Meet the Biographer: Sy Montgomery

(Sy Montgomery, Temple Grandin, and James Birge, President of Franklin Pierce University)

Writer Sy Montgomery has the life some of us dream of living. To research her children’s and adults books about animals, she has studied rare parrots in New Zealand and tigers in  Bangladesh. This year, she published a middle-grade biography of animal scientist and autism advocate Temple Grandin, and her 2009 book Saving the Ghost of the Mountain, about snow leopard research in Mongolia, came out in paperback. This week, Sy Montgomery chatted with Kidsbiographer about training for mountaineering expeditions, developing a close bond with her subject, and using her books to inspire compassion for animals and humans.  

Kidsbiographer: Throughout Temple Grandin, you include information about people with autism experience the world, particularly their heightened sensory awareness. Can you tell me  about the research you did to broaden your understanding of autism for this book?

Sy Montgomery: Before I even agreed to write this book, I had read all of Temple’s  popular works, because of my interest in other minds. My other books are entirely about non-human animals, and for years I have been fascinated by their minds, and by their sensory systems. Birds and sharks sense the magnetism of the Earth. Insects see ultraviolet light. Whales and elephants communicate in infrasound, below the threshold of human hearing. So I began writing this book grounded in the understanding that there are all kinds of minds out there, all of them perceiving and understanding the world in different ways. 

Of course, after I signed on to do this book, I read a number of more technical papers about autism. But also, I am lucky enough to count as friends a number of people on the spectrum. This helped me, too.   

Kidsbiographer:  Unlike most biographers, you wrote about a person who is very much alive: in fact, you worked closely with Temple Grandin  to tell her story. What are the particular challenges – and joys – of collaborating with your subject?

Sy Montgomery: Temple is a delight. I like her so much! I never worried one minute  about her autism posing a problem. What I worried about was  her being a celebrity. From previous experience, I know that while some celebrities are perfectly lovely, some can be a big pain in the tail.  They can act like their time is more important than yours.  They can keep you waiting. They sometimes even stand you up. But we  all have just 24 hours in the day.

But I needn’t have worried about Temple. Although she’s a HUGE  celebrity and as busy as any other famous person I know, it doesn’t go to her head. We got along great. She was very thoughtful and thorough. She always did exactly what she said she was going to do. She’s extremely straightforward and direct. I like that.

Also, we had FUN together! Every time we see each other, we end up talking about animals (my favorite thing to talk about) and laughing so hard we almost fall over. Working with her was a joy.     

Kidsbiographer:  Temple Grandin is a very personal biography.   Together you and Temple Grandin reach out to kids who don’t fit into their school’s social structure; Temple herself contributed a foreword in which she addresses such readers directly. For this reason, I imagine many kids must treasure the book. Can you share some of the most moving or gratifying responses you’ve received from young people?

Sy Montgomery: Over and over kids, both on and off the spectrum have told me the book has made a big difference to them, helping them to see their own strengths and the strengths of other kids around them, and to begin to consider how they can use these special strengths to help others. Both kids and adults have told me, too, that they understand their OWN minds better after reading the book! One child with limited speaking skills hugged me and told me “thank you.” Her teacher explained that this little girl read the book over and over again and seemed to feel far more confident thanks to Temple’s example that she, too, could make a difference in the world. 

Kidsbiographer: How have young readers responded to the book’s insights about factory farming in the United States?

Sy Montgomery: Most kids are appalled by factory farming.   An alarmingly large number of Americans have no idea how most of our meat and milk is produced. But tell an adult about factory farming, and he’ll say, “Oh, don’t tell me – I want to enjoy my hamburger!” Tell a child, and she’ll say, “I’m going to change this!” This was a huge motivation for me to write this book. The book is about compassion – not just for kids with autism, but for animals as well. (Of course, it’s absurd to think compassion should be reserved for one species!) 

A lot of kids have written to me that they now want to become vegetarian. I’ve been a vegetarian for 30 years myself.  

Kidsbiographer:  Now for some questions about Saving the Ghost of the Mountain. Your trek in Mongolia with Tom McCarthy and his fellow researchers must have been transformative: an arduous journey, a rich culture, hospitable people, a spectacular landscape, and fascinating animals, not least of all the snow leopard itself. I’m curious to learn how you winnowed the  experience down to a middle-grade book – and to hear about some of the adventures and observations you wish you’d been able to include.

Sy Montgomgery: Yes, it’s sometimes hard to make the whole experience fit into 80 pages. I am in the process of cutting 1800 words out of a draft of a book about out latest expedition, one to Namibia with the Cheetah Conservation Fund right now!

Most of the narrative of the book, though, came from the highlights of each day, directly from my field journal. When I’m in the field, I take notes all day on a little notepad that fits in my hip pocket; I also conduct interviews, which I keep in a larger, separate  notebook; and at night, no matter how tired I am, I force myself to write up what I consider the most important and compelling lessons of each day in my field journal, which is sort of like a diary. But instead of just writing “This happened, and then and then and then…,” I try to make each daily entry a sort of essay about the theme of each day – what that day showed us and taught us, not just an account of all the events.  

My entire field diary from that expedition is online .  

Kidsbiographer: What sort of preliminary research did you do to prepare for your trek?

Sy Montgomery: I did a great deal of reading, including the history and paleontology of Mongolia and two biographies of Genghis Khan, but even more physical training. Our expedition would involve all-day hikes every day up talus slopes at up to 11,000 feet altitude, where breathing is difficult and footing slippery.  On a previous expedition to high altitude (the cloud forest of New Guinea, for  Quest for the Tree Kangaroo) I had developed altitude sickness and hypothermia, and I didn’t want to repeat it. (At one point in New Guinea, when I was sick, I wandered off into the bush in the rain, vaguely aware that something was wrong but too mentally foggy to understand what to do about it. Happily my collaborator, photographer Nic Bishop, noticed I’d gone missing, found me, and stuffed me into a tent with a hot drink. He didn’t want to have to write the book as well as photograph it!)

But to make things harder, the spring before our summer expedition to Mongolia, I badly sprained my ankle, and was on crutches for weeks. The minute I could ditch the crutches, I hired two personal trainers and started hiking six miles every day with my dog Sally to prepare me for this trek.  

Kidsbiographer:  Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming  projects?

Sy Montgomery:  I just finished a draft of a new book in the Scientists in the Field (SITF) series with Nic on the Cheetah Conservation Fund’s amazing work in Namibia, and am working on a book for adults tentatively titled The Soul of the Octopus. This coming spring, I have two new titles for kids coming out: Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo, the true story of the internationally famous parrot whose  video rocked the internet (to be published by Bauhan publishers, all author’s proceeds to benefit the bird rescue that adopted Snowball) and another SITF from Houghton Mifflin about a fantastic research project in South America’s largest wetland on its biggest land mammal, the tapir. That one will be the first SITF featuring a Latina scientist, the amazing Brazilian researcher, Pati Medici – again photographed by Nic Bishop.

And this fall, I’m off to Niger for an expedition to the Sahara, looking for desert antelope.

Did I mention I’ll be learning to SCUBA for the octopus book? Nic and I also hope to do an SITF on one of the coolest octo researchers, Canadian psychologist Jennifer Mather.

Wow, life is great!

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