Journalist Marc Aronson wrote his latest book, Rising Water: The True Story of the Thai Cave Rescue (March 19, Atheneum Books for Young Readers) in just one month. If you’ve ever wondered how publishers turn around titles about breaking news stories so quickly, keep reading. Aronson is also the author of 2011 title Trapped: How the World Rescued 33 Miners from 2,000 Feet Below the Chilean Desert (Atheneum Books for Young Readers).
When news of the Thai cave rescue broke, he followed the news story while on vacation in Europe. When he was approached to write Rising Water, Aronson was already contracted for other children’s book titles, including Crush: A History of New York City in Four Streets and a Square and a nonfiction thematic anthology he’s co-editing on the year 1789 for Candlewick, Showdown, a book of one-to-one mashups, for Chronicle, and a book on the Flint water crisis for Bloomsbury.
But Aronson was able to set those projects aside, starting to write and research immediately after the Thai cave rescue was completed in July 2018. His first draft of Rising Water was completed in one month.
Rising Water, which details how the rescue mission was accomplished along with backstory on the divers and trapped teammates, is aimed at readers ages 10-14, but anyone wanting knowledge of how the Thai cave rescue happened will learn from it. Below is our email interview.
How closely were you following this story before you got the book deal?
I was in Europe with my family so when I had Wi-fi I got my usual newsfeed and was aware of the events days by day. But we ended our vacation hiking in the Swiss alps, so I only saw news at the end of each day. In a way that was better; I got the staccato main beats of the story, not the typical “Breaking News” flood of fractional details. One article on July 10 in the New York Times talked about the difficult lives some of the stateless (we would call them “undocumented”) boys led before they were lost, and that really caught my attention.
How long did you have to write the book? How quickly were you able to assemble your team of researchers?
My publisher gave me about six weeks to two months, but I aimed to beat that because I teach full time in the Rutgers Masters of Information program and I needed time to prepare for school that would begin after Labor Day.
When I wrote Trapped, about the Chile mine rescue, I printed out every single original (that is, not repeating information from another source) article I could find, both reporting when the men were missing and after they were found. I knew I would need something similar, so I immediately asked two Rutgers doctoral students I knew to begin gathering the articles. But I didn’t want to be limited by English, through Dr. Minjie Chen, a contact at Princeton’s Cotsen Library, I found three Thai readers, Dr. Chen read Chinese, and David Jacobson, another friend and colleague in Children’s books, reads Japanese. An academically trained neighbor, Dorothy Kelly, completed my crew. I had that team together in a week after I received the contract.
What was your writing process like? How was the process of writing Rising Water on an expedited schedule different from your previous books?
Because I had written Trapped in a similar hurry I knew what it would be like. I essentially sequestered myself in my home office and researched, asked questions, and wrote 8-10 hours a day. The good news for me was that chronology supplied a basic structure. I needed to understand what took place at each step. I lost some of the depth that comes from revision, from getting to go over a draft after it has sat for a while. But, fortunately, my wife, Marina Budhos, is a novelist, an English professor, and a great editor. She and my two sons read it hot off the home printer so I got feedback even before I turned it in.
Did the fact that the book is aimed at young readers instead of adults change the way you went about telling the story?
Yes and no. When you write nonfiction for younger readers you have two goals and two challenges. You want to engage the reader in the story you are telling and you want to inspire their curiosity to explore further. In reverse, you can’t be sure they have the background for anything you say, so you need to both hold their attention and fill in gaps. The other day I visited a seventh grade class and I began to tell them about etymology—the origins of the words they use. A boy suddenly looked up, touched his sweater, and said, “You mean this, my sweater, is a question?” Yes, precisely. Everything you wear, speak, eat, say, do, is in fact a product of a history you can trace. So that’s what I wanted and needed to do in Rising Water—while keeping the reader’s breath held in each beat of the rescue, also explore Thai and Buddhist culture, beliefs, politics; caves, cave diving, the training of the US military and the rising presence of China, the international issues of refugees and the undocumented—all were there in the story and I wanted to give my readers enough information to be curious, to explore further.
The “no” part of my answer is that I don’t think you need to avoid complex topics, such as the issues of the stateless and the undocumented.
What were the biggest challenges of writing an “instant” book? Did the short timeline help you focus your research and writing in a way that a longer deadline may not have?
Perhaps the biggest challenge was that there was very little information about the boys themselves. They did give a lengthy news conference after they left the hospital and my Thai readers fully translated it for me. And one boy and the coach who had been trapped with them came to New York in October and I got to see them close up. But I only could find out so much. In October I asked more about their experiences in the cave before they were rescued but I was essentially told that the Thai government would release more information in its own time.
One of the skills of writing for younger readers is similar, I suspect, to songwriting. That is, I have an almost physical feeling for how long a chapter can be—when a break needs to come. So being under pressure meant I had to craft these beats, these scenes and acts as quickly as I knew enough to write them. Maybe that is like being a journalist, or in the writers room of a weekly drama or comedy—you both have to work within the time constraint of the show and the looming deadline—it helps.
Did you travel to do any of your research? If not, was traveling to cover the story a consideration?
When my editor emailed to ask if I was interested I knew my passport would have to be renewed if I were to go to Thailand, so the minute we got back to the US I rushed to do that. I wanted to go. But as it turned out that would have been a disadvantage. Much of what I learned came from the researchers who could read Thai, Chinese, and Japanese. That was the immersion I really needed.
At home I was in operation central, getting emails and downloads from my researchers, and then able to send back new questions and new lines of inquiry at once. For example, Dr. Chen found a key Chinese rescuer whom she was able to interview in Chinese, I sent questions and followups, and we also got some great images from him. If I were in the air, or up in Northern Thailand, getting this swirl of research would have depended on when I had Wi-fi and might well have delayed either gathering information or the back and forth flow between what my team found, my responses, and their next search. The same with Rick Stanton, whom we reached via cave diving expert Bill Stone; it was only the conversation with Bill that got me Rick’s personal email, and thus the unique chance to interview him.
You write at the end that there were some questions that you weren’t able to answer in your research. How did you handle incorporating these unanswered questions in your writing?
I said as much as I knew and then used that section in the back to explore further. One of the great thrills was getting to interview Rick Stanton, one of the two British divers who found the boys. I just exchanged emails with Rick again; he is working on his own book, of course. Rick said that even though he was at the center of the rescue there are parts of the story he still does not know. And I have heard that from other divers.
What was the editing process like, and was this similar to or different from your previous books?
Reka Simonsen, my editor, was a colleague of mine some years ago at a different house. I knew her to be clear and smart, so I trusted that she would have a good sense of what the book needed. She made one crucial suggestion: helping me to keep my eyes on the boys in the cave as well as the rescuers trying to reach them. Perhaps the biggest editorial challenge was that the two maps of the caves were designed to run horizontally across two page spreads. But the most important place on both maps was the so-called T-Junction where the rushing water blocked the divers. The T-Junction fell almost exactly in the gutter, so we needed to juggle the angles so you could see it.
Was the book fact-checked by Atheneum?
Yes. That is a standard part of copy-editing in nonfiction from the good children’s houses. I have heard tell of a level of fact-checking in some adult publications that I am not sure we matched. But we really do take the responsibility of being thorough quite seriously. All nonfiction written for children and teenagers can serve as a model for their own research and writing, and so we have to set high standards.
You had to put other book projects with Candlewick and Chronicle on hold to write this book. How did your other editors handle that?
They were both most gracious. While the houses do compete there is also some degree of understanding and flexibility.
What advice would you give an author working on a timely book like this on a shorter-than-usual deadline?
1. Hire a great research crew, people who will get you the information you need. You can then focus on asking questions, assimilating information, and writing. 2. I like getting comments as I write. Notes on chapter one can help me with chapter two. If your editor can’t offer that quick response, find a colleague who can. 3. You can’t be perfect, you won’t know everything, and you have to know when it is time to stop looking and move on.
You asked about the date. As far as I know that was simply the soonest that the house thought it could get my manuscript through copyediting, production, and printing. If there had been a slip up they would have moved the date. But we made it.
Do you have anything else to add?
I am eager to read the adult books that have come out, and I know there is another one aimed at younger readers. It would be fascinating to get several authors together on a panel and have us each talk about the Rashomon problem of having a lot of partial information about a dramatic event—what did we each learn, and not learn, in doing our research.