YEM Author Interview: Jingmai O’Connor chats about where her love for dinosaurs came from

Jingmai O’Connor is the author of When Dinosaurs Conquered the Skies: The incredible story of bird evolution. When Dinosaurs Conquered the Skies: The incredible story of bird evolution has insight into how dinosaurs evolved flight and conquered the skies. The novel explores fascinating facts about bird evolution. YEM was able to speak with Jingmai about how long she has wanted to write a book about Dinosaurs for, when did the idea of writing a book about dinosaurs come up, and what she learned about herself through the writing process.

Young Entertainment Mag: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

Jingmai O’Connor: When Quarto reached out and asked if I wanted to write a book 😛 (I wanted to be a comic book artist as a kid and I used to write and draw funny comics about life for me and my friends, but I never thought of myself as a writer or future writer)

YEM: How long have you wanted to write a book about Dinosaurs for?

Jingmai: TBH I never thought about writing books, I prefer to do research and I always thought writing a book seemed like such an enormous undertaking. Of course, a big part of research is writing it up, but for research articles, not books (at least not typically).

YEM: Where did your love for dinosaurs come from?

Jingmai: It started in graduate school when I began my research on early birds. Philosophers say you can only love what you know so by studying birds and dinosaurs most closely related to them, I began to get into dinosaurs in general. Recently I have started working on T. rex and now I have an appreciation for this dinosaur, whereas before I thought it was kinda cliche, and never much cared about it. However, I do consider myself an equal opportunity extinct animal enthusiast. I like everything from Hallucigenia to Thylacosmilus! All extinct (and extant) animals are fascinating in their own way. When I applied to grad school, I applied to programs ranging from echinoderms to mammals. I did not seek out dinosaurs specifically.

YEM: What was the process of writing your book like?

Jingmai: For me it was pretty easy, I just banged it out (if you hear me type or see my keyboard, with the letters scratched out by my nails, you will understand why I use the verb ‘bang’)! I started by writing the titles and subheaders for each spread – essentially creating the outline. Then I just filled it in (usually with too much info, creating a lot of work for the editor who had to trim it down). I did have to do a little research for the Cenozoic bird section (which I have done very little research on). For the environmental spread I sent it to my mom and she gave me constructive feedback, both in the first draft and with the final version with artwork (for example, saying to remove the recycle symbol since recycling as a concept is very misleading – people think because they “recycled” they have done their part to help the environment and that couldn’t be further from the truth; most “recycling” gets burned and even if it is recycled, it takes energy to do so – reducing consumption and avoiding products that come in single use plastics is much better for the environment).

YEM: What was it like collaborating with your illustrator Maria Brzozowska?

Jingmai: I gave images and ideas to accompany each spread via email and she brought them to life! I hope to meet her in person one day. 

YEM: When did the idea of writing a book about dinosaurs come up?

Jingmai: Holly from Quarto publishing came up with the idea for a book on bird evolution to accompany their evolution series. She deserves all the credit for the book idea! 

YEM: What is your favorite part of writing for a young audience?

Jingmai: The chance to really make a difference by teaching young people about the environmental crisis. If people are exposed to new ideas while they are young, they are more likely to be able to absorb the information and choose how they want to live their lives. We’ve seen from the news that information doesn’t help adults. They somehow manage to just say “oh that’s terrible” and then carry on doing whatever scientists just showed was bad for human health/the environment/etc. It’s hard to change… but younger people are still developing and shaping who they will be so it’s critical to get this info into their hands.

YEM: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to write a book?

Jingmai: Go for it! It’s a lot of fun 🙂 The feeling of holding the finished product in your hands is really amazing. 

YEM: What is something you learned about yourself through the writing process?

Jingmai: Hmmm tough one – I guess I was surprised to find that I’m not bad at writing for a younger or non-specialist audience. It’s very different from science writing but for me it wasn’t hard to find my ‘voice.’

YEM: What is one of your favorite facts that you put into “When Dinosaurs Conquered the Skies: The incredible story of bird evolution?”

Jingmai: That’s another tough one! I think I love almost every fact equally and, to be fair, only things that could be considered “interesting” made the cut. 

YEM: How long did it take to create your book?

Jingmai: Just a few months from start to finish. Once I got writing the words just flowed. A lot of the information is my own research so most of it was pretty easy to write. Another few months to work out the illustrations. It was all pretty quick and efficient.

YEM: What do you have planned next? Are you going to write more Dinosaur books?

Jingmai: Yes, I hope so! I also want to write a book with my mother about our family story. Epigenetics is the science of how environmental factors experienced by our parents and grandparents shape who we are today. This means that the past and the future all exist in the present. This means that my grandmother’s story and my mother’s story is also my story and that their struggles are part of the reason I am who I am and where I am today, and for that I am so grateful. I want to share the incredible story of my grandparents’ struggle to create a better world in post-imperial China and how that enabled my mom to go from refugee to PhD, and inspire others, like me, to overcome hardship and achieve their full potential (and live life true to themselves)!

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