Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired: Emma Carlson Berne

In honor of Women’s History Month, Great Parks is celebrating seven local women writers who find creative inspiration from the natural world around them.

The views and opinions expressed in the interview are those of the artist and do not represent the views or positions of Great Parks.

Meet Emma Carlson Berne, children’s book author and ghostwriter

Great Parks: Can you tell us a little bit about you and your work?

Emma Carlson Berne: I write kids’ books. I occasionally write adult material, but I’m a full-time kids’ book writer, and I’ve been doing that for coming up on 20 years now. In addition to writing kids’ books, I was the writer in residence for the Cincinnati Public Library from 2017-2018.

I live in Wyoming here, in town, and we are regular Winton Woods users. I grew up here in Cincinnati in the same community.

GP: When did you first want to become a writer? And do you remember why?

ECB: Yeah, so I always have felt so much more like a reader than a writer. Growing up, reading was and it still is the greatest love of my life. There are really no words to describe how much reading and books have meant to me growing up, how much they mean to me now—it’s this sort of love affair that’s almost like breathing.

My family has a lot of college professors and becoming a college professor really seemed like an excuse for me to be an English major, and then a graduate student that just gets to read a lot of books.

I was all set to be a college professor, and I went to graduate school at Miami-Oxford (Ohio), and received my master’s degree in composition and rhetoric. But then when I graduated, I needed a little bit of a break from academia. I was not sure if I was going to get a Ph.D. or not. I was interested in being a lecturer at a community college.

So, actually, I went to do something completely different, which was work on a horse farm, my other big love. While I was working on this farm, I had heard from a friend that a friend of hers was an editor and they were hiring graduate students to write very scholarly and pretty dull books for high school students. They liked graduate students because we had really good research skills and we’re used to reading long passages.

They were paying, and I had never been paid to write before. I had written for my classes, but I had never been published. So I went ahead and tried it, and the editor was very kind and trained me—I basically apprenticed and learned how to do it, and I really liked it! From there, I was able to write another one and then another book, and I kind of just picked up steam writing. One thing about writing is once you’re published, it’s easier to keep getting published because you start building a reputation as a writer and as an author.

I sort of came in through the back door, like accidentally, and then I realized that I was really enjoying it. At some point I told my husband that I wanted to take one year and see if I could make a living writing. This was before I had kids, so stakes were kind of low. If I could do it, I wanted to keep doing it. If I couldn’t, I would go and do something else. And it worked!

GP: I was looking through your website and some of the books—the Star Wars, the Scholastic, and the American Girl. I was geeking out like, this is who wrote these? This is so cool.

ECB: Those are so fun to do. That’s called licensed material, because it’s with a license, which is the brand. And it’s really fun to work on, because a lot of times, people recognize them, and they carry feelings, so it’s fun to talk to people about it.

GP: It’s very cool. So it seems like your primary audience is children to young adults. What inspires you to write for these age groups?

ECB: You know, to be honest, I probably would have written for adults if that had been offered to me. Kids lit was what was offered to me, so I took it. I didn’t really know anything about what I was doing. Like I said, I kind of fell into this by accident, so I didn’t really set out to do anything in particular, except that I was really tickled at the thought of writing a book and having them pay me to write, which I certainly had never even considered before.

I said, “Anything, anything, anything you want, I can write.”

That was how I started writing for kids. Now I’ve kept writing for kids – that’s for a few different reasons. One is that writing is my job, and I’ve been able to make a living being a working writer. With a lot of writers, that’s not their goal or they’re not able to. It’s very hard to make a living working on your craft as an artist or a creative. A lot of people are not necessarily able to live on the proceeds of their art.

I had to make a decision. Did I want to just write—my passion? For instance, writing a novel and then just hoping that it gets published? Or did I want to be what I am, which is more of a craft person?

If you want to do it for a living, you need to kind of go where the market is and there’s a lot of kids’ literature out there that needs to be written.

Now that I am years and years into writing for kids, I don’t think of kids as any different than adults. They’re readers, like everyone else, they deserve interesting, fun, meaningful stories that are real and that they will hopefully like reading or it will say something to them.

GP: You just kind of just fell into it.

ECB: Yeah, I don’t really separate out in my mind kids or adult or anyone else. Everybody is just a reader. Even down to the littlest readers. Everyone deserves to read things that are, you know, speaking to them.

GP: On that point, your writing encompasses a wide variety of topics, a few of them being a children’s encyclopedia, historical stories, tales about epic adventures and a lot more than that. So, what would you say is the source of your versatility as a writer?

ECB: One of the great pleasures of my job is that I’m a very curious and nosy person, and I love, love, doing research. It’s a great pleasure to me because I write on a huge variety of topics. I tend to find lots and lots of things in the world very interesting.

For instance, I love learning about some specific kinds of chemicals that would exist in a crustacean shell. And then the challenge is to translate that material down to something that an eight-year-old is going to find interesting. The huge variety of topics that I write on and the different age groups that I write for, it’s like a game for me, like a challenge or a puzzle every day to gather the research and then to create from that research an interesting story about anything.

I love the versatility of topics. At this point in my career, my real love is nonfiction writing. I’ve sort of realized over the years that although I do write my own stories—and I was just writing one this morning—I really enjoy telling other people’s stories more.

GP: And we can relate to that challenge of trying to make all sorts of different topics interesting and relatable, as educators.

ECB: I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, exactly. How am I going to describe owl pellets to little kids, middle kids, and big kids? Because you want to keep your audience interested. These topics are worth learning about, but if it’s not interesting, no one’s going to learn it. I’m not going to learn it. I’m going to fall asleep, just like everyone else.

GP: On your website I saw that you also love hiking, camping and spending time outdoors. How has spending time in nature shaped your career as a as a writer?

ECB: Oh, I love that question. I was raised in a real nature-loving family. Both of my parents valued very highly what nature can bring to people’s lives. We spent a lot of time growing up camping. To be outdoors was a natural way of being in our family.

I didn’t even realize until I was really old, like in high school or older, that when most people said vacation, they didn’t mean camping. Because for me, the two were synonymous; vacation was camping.

Being outdoors and being in nature is a place I feel very comfortable. I think for a lot of people being in the outdoors feels frightening or being in nature feels a little scary, but I have never felt that way because I’m so used to it.

Whenever I get the chance to write an animal story, I take it because I love writing animal stories. I don’t get a chance very often, because there are a lot of other stories people want written, but I just absolutely love writing about animals. I love animals a lot, both domestic and wild, and so does one of my sons. We are the two that frequent Winton Woods a lot. We both are avid horseback riders, and we ride up at the Winton Woods Riding Center.

I worked on nonprofit farms for many years in my 20s and taught therapeutic horseback riding. One of my goals for later in my life is to get out from behind my desk and back into the outdoors and the world of nonprofit farms.

GP: In your opinion, what impact does writing have in the world of conservation?

ECB: That question is really a very large question about the place of art. What are we doing with art in this world? Writing is a form of art, and writers are conduits of ideas. Sometimes what we are able to do is take ideas like conservation and put them in a form that goes down easily.

It’s fun or interesting, or gripping, or moving or exciting. By putting those ideas into a story, even if it’s a nonfiction article, you can get these ideas into a narrative form that will grab people. I would say that we’re able to take those ideas, like conservation, and bring them to people in a way that will hopefully be meaningful, just like all art has always done.

GP: Switching gears a little bit, what does your writing process look like?

ECB: Well, I write at home every day. I have three kids who are all different ages – they’re in high school, middle school, and elementary school – so I write while they’re at school. It’s my only job, my full-time job as much as I can during the day. I write in my house because I like things to be quiet and I like total control over my environment. I don’t like to be around other people when I’m working, so I stay home every day and work in silence.

I sit down every day, and I am usually working on several projects at a time. Right now, I’m working on three different projects. I’m pretty orderly with my writing. Before I sit down, I’ve already broken up the writing project. Almost all of my writing comes with prearranged deadlines, so I’ve broken up the writing tasks for the day into chunks, and I know that by the end of the day I have to accomplish that chunk.

Part of that discipline is because, unlike a lot of writers, I write under deadlines, and I am under contract. So in that sense, it looks a little bit more like how a journalist might work. I’m not a journalist, but it’s similar. So I’ll try to accomplish my writing goals each day.

I have two cats. One of them I never really see, but one hangs around with me, so I hang out with my cat while I write.

GP: Your little assistant.

ECB: Yeah, she’s my little companion. She’s the only other thing that is in the house. So yeah, that’s what my day looks like, and then my kids come home at like three something and then I turn off my writing brain and I switch over to mom gear.

GP: Nice. Gives you a little variety, changing it up with the projects.

ECB: Definitely! It would be hard to write all day. A lot of people in their jobs have meetings or they’re doing different things. I tend to just write or do research and so I can’t really do it for that many hours a day. I start shutting down after a little while.

GP: So we have one more question. Are there any projects you are currently working on that you’re really excited about?

ECB: I’m really looking forward to this little book that I’m writing about pawpaws. It’s sort of in a nascent form, and who knows if we’ll ever see it published. I love pawpaws, and I’m very passionate about telling people who aren’t from here about pawpaws, and why they’re special. We used to live out in the country, so I gathered them in the woods.

I feel like they are such an unknown little fruit for people who aren’t from around here. And actually, a lot of people that are from here still don’t know what they are.

It’s a fictional story about a little boy gathering pawpaws. This story is going to be about a Jewish family who lives in Appalachia, and it’s going have pawpaws in it. Just like a lot of people don’t know what pawpaws are, a lot of people don’t know that Jewish people live in Appalachia. Since I am both Appalachian and Jewish, I wanted people to know about that.

GP: Thank you.

Visit Emma’s website and find out where to purchase her books!

Emma Carlson Berne is one of the local artists whose artwork will be on display at Instinct: Woman-Made, Nature-Inspired, a nature-themed art show happening March 22 & 23 at Fernbank Park.

Jack Fogle
Nature Interpreter, Miami Whitewater Forest