Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Just when we thought we might be getting by with one of the balmiest winters in memory (and trying to enjoy it without thoughts of global climate change), today we're in the middle of a late winter storm here at the farm. Above is the current view from my office. Kinda makes you want to just take a little nap! 

But today is also Publication Day, and that makes you want to do a little happy dance! A Dog in the Cave: The Wolves Who Made Us Human is finally, officially, out in the world. So before Saada and I head out to shovel the walk and play in the snow, I just want to say how excited I am about this book.

Every book is hard in its own way, and this one was no exception. I think it was forever ago that I started it; all kinds of things got in the way of finishing it as soon as I'd thought I would back then. But from the beginning, this was a book I felt incredibly lucky to be able to research and write. After finishing the previous book (yep, also hard. Also took longer than I'd expected), I asked myself what I'd like to write about next, if I could choose anything at all. Well, what if I could combine some of my very favorite things: science (and scientists), history (especially the loooong sweep of history, going back as far as I could), and. . . dogs! A Dog in the Cave is that book, and I'm just so happy with it, and grateful to my team at Houghton Mifflin helping me to transform that glimmer in my mind into such a beautiful book. So here it is, in all its doggy glory! Happy birthday, book! 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Time Does Fly, But THIS Is Ridiculous!

It's been a looooong time! About a year, to be exact, since I last posted here. I really didn't mean to be away so long; not sure what happened, except that the last few months of 2014 and the first few months of this year were punctuated by some serious and unexpected family/personal health issues, aging parent issues, and life events that conspired to derail my best writing intentions more often than I'd ever expected. Sometimes, as my super-understanding editor told me, you just have to deal with life and family first, and let the writing life take a temporary back seat.

But I'm back to say that Chocolate: Sweet Science and Dark Secrets of the World's Favorite Treat is out in the world at last! Its birthday was actually last month (April 7). I think it looks pretty great, mostly thanks to that awesome editor, Cynthia Platt, and my most excellent publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It's garnered some lovely reviews and "best" picks in these early weeks. For example, KirkusKirkus!—called it, "a deliciously informative, engaging and sweeping chronicle of one of the most popular treats in the world." School Library Journal called it "deep" and "multifaceted," and judged it "engaging—even witty in places—and enlightening." Publishers Weekly weighed in with "fascinating, fast-moving narrative," plus, there's a growing collection of lovely reader reviews up at Amazon. The book also picked up a Junior Library Guild selection honor and a "Richie's Pick," among other happy surprises. It's officially a YA (12-up), but I think readers of any age who like chocolate and want a little history and science with that deliciousness will find it worth a read. Also, kudos to the HMH design team for this amazing cover! (I never expected to see my name writ in chocolate, but here it is.)
I'll be signing books in New York City on June 27th, at the Fine Chocolate Industry Association annual meeting, which promises to be fun and delicious (chocolate buffet, anyone?). I'm proud of this book and so happy to see it making its way in the world, at last.

So I'm now in the middle of revisions for my next book for HMH, A Dog in the Cave: Coevolution and the Wolves Who Made Us Human. As is pretty obvious from previous posts here, I'm crazy about dogs, and I'm really psyched about this subject. It encompasses so many of my favorite things, and my office staff is working hard to keep me inspired every day as I work:

We made it through a long, hard winter. Spring is here, the creek is calling to the pups, the grass is up in the pastures where newly-sleek horses nibble voraciously and feel the sun and the breeze on their bare backs at last. I'm feeling hopeful and energized. 

Back soon, I hope.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


It's been too long since I've been here. Winter, as long and hard as it was, has definitely turned to spring, deadlines have come, more deadlines are coming, and I had to deal with some technical glitches with this blog, not being especially proficient at such things, so was actually unable to post for many weeks. I know, lame, right? "The dog ate my homework" lame! But true. I'm glad to be back in business, so to speak. So some things have been happening here in writing land, even though I haven't been by to tell you about them. Chocolate is well on its way to being a book next spring. Houghton Mifflin's amazing design team is creating what I think (from the few advance peeks I've had) will be a thing of beauty, and copy is being composed even now for the catalog and the ARCs. I'm excited, and can't wait to see how it all shapes up.

At the same time, writing two big books like this in close succession has been keeping me very, very busy. I'm writing, writing, writing my first draft of The Dog in the Cave, and I wish I could say it's going quickly. What I can say is that the stuff I'm writing about is amazing, especially for all the dog people out there (and we know who we are). But really, for almost anyone interested in people, animals, science, and history, which probably covers most of the rest of us.

I love writing books, but one thing I don't love about it is the many hours of sitting it tends to require. Technology has made it so much easier to research and interview without physical travel, at least some of the time. But the sitting, that whole requirement to apply butt to chair in order to research and write, gets to me more and more. That's one reason among many why I'm so grateful that I have dogs, and my awesome horse, because all of them require me to get up and move on a regular basis. But last year I also added another strategy to combat chair-butt: I installed a treadmill desk in my office! Do I totally love it? Yeah, pretty much. I walk most every morning, while I work, and it's great. However, as you can see from the photo above, there are occasional glitches there, too.

That's Saada, my muse (especially for this book), and the larger half of my office management team. The smaller half is here:
  Working hard, as always. Obviously a deep thinker, and so sweet.

Saada is a real love, too, and she loves to be close. Very close. It's great inspiration when I'm writing about how the long, long bond between humans and dogs began, and how it's changed us all, dogs and humans. But having an 85-pound hound turn your very cool treadmill into yet another dog bed is slightly inconvenient, even when she gives you the googly eye of guilt to remind you that you've been inside far too long. Walking comes to a screeching halt, and sometimes work does too. Then it's time for a reboot, or maybe a walk in the fields or a splash in the stream, which has become Saada's favorite summer activity. Then it's time for yet another hosing off, before work can resume in the office. It's a slower way to write a book, but I guess it's my way. Hoping to pick up the pace, though. My editor might not take "my dog commandeered my desk and prevented me from writing" as an excuse for missing my next deadline.

I'm hoping to check in a little more frequently now, so I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Is it STILL winter? Really??

Well, I see from the date of my last post that it's been quite a long time since I had anything to say here! Or more precisely, time to say it. It's been a very, very long winter in many parts of the country, including here in south central Pennsylvania; between shoveling snow, chipping ice, keeping up with my various critters and finishing revisions and photo research for my next book, this little corner has gotten short shrift. Sorry! As an example, here's what the view outside my office looked like one morning not long ago:
I can't remember if this was before or after the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad ice storm that knocked out not only our electricity, but that of many of my friends and neighbors for up to 4 days at a time when overnight temperatures were in the single digits, while at the same time making our farm look as if a tornado had passed through, with branches and whole trees down everywhere, fences knocked to the ground, and shiny icicles on all the trees that would have been a lot prettier if they hadn't been so destructive. I'm not making excuses, but . . . yeah, I'm making excuses. Anyway, the good news is that Winter Storm #Who-Knows-What? that was supposed to bring us another layer of ice and then a big dump of snow on top of that today kind of fizzled. Yeah, it's still all white and mighty cold outside, but this storm (which one national weather prognosticator is dubbing Winter Storm Titan!) fortunately failed to live up to its billing. We still have a lot of cleaning up to do one of these days, when spring finally shows up and we can actually get to the piles of branches and toppled trees, but the days are getting longer! Another week, and we get back on Daylight Saving Time, giving another hour of precious light at the end of the day.Yay!

In the meantime, I wanted to share this really cool poster that my friend Laurel Ross sent me. Laurel lives in Chicago and is a dedicated Tai chi practitioner, among many other things. Her Tai chi school held a fundraiser to celebrate the Chinese New Year recently, and because it is now the Year of the Horse, they donated the more than $1,500 they raised to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in Hot Springs, South Dakota. 
I think that is awesome! If anyone else wants to celebrate the Year of the Horse the same way, there are a lot of wonderful groups out there working to provide both sanctuary and solutions to the perceived problem of wild horse population densities. (Laurel mentioned that making a similar donation last year, the Year of the Snake, was a harder sell to her group. I would have liked to see THAT poster!)

Finally, an update on my coming books. CHOCOLATE is almost finished (copy edits on their way to me now) and ready to move on to Houghton Mifflin's talented designers. I can't wait to see what they come up with. Here's a teaser, a view of the Amazon rainforest of Peru (where cacao trees, from which we get chocolate, grow) that I bet you've never seen before (huge thanks to both Laurel Ross and Alvaro del Campo here):
I'm deep into research for the next book, on a subject even more near and dear to my heart than chocolate: dogs! I'm happy to report that our new pup, Saada (see my post from December) has settled right in and loves the snow. Unlike some of us, she's not a bit tired of it! How dogs got to be dogs, and walked right into our lives and hearts, is going to be a really fun story to track down and tell. Stay tuned, as I'm sure I'll have lots more to say on this over the coming weeks!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


                                                  Finn  Oct. 31, 2003–Nov. 17, 2013

It's a sad fact that for the second time since I started this blog, I find myself writing about the loss of a wonderful dog. Finn and his late, great buddy Asa are featured prominently, well, everywhere in my life. They were my designated office assistants and mascots, their image is my computer screen saver, and photos of them cover many of the walls in our home, along with photos of the horses that have also been such a big part of my life. Asa succumbed to cancer on August 20, 2012 (see blog entry for 10/01/12); not long ago we also lost Finn, to a different type of cancer, leaving, for the moment, only the small white dog you see hogging the larger bed in the photo above. Finn was okay with that; he was that kind of guy. His absence has left a rhodesian ridgeback-sized hole in our lives here. And if you knew Finn, you know that's a pretty big space. We miss him.

But we have a new young ridgeback coming to join our family very soon, and that helps us quite a bit to get through these days where there are too many dog beds around, and too much space on the couch when we sit there in the evenings. Our new girl is coming all the way from Texas, and she arrives on Saturday! Even though we haven't met her yet, we think she's pretty special. She's large (80 pounds), not quite 2 years old, and a pretty unique color for a rhodesian ridgeback these days (though not in the early days of this fairly young breed, which developed in South Africa beginning around the 1920s)—brindle! Her foster mom tells me she's the sweetest thing, and smart, too. She is a rescue, but one with a happy story, in that her original family gave her up to the ridgeback rescue when they realized they just didn't have the time or space that she needed. So she's always been loved, and we're pretty sure we're going to love her too. Her Texas name was Sadie Belle, which may have been fitting for Texas. But we're going to pick up a little bit of her African heritage, and call her Saada, which is an African (Swahili) word for "helper." We're pretty sure she's going to help us a lot, in all kinds of ways. Here's an advance photo of her, still Sadie Belle in her Texas foster home:

I've been away from here for way too long. Very busy finishing my next book, which, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is all about chocolate! The research has been yummy. I'm finishing revisions and getting together some great photos for the book, which will be out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the spring of 2015.

As soon as it's ready to go, I'm getting to work on the next book, which will be, so fittingly, about dogs. And about humans, and humans and dogs together, evolving. I'm very excited about it. The title is The Dog in the Cave: Coevolution and the Wolves Who Made Us Human. Also from my wonderful publisher, HMH, and due out in 2016. That seems like a very long time from now, but I know I'm going to be working like crazy to meet my deadlines. It's going to be fun, though, and I'll once again have two very special office assistants who should inspire me daily. I'll keep you posted. I'm sure I'll have a lot more to say about dogs, dog breeds, and the wolves from whom all domestic dogs are descended as I get into this book! And just to round out the dog theme, so much on my mind these days, below is an old photo of me and my first dog. Her name was Lady, she was (as you can probably tell) a little dachshund, and we lived in Florida. She was my best buddy then. For a long time, I thought I had no photos of her, and then some old family pix unexpectedly came into my possession. This one brought back a ton of memories.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Where did THAT summer go??

I never meant to stay away this long. Really. But I've been busy, working against a deadline to finish my next book, whose subject is multifaceted and much more complex than you might guess. What's it about? Well, here's a hint:

If you guessed that the book's about funny-looking orange footballs stuck onto trees, you'd actually be wrong! It's about chocolate, and this ripening pod hanging on a cacao tree's main branch is the first part of a long process that eventually gives us the "food of the gods" that more of us crave than any other foodstuff, so studies tell us. Making chocolate from this tropical fruit is a long, involved process with an equally long and fascinating history. And it took me a long time to write about it, too, but I did finish the draft (almost) on time. Yay!! Believe me, I found some chocolate, and a little bubbly, to celebrate that day! There's a lot of history in this book, many stories, lots of science, and even some recipes, so it all seems good. Since making a book is a long process, too, Chocolate: Sweet Science and Dark Secrets of the World's Favorite Treat won't actually be out from Houghton Mifflin until spring of 2015, but I hope it'll be worth the wait. I learned so much in researching this book, and I'm sure I also sprouted lots of new gray hairs while trying to figure out how to tell such a big story in a (relatively) few pages. This is kind of what I think I looked like that last week or two, as the deadline approached:

Except my desk was a little messier than that . . .

But now that Chocolate's off to my awesome editor, I've started researching the next book, which is on a topic very near to my heart. Okay, I won't make you guess. It's dogs! But not just dogs. Also proto-dogs, otherwise known as gray wolves. And about how scientists think the two of us, dogs and humans, might have hooked up in the first place, longer ago than anyone ever thought. I love research, so this is going to be fun.

In the meantime, I'm also finally catching up on all the stuff I didn't have time to read during the last few weeks and months, and here are a couple random things I've learned:

1. On Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of southern California, 150 wild bison roam free. They're the descendants of 14 animals brought to the island in 1924 for a Hollywood film shoot. But the movie never got made, and the bison never left the island. With no natural predators, their population had exploded to more than 600 by the 1980s. Sound familiar? Well, 600 bison is a lot for a little island, and eventually biologists were consulted to figure out what to do. Just as with the once-expanding wild horse herd on Assateague Island (described in my book Wild Horse Scientists), the bison population explosion has been brought under control using the immunocontraceptive PZP. After only three years, the herd is down to a sustainable 150. One slight difference that would make a big difference to me if I were the one darting them: Instead of running away when the dart hits them in the butt, the way wild mares do, sometimes the female buffalo will charge! Yikes! You can read about this, and/or listen to the original story on NPR, here.

2. In Ghana, West Africa, live some ants that are sort of farmers. They compete with the human farmers who grow cacao trees (yes, I know, I'm still obsessed with this whole chocolate thing). Anyway, these ants tend a peculiar breed of livestock, which happens to be a mealybug—a small, sap-sucking insect that, according to the article I read in Aeon magazine, look "like woodlice dipped in flour." There are photos, and it's true. The ants protect the mealybugs so they can "milk" the sugary nutritious fluids in their waste (yuk!), which are sugary because the mealybugs drink that cacao sap! The ants also strip the cacao pods to build tents for themselves and their mealybugs, protecting them from predators and pesticides. That's all well and good for the ants and the mealybugs, but very bad for the cacao trees, and the human farmers who grow them, because it leaves the trees vulnerable to several destructive pathogens that can even kill the trees. Worst case scenario? No more chocolate! Okay, this is an over-simplification, but that's it in a nutshell. Nature is just amazing. The article is long, but well worth reading, and you can find it here. (Thanks to my writing friend Rebecca for the link!) But don't be too alarmed, some crackerjack biologists are on the case. Here's hoping they thwart those little herder ants and save chocolate for the next generation! Yeah.

Monday, June 17, 2013

June odds & ends

I'm deep into my WIP, my magnum opus on chocolate (stats: 16,644 words at the end of my writing session today). The research is eye-opening, and the writing is going pretty well. More on that soon, but I just had to check in with a few odds & ends about Wild Horse Scientists. First, my good friend and critique partner, Sheri Doyle, was kind enough to share this pic of her cat Mimi, who looks like a potential fan:
 I think Mimi looks contemplative, don't you? (though she may need reading glasses, judging from how close her nose is to the page!) Those Big Sky mustangs from Montana are definitely something to think about. Especially in light of this video story that appeared (in the New York Times) today, which you can find here. If you're interested in background on the problem with wild horse populations that I wrote about in Wild Horse Scientists, checking out this short (under 10 minutes) video would be a good start. It includes some amazing footage from the original wild horse legislation days in the early 70s, and shows how it was a huge effort by the iconic "Wild Horse Annie" and legions of concerned kids who made it happen. Now it's time to look at where we are today, and some of the unintended consequences of that humane legislation.

And one more thing: I heard from National Park Service ranger and wild horse specialist Allison Turner today, and she sent a kind of blurry, distant photo (from about a half mile away) of the newest foal on Assateague Island (see my post from last month), spotted by Allison just today. Ta-da! You saw it here first!
Meanwhile Carol's Girl, the wild horse mom extraordinaire who has thus far managed to thwart all efforts at contraception, has not yet delivered this year's foal. But Allison says Carol's Girl has been very grumpy with the rest of her band lately, which probably means the time is soon. Stay tuned!