I receive large numbers of e-mails from readers. Some of them are from people who are the bane of all authors—nitpickers, who seem to read books for the sole purpose of finding errors.
But most readers, bless them, write to ask questions, follow up on something, or simply to make contact. I’ve now received so many such letters that I thought I would try and answer some of them in an interview.
How did you get into popular writing about archaeology?
I spent my early career working in a museum in what is now Zambia at a time when that country was becoming independent. We spent a lot of time thinking about school and university curricula in African history and had to develop new materials for them. So I became increasingly involved in communicating with the general public. After I came to the United States in 1966, I rapidly became involved in this as a full time specialty. I’ve now been at it for nearly 40 years.
How do you have the ideas for your books?
Almost all of them come about my chance. The Rape of the Nile, my first general book, which appeared in 1975, resulted from a short article I wrote for Archaeology Magazine on Giovanni Belzoni, the Egyptian tomb robber of 1819. My climate change books began with a casual conservation about El Niños in a Santa Barbara coffee shop. These days, I work closely with editors to develop ideas and formal commissions often result.
What is your specialty within archaeology?
I was trained at Cambridge University in the Stone Age, became an African archaeologist who specialized in the past I was trained at Cambridge University in the Stone Age, became an African archaeologist who specialized in the past 2,000 years, but moved away from Africa in about 1970. I am now an unashamed generalist, whose expertise is the broad issues of archaeology. My books cover a broad spectrum of the past, but I don’t write about Biblical Archaeology, which is a world unto its own, and have little to do with Classical Archaeology, which is simply outside my expertise.
Are you still teaching?
No, I retired in 2003 after 36 years at the University of California, Santa Barbara. By then, I was burned out in the classroom, not so much by the students as by higher education’s fixation on grades and tests rather than thinking and learning. I’m now a full time author, lecturer, and archaeologist.
Jack from Carbondale, Illinois, asks: How long does it take to research and write your books?
So many books are on the market that it’s harder and harder to get one accepted by a publisher, even if you have been at the game a long time. So the process of seeking a contract gets longer every time. I start with the proposal, which can go through multiple drafts. If the publisher accepts the project, it takes me on average about 18 months to write and research a book, with another 6 to 9 months for editorial back-and-forth and production.
Susie from Chicago asks: Are your books heavily edited?
I try and work very closely with the editor at first draft stage. This is when the heavy editing goes on, for both the editor and I want to avoid last minute complications and surprises. Everything depends on a close relationship with your editor and I’ve been very lucky with mine over the years. I would say that I’m edited lightly to moderately.
Michael from Bellevue, Washington: How can I get hold of your out-of-print books?
Fortunately, many of my books are still in print, but it’s much easier to find second hand copies of older books than it used to be. Try Amazon.com or alibris.com. They are rarely defeated.
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