It’s an unforgettable sight: innovation expert Maureen Clemmons can lift and “fly” massive stones, some of them weighing sixteen tons, with little more than a steady wind and a good kite. But did the ancient Egyptians do the same thing when hoisting immense pyramid stones? Egyptologists say no. Clemmons, backed by a decade of field tests and a Caltech aeronautics team, isn’t so certain– especially when the Egyptologists make it clear they are unwilling to consider evidence from anyone outside their insular field. Buoyed by a tremendous groundswell of grassroots support, Clemmons’ stunning, block-heaving experiments generate national news coverage, a History Channel documentary, and a mention in engineering textbooks. Audiences from NASA, the American Institute of Architects, and a multitude of universities gather to hear her compelling presentations. In the span of just a few short years, she successfully advances a simple “Eureka!” moment in her California backyard to the halls of academia, and eventually to Egypt’s Giza Plateau, site of the actual pyramids. She also proves an important point: that you don’t need a degree, just an inspired idea and some passion, to be a good scientist.
Hello, Daniel! Congrats in the B.R.A.G. Medallion for your book, Soaring Stones. Please tell me how you discovered indieBRAG.
Thanks Stephanie, it’s such a thrill seeing Soaring Stones receive a B.R.A.G. Medallion because I myself look for B.R.A.G. Medallion winners when shopping for new books! That’s how I discovered indieBRAG: about three years ago, while browsing online. It’s hard to find indie awards that assess books by quality, but I think the writing community, and hopefully readers, understand that indieBRAG does things the right way.
What was the inspiration for your story and what genre does this fall under?
I love Clemmons’ empowering message that anyone, kids included, can do their own backyard science and make a genuine contribution to a professional scientific field so long as they do the proper research. People forget that some of our greatest scientists did their own, independent research. In fact Alexander Graham Bell conducted similar experiments with a 40-foot kite near his Nova Scotia home.
My wife (fiancée at the time) met Maureen Clemmons at a work function and later told me about her captivating idea that the ancient Egyptians might have used linen kites as a tool to help lift pyramid stones. It sounded pretty outlandish but Clemmons was planning an experiment for her young children to test the idea using little plastic kites and a heavy log at their local park. Once I saw that tiny kids’ kite hoist the log in maybe two seconds, I knew Clemmons’ was onto something.
So Soaring Stones is a biography of one woman’s determination to conduct accurate backyard science… but the book certainly crosses into history as well.
Please tell me a little about Maureen Clemmons.
What a dynamic woman. The official line is that Maureen Clemmons is an innovation consultant who holds a doctorate and an MBA from Pepperdine University. But here’s the real deal about Maureen.
You know how most people come up with innovative ideas but never actually do them? She does them. One time Clemmons’ and her siblings decided to build a replica Viking ship… so of course they went out, built it, and sailed it. (Though not for long before it sank!) She taught her two children how to make medicine from nasturtiums, fashion their own compass, cobble together makeshift tools… the list goes on. That’s a hands-on, enthusiastic approach you don’t often find among people living in suburban Los Angeles.
She also hosts an annual Oktoberfest with a live band and polka dances which, sadly, I have yet to attend!
What got you into science writing and what has your journey been like in this field?
I started out the way most journalists do: taking whatever stories came down the pipeline, trying to work my way up. At some point I found myself standing outside a Beverly Hills courthouse, covering a 1990s case involving Zsa Zsa Gabor—pure drivel for everyone except Ms. Gabor—and decided it was time to focus on stories with real meaning. Though writing has always been my passion, science was my backup option during college and I seem to have a knack for translating technical jargon into understandable language, so I decided to combine the two interests. Eventually that led to covering topics such as genome research, climate change, and the NASA rovers… hopefully much more useful to readers than an actress’ courtroom drama. I suppose politics, business and entertainment all have their important moments, but to me science is the only field offering real information on a regular basis. Plus I’m a bit of a geek anyway, so it’s probably a good fit.
What fascinates you about the Egyptian pyramid construction?
With all of our technology, we still can’t replicate what the ancient Egyptians managed to do 4,000 years ago. Egyptologists and engineers have a good handle on many of the fundamental techniques and can create small-scale pyramids, but at some point the size and weight always present roadblocks. One thing I learned while writing the book is that presenting theories is one thing, but standing face-to-face with a four-ton stone, feeling its reflected heat, and then trying to apply the research by moving a behemoth rock is a challenge of a completely different scale… and that doesn’t even take into account the need to stack them 400 feet high, with precision.
Many researchers never actually make such an attempt, and that’s a problem because artifacts and math can only take you so far. Using kites (or sailcloth) to help lift a pyramid stone doesn’t seem so outlandish once you try moving one with nothing more than ramps, rollers, and brute strength.
What is your message to your readers?
Don’t let criticism strangle a solid idea. Clemmons faced countless hurdles, from naysayers to financial obstacles to an insular scientific community, but she stuck with her concept because she knew the engineering evidence was on her side.
While she may never sway Egyptologists (they refuse to consider the theory barring discovery of an ancient kite—unlikely since kites wouldn’t survive 4,000 years), she nonetheless accomplished her goal: to get the concept in front of both the public and the experts, who can now search for evidence.
Were there any challenges in writing this story?
Soaring Stones started out as a project for National Geographic Books, and the people there were wonderful to work with, but publishing schedules and scientists’ schedules don’t always mesh. As I began writing, Clemmons was collaborating with Caltech engineers, who of course set the experiment timetables according to the scientific needs, not the publishing schedule. Sometimes that meant six-month delays.
That’s not an issue for a writer, but National Geographic understandably decided they didn’t want to wait on academia’s glacial pace. Clemmons and I wound up caught in the middle… which probably worked out for the best since I was then able to write the book in conjunction with her experiments and then bring it to readers once the science was complete. By that time, the publishing world had changed and indie publishing was a viable option—especially for me, since I had already spent several years running my own writing and publishing business.
What was your writing process for this story and how long did it take you to write it?
The book is relatively short and keeps a fast pace, so people are usually surprised to learn it took portions of five years to write. Again, it ties to working in conjunction with academia. When I began writing, Clemmons and Caltech hadn’t yet attempted to lift the heaviest objects, including the sixteen-ton obelisk that eventually became a focal point of their experiments, so I had blank chapters that I would fill in as each experiment wrapped. Sometimes I’d try foreshadowing a result, or outlining chapters in advance. I learned pretty quickly that wasn’t going to work. Experiments are trial-and-error processes that almost never proceed as expected. At one point Clemmons and the researchers had an entire adventure just trying to reach a field testing site in Mexico that could have been a book of its own.
Where in your home do you like to write and how much time do you devote to the craft?
Ahh, here’s where my Janus complex comes into play. While wearing my nonfiction face I write next to an old land-line phone, with news websites flashing updates near my face—a nondescript environment. But then there’s my “fiction face” (to stretch the Janus thing past credulity): I spend a portion of my year writing fantasy (a passion since high school), usually situated between two large bookcases housing my favorite novels.
What advice would you give to an inspiring writer?
Write for yourself, not for your readers. That’s not meant as any disrespect to readers—quite the opposite, actually, since everyone wins when a writer sticks with their own inherent strengths and avoids the constant temptation to cave to bestseller trends.
Where can readers buy your book?
Right now it’s Amazon-only, both ebook and print formats, though I’m open to trying other distributors in the future. The A-word triggers a lot of emotion these days, but I’ve noticed Amazon and indie bookstores have something in common: very dedicated readers, and an appreciation for writers. I’m hoping that signals Soaring Stones can be on Amazon and still reach bookstore shelves sometime soon.
**Stephanie, thanks so much for including me, and for your efforts to give a voice to indie-pubbed writers! Reading insights from so many successful, B.R.A.G.-winning authors on this blog is inspiring… and again, I’m excited and grateful to be part of it.
My pleasure, Daniel and thank you for a wonderful interview!
Daniel Cray is a Los Angeles-based writer and journalist. He has reported more than 60 Time magazine cover stories and written features for Time, Life, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and more than a dozen other news publications. He is currently at work on his second novel.
A message from BRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Daniel Cray, who is the author of, Soaring Stones of our medallion honorees at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Soaring Stones, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.