|Georgia Bragg||Interview with Georgia Bragg, May 2011|
How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous
by Georgia Bragg
Illustrated by Kevin O'Malley
Ages 11 and up
Over the course of history men and women have lived and died. In fact, getting sick and dying can be a big, ugly mess-especially before the modern medical care that we all enjoy today. How They Croaked relays all the gory details of how nineteen world figures gave up the ghost. For example:
It is believed that Henry VIII's remains exploded within his coffin while lying in state.
Doctors "treated" George Washington by draining almost 80 ounces of blood before he finally kicked the bucket.
Right before Beethoven wrote his last notes, doctors drilled a hole in his stomach without any pain medication.
Readers will be interested well past the final curtain, and feel lucky to live in a world with painkillers, X-rays, soap, and 911.
ETC: Your first release, Matisse on the Loose, was a very successful middle-grade novel, what made you decide to switch to nonfiction for your second book, How They Croaked?
BRAGG: I got the idea from my kids. They would ask me two things whenever they were learning about famous historical figures. The first was: is he dead yet? History is about a bunch of dead people, so I'd say definitely dead. Then they'd ask: how did he die? This information is not in our history books. So I wrote that book.
ETC: How did you select which famous people to feature in this book?
BRAGG: The beauty of the subject matter is that every famous person who ever lived was a possible candidate. First, I considered my audience and I got rid of anybody with a sexually transmitted disease; that cut the list down considerably. I eliminated deaths by drug overdose or suicide, except Cleopatra because her suicide was just too good to leave out. International appeal, and a wide span of years further narrowed the list. Et voila! I had the final nineteen victims.
ETC: What kind of research did you do for How They Croaked?
BRAGG: I'd wait an hour after consuming any food before I'd start, then I'd do things like call Mt. Vernon and ask them about George Washington, "So how long was that bloodletting blade exactly?" Or I'd get the CT scan of King Tut to see if I could locate the missing body parts that Howard Carter had knocked off Tut's mummy while he got the gold. The ancient medical text Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases helped me immensely, and could easily be renamed Cures That Never Worked. I can report that although fascinating, I'm still attempting to forget the images etched in my mind of 17th Century hernia trusses. I left that out of the book.
ETC: Were you worried that a book about death for kids would be too scary?
BRAGG: There's a lot of traffic already in our culture about death, in fiction, movies, mummy exhibits; there's no need to spare the kids-they already know. The titans of the past had bodies. They got sick. They weren't perfect. They're more like us than not. I think that will resonate with every-body. Death happens. And speaking about very specific people and their circumstances makes the connections between cultural, medical, and scientific history very evident. It's like looking down from a ladder into a familiar room; everything looks completely different. So, you could say I'm turning history upside down.
ETC: What will kids learn from reading about how these famous people died?
BRAGG: Kids will get a sense of the times in which these people were living, how difficult things were, what they didn't have. Some of it might be icky information, but it might be sticky too. Maybe readers will connect the dots in a way they haven't before. These movers and shakers faced a lot of challenges, but they were still able to accomplish great things.
ETC: Why would anyone want to read gory details about people they admire?
BRAGG: Why wouldn't they? Kids like gross, disgusting things, especially boys. So why not meet them where their interests are strong. We need to get more boys reading. Girls will love it too, and it's full of information adults don't know either. It's not a typical kid's book, it's just written to be understood in plain English. Like Mark Twain once stated that he would never "write 'metropolis' for seven cents when I can write 'city' and get paid the same." For the squeamish reader of any age, there's a warning in the introduction: If you don't have the guts for gore, do not read this book.
ETC: How difficult was it to make this subject funny without offending people?
BRAGG: Who'd want to read a sad book about death, nevertheless, write one? It took a while to get the tone right, but the humor was in the facts. The truth is a dream straight man. Galileo's middle finger is on display in a museum; this finger, by the way, was stolen off his body, and the inscription under it reads: this is the finger that pointed at the stars… It's more likely he pointed at the stars with his pointer finger, saving his middle finger to point at the Inquisition. The humor was there for the taking.
ETC: With which icon did you empathize most?
BRAGG: Pocahontas was used, duped, captured, and then taken to England to be put on exhibition as living, breathing proof that so called "savages" could be civilized. Except she wasn't living and breathing for long-she died in England at the age of 21.
ETC: You grew up in an artistic family, and were an artist yourself before becoming a writer. What has that transition been like?
BRAGG: I come from a family of self-taught creative types. My parents got married in their teens; they were uneducated, yet gifted. Working hard at something you love and taking artistic risks were the norm. And there was a lot of laughing going on. My dad is the artist Charles Bragg and not only is he a great artist, he is the funniest person I've ever met. My mother Jennie Tomao is a magnificent painter. She didn't finish high school, but she's one of the smartest people I know.
I was an okay artist, but I wasn't passionate about it. Not a good combination for long term success. I had been writing stories that I never showed to anyone. One day I entered a writing contest, and won Most Promising Manuscript. That changed my life.
ETC: What are you working on next?
BRAGG: I've just completed a novel about a con artist who weasels his way into a family and takes everything they have. I'm also compiling a list of victims for How They Croaked Too: Wilbur Wright, Michelangelo, Babe Ruth, Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, Magellan, and many other extinguished individuals.
ETC: What advice would you give to aspiring young writers?
BRAGG: Teach yourself not to think or write in clichés. Try writing with a pencil and a piece of paper instead of only composing on the computer, and it's not a bad idea to write like you talk. If you are interested in writing nonfiction, beware: it's like trying to dance with one foot in cement.