“Isabella Bird was like a wild vine stuck in a too-small pot. She needed more room. She had to get out. She had to explore.” Exploring was easier said than done in Victorian England. But Isabella persisted, and with each journey, she breathed in new ways to see and describe everything around her. Question by question, word by word, Isabella bloomed. First, out in the English countryside. Then, off to America and Canada. And eventually, around the world, to Africa, Asia, Australia, and more.
We asked author Lori Mortensen about her research and writing process for Away with Words and the inspiring life of Isabella Bird.
Q: What inspired you to write Away with Words? When did you first learn about Isabella Bird?
A: I discovered Isabella when I began searching online for women’s firsts—first woman doctor, first woman astronaut, etc. However, when I discovered Isabella Bird was the first female member of the Royal Geographic Society, I instantly wanted to know more. The more I learned about her, the more I wanted to tell her exciting story.
Q: Out of all the fascinating women in history why did you choose to tell Isabella Bird’s story?
A: I’m drawn to Isabella’s story because according to English society in the 1800s, her life was supposed to unfold much differently. Not only was she born with chronic health issues, but society also expected her to stay home and manage a household. Yet, in spite of the odds against her, she forged a daring new path that took her around the world.
Q: What is your research process like?
A: Research is an exploratory process—much like Isabella’s travels. I begin online and see where it takes me. Inevitably, I find a wealth of information in all sorts of places—museums, historic sites, databases of old newspapers and magazine articles, archived texts, and other books about the subject that I can reserve through my local library or buy.
Q: What about Bird’s life intrigues you the most? Was there anything shocking you learned about Bird while researching her life?
A: What intrigues me the most is her fearlessness in the face of all sorts of obstacles—injuries that included six broken ribs, a fractured ankle, and willing herself across raging rivers, frozen, windswept deserts, and up a lava-spewing volcano.
What’s shocking is how she survived it all with good humor, never once packing it in because something was too hard. Her last adventure was a 500-mile journey on a spirited black stallion across Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. She was 70 years old.
Q: At the beginning of the story we learn that Isabella suffered from mysterious illnesses, which was remedied with fresh air. What information did you find about these illnesses in your research?
A: I wish there was more information about Isabella Bird’s condition. The first Isabella Bird biographer, Anna M. Stoddart (who wrote The Life of Isabella Bird), who knew her and published her book two years after Isabella’s death, wrote, “Her tiny body was fragile, her white face, and on her lips was the constant cry, ‘I am very tired.’” Other biographers describe frequent illnesses, pain, and tiredness. When Isabella was 18 years old, she had a “fibroid tumor” near her spine removed and she suffered from back pain throughout her life. When she returned to England in an attempt to live the proper Victorian life, her depression made her ailments worse.
Q: Is there anything from your research you wish you would have included in Bird’s daring story but didn’t?
A: There were two scenes in earlier versions that I would have liked to include because Isabella’s descriptions were so exciting, but in the end, other scenes worked out better. I wrote:
Longing to see the New World as well, she sailed down to Main and discovered that even misfortune was still adventure and a raging storm at sea did not quell her thirst for discovering what lay beyond. “Wave after wave now struck the ship,” she wrote. “The wind sounded lilke heavy artillery, and the waves, as they struck the ship, like cannonballs. I heard the men outside say ‘She’s going down, she’s water-logged, she can’t hold together!’” Thrown against a beam, Isabella noted she was knocked “insensible for three hours.”
Riding a train through a blazing forest fire in Maine was equally exciting. “On, on we rushed,” she wrote. “We were enveloped in clouds of stifling smoke—crack, crash went the trees…the flames hissed like tongues of fire, and then, leaping like serpents, would rush up to the top of the largest tree.”
Of course, with 10 books about her daring explorations, I could only include a fraction of her adventures in a picture book.
Q: As an author of both fiction and nonfiction, what is the biggest difference in your writing process between the two?
A: For nonfiction, there’s the research. I turn over a multitude of stones to understand the subject. As I go along, I find an intriguing thread that shines a fascinating light on a person or subject that I’m excited to share.
I especially enjoy writing biographies because I love to find out how someone conquered a challenge, pursued their dreams, and made a difference in spite of the odds against them.
Fiction is a different sort of challenge. Fiction comes more from within. I come up with a character, a first line, a voice, then little by little, I find my way in the story. I don’t always know where I’m going, but it’s always exciting to find out where the story takes me.
Q: Throughout the story, you use an extended metaphor of Isabella being like “a wild vine stuck in a too-small pot.” What made you think of that comparison?
A: One day, after writing many versions of her story, that metaphor just sprang to mind. It was a turning point in the manuscript because it became the threat that helped the story together and described her life in a unique but understandable way.
Q: There are many important themes in the book, including travel and freedom. Why do you think travel is often associated with freedom?
A: When you’re traveling, you’re not confined to a particular place or set of rules. For Isabella, that was everything. She was free to roam and live her life as she pleased beyond society’s limited expectations.
Q: Have you ever felt the need to travel like Bird? If you could visit any place, what would it be?
A: Interestingly, I’m not a big traveler. Although we drove our family back and forth across America in a pop-up trailer for two months one summer, I’m usually quite content with the comforts of home—family, friends, and everything where it’s supposed to be. However, I would love to go to England one day.
Q: If you were able to speak with Isabella today, what would you want to say to her or ask her?
A: I would take her hand and welcome her to the 21st century. Imagine what she would say!
Q: Away with Words is the first-ever picture book biography of Isabella Bird. Why do you think there aren’t more books about her?
A: The stories of many significant women and their accomplishments have been overlooked, There are many more to uncover. I’m delighted to share Isabella’s story.
Q: Why is it important to tell stories like Bird’s?
A: Everyone has obstacles in his or her life. It is important to know that boundaries can be broken, and lives can be enlarged and changed in spite of the daunting roadblocks that may stand in our way. In Isabella’s case, she not only broke through the boundaries of English society, she conquered mountains, crossed deserts, and wrote books that opened new worlds to her readers and what showed what a woman can do.
Q: Isabella was born in 1831 and her adventures took place more than one hundred and fifty years ago. How do you feel her story is relevant today?
A: Times change, but people remain the same. We will always need stories that inspire and motivate us to reach higher and farther than we imagined we could.
Q: Do you think there are any women today that are modern-day Isabella Birds?
A: The world is full of them. Any time a woman takes it upon herself to reimagine her life and steps into that future, she’s following in the steps of Isabella Bird.
Q: What do you want readers to take away from this book?
A: I’d like readers to look at Isabella and imagine all the daring possibilities for their own lives.