Digging Up the Past: An Interview with Kerrie Hollihan

Kerrie Hollihan writes the kind of books kids fight over. I should know, I have one of them in my middle school classroom, and on more than one occasion there has been spirited deliberation over who would get to read it during our break time between classes. Her blend of historical research and captivating narrative draw in even the most reluctant readers. And that’s to say nothing of the subject matter — first mummies, then ghosts, and now bones. Kerrie’s latest title, Bones Unearthed!, is the third in her “Creepy and True” series, and it may just be the most the most appealing yet (and perhaps also the most gruesome). I’m super excited to share this interview with Kerrie — stick around and leave a comment for a chance to win this book when it’s released this week!

CL: Thanks for being here, Kerrie! In the introduction of Bones Unearthed, you compare doing book research to a sort of “virtual dig” — can you explain what you mean by that?

KH: As archaeologists and anthropologists embark on an excavation, they aren’t precisely sure what they will uncover. There might be a general idea, but the actual site can reveal all kinds of artifacts. My project was to write about cases of murder or mayhem across history that left skeletal remains. Hence Bones Unearthed! For instance, in my book proposal I’d written a sample chapter about the cannibalized Jane Doe in the Jamestown Fort. but her discovery was rather random—three bones among 47,000 artifacts found in a kitchen waste pit. What a surprise to those who uncovered her! 

Then  I needed another example of cannibalism to extend that chapter, so my digging continued for other examples. I had to evaluate the details of those to see how they’d fit with the general scheme of my project, and I ended up choosing the rugby team that was downed in an Andean air crash.

CL: Yeah, I read that cannibalism chapter on my lunch break at work — fascinating! Another thing you mention in the book is how learning about the lives of those in the past can tell us about our own lives. Did you have any experiences like that while researching or writing the book? 

KH: Yes. In writing about the Alepotrypa Cave in Greece where generations of people lived and died, I was drawn to thinking about my own family…and my own mortality. In nineteen months’ time, I became a grandmother of two and lost my own dad at age ninety-nine and three-fourths, who was born, lived, and died between two pandemics!

CL: Wow, that is pretty incredible. I also  think it’s so fascinating that the work of excavation correlates to so many other fields of study — like how the discovery of Pompei in Italy connects to plate tectonics. You include many of these as “factlets” in your book — did any of these overlaps stand out to you as particularly interesting?

KH: I was amazed how Edvard Munch’s The Scream came into play during the Year without a Summer—thanks to that Krakatoa volcano eruption in Indonesia.

CL: Okay, so it’s no secret this book has some pretty gruesome chapters…and don’t get me wrong — that’s what I love about it — but it’s certainly not a text for the squeamish! Was there anything you found difficult to read or write about?

KH: When I got my author copies, I thumbed through and, frankly, was taken aback by some of the stories and images. This is horrific stuff! Reading about the young men of that Andean air crash who could only survive by cannibalizing their friends was not pleasant and challenging to present in a careful tone to my readers. It was hard for me to think about the Viking sacrifice of children, as it was about the Inca sacrifice of other little ones I wrote about in Mummies Exposed! The pumice rafts loaded with human bones afloat at sea left a heavy imprint in my mind, and so did the grave robbing of so many disregarded people for cadaver study.

CL: But there are some really heartfelt sections, too. Later in the book is a chapter called “Bones and Benevolence,” in which you detail how some discoveries give us insights into the way people lived and loved long ago. Especially interesting in this chapter is the way modern technology expands our ability to understand and catalogue human remains. Do you have a favorite story from this part of your research?

KH: After writing about so much sadness, I researched examples of gravesites with burials that reflected human caring and respect. I’d known for a while about ongoing DNA study of the remains of sailors’ bony remains from the USS Oklahoma,  but I hadn’t learned the whole story about its sinking and  recovery at Pearl Harbor. These events were real to my own parents, and I grew up honoring December 7 as “the Day that will live in infamy.” Soon enough, we will have lost all those who remember that day. 

I seriously got a lump in my throat as I worked through the research. To learn how that navy veteran, Ray Emory, had a bold idea, which was then enhanced by the development of DNA technology, set my mind aglow. I marvel at how human emotion and determination can join with technological innovation to produce such an appropriate and amazing gift of human remains to the families of the Oklahoma’s dead sailors.

CL: Well, that brings me to something all of your books seem to have in common –  research! Like, lots and lots of research! In the afterword of Bones Unearthed, you make a great comparison between your text and an iceberg. Can you expand on that?

KH: I think nearly all nonfiction authors will say that the fun is in the research. For all the books in the Creepy & True series, there was so much to learn to fill nine or more chapters, some with three topics in each. Let’s take the Franklin Expedition in Chapter 3 of Bones Unearthed! When I chose to write about it, I  had a 20-year-old memory of a PBS program about the expedition and how the men’s brains were addled by lead poisoning. Ha…twenty years on, that presumption turned out to be factually questionable. As I like to point out to students, there’s always something new to learn about something old.

But the bigger story was how the search for Franklin was told by two sets of people: records from the British and American expeditions versus the oral histories of the Inuit people over those same years. How did they connect? 

I had a ton of research evidence in scholarly journals, primary sources recorded in old books, library

Kerrie’s husband generously shared this doodle of an iceberg for illustration purposes.

books filled with secondary sources, modern newspapers and periodicals, government websites, maps of one kind or another…..it seemed endless. What you read about the Franklin Expedition in Bones Unearthed! is only the tip of the information iceberg. Ninety percent of a nonfiction book lies beneath the surface.

In the end, I had to cut five pages from that chapter, which is a perfect example of revision. Students should hear that we authors can’t hang on to every word we put on the page for a first draft.

Thanks so much to Kerrie for an awesome conversation — BONES UNEARTHED! comes out this week and is available everywhere. You can learn more about Kerrie and her other books on her website, and don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a free copy! 

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Chris Low
Chris Low is a children's writer and elementary school teacher outside of Philadelphia, PA. He draws inspiration from the organized chaos of his special education classroom and the perpetually surprising wit of his own students. In addition to his middle grade book projects, Chris has published several award-winning short stories with Highlights for Children and Cricket magazine. Chris is married with two young boys and a dog who will eat literally anything. He spends most of his free time running, hiking, and negotiating with preschoolers.
  1. I have not checked these books out yet but my kids love creepy.

  2. A fascinating interview, and I am so looking forward to reading this book! I always think of Margaret Mead’s statement on civilization—when bones heal, which meant that people lived in community enough to care for others.

  3. Research is my favorite part of writing. What a terrific interview and what a fun book! Thanks for this fascinating post. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of this book.

  4. The research part of nonfiction writing is my favorite for sure. I always have way more info than I can use, but it helps me piece together the heart of what I want to share with readers. Thank you for the interview and chance to win a copy.

  5. Wow! I learned so much just from reading this interview. Now I can’t wait to read the book and share it with my students. They will love it.

  6. Thank you for sharing, Kerrie! I love the idea of your research as a virtual dig. My teens and I love digging into the past. We especially enjoy reading about the strange and bizarre. We are so excited to read your new book!

  7. I’m currently study archaeology (I’ll finish my bachelors degree by the end of next year) and I have two children who enjoy learning about what I do. This would make a great resource and a wonderful addition for our bookshelf. Also, the Franklin expedition is fascinating and a rabbit’s hole itself. Thank you for sharing!