Eavesdrop on James Solheim

What were you like as a child?

            I went through life looking for adventure. And I found it—but not in the form I expected. Adventure meant searching for fossils, visiting caves, discovering a pile of forgotten letters from the time of World War Two, and even simple things like starting a club that made its own mini-museum.
            I wanted to be involved in a mystery, like kids in books I read. I was always on the lookout for stolen treasure or secret messages—but I learned that you don't have to solve a crime or stumble across a pile of loot to experience a mystery.
            In fifth or sixth grade I discovered several ancient stone tools in a creek bed. They weren't clues to a boring mystery that happened yesterday—they were from grander mysteries than that. Who made those tools? What were their owners like? My afternoon hike had turned into an adventure that continues today.
            When I wrote It's Disgusting—and We Ate It!, I included a poem about finding stone tools and other clues to the foods of ancient people. The poem is about cliff dwellers in the American desert who mysteriously left their homes over 700 years ago. My writing about those people goes back to the day in grade school when I found the stone tools.
            That's the kind of mystery I loved as a child, and still enjoy—questions about people and life. Often I explore them through writing and reading.
            In fact, every poem or story I write is a discovery—a kind of discovery that any child can make. When you or I write a new poem or story, we're discovering ideas and patterns in human words that no one has ever found before.
What else did you like to do as a child?
            I especially enjoyed our big neighborhood games of hide-and-seek, dodgeball, baseball, football, and "spy." "Spy" caught on when a new battery factory in town gave away free flashlights to kids. Every kid in our neighborhood got a flashlight. Naturally we had to turn it into a game. Nobody was quite sure what the point of the game was. It was just two teams of kids running wildly around after dark trying to catch each other in flashlight beams.
            I preserved the details of my life in a special black box. I still keep my most precious things from childhood in that box. And I'm lucky that most of what I kept in that box was my childhood writings (poems, stories, and comic books)—because I revised a poem I wrote in grade school for It's Disgusting--and We Ate It!
Where did you find so many peculiar foods for your book, It's Disgusting—and We Ate It!?
            I talked to people from all over the planet and read through piles of books looking for the goofiest foods I could find. Research meant picking violets for 500-year-old royal recipes, telephoning Australia to ask if anyone there still eats worms (they do), and pondering deep questions like "Which fried insects make the best after-school snack?" (Aristotle recommends cicadas fat with eggs.) I even talked to a scientist who ate meat from a 36,000-year-old bison found frozen in Alaska.
            Life is full of great stories. The one about eating the ancient bison is a direct result of a rumor I heard as a child—a rumor that well-preserved woolly mammoth corpses sometimes surface in Siberian ice fields. When I heard the rumor, I didn't even know I would write It's Disgusting, and yet I was already gathering material for it!
What are you like today?
            In many ways, I'm much the same as I was as a child. I still love to play games. I love to ride my bike, look for fossils, go on vacation, and read books written for children. I still enjoy the books I read as a child—The Phantom Tollbooth, Tom Sawyer, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler—plus newer kid books like Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, Slam! by Walter Dean Myers, and the first Dinotopia book.
            I remember my childhood vividly, going back at least to age two. I remember the opinions I had about books, and even where I was when I read certain books. In my writing I constantly make use of events, feelings, and opinions from childhood.
            As an adult I can still enjoy the things I knew as a child while adding new things that I see through a grownup's eyes. To give just one example: As a child I was interested in the country of Norway and enjoyed learning about it, but it never occurred to me that there were ways for an American to learn the language. As an adult I found ways of learning that helped me teach myself Norwegian. When I traveled to Norway I talked to my relatives in their language and had many experiences that I could not have had as an English-speaking tourist.

To contact James Solheim, email jim[at]jamessolheim.com or call 402-393-6108!

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This page was last updated: September 30, 2007