Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Meet Author Donna Latham!

My guest today is Donna Latham, author of numerous books for children, including Fire Dogs (Bearport Publishing, 2005), which received the ASPCA Henry Bergh Children's Book Award. Donna currently splits her time between St. Charles, Illinois, and Danville, California. Her book Amazing Biome Projects You Can Build Yourself (Nomad Press, 2009) includes profiles of several Chicago-area scientists. Her book Ghosts of the Fox River Valley (Quixote Press, 2007) is set throughout Illinois.

Donna is also an accomplished playwright whose work has been performed from coast to coast. The Train Track Ghosts, a spooky tale set in Wayne, Illinois, was performed in October at Naperville’s Riverwalk Grand Pavillion. For more information about Donna Latham, visit her web site:

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Donna: Honestly, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t dream of being a writer.

Q: Describe your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write them?

Donna: My first writing love was playwrighting. My childhood best friend Herbert and I wrote goofy little comedy sketches featuring madcap antics and wacky characters. (Hey, I’m still working with the same schtick!) Then, in full-on ham mode, we performed and taped them, complete with sound effects and original music. Later, we played the tapes for our friends in the neighborhood. The sheer joy of making audiences laugh was all the inspiration I needed.

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Donna: Writing is a solitary endeavor, but I’m blessed with an amazing network to share the journey. My husband and brother are my go-to guys when I tinker with works-in-progress. They participate with verve in early play readings. My family and friends are incredible cheerleaders—especially my friend Judy, who’s been my editor many times. Judy’s a writer, too, so she gets it. She not only provides emotional support and encouragement but also helps me wrangle with those oh-so-pesky revisions.

Q: When did you become involved in theater and playwriting?

Donna: I’ve been involved with theatre for most of my life. There’s nothing like its intimacy, its immediacy, and its collaborative nature. I’d dabbled in playwrighting for years but really dove into it about six years ago. Now, I alternate between writing plays for kids and plays for adults. Having an actor’s perspective reminds me to create roles performers can sink their choppers into. In October, I traveled to New York to see my adult play MyFace at the Manhattan Theatre Source. The phenomenal actors owned that play beyond my dreams.

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

Donna: I love Chicago--what a gorgeous, vibrant city! I was born there and lived in the city until my family moved to Mt. Prospect. I attended dearly departed Forest View High School in Arlington Hts. and Dominican University in River Forest. I lived in the Chicago area my entire life, until the last six months.

Q: What did you enjoy most about writing Amazing Biome Projects You Can Build Yourself?

Donna: I loved learning about Earth’s communities, and I’ve gained a fresh appreciation for the natural world. I unearthed so much fascinating information that I had a difficult time finalizing my manuscript. There was always one last tidbit to squeeze into the book. After writing about Earth’s ecosystems, I’m thrilled at spending extended time in the San Francisco Bay Area, an environment radically different from the Fox River Valley. I’m loving the opportunity to explore a strange and wondrous place where people plant poinsettias in “winter gardens.” In the ground. Outside. Who knew?

Q: What is one of your favorite stories from Ghosts of the Fox River Valley? Why?

Donna: Hands down, it’s “Augusta’s Diamond Ring.” It’s my favorite story to perform, my signature piece. In fact, I’ll be performing it at the Geneva Underground Playhouse on New Year’s Eve.

“Augusta’s Diamond Ring” is ghostlore, a spooky story with origins in folklore. The tale features an outraged spirit who returns from the grave to retrieve a—well, let’s just call it a “stolen item.” The story begins with a snippet of local history, the real-life account of the notorious Richards’ Riot of 1849. The riot occurred in St. Charles after John Rood, a medical student at Franklin Medical College, snatched young Marilla Kenyon’s body from her grave and stashed it in Dr. George W. Richards’ barn. An enraged, gun-wielding posse, led by Marilla’s husband, stormed Dr. Richards’ home and fatally shot John Rood. (Every time I peek at the former Franklin Medical College on Main Street in St. Charles, I think of the ghastly incident.)

Q: What type(s) of books do you read for pleasure?

Donna: I’m a reading omnivore. I gobble up everything. My pile of books to read is taller than I am. Right now, I’m lost in Stones From the River, which is brilliant.

Q: What can you tell us about your current Work in Progress?

Donna: I’m knee-deep in the research stages of a piece set during World War II. As part of my research, I recently visited the traveling Schindler exhibit at the Petaluma Historical Museum and heard Holocaust survivor Lillian Judd speak. The exhibit was moving and inspirational, and I’ve thought about Ms. Judd’s experiences repeatedly since my visit.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Donna: Thanks so much for the opportunity to be part of your fabulous blog. I especially like to pop in on it when I’m homesick for Chicago