and personal” with dinosaur fossils. I traveled to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the Field Museum in Chicago, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, as well as numerous smaller paleontological museums throughout the country. If there was a museum with at least one dinosaur fossil in it, then I probably visited it.
Most important, though, were the opportunities to venture to the far reaches of Colorado to get my hands dirty in the dinosaur digs and paleontological sites scattered across the state. This was, in many ways, the most exciting aspect of my research efforts. To actually walk on the same ground as did the subjects of this book was truly an unforgettable (almost surrealistic) experience. To be with scientists who were “down and dirty” with dinosaur fossils, to hike across the ancient paths and trails as did prehistoric beasts, and to stand in the footprints of long dead beasts who once traipsed across the landscape was the epitome of scientific research. It’s one thing to get all your “learning” in the hallowed halls of a musty library—it’s quite another to stand inside a sauropod footprint or touch an actual T. rex tooth. Research, I believe, must be as much “hands-on” as it should be “minds-on.”
- If there was one question you wished an interviewer would ask, but never has, what would it be?
I’ve been interviewed by both adults and kids, and it’s usually kids who ask me the most intriguing questions, such as “Is your cat as funny as you?” “If you write so much, why aren’t you famous?” and “Is your wife pretty?” But, there’s no question I wish I had been asked. There is one question I wish I could answer, however. That is, how does the creative process work? I’m often asked, by both kids and adults, where I get the ideas for my books. That’s a tough one! Often, I’m reduced to saying that they just pop into my head—that I was just ready for that particular idea at that particular time. I always carry a notebook with me so I’m ready to grab ideas wherever they may turn up—in an airport, at the doctor’s office, while watching a movie, or even when tying my shoelaces.
Thomas Edison used to say that the key to creativity is to generate a lot of ideas and then just throw the bad ones away. Like many authors, I’m still trying to figure out which are the bad ones.
- You’re an author from Pennsylvania. How are you qualified to write about dinosaurs in Colorado?
My daughter used to live in Basalt, Colorado (she’s since moved “across the pond” to England); however, my son still lives in Carbondale (or, as it is sometimes called, “Aspen Without The Fur Coats.”). My wife and I have made frequent visits to Colorado over the years and have fallen in love with the geography, the lifestyle, and the people (Colorado is now on our “very short list” of potential retirement places).
I came to this project not knowing a lot about the paleontology of the state—but rather with a lot of unanswered questions. Having been a previous “dino freak” as a child, I saw an opportunity to discover answers to my questions and share that information with others who may have similar interests, issues, and concerns—particularly in the state with the highest concentration of dinosaur fossils anywhere in the country. Besides, over the years, just think of all the tax write-offs (for this book) I had for my frequent visits to Colorado!
- You’ve written 120 books so far. Is this your best one?
Most authors will say that their latest book is their best book. I like to think that every book I’ve written is my best book—simply because I’ve learned something new while researching and writing each one. Adults and kids will often ask me why I write so much. I frequently reply that I write a lot simply because I find so much that I don’t know. In other words, I’m innately ignorant and persistently uninformed about many topics and am consistently trying (through writing) to correct my lifelong I.Q. (Ignorance Quotient). For me, writing is the best way to learn about something—if I can explain a complex topic to someone else, then that probably means that I understand it myself. So, I like to find things that I don’t know much about, learn as much as I can, and then figure out how to share that information in a comprehensible and interesting way. If I can do that, then my writing is successful. If not, then I guess I’ll just have a lot of unsold books stored in my attic.
- Most of your published work is factual, or nonfiction. Have you ever considered novelizing or fictionalizing your experiences?
Never. For me, the most challenging kind of writing is nonfiction writing. Nonfiction is much more than just a collection of facts or an assembly of fascinating information. Good nonfiction is good storytelling! I love to tell stories, and throughout history people have been telling stories in public buildings, at festivals, and around evening campfires (that is, before the invention of Twitter or Entertainment Tonight). Taking factual information and presenting it in an intriguing and captivating way is one of the great challenges of nonfiction writing. It’s a challenge I savor and enjoy—providing material to readers in a way that makes them want to learn more and read more.
- You’ve filled this book with humorous anecdotes, funny experiences, and laughable asides. Why did you take this approach?
Two of my literary heroes are Sarah Vowell (who has written some pretty funny stuff about American history) and Mary Roach (who has authored some laugh-out-loud books about science). These two authors have shown that humor and serious stuff like social studies and science are more than compatible—they are natural partners. Besides, I think scientists have gotten a bad rap over the years. Too often they’re portrayed (in movies and TV shows) as nerds, dweebs, and geeks. I thought that they needed better press agents and I wanted to do my part in bringing a little levity into their work—particularly into the field of paleontology which, according to my research, has never had a particularly humorous outlook (for example, how many times did you laugh while reading Jurassic Park?).
- One of the themes of the book is the passion of paleontology—that everyday people can get involved in this branch of science without a formal science background. Are you a passionate paleontologist?
I like to think I’m a passionate writer. If I can get readers interested in a topic or subject they didn’t know they were interested in, then I’ve done my job as a writer. I hope that by conveying my new-found passion for a subject, I can instill a sense of wonder and admiration for that topic in others. I’ve always contended that good writing is passionate writing. The reader should sense the interest, commitment, and dedication of the author on every page and through every chapter. If readers finish a book with the same level of fascination and allure as I have, then I’ve done my job (and hopefully they won’t be re-selling the book on E-Bay).
- The dinosaurs of Colorado may be the main “characters” in this book, but you are the subject. This book is about you—your discoveries, your adventures, your experiences. Isn’t this book autobiographical as much as it is paleontological?
Read most college textbooks and what you’ll get is a collection of dry facts, dull figures, and pedantic information. There’s no passion, there’s very little interest, and there’s certainly no “humanness.” In short, textbooks are boring, boring, boring! To my way of thinking—good science is good storytelling. And when we tell stories we invest part of ourselves into those stories. Our perspectives, our views, our interpretations color those stories and animate them. Sure, this book is autobiographical. However, unlike a newspaper (or textbook), I’m not trying to report the facts, I’m trying to tell a story. I’d much rather invite readers in, pour a glass of wine, ask them to spend some time with me, and share some anecdotes, tales, and musings. Good nonfiction writing should be conversational, not dogmatic. Does that mean an autobiographical twist here and there? Absolutely!
- Is a serious science such as paleontology and humor compatible?
Mark Twain said that the shortest distance between two people is a smile. I’ve found that we often remember something when it’s presented with a sense of levity or humor. Sure, paleontology is a serious science, but it’s certainly not a field without moments of humor. It was interesting to me that no one has ever taken a humorous approach to paleontology previously. (What do you call a dinosaur who totally destroys your house? Tyrannosaurus wrecks.) I hope this book changes that.
- How did you come up with the title Walking with Dinosaurs?
Every author wrestles with the title of a new book. Oftentimes the title alone (as it might be listed in a catalog) has to “sell” the book—it has to include a little bit of advertising in concert with a definitive description of the subject matter. It has to be short, sweet, and engaging (or, as one of my editors once told me, “Your title needs to be sexy!”).
I chose this particular title because it conveyed a “you-are-there” perspective to potential readers, it capitalized on the popular BBC television series, it was an interesting play on words, it was short and pithy, and, well, I just thought it was sexy (in a literary sort of way, of course).
- You paint Colorado as the ultimate paleontological playground—a land of plenty as far as dinosaur fossils are concerned. How did this impact on your writing?
My wife and I had been frequent visitors to Colorado long before I began thinking about this book. When we weren’t visiting our children, we were out driving dusty back roads, roaming undiscovered territories, and enjoying non-tourist populated vistas of the state. Each new place we found only added to our enjoyment of this incredible environment. When I discovered that Colorado was the state with the most dinosaur fossils and the most dinosaur digs, I was intrigued. As a child, I had been infatuated with dinosaur movies, and to be walking in the playgrounds and graveyards of some of my cinematic heroes was truly an incredible experience—and I wanted more!
This book is as much a travel book as it is a book of science. It is a record of people and places paleontological as much as it is a record of scenery and scenarios sensational. From the rock-ribbed vistas of the Colorado National Monument and the dinosaur playgrounds nearby, to the hogbacks surrounding Red Rock Amphitheater and the adjacent prehistoric graveyards, to the sweeping grasslands of southeastern Colorado and the Cretaceous footprints etched in time—each new place and each new discovery instilled in me a deep appreciation for the majesty and mystery of this land. I wanted to share my amazement and my appreciation with a larger audience.
- In your explorations and discoveries did you ever fall in love with a specific dinosaur? Was there one dinosaur that you enjoyed more than any other?
That would be like asking a parent to choose his or her favorite child. I enjoyed each dinosaur I learned about for different reasons. Maybe it was for what they ate (or didn’t eat), maybe it was for the fossils traces they left behind (think coprolites), maybe it was for certain survival techniques, or maybe it was for some physiological feature (a head with five horns, for example). Each dinosaur I met along this journey was distinctive in its own right. If I learned something new about it, then it became a dinosaur I enjoyed.
- By the same token, did you have a favorite site in Colorado? Was there one place that stood out above all the others?
I’ve fallen in love with Colorado! There is no single site that stands out above any others. Each site is distinctive, each site is spectacular, and each site is unique. Instead of whizzing across the state on I-70, we like to travel the “blue routes”—those roads and byways that wend their way around spectacular fourteeners, traverse valleys sprinkled with ancient ghost towns, and meander through red-rocked deserts, aspen-filled hillsides, and wildflower-choked landscapes. For us, the best adventures, the best discoveries, are those infrequently profiled in tourist guides.
- You spent a lot of time talking with and interviewing paleontologists and scientists. Why was that information important to this book?
I’m an amateur paleontologist and an amateur scientist and I wanted to learn the latest information about dinosaurs and the most accurate data available in the field of paleontology. So, I went to the experts—those folks whose work involves learning as much as they can about prehistoric creatures and prehistoric times. I wanted my research to be first-hand and personal—not textbook-y—so it was the women and men of this dynamic field that I turned to for the answers. It was their discoveries and their stories I wanted to celebrate in these pages.
- If you were to do this project all over again, what would you change? What would be different?
I can’t think of a single thing I would change (with the possible exception of that still un-named odorous critter who took up residence under my rental car while I was hiking through the Mygatt-Moore Quarry one unbelievably hot mid-summer afternoon).
My “day job” is that of a professor of education—training the next generation of elementary classroom teachers. One of my constant mantras is that “the best teachers are those who have as much to learn as they do to teach.” As I often tell my students, “If you stop learning, you stop growing; if you stop growing, you start dying.” Even though I’m now in my mid-sixties (although by the time you read this I may well be into my mid-seventies … or beyond!) I still believe I have a lot to learn. In other words, if it is true that “ignorance is bliss,” then I’m one happy guy!
Probably the people who irritate me the most (aside from airline customer service representatives and telephone solicitors who always call during dinner) are those individuals who get their terminal degrees (e.g. Ph.D.) and assume they know everything there is to know. (In case you didn’t know, Ph.D. often stands for “Piled Higher and Deeper.”) I don’t ever want to be one of those professors who thinks his degree gives him exclusivity over a bunch of knowledge. I like to think of my degree as an invitation to learn more, to explore further, to delve into unknown topics and undiscovered territories. So, if I were to do this project all over again, I’d do it the same way … only do more of it!
- What are your plans for the future?
To write another 120 books. To win the PowerBall Lottery—twice. To retire to a remote tropical island (with room service). To have a hundred grandchildren. To have my wife say to me, “You know, honey, you’re really getting far too thin. Why don’t you put on a couple of pounds?”