Winifred Conkling learned about Emily and Mary Edmonson and their attempted escape on the Pearl when a statue of the sisters was erected in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2010, at the site of the building that once held the Bruin and Hill slave pen. (The building now houses commercial office space.) Curious, Conkling began to research the story of the girls’ journey to freedom and was thrilled to find extensive primary source materials, including an account written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the bestselling nineteenth century novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the autobiography of Daniel Drayton, one of the captains of the Pearl. 

Conkling studied journalism at Northwestern University and received her master of arts in writing for children and young adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has written more than thirty nonfiction books for adults, most involving health and consumer topics. Her first book for children, Sylvia & Aki, won the 2012 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for Older Readers and the 2012 Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and three children.

Author Q&A

1. Favorite books/authors who inspired you?

I love Kate DiCamillo and David Almond, John Green and Rainbow Rowell, Russell Freedman and Steve Sheinkin, Sarah Ellis and Rita Williams-Garcia. Oh, there’s Gary Schmidt and Richard Peck. I’m not good at picking favorites. I love stories with voice—all of them, I think.

2. What’s your writing routine?

I’m more the obsessive type than the stick-to-a-routine type. When I’m on fire, I’ll write twelve hours a day or more. The rest of the time I feel sort of brain-dead and I can go weeks without writing anything more exciting than emails and author questionnaires. (I know I should advocate the butt-in-chair, work-through-the-dry-spells ethic, but that’s not really who I am.)

3. What was the most exciting part to write?

My heart ached when Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s father rejected her -- "if only you were a boy!" -- but she transformed that loss into motivation to change the world. I also delighted in Susan B. Anthony's outspoken response to the judge when she was arrested for voting. What a feisty woman! The most shocking scene had to be the force-feeding of Alice Paul in prison. I cringe thinking about the hard tube shoved down her throat three times a day -- all because she dared to protest for her right to vote.

4. Which part was most difficult?

There was a period in the suffrage movement known as The Doldrums, when little progress was made toward winning voting rights at the state or national level. It's important to include the full history -- including the boring bits -- but it was a challenge to be true to the history while keeping the story exciting. 

5. Is there one particular character in your book you most relate to?

I wish I could claim Elizabeth Cady Stanton's intellect, Susan B. Anthony's tenacity, or Alice Paul's courage, but I fall short on every measure. I don't relate to any of them, but I am inspired by all of them. 

6. What advice would you give aspiring writers?

If a story is interesting to you, it’s probably interesting to other people, too. There are lots of nonfiction stories out there that deserve to be told.

7. Cats or dogs?

Dogs, rescue dogs. My husband can only tolerate one dog at a time, but if I had my way, I’d have a small pack. When I write, my dog Toby curls up under my desk or in a sunny spot in the hallway.

8. If writing weren’t part of your daily work, what career would you like to have?

I’d like to be an artist—a painter, mosaic artist, or photographer. Color and design make me feel good.

9. Which author would you most like to spend the day with?

That’s a tough one. Maybe E. B. White. We could go for a walk and look for spiders.

10. What’s your secret superpower?

I can’t tell you or it wouldn’t be secret. If you insist: I can read my dog’s mind. (Not much to it, really.) Also, I can rationalize almost anything. And sometimes I have great parking karma.

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