She has recently published her first eBook, “How To Have Sex If You’re Not Human: Intimate Journeys in Natural History,” a collection of articles about the wild, often bizarre mating behavior of animals and the reproductive strategies of plants.
Children’s books include Please Don’t Wake the Animals: A Book About Sleep (Peachtree 2008); Who Has a Belly Button? (Peachtree 2004); Aliens from Earth: When Animals and Plants Invade Other Ecosystems (Peachtree 2003); Hey, Daddy! Animal Fathers and Their Babies – Named Outstanding Science Read Aloud 2003 by the National Association for the Advancement of Science (Peachtree 2002); Wild Cats (Random House 2002); Anthropologist: Scientist of the People -- Named Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children by the National Science Teachers Association and the Children’s Book Council (Houghton Mifflin 2001) and Hungry Plants (Random House, 2000).
She is married to composer Ed Bland. They have two children: dancer/choreographer Stefanie Batten Bland and writer Robert Bland. More information is on her website: http://www.marybatten.com
Tell us about the genre of your work.
I write nonfiction in the areas of nature and science.
Why did you choose this genre?
The genre chose me. I knew I wanted to be a writer from the age of eight or nine, but I thought I would write fiction. By chance, I wrote my first book, “Discovery by Chance,” about important scientific discoveries that were made because the inventor or scientist had the wrong formula or made a mistake. The underlying theme of each of the biographical stories in the book is that people with a curious mind can transform mistakes into great discoveries. Each of the scientists featured in this book might have thrown the failed experiment in the trash but because each wanted to find out what had happened, he made a serendipitous discovery. Some of the discoveries in this book include the x-ray, penicillin and chemical dye. I had to work really hard to write this book because I had no background in science. I was living in New York City at the time and I had a full-time job. In order to write this book, I spent a year of weekends in the New York Public Library doing research.
Following publication of that book, I got a job as chief researcher for the Time-Life Films television series, THE WORLD WE LIVE IN. My real science education came through this job, as I had to do research on 13 subjects derived from the Time-Life Nature/Science book series. I was reading all the time and talking to scientists; it was like a crash course in all the science subjects I lacked. One of the topics was tropical rainforests. The producer sent me down to Panama where the Smithsonian Institution has a tropical field station, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, on Barro Colorado Island. This trip was life-changing for me. I met field biologists doing research on plants, spiders, monkeys, insects, bats and birds. Through these dedicated scientists, I was introduced to the stunning beauty and complexity of the rainforest ecosystem. I was hooked on the excitement of tropical biology, and when I returned to our office in New York City, I asked the producer, Lothar Wolff, for a chance to write the script. Now I had never written a TV script and in the television business, if you haven’t written a script, you aren’t likely to get a job writing one. But because I had written Discovery By Chance, Lothar did something very rare in television. He gave me a chance to write the script. I will be eternally grateful for him. After writing that script, Lothar hired me to write almost 30 scripts for this and other series that he produced. Sometimes we worked on the scripts together. It was a wonderful working relationship and learning experience, more valuable than any college science courses could ever have been.
How is writing in the genre you write, different than other genres?
Writing nonfiction demands real-world accuracy; you can’t stray from the facts. When you write fiction, you create an imaginary universe that must have realistic details but doesn’t have to correspond to any real persons or places. For my nonfiction work, I interview scientists for each article and book that I write. With scientific subjects, it’s particularly important to provide readers with up-to-date research, which can only come from scientists working in the particular field. Interviewing scientists is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work. The other requirement is getting away from jargon and writing clearly so that non-scientists can understand the topic. In this regard, my lack of an academic science background is really an advantage because I have to explain the subject to myself before I can explain it to readers.
Tell us more about your published books.
My most recent book is the eBook, How To Have Sex If You’re Not Human: Intimate Journeys in Natural History (ASIN B006CVU7TU). This is published in formats for Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook. The book is available on both Amazon’s Kindle website (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B006CVU7TU) and Barnes and Noble’s NOOK website (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/how-to-have-sex-if-youre-not-human-mary-batten/1037149130?ean=2940013442917).
It’s a collection of a dozen of my articles about reproductive strategies among a range of animals and plants. Despite all our love songs and romantic fantasies, reproduction is the name of the game in biology. All forms of life are genetically programmed to reproduce. Animals—plants, too—“do it” in wild, bizarre ways. With both a vagina and a penis, hermaphroditic snails form orgiastic daisy chains. In the ultimate form of togetherness, walking sticks (insects, not skinny people) stay locked in copulo up to 79 days! Some reef fishes change sex—male to female or vice versa, depending on whether their social structure is headed by a dominant male or a dominant female. Pygmy chimpanzees called bonobos use sex to greet each other: male-male, female-female, male-female, young old—nothing is off limits to these animals with whom we share 96 percent of our DNA. Among bonobos, sex helps to keep the peace. Plants also have sexual lives but for them, three is not a crowd; it’s a necessity. Plants trick and seduce a variety of animals to do their sexual bidding by carrying the plant’s sperm—the pollen—to fertilize the female part of another blossom. Avocados and orchids, no less than mammals and insects, are genetically programmed to reproduce.
Sexual Strategies: How Females Choose Their Mates (ISBN 978-0-595-51039-9) an Authors Guild Backinprint edition by iUniverse 2008; Originally published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1992) This book explores the complexities of the mating game from fruit flies to humans and explains why females are in charge. By determining which males mate and father offspring, females play a directive role in evolution. Fascinating examples reveal the biology underlying courtship, deception, love and sexual conflict. More information is on the book’s website: www.sexualstrategies.com
Aliens from Earth: When Animals and Plants Invade Other Ecosystems (ISBN 13: 978-1-56145-236-1 / ISBN 10: 1-5645-236-X hardcover, Peachtree 2003; ISBN 13: 978-1-56145-450-1 / ISBN 10: 1-56145-450-8 paperback, Peachtree 2008) Aliens are everywhere! And they are not creatures from another planet, but real living things right here on Earth. This book introduces readers to the serious and ongoing environmental problems caused by invasive plant and animal species, such as gypsy moths, African honeybees, fire ants and the plant kudzu.
Anthropologist: Scientist of the People (ISBN 0-618-08368-5, Houghton Mifflin 2001) This book is part of Houghton Mifflin’s Scientists in the Field series. It’s about Magdalena Hurtado, an anthropologist who studies a group of hunter-gatherers called the Ache who live in Paraguay. Hurtado says that our generation may be the last to witness our fellow humans living in a way that was typical for most of human history. Many of the ways that human beings feel and act today evolved in very different environments than we live in today. Learning about the great diversity of cultures on our planet teaches us about ourselves. It also inspires us to preserve knowledge of a fast-disappearing way of life. Named Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children by the National Science Teachers Association and the Children’s Book Council.
Hungry Plants (ISBN-10: 0375825339; ISBN-13: 978-0375825330 Random House, 2004; also available as an eBook) This book is about the strange and fascinating world of carnivorous plants, from the hairy “jaws” of the Venus flytrap to the pretty sundew plant whose delicate tentacles entrap its prey and the pitcher plants that “digest” their prey. This book has been translated into French as part of the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Affairs program for distribution in French-speaking Africa and Haiti.
My books are available on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. More information about all my books is on my website: www.marybatten.com.
Where do you get your ideas for writing?
My ideas come from anywhere and everywhere—a news item, especially a new scientific discovery, a conversation, a movie, books and science journals.
What is your favorite thing about your books?
I enjoy the process of discovery that occurs when I’m researching a new topic, and I hope my books contribute to scientific literacy in the United States. American students are sadly deficient in their knowledge of science; we lag far behind students in other Western countries and Japan. Yet our highly technological world demands a greater command of science than at any other time in our history. I don’t see how anyone can be educated and hope to compete successfully in today’s world without a grounding in evolutionary biology. Yet, there are anti-science, anti-intellectual forces in our country--certain politicians and religious fanatics--that seem to be on a crusade to keep people ignorant by denying scientific evidence, most notably with respect to climate change and even to the established facts of biological evolution. In my books, I try to convey to readers the excitement and fascination that I find in biology, which is the science of life.
Why and when did you begin writing? Is there any one person who had a big influence on you or encouraged you to write?
I’ve been writing since I was around eight years old. I have no idea why I was interested in writing; there were no role models in my family or community. However, when I was in the second grade, my grandmother and I played a storytelling game with each other. Both she and I would make up stories and tell each other. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this really was a form of writing. Then there’s the whole Southern tradition of telling family stories. Since I grew up in the South, telling stories came naturally. For example, in the sixth grade, we had to learn 12 new spelling words each week. For homework we had to use each word in a sentence. I found this exercise quite boring and decided to write a story that used all 12 words. The teacher began calling on me to read my stories and my classmates seemed to look forward to them. So I’ve been writing in various forms for a long time.
What is your writing schedule? What atmosphere do you need to write?
I write most days, though it may not be at the same time. I don’t need any particular atmosphere to write, and I can write just about anywhere. I do like having a deadline because otherwise my tendency is to keep going with the research. When I’m writing without a deadline, I have to try to set one for myself. I say, “try,” because sometimes life intervenes and projects take longer to complete than I originally planned.
What projects are you working on now, or plan for the future?
I’m working on two books right now, one is fiction and the other is nonfiction. But I don’t talk about books that I’m working on.
What kind of advice or tips to you have for someone who wants to write and be published?
Be persistent. Don’t let rejections discourage you. Every published writer probably has a stack of rejection letters. I surely do. You have to keep writing and keep submitting your work. Of course, the digital market has opened up an entirely new way to get published without an agent or a publishing house. Writers can publish their own work directly onto Kindle. The challenge for self-publishing digitally is marketing, as the writer is responsible for publicizing and marketing her book.
Are there any other comments, advice or tips that you would give to beginning writers?
First, learn your craft. Second, read, read, read. Study the writers you admire and analyze how they constructed their books.
What do you do when you are not writing?
When not writing, I’m going about the usual ordinary activities of daily life—cooking for myself and my husband, visiting family and friends, traveling occasionally and regular exercise to try to stay in shape and age gracefully.
What “Made It” moments have you experienced in life?
Giving birth to my daughter. Being reviewed in The New York Times. Giving a lecture at the Smithsonian. Being nominated for an Emmy. Receiving awards for some of my books.
You can visit my other blog at: http://love-faith-and-guts.blogspot.com/ that features a preview to my new book that was just released , Traveling a Rocky Road with Love, Faith and Guts.