My guest today brings a very refreshing perspective to her writing. Please help me welcome Ellen Prager to the interview hot seat! Let’s look at her interesting background and then find out more about her writing inspiration and process.
Dr. Ellen Prager is a marine scientist and well published author, widely recognized for her expertise and ability to make science entertaining and understandable for people of all ages. She currently works as a freelance writer, Chief Scientist for StormCenter Communications, and science advisor to Celebrity Cruises in the Galapagos Islands. She was previously the Chief Scientist for the Aquarius Reef Base program in Key Largo, FL, which includes the world’s only undersea research station, and at one time the Assistant Dean at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. She is a frequently requested speaker for public-oriented events and has appeared on-air as an expert for the media, including on The Today Show, NBC News, Good Morning America, CNN, The Weather Channel, and more. She has published numerous popular science books, including Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans’ Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter, along with children’s books, including her latest, Escape Greenland, the second book in her series for middle graders that combines fast-paced action, humor and relatable characters with fun learning about science, nature and in this book, climate change.
Author Social Links: Twitter
Betty: What inspired you to write the story you’re sharing with us today?
Ellen: Several years ago, while giving talks about some of my other popular science books (illustrated books for young children and non-fiction for high school and above), I was asked why I had never written anything for a middle grade audience (8 to 12 years old). The person asking went on to explain that middle grade is a very important and influential period in a person’s life in which he/she/they are exploring their interests, looking for role models and career paths, and have great influence over their peers and parents. So, I did my homework to discover what middle graders like to read. The answer: fiction and in particular adventure fiction with a humorous twist. I was particularly inspired by Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series in which he combines Greek mythology with adventure and especially sarcastic humor. Since then, I’ve published a three-book series entitled Tristan Hunt and the Sea Guardians (The Shark Whisperer, The Shark Rider, and Stingray City) and this book, Escape Greenland, which is the second book in The Wonder List Adventures (following Escape Galapagos). The books combine adventure, humor, and relatable characters with fun learning about the ocean, marine life, nature, science, and environmental issues.
Escape Greenland has an underlying theme of climate change, a topic I am very passionate and concerned about. I also traveled to Ilulissat, Greenland, for research on climate change for a non-fiction book and became mesmerized by the area and the Kangia icefjord, so I wanted to share it in a fun way with my readers. In the front of the Wonder List books are maps and in the back is a section entitled Real vs. Made-Up in which I ask the readers to decide what parts of the stories are based on real science and what is pure fiction. And then provide the answers.
Inspiration also comes from the overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic response to my previous books for middle graders. Reviews indicate that the humor, suspense, and fun characters in the books keep readers engaged while they learn, which is exactly what I was going for.
Betty: Which character arrived fully or mostly developed?
Ellen: Most fully developed was the main character, Ezzy Skylar. As the second book in the Wonder List Adventure series, she was already evolving after dealing with the grief of her mother dying, her younger brother not handling it well, and a phobia about animals in the wild. She had gained confidence and courage in the first book, but still had serious bouts of insecurity, felt like she wasn’t up to her mother’s legacy, and had become quick to judge others.
Betty: Which story element sparked the idea for this story: setting, situation, character, or something else?
Ellen: A combination of setting, the importance of educating readers about climate change in a fun and understandable way, and the characters.
Betty: What kind of research did you need to do to write this story?
Ellen: I previously went to Greenland to do research on climate change for a non-fiction book. So, I already had great photos and memories of the area and exploring it. For Escape Greenland however I needed to do more research on Greenland, the culture, local traditions, and the people.
Betty: How many drafts of the story did you write before you felt the story was complete?
Ellen: I am all about the rewrite. I go through untold number of drafts before I feel it is ready for prime time and other readers.
Betty: How long did it take for you to write the story you’re sharing with us? Is that a typical length of time for you? Why or why not?
Ellen: It probably took me about a year or a little bit less to write the book. I don’t have a typical length of time as it usually depends on what other projects I am working on, if I am traveling and speaking a lot, and how inspired I am.
Betty: What rituals or habits do you have while writing?
Ellen: I don’t necessarily have any specific rituals, but in terms of habits for me it is all about getting words on the page and rewriting. My goal is to fill those blank pages and then rewrite the hell out of it. It might not be an ideal method, but it works for me and I enjoy honing the text, adding humorous tidbits or fun character details and working on the dialogue.
Betty: Every author has a tendency to overuse certain words or phrases in drafts, such as just, once, smile, nod, etc. What are yours?
Ellen: Just is a big one for me. I need to delete a lot of “justs”. I often find that short, crisp, and to the point is more powerful than wordy sentences, especially for a younger audience. I also watch out for the use of really, very, and that.
Betty: Many authors have a day job. Do you? If so, what is it and do you enjoy it?
Ellen: My day job is several all-in-one and I feel extremely fortunate that I love most of them. I am a marine scientist by training and have had some really cool jobs. I taught oceanography to college students (and took them to sea aboard a tall sailing ship), did research in the Florida Keys with the U.S. Geological Survey, was an Assistant Dean at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, ran a marine laboratory in the Bahamas, and was the Chief Scientist for the world’s only operating undersea laboratory (I have lived underwater twice to study coral reefs). Now my main focus is on bringing ocean and earth science to broader audiences while keeping it accurate and entertaining. I am also the science/program advisor for Celebrity Cruises’ three expedition ships in the Galapagos Islands. So, I have to go to the Galapagos several times a year (a fantastic gig). And I work as the Chief Scientist for StormCenter Communications, Inc., where I consult on various projects. I also do a lot of public speaking, sometimes appear on television as an expert and was a consultant on Disney’s Moana (did I write I love my job?).
Betty: As an author, what do you feel is your greatest achievement?
Ellen: Inspiration! When a reader is inspired to learn, take positive action, be curious, laugh, or simply want to read more, I am utterly grateful and wonderfully satisfied. And in turn, a reader’s positive response inspires me to keep writing.
Betty: What other author would you like to sit down over dinner and talk to? Why?
Ellen: As I wrote earlier, I am a big fan of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and his ability to combine mythology, adventure, and wickedly sarcastic and creative humor. I’d like to sit down with him to find out what inspires him, where he gets his ideas, and if he ever gets stuck in a plot. In general, I’d simply like to pick his brain a bit. He also seems like a great guy.
Betty: Success looks different to different people. It could be wealth, or fame, or an inner joy at reaching a certain level. How do you define success in terms of your writing career?
Ellen: That’s a difficult question for me to answer and one I am still working on. I don’t think I want fame, as I like my privacy outside of public events and sometimes find it difficult to accept praise. Wealth would be nice and offer security and more time to write, explore, and learn, but I think that’s a long shot. So far at least, great satisfaction has come with inspiring my readers and interacting with them. I think for me success is making a positive difference in my readers’ lives and it also brings me joy. Success or maybe satisfaction also comes when I can personally interact with my readers, answer questions, and see how engaged they are.
Ezzy Skylar, her brother Luke, and their father embark on a trip to number two on her deceased mother’s wonder list—Greenland’s Kangia Icefjord. While worrying that she didn’t inherit her mother’s gene for adventure, Ezzy and her family become embroiled in a dangerous plot. A flight across an obstacle course of icebergs, some hungry humpback whales, and a wild kayak ride atop a river inside a glacier will test Ezzy’s bravery and lead to an astonishing discovery.
What a cool job you have, Ellen! Thanks for sharing the inspiration behind your stories, too.
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