About ten years ago, my husband heard him say this at a talk, and asked me, do you know your theme? I didn’t have to think about it; I answered immediately: “Only connect.” It’s the epigraph to the E.M. Forster novel, Howard’s End.
For me, life is all about connecting to other people. When I look back at my books—my “books from the heart” and books on assignment, or projects too good to turn down--I realize that I always write about connection.
Sometimes I write about connections between people and animals (most notably so far in three fiction picture books I’ve written about my Golden Retriever, Tinka) or people and plants (a middle grade biography about Barbara McClintock published almost 20 years ago, and a current picture book project about her). The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős, is about the connection of a boy with numbers. His connection with numbers led him to connect with people.
But usually I write about connections between people. In my last two YA nonfiction books, that connection is right in the title: Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith and Vincent and Theo: The van Gogh Brothers. It was the process of researching and writing the books that gave me a deep understanding of the connection between those pairs.
Why is “only connect” my theme? I’m a people person through and through. I got that from my mother, through both nature and nurture. Her favorite activity was people-watching.
From the time I was very young, I’d sit next to her—in a restaurant, a hotel lobby, on a beach—and people-watch. She’d point out someone to me, discreetly, and we’d try to figure out that person’s story. We’d suggest names and nationalities to each other, wonder about everything about him or her. My mother had a curiosity about everyone, a curiosity born from love for people—and story.
My mother had a lot of friends, and she made friends with strangers, getting to know them and their stories. I watched—and learned.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the beginning of my life as a writer.
My mother died when I was just 34. A few days later, a neighbor I didn’t know ran across the street to tell me about my mother, how much she would miss her. She said, smiling, tears running down her face, I always felt seen by her. Yes. That was my mother.
As fate would have it, I had to write a book, on deadline, right after my mother died. That book, From Caterpillar to Butterfly, was reminiscent of the very first book I checked out of my elementary school library, What is a Butterfly.
I had a vivid memory of my mother reading that book to me, on my childhood bed. And so I researched and wrote, grieving. I told the story of a classroom of children watching a caterpillar turn into a butterfly, based on my son’s preschool class. But I was really writing about my mother, her life, and her death. That book is about my connection to her, and my letting her go. I’m sure nobody realizes it, but it is.
My father died five years after my mom. Cleaning out the house, I found multiple copies of Writers Digest, with notes in my mother’s handwriting. What? I asked her best friend, and she told me, Oh yes, your mother always wanted to be a writer. My mother never told me that, not even after I had published my first book. I guess she wanted me to have my own dream, not hers.
But she’s the one who gave it to me, I now realize. Her death, just as I was coming into my own as an adult, affected me greatly. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. I think that’s another reason I love writing about connections. My primary connection was terminated before I was ready, and I think I try to make up for that every day, with how I love, and what I write.
Deborah Heiligman is the author of 31 books, most of them nonfiction. Her most recent, VINCENT AND THEO: THE VAN GOGH BROTHERS, won the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for nonfiction, the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for nonfiction, and a Printz Honor. Please visit www.DeborahHeiligman.com for more information.