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Joseph D’Agnese Interview: Nonfiction Monday

I have an interview with my new friend Joe D’Agnese, the author of Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci. Read my review of Blockhead, too. At the end of the interview, you’ll see where else Joe will be this week.

What is Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci about?
It’s a lightly fictionalized biography of Leonardo of Pisa, the real-life medieval mathematician who is best known for the number pattern called the Fibonacci Sequence. He lived during the 12th to 13th centuries, and details of his life are sketchy. But what we do know is very exciting (at least to me). He grew up in one of the great Italian cities during a time of upheaval and war, he traveled on behalf of his merchant father to Algeria, he studied accounting, and was amazed to discover that Algerian merchants used numerals that looked different from the ones used back home in Europe. Europeans used Roman numerals. The Arab nations used numerals they had borrowed from Indian mathematicians, and which looked like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on. They also had the numeral zero, which is the key to understanding place value. Leonardo’s genius was recognizing that Hindu-Arabic numerals were superior to Roman numerals. He brought those numerals back to Europe, and led the way toward Europe’s conversion. Some people say that without his contribution to mathematics, the Renaissance as we know it would not have happened. His famous number pattern grew out of a word problem about multiplying rabbits that he put into his first book about the “new” math.

What (or who) turned you on to math?

When I was a kid, math and science were probably my least favorite subjects. I got okay grades in those subjects, but I wasn’t in love with them. Based on the choices I made when I was in high school and college, you could argue that I was prepared to avoid these subjects entirely for the rest of my adult life. But fate is funny. One of my first jobs out of college was as editor of a kids’ math magazine, called Scholastic DynaMath. And when I left the magazine, I embarked on a career as a freelance journalist, writing mostly for science magazines. So I guess the moral of the story is, you will end up fascinated with the things you try to avoid. It was while I was at DynaMath that I first learned about Fibonacci and starting writing the book. It was while I was a freelance journalist that I sold the book to Henry Holt Books for Young Readers.

Why did you decide to write about the man we call Fibonacci?

There are a couple of things that interested me in the story. One is that my mom was born and raised in Italy, and Italian culture has always been a source of curiosity for me. I was intrigued by the setting and time period. Who doesn’t love medieval times? And lastly, I loved learning about the Fibonacci Sequence. Believe it or not, I came to it late in life. I never learned about it in school as a kid, nor in college. I was genuinely fascinated by the number pattern, particularly its appearance in nature. As the whole, Blockhead just seemed like the perfect project for a geek like me.

Tell me about the research for Blockhead.

I feel like an old man when I tell this story because most of the research was conducted in the 1990s, in the days before everyone had high-speed Internet in their home and offices. So a lot of the research was old-school. I went to libraries, read encyclopedia entries, began collecting journal and magazine articles about the Fibonacci sequence, and tried to find books about Leonardo, mathematicians, and the origin of our modern number system. I also did a lot of weird things on my own to understand the Fibonacci Sequence, like draw lots of family trees of multiplying bunny rabbits. The biggest liberty I took in the book was to suggest in a whimsical way that Leonardo actually knew the significance of the Fibonacci Sequence. He did not in real life, but I saw no other way to incorporate the Sequence into his life story. You can’t tell Leonardo’s tale and then leave out the only reason most people remember him.

How did you overcome the challenge of writing about math and not being a mathematician?

During the writing of the book, when I encountered gaps in Leonardo’s life, I would call upon my background in journalism and simply phone or email professors, math teachers and mathematicians for advice. I was nervous about making those calls because my knowledge of Fibonacci’s contributions ends at the number 377 on the famous Sequence. But everyone was kind enough to listen and help me. I discovered that many of the questions I had about Leonardo’s life were genuine mysteries. For example, Fibonacci’s nickname seems to be “blockhead” or “bonehead” (hence the title of my book) but no one really knows why. A good theory is that his neighbors were poking gentle fun at him for being an absent-minded professor, and that he incorporated this nickname into his byline in his writings. Some famous ancient Romans embraced their nicknames. And this is somewhat typical in Italian culture, even today.

What was the path to publication for Blockhead?

Everyone tells writers that they need to be prepared for rejection. They need to be persistent, and someday they will have a finished printed book in their hands. Well, I’ve gotten rejections from editors since I started writing in my teens. Rejection is like a pal to me! But in this case, the story’s slightly different. I sold Blockhead to the first publisher I ever showed it to. I was elated. No rejection. But after that quick success came 12 long years of waiting for the book to be produced. We went through two editors and two illustrators. So now it’s out 14 years after I first started writing it. So guess what? A writer still needs to be persistent even after they’ve sold the book. And someday they will have a finished, printed book in their hands!

What are you working on now?

As a freelance journalist, I am always writing magazine pieces for kids and adults. The two audiences are always blending together for me, even in my book writing. Last year, my wife and co-author Denise Kiernan and I published a book called Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame & Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence. We wrote it for grown-ups, but many teachers and librarians use it in their classrooms. I am currently working long-distance with a mysterious European scientist to write a mysterious grown-up nonfiction book about a mysterious object. Hopefully, you won’t have to wait 14 years to read it!

See more Nonfiction Monday posts at Miss Rumphius Effect.

Tuesday: Q&A with Joe at the poetry blog of Gregory K, originator of “Fibs,” Fibonacci-poetry.

Wednesday: Q&A with John O’Brien, Blockhead‘s illustrator, at the blog of illustrator Carolyn Croll.

Thursday: Joe’s essay at I.N.K.

Friday: Joe’s book trailer at his blog.

Saturday: “Saturday Sketch” at Henry Holt’s blog: See before-and-after art of the book.

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