We’re pleased to welcome debut author Brianna DuMont to the Mixed-Up Files today. She’s the author of a new middle grade nonfiction book, Famous Phonies — Legends, Fakes, and Frauds Who Changed History.
Q: Welcome, Brianna, and congrats on your debut book. Can you tell us what it’s about?
A: Thank you! It’s been a life-changing journey to learn the ups and downs of publishing professionally. As for Famous Phonies, if I had to distill it down, I would say that the book is about teaching kids how fun and strange history can be. While I love to learn about things like kings and queens and important wars, history is so much more than that. I wanted to write a series that showed kids the quirky underbelly of history. Famous Phonies, the first book in the series, details the “lives” of twelve people who changed history despite the fact that they never existed. Some literally never existed, like Homer. Some were legends whose myth had come to overshadow and obscure the truth of the real person, like Confucius. And some were hoaxes and fakes that tricked people for hundreds of years. I didn’t want it to be a dry textbook either. I wanted the voice to match the material, so I worked hard to make the stories funny. Being able to poke fun at famous people was just a bonus.
A: I studied Art History and Classical Archaeology in college and got my second degree in Classics. Ancient history has always been my favorite thing to study. While translating Homer’s Iliad one day for fun (yes, I consider that fun!), I started thinking how it’s too bad most people learn that Homer is a real guy in a bed sheet who sat down and penned two of the greatest stories in Western literature — the Odyssey and the Iliad. He’s not. The idea snowballed from there. Immediately, I came up with three or four other people who never existed. Eventually through more research, I realized there were many people we learn about in history who never existed or were totally different from what we were taught.
Q: Tell us about your research process. How did you find out these behind-the-scenes details about famous historical figures?
A: Luckily, I live right next to Loyola University in Chicago. I pop over there a few days a week to snoop around their stacks and pretend I’m still a student. They have a great collection of scholarly books and articles. And, when picking out a movie, I typically gravitate toward documentaries, so I find a lot of interesting tidbits and trivia that way as well, which I can follow up with more research. It’s mostly a lot of tracking down and cross-referencing. I’d say I spend ninety percent of my time researching and only ten percent writing.
Q: Can you share with us one of the interesting tidbits from the book?
A: One of my favorite characters is Prester John, the imaginary king who inspired Europe to launch crusades and explorations in order to track him down. More than likely, he was one of history’s biggest hoaxes. A bishop made him up in the 12th century, but for hundreds of years, kings and popes were obsessed with finding him because they believed he was rich beyond their wildest dreams, held the secret to immortal life, and would help them reclaim the Holy Land. Also, interestingly, Pythagoras had nothing to do with math.
A: I’m under contract for one more book in this series with potentially two more after that. The second book is Fugitives Who Changed History. The manuscript is due in February, with a planned release of January 2016. In addition, I’m always working on side projects — novels, fantasy, historical fiction, maybe a little sci-fi.
Q: What is your writing routine?
A: I’m big on routines and schedules. Every Sunday night I write down a list of what I want to accomplish for the week. Then every morning, I work on nonfiction, take a coffee break, and leave the afternoon for novels if I feel I’ve gotten enough done on my history books. I take frequent dance and jump-around-like-crazy breaks. My cats love and hate that I’m home all day. They have no opportunity to jump on the counters and sniff for crumbs. Some days I spend the whole morning at Loyola researching then come home in the afternoon to write about what I discovered. I love what I do, so I don’t mind working all day.
Q: You’re a big history buff, obviously! Were you always interested in history, even as a kid?
A: Yes. In fourth grade, my parents moved us to Germany for six months. There, we got to travel to many of Europe’s castles, museums, and historical sites. I think that really ignited my love of history and travel. Getting to see where Marie Antoinette was beheaded is pretty life-changing for a nine year old. I could imagine in exquisite detail what she would have felt like walking to her doom (or so I thought at the time).
Q: Growing up, you were the oldest of three. You credit being the oldest with helping you become a creative person. Tell us about that.
A: When it was rainy or when none of the neighbor kids could play, it was up to me, the big sister, to come up with something to do. I invented many games in our basement to occupy the younger two, which usually involved Indiana Jones adventures, playing pioneers on the frontier, or spinning a globe to choose a new country to pretend to visit. I’d make us look up the country in my Dad’s encyclopedias and give reports. Also, I was the biggest, for a while. (Now I’m the shortest.) And I was naturally bossy, so my rules were golden. I wanted to be the one to make up the games, and I hated to sit still or be ladylike.
Q: What do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?
A: I love to read nonfiction! Of course, I always love learning new stuff about the world, people, and history, but I also enjoy a good, old fantasy. My favorite authors are J.K. Rowling, Katherine Kurtz, and Rick Riordan. But my childhood hero will always be Laura Ingalls Wilder — Little House in the Big Woods was the first book I ever read alone.
Q: Fill in the blanks: I’m really awesome at___. I’m embarrassed to admit I can’t___. If I had the chance, I’d like to___.
A: I’m really awesome at cooking obscure, snooty French food. Chicken liver mousse, anyone? I’m embarrassed to admit I can’t tie my shoelaces with the one loop method. I’m a bunny ear believer! If I had the chance, I’d like to travel back in time and see what happened to the Lost Colony: Roanoke.
Thanks, Brianna, for visiting! Teachers and librarians can download a guide to Famous Phonies on Brianna’s website at briannadumont.com. It’s Common Core aligned, and free.
Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of two middle grade novels, The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days, and Calli Be Gold, both from Wendy Lamb Books. Visit her at micheleweberhurwitz.com.