Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself. You’ve lived life both inside and outside academe, as a Ph.D. who now writes freelance. What has the Ph.D. allowed you to do, when it comes to writing, that you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise?
The first thing my graduate school advisor said to me was, “You know there are no jobs, right?”
In some ways it’s very freeing to know in your gut that there isn’t a job at the end of the process. I took the twenty-year plan for getting my degree, in part because I didn’t hesitate to wander down any fascinating by-ways that presented themselves because-hey, no jobs.
Ironically, that dead-end, do-it-because-you-love-it PhD got me my first freelance assignment, and has been opening doors for me ever since.
Q: How did you first become interested in early Arabic science and culture? What has been the most exciting part your research? And the greatest struggles?
The short answer is I found my way to Islamic history via the British Empire. British imperialism leads you inevitably to India, which leads you to Islam, which in my case led me over the Himalayas to the larger Islamic world. I spend a lot of time in eighth century Baghdad and medieval Spain these days
The most exciting part of research for me is finding the point where two cultures connect and change each other. My greatest struggle is flinging myself against the barricades of our collective ignorance about the non-Western world. Quite frankly, Americans as a group aren’t very good about learning the history of other countries except at the points where it intersects with our own.
Q: What writers have shaped the way you understand your own work–both in regard to approach and content, as well as how one goes about shaping a narrative in historical writing?
I want to be Barbara Tuchman when I grow up.
Q: Do you read for pleasure? Do you have time to read for pleasure? And what do you love to read?
Do I have time to read for pleasure? No, but I do it anyway. Over meals. In the line at the grocery store. On the bus. To cool down my brain at the end of a long day. If I don’t make time to read, I get cranky.
My tastes are broad. I’m too much of a wimp for horror, but pretty much everything else goes. I’m currently reading a literary mystery, a graphic novel, a fat biography, three historical studies dealing with three different periods, a romance (you heard me), two “mainstream” novels, a fantasy, and a Russian classic.
Q: Now the predictable question: If you could catapult yourself into the past for just one day, where would you go? Who would you want to see? And why?
November 2, 1920, the first national election in the United States in which women were allowed to vote. Can you imagine how thrilling it would have been like to vote in that election?