In January, I was lucky enough to meet Heidi Stemple and her
mother, Jane Yolen, at the SCBWI conference in Miami. Heidi’s kindness and passion made her session about school visits a favorite among attendees. As a result, I was thrilled when Heidi agreed to meet me on Skype for an impromptu inHERview from western Massachusetts, in an office in her mother’s home.
“There are so many wonderful blogs out there that dive into the story behind the story,” I explain to Heidi. “My goal with inHERviews is to give readers a window into the author behind the book instead. If writers hear about your struggles, they’re more likely to think, ‘If she can do it, I can do it, too!’” Heidi nods in agreement.
“So,” I continue, “I’m asking people to consider three pivotal moments in their life. What’s happened to you that makes Heidi…Heidi?”
Heidi’s eyes wrinkle at the corner as she laughs. “Maybe I should’ve given this more thought!” I laugh, too.
“My mom’s author Jane Yolen, so most people assume my path came directly from her. But a lot of it came from my dad, David Stemple. He was a birder. We would often take summer vacations based on where my
mom was teaching—the whole family would all pack up the camper and just go. My dad was a professor, so he could take that time. My mother would go off to teach, and my father would take the kids birdwatching. We’d do all these crazy things.”
“Crazy things?” I ask. An adrenaline junkie at heart, I instantly feel a kinship. Heidi laughs again.
“I remember this one time he put us all in a canoe in the ocean in Maine. I’m the oldest and I was maybe ten. So, I remember being in this canoe in the ocean—where you don’t really take a canoe—and it would ride up on the waves, and then, BOOM! Down. And the water would come up, and over, and in it. I remember thinking, Oh, we’re gonna die!” Heidi’s relaxed smile reveals her fondness for these moments.
“But there are so many great memories that I have now. One time, hiking in Arizona, I almost stepped on a tarantula and one of my brothers kicked a cactus. One adventure we went on, my dad decided we were gonna take a gondola up the mountain but hike down. The trip up went smoothly, but then we were caught in this amazingly high, weedy, brushy hike down the mountain. I remember he had my one brother on his shoulders and was carrying the other one. But as the oldest, I had to walk. I just cried all the way down in my little girlie sandals. I remember feeling so put out – the boys were so lucky. I must’ve been eight.”
“How old were your brothers?” I ask.
“If I was 8, then they were 6 and 4. But this is the way we grew up. We were always doing these crazy adventures—always with our binoculars so we could watch the birds. OWL MOON is not directly a true story, but it’s an amalgam of how I grew up. A dad taking a little girl out owling in the woods…that’s my childhood. We were free-range kids. I always thought of us as sort of feral children, though my mother will cringe when I say that. We loved it. Mom would pack our lunch, open the door, and say, ‘Go on! As long as I can see you from the house! Go do adventures.’ Our property is 15 acres, so that’s a lot of range.”
“Were the birding trips primarily summer trips, or did you do those year-round?” I ask.
“All the time,” Heidi says. “But during the summer, we would actually travel to places.”
“It sounds like your dad was an amazing man,” I say. Heidi’s smile fades into what appears to be a sad memory. She nods.
“When he got sick, I was living with my family in SC. I was an adult and had kids at this point. When it turned out it was cancer, we sold our house. My then-husband (now ex-husband), and I, came back with the kids and we moved in with my parents. Even during that time, my dad and I were birding all the time. He loved to take my daughters out birding, to share that with them. When he was in radiation, he would walk with my younger daughter and teach her all about the birds. We’d hike a bit, then I’d run back and get the car and go get them, because he was weaker. We had four and a half years when he was sick when we were all in the house together. My dad made sure, no matter how he was feeling (there were good times and bad) that we were still out in nature all the time. The last Audubon Christmas bird count that I did with him was in December, and he died in March.” The bittersweet memory forces a pause.
“How long ago was that?” I ask the question delicately.
“We just passed the 13-year anniversary of his death,” she says, shaking her head. “When it was clear that the Bird Count was going to be his last, my brother Adam flew in and we surprised Daddy at like 11:00 at night, because we go out at midnight. We piled my dad into the car. Adam took the first shift and I took the second.
There was a roost of robins in the area in his last couple years. He would go out at dusk and dawn to watch them fly, en masse, to and from that roost. When he was too ill to leave the house, birding friends brought video to him so he could still see them. He would stand at the kitchen window and count the robins that landed and call them in because the roost was being tracked and it was important to him to still be involved. He loved the science of birding as well as the sheer joy of it.”
“It sounds like there are some incredible people in the birding community.”
Heidi laughs. “The best. When my dad was in his last months, Greg Budney, who was running the Macauley Library of Sound at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, came to the house with equipment, drilled holes in the wall, and wired speakers into the living room where my dad’s hospital bed was. He put microphones outside so that my dad could listen to the bird sounds. That’s who he was.”
“What did he do for a living?” I ask. “You mentioned that he was a professor.”
“He was a computer science profession. He worked at UMass so he could be involved in things he was super passionate about. He had dual degrees in math and…physics, I think? Those subjects I stay away from.” She waves her hand at the air. “And then he got his masters in computer science, I believe. Though his masters may have been in math. His doctorate was in computer science. He loved academia because he loved to be always learning new things and questioning stuff and mentoring young people.” Heidi’s pride in her father beams through her smile.
“Did you keep birding after he died?”
Heidi shakes her head. “Not for a while. After he died, I largely gave up birding. Well, the next year, I gathered his two best friends and we went out to owl for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. But we were doing it FOR my dad. It was sad. We all cried quietly. But, that night, when we heard the owls, it was really very special. A friend joined me for the second shift. It was hard. I called in the numbers to our Count leader, but I did it as a memorial. I was really just honoring my dad. I did that for a couple years, but then I had one of these weird moments.” Ever the great storyteller, Heidi pauses, inviting the question. I bite.
Heidi grins. “It happened before I really started feeling like the Bird Count was something I wanted to do and it had nothing to do with the Count. I was hiking on the Cape. I had walked out onto a pier –one of those weird jetties that are all rock and you can just walk out into the water on them. A bird underneath it flushed, and I yelled out, “Ruddy turnstone!” And I thought, Wait… What’s a ruddy turnstone? Why did I yell that? I grabbed my iPhone and looked it up, and I was looking at the picture on my phone of the exact bird that I’d just seen!” Heidi points to an imaginary phone in her hand, still excited at the wonder of the moment.
“You didn’t know that bird?” I ask.
“Well, somewhere I had locked all that information away in my head. I thought, Oh, that’s all still there. My dad – all that information and all that love of all that stuff is still there! It’s so bizarre to me. That was the moment I thought, I still want to look at the world around me. I don’t want to shut that down because my dad’s not here anymore. Before, it was making me really sad to think about birding, but after that, I started to open back up to the idea of looking at birds…and I fell in love with them again.”
“How long did that process take?” I ask. “To get through that grief?”
“That might’ve been about five years ago,” Heidi says.
“Did you have people you started birding with regularly?” I ask.
“Right about at that time, I’d assembled a group of people who WANTED to go out owling—not just accompanying me so I wasn’t alone. They were really excited about it. That first year after my dad died, my friend Susannah Richards had agreed to take the second shift out in the field with me. Susannah’s a professor, who knows everything about children’s literature but nothing about birds. I used to say she’s the only person crazy enough to go owling with me more than one year in a row. She had been keeping me company all those years. Sometimes my brother would fly in and go for a bit. It was still pretty sad, though. It was my dad’s thing. But, I was getting better at it. I was starting to research the history of the Count for a book. This was a slow shift towards it becoming MY thing instead of just honoring my dad. But, things were
about to change completely. A man emailed me out of the blue and said, ‘Hello, I want to go out owling. I’m doing a big year on owls and my goal is to see or hear an owl in every town in Massachusetts. I asked friends who they knew in the western Massachusetts area who I could contact, and somebody said, ‘Do you remember Dave Stemple?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah! I remember Dave Stemple!’ And they said, ‘Well his daughter is the person to call.’”
“So you went with him?” I ask.
“Well, he emailed me and said, ‘I’d like you to take me out owling.’ But I’m a woman, so I read, ‘Hello, I am a man you don’t know and I’d like you to take me out into the woods in the middle of the night.’” We both laugh at how preposterous the question sounds before Heidi continues her story.
“So, I said, ‘No. But in six months, I do the Audubon Christmas Bird Count and you can come out with my crew.’ So he wrote back and said, ‘Fine.’ My girlfriends Susannah and Lynn, who were on that count with me and had shown up first, still laugh because when this man was coming up to the door I said, ‘I need you to know we have this strange guy coming with us. I don’t think he’s an axe murderer… but I don’t know that for sure.’ The minute Brian Cassie walked in the door with a jolly grin and a Santa hat, I knew we would be ok. What I didn’t know yet was that he was one of the best owlers and best human beings I’d ever met.”
“So tell me about that night.”
“Well, as we were driving around, the roads were perfect. The sky was perfect. At one point, we were listening to a great horned owl and we decided to try to get a look at it. We don’t need to see the owl to count it, but we just wanted to. So, we jumped in my minivan and drove up and over the dyke—a sort of crazy driving situation on farm roads tipping the van almost halfway over. Brian looked at me and said, ‘It just occurred to me…I am owling with the little girl from OWL MOON. I’m the old guy, like your dad. And we are having this experience.’ We did see the two great horned owls we had heard hooting. There was a meteor shower. It was such an amazingly beautiful night. Brian dubbed us the OMG – the Owl Moon Gang. We still use that name.”
I realize my jaw is hanging slack so I force it shut.
“How do you tell this story without crying?” I ask. Heidi laughs.
“I’ve told it a couple times before… On that night, we called down 67 owls. It was absolutely magnificent. As the sun was coming up, we pulled into my yard. I knew that we had broken a record of sorts and I was emotional about it. The best night my dad and I ever had was 34 owls. So 67 was huge. When we pulled back into the house, I walked into the backyard (which, remember is 15 acres) and I just felt my dad’s presence. I knew how proud he would be. I started calling—whistling the call of a screech owl. A barred owl swooped in over my head, and I heard duetting screech owls. Standing in the middle of my back yard, where my dad and I built a house right before he died, next to where the story of OWL MOON took place– it was this very perfect moment.” Heidi sits back in her chair.
“So do you continue to go out owling with Brian?”
“Yes, we still go owling. Our OMG crew.”
“I have your book, COUNTING BIRDS,” I say. “That book must’ve been a very special one for you to write.” Heidi nods.
“It’s the book of my heart. It’s about the history of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. I’ve been thinking a lot about it because on Monday I’m going to NY to accept one of the six Riverby Awards, which is the John Burrows Society. Frank Chapman, who this book is about, won a John Burrows Award in 1929. His magazine, Bird Lore, became Audubon Magazine. Specifically, he started this count in order to stop people from shooting birds. So, this book is about Frank Chapman, but really, for me…this book is about my dad.”
“That’s so beautiful. And what a special thing to have this older man, who’s not an axe murderer, to share this with you now.” I say.
“Brian is just lovely. He teaches science in an elementary school. He doesn’t come on all the counts. Our crew shifts, but now the core is Susannah, Lynn Pelland, Sloan Tomlinson, and Dennis Wehrly. You can find Brian, and all the other members of the OMG in the dedication of the book.”
As someone who’s always loved owls, I wonder what it takes to be a good owler. So I ask.
“Patience. Well, patience and the ability to be cold. In the north, in December, at 3:00 in the morning…there’s something about that time that’s just freezing. But it’s really all about patience. We call longer than we think we have to, and then we listen longer than we think we should have to. You have to be patient to allow the owls to hear you and then figure out if they want to respond.”
“Did your mom ever go birding with you?”
“Definitely. She jokes that she’s a city girl so she knows pigeons and not-pigeons, but she went with us all the time. But there were also times when it was great to have us out of the house, because she worked at home. So sometimes we went with just my dad.”
“Tell me a little about your family.”
“Well, I have two daughters. I had my first, and then I adopted my second twelve years later. And then I have great brothers. I really had a great childhood. We were surrounded by artistic people. We have three barns—we used to have four—on this big old tobacco farm. One of the barns was ‘rented’ to artisans. They paid the bills and the rent usually came in the form of products. Covered casseroles, a piece of jewelry…we had potters, leathersmiths, silversmiths, and instrument makers. We had a full-sized walk-in kiln on the property, and a pool, and there were always adults around who watched out for the kids. They sometimes lived with us, almost always showed up and ate dinner with us, and my mother grew vegetables. Like, we were full-on hippies. My mom says, ‘We were beatniks, we were not hippies.’ But we were totally hippies.”
“I know you and your mom are close, but you’re also close with your brothers, right? Don’t they write, too?”
“Yes, all of us write. I’m the oldest and my next brother is Adam Stemple. He’s a novelist and musician, and he’s just written his first picture book called CROW NOT CROW with my mom, also about birding. He has two kids, one in high school and one in college, and they live in Minneapolis. My youngest brother is Jason Stemple, and he is, by trade, a nature photographer. Jason is married with twin daughters and they live in South Carolina. Both my brothers are so talented. I am their biggest fan. The three of us, along with our mom have written two books together for National Geographic—ANIMAL STORIES and FLY WITH ME.”
A large dog suddenly ventures into the frame and sniffs at Heidi. “This is Abraham,” Heidi says. “He’s a herder, so he’s not happy that I’m not with the group.”
“Do you need to join your group?” I ask. Heidi scratches his head. “No, I’m ok. I’ll join them soon.”
“You said you weren’t going to write and eventually got sucked into writing. What were you doing before?”
“I worked as a probation parole office and a private investigator. And I was bartending. I actually met my (now ex) husband when I was working in a bar and he was the DJ. When I was pregnant with my daughter Maddison, who’s now 24, I was really sick for the whole pregnancy. I couldn’t leave the house and I’d just gotten this new computer and thought, I’ve gotta do something. I had interviewing and was offered a job working as a counselor at an abused women’s shelter. But, because I was so sick, I had to turn it down. My mother had just gotten a request to write something for a book called, FAMOUS WRITERS AND THEIR KIDS WRITE SPOOKY STORIES so she asked me to write with her. She had been asking for years and I finally said, ‘Sure.’”
“Was she shocked that you agreed?” I ask.
“Definitely. She was very shocked. It didn’t occur to me until about five years ago that that story was about an abused woman. I really was channeling everything that was going on in my life into the writing.”
Abraham wanders back into the frame and howls. We both laugh before Heidi continues talking.
“While I was still pregnant, we finished our first book together called MEET THE MONSTERS. It was a picture book about 13 different monsters and how to get rid of them.”
“Do you ever miss your old work?” Heidi shakes her head.
“Well, I thought about going back into law enforcement, but once I had a kid I knew I didn’t ever want to put her mother in danger. I thought about going to law school, or maybe something like that, but once you get into writing…it’s a job that allows you to work and stay at home. And I loved the fact that my mother worked at home doing things that were interesting to her. She was a happy mom. She got to do things she wanted and be around her kids all the time.”
“It’s hard not to be happy when you’re doing something that you love,” I agree.
“Yes. Sometimes, it’s the writing and not the publishing that’s the goal. That’s the fun part of it. And you can work and write through everything. You can write through sickness, and you can write through stress. I signed a contract for a work-for-hire just before my dad died, and after his memorial, I had about two weeks to write this fully-researched book. I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through those weeks, had I not had that project.”
The conversation has come full-circle back to Heidi’s dad. “I know you must miss him.”
Heidi nods, but smiles. “I really feel lucky that I got to live with my dad in the 4 years before he died. He and I were always very close, but, I got to get to know him as an adult. My kids got to know him in a way that they wouldn’t have otherwise. There was nothing left unsaid, which I feel really lucky about.”
Abraham howls again, and I know it’s time. I thank Heidi and let her go, thinking more about her last comment. Knowing that she was able to say goodbye to her father, the lynchpin for so many pivotal moments in her life, with nothing left unsaid. No unwritten words. No incomplete chapters.
For a writer, I cannot imagine a more perfect gift.
Heidi’s upcoming projects include A KITE FOR MOON (released April 9, 2019), EEK, YOU REEK, a picture book about stinky animals that’s co-written with her mom, Jane Yolen, and illustrated by Eugenia Nobati, and a “book about spies” with Avenue A, a new publishing company that is part of Responsive Classroom. You can find Heidi at: