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Interview: January 21, 2014

Although award-winning children's nonfiction author Steve Sheinkin doesn't have an exact recipe when deciding what to write about, he says that he wants the story to be "dramatic and full of tension" and hopefully enlighten readers about a key moment in American history. His earlier works certainly fit the criteria --- he's written about everything from the atomic bomb to Lincoln's grave robbers --- and his latest book, THE PORT CHICAGO 50: Distaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights is no exception. Addressing the prejudice that faced African American soldiers during World War II, this fascinating story follows the events stemming from an explosion at the Port Chicago Navy base --- 300 sailors were killed, and 244 men refused to return to work until conditions improved. In this interview, Steve tells us a surprising fact about Jackie Robinson, how his work as a filmmaker influenced his writing style and the most memorable question that a student ever asked him.

Teenreads: What inspired you to write PORT CHICAGO 50? 

Steve Sheinkin: I came across the story almost by accident while researching my previous book, BOMB. I knew nothing about the Port Chicago disaster or so-called mutiny, but was instantly fascinated once I started to learn. I jumped at the chance to tell such a dramatic and little-known story.

TR: How did you conduct your research for the book? 

SS: There's very little written about this story, and almost nothing from the point of view of the young African American sailors. But one professor at Berkeley, Robert Allen, conducted interviews with many of the sailors in the 1970s. He very generously shared those oral histories with me, and those sources became the most important ones in my research. I also read every word of the 1,400 page mutiny trial transcript --- and most of it was really boring!

TR: What’s the most surprising thing that you learned during your research? 

SS: I never knew that Jackie Robinson, when he was in the army, had a Rosa Parks style run-in on a bus in 1944. Just like Parks, he refused to move to the back of the bus, and ended up getting in a shouting match with the driver, and then with a white officer who blamed him for the incident. He actually faced court martial charges, but was found not guilty.

TR:You make a case that the Port Chicago events were a civil rights issue. Why do you think that the men of the Port Chicago 50 didn’t reach the same level of recognition as Martin Luther King, Jr  and Rosa Parks?  

SS: Well, that Navy just wanted the story to go away, and the men themselves felt angry and ashamed of being labeled mutineers. Many of them never even told their wives or children about what they had been through during the war. So the story remained largely untold.

TR: The mutiny charges still stand for the men of the Port Chicago 50. Is there anything that interested readers can do to encourage these charges to be dropped?

SS: Yes, there is a community of people in the Bay Area of California who are still working to tell this story and convince the Navy to reverse the mutiny convictions. Folks can find out more by contacting the Friends of Port Chicago at

TR: You’ve written about so many interesting historical moments --- Port Chicago, the atomic bomb, Lincoln’s grave robbers and more. How do you generally choose your book topics? Do they have to meet certain criteria?

SS: I love to skip around in time, but I'm always looking for stories that are dramatic and full of tension, with great characters. That's the most important thing to me, to tell a great story. But I also want to pick topics that make you think about key issues in American history.

TR: Were you always interested in history and social studies?  Did you do well in these classes in school?

SS: No, I didn't really like history until I had a great history teacher, and I think that was in eleventh grade! This teacher presented American history as a series of events and issues to analyze and debate, rather than to simply memorize. I guess I always liked historical tales, like stories of old train robberies and shipwrecks and buried treasure. But I never thought about that as learning.

TR: You’ve had a lot of interesting jobs in the past --- you’ve worked at a textbook company and worked as a filmmaker. Have these positions influenced your current writing, at all?

SS: Yes, both textbook writing and filmmaking had big influences. As a textbook writer, I was able to collect all these great stories that textbook editors would never let me use. I also learned how to write really boring books, so I try to do the opposite now. And I use lots of techniques from the world of writing and directing movies. I plot out my books scene by scene, just like a screenwriter, and try to picture each scene as if I were going to film it.

TR:Some of your earliest individually published works were graphic novels. What did you like about working in that format? Have you ever considered returning to it?

SS: I still love comics, and still like to draw them when I have time. Comics are just like movies --- each panel is sort of like a movie screen, with an image and words. It's a great way to tell any kind of story.

TR: Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? Some authors give themselves a daily page requirement, and some write for a certain number of hours each day; what is your system? Do you ever struggle with getting yourself to sit down and write? 

SS: I'm pretty disciplined, in terms of sitting down, but I absolutely dread facing that blank screen. Once the research is done, getting started on writing the first draft is agonizing, no matter how many times I've done it. It takes me weeks to get into any kind of rhythm, and during that time I'm very hard on myself. Once I get going, I like to work in 6-8 hour blocks, and can usually get through about 1,000 words.

TR: Who are some other nonfiction writers for young people who you admire? 

SS: There are lots of great ones these days. Deborah Heiligman's CHARLES AND EMMA was inspiring to me because it didn't look or feel like a book for young readers --- just a great story that was accessible to almost everyone.

TR: What has been the most surprising thing to you about being an award winning author?  

SS: That when I show up for conferences, people actually know who I am! Writing is kind of a lonely business, so it's amazing to show up in San Antonio or Chicago or wherever, and have people lined up to meet you and get books signed. The absolute best part is bringing my 7-year-old daughter to these events. She ends up thinking I'm really famous!

TR: What is the most memorable question that a kid has asked you so far? How did you answer?  

SS: One student recently asked me who I thought I would be if I were a one of the characters in BOMB. Really made me think. I said I would like to think I'd be one of the physicists, like maybe the wise-cracking Richard Feynman. But the truth is, I was never that good at science.

TR: Are you working on a book right now? Can you tell us anything about it?

SS: Yes, I'm powering my way through a first draft of a book about Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the top secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971. It's a very modern-sounding story, with all the talk these days about leakers and government secrets. I want my book to be a political thriller that gives readers a look at the secret history of the Vietnam War.