A Q&A with writer and historian Michele Albion, UMaine Class of 1989
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the Augusta area.
When I was a child, I was always writing stories and imagining plot twists. But I didn’t know anyone who was a writer, so I never considered it something to do “when I grew up.” In my heart of hearts, I was always a writer. I just didn’t know it.
My first job was as a tour guide at the age of 14 at Fort Western Museum. (It’s a fort from 1754.) I also worked at the Maine State Museum and several other museums throughout the country. In high school I decided that I was going to be a museum curator. I liked the idea of someday researching artifacts and writing exhibit copy.
Where’s home now? Dover, N.H.
Degrees? B.A. in history, UMaine, 1989
Master’s in museum studies, George Washington University, 1991
Milestones in your professional career after graduating from UMaine?
I worked at the U.S. Holocaust Museum from 1989–92. At the time, the museum was in its formative stages. It was very exciting as well as sobering to see the exhibit themes come to life as artifacts were acquired or donated. I’ll never forget the generosity and dignity of the survivors. At the age of 25, I achieved my lifetime goal of becoming a curator at a significant historic site (the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Fla.), so I needed a new goal. That was publishing a book, which took a bit longer. It happened in 2008, after 10 years of research and writing. (I should also mention that I married, had four children and stayed home with them during that time period.)
As the first professional curator of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, what was it that you found so fascinating that prompted you to write your first book, The Florida Life of Thomas Edison?
When I first arrived at the estates, I was surprised that there was so little research about what Edison had actually accomplished in Florida. There seemed to be an assumption that Thomas Edison was merely a snowbird — a winter resident who was not an active member of the community. That assumption couldn’t have been more off base. I thought there was a book there, but certainly didn’t have time to write it while I was the curator. I started research and writing shortly after I left the museum. Even I was astounded by the plethora of primary resources. It’s a great story of a famous inventor and his community.
Where did you get the idea for your second book, The Quotable Edison, which is a theme for what will be your third and fourth books — The Quotable Henry Ford and The Quotable Eleanor Roosevelt?
I’d like to take credit for the “quotable” theme, but it was my editor, John Byram, who had the idea. Given how I despaired the question, “Did Edison really say …” while I was a curator, I knew it was something that was sorely needed. Today the Internet is a treasure trove of quotes by famous individuals, except that many of them are wrong. The Quotable Edison not only confirms what Edison said, but also when and where.
Edison was quite the aphorist, so there was no shortage of material. Henry Ford logically followed, given that I researched the automaker, who had been Edison’s neighbor in Florida. But while I like Edison as an individual, Ford is a more challenging personality. I had already decided my next project needed to be a woman and found that there was no quotable book on Eleanor Roosevelt. I haven’t decided on my next project, but I’m open to ideas.
What do you find so compelling about the quotes from these historic figures and what do you hope readers learn from them?
Famous men and women can offer inspiration. But like us, they’re not perfect. I think their imperfections and quotes recorded when they were not being guarded are the most interesting. For example, Edison has some inspiring things to say about his many fields. However, once you get outside his expertise, sometimes his quotes make one giggle. For example on art: “The old masters are not it. I had a tape line and measured some of the figures. No such human frames and proportions ever were born” (NY Sun, 1889). Practical man that he was, Edison could only think of art as a representation of reality. Paintings with unnaturally long limbs, for instance, weren’t artistic. They were just wrong.
What’s your favorite quote from Edison, Ford or Roosevelt?
A single favorite for each? That’s impossible. On the arbitrary topic of women and politics, I’ve selected three quotes each:
Thomas Edison: “[A] woman is a wonderful being, full of mystery, and hard to manage” (Chicago Evening Post, May 12, 1891)
“The United States is the most inefficient big business organization in operation today… . The government is the worst managed business in the United States” (New York Times, June 11, 1930)
Henry Ford: “Don’t ever discredit the power of a woman” (response to his wife’s threat to divorce him if he did not negotiate with the union, circa 1941)
“Governments get things done because they have the power to command power, they have unlimited means to ride over all mistakes” (Ford Ideals: Being a Selection from “Mr. Ford’s Page” in the Dearborn Independent, circa 1922)
Eleanor Roosevelt: “A woman is like a teabag, you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water” (You Learn by Living by Eleanor Roosevelt, 1960)
“Our trouble is that we do not demand enough of the people who represent us,” (Tomorrow Is Now, 1963).
Where do your get your inspiration as a full-time writer?
Inspiration is all around. I get the best ideas when my mind is occupied with other things. I try to keep my laptop near at hand when I’m brushing my teeth or making dinner. But sometimes the idea comes when I’m in the shower. Then, I have to hold onto it for a bit longer. The challenge for me is having the time to write. I have four children between the ages of 6 and 13. Most days I get up at 4 a.m. to work before everyone wakes up. It is especially difficult when I have a tight deadline.
Why did you choose history as a major?
I couldn’t imagine majoring in anything else. I had been fascinated by history long before I made the stunning realization that Little House on the Prairie preceded The Waltons chronologically. (I think I was about 6.) History is everything. It is all of us and, when well done, is something that each of us can relate to. Those who came before us were like us. Sometimes I think we lose sight of that.
I’m very grateful to have studied what I love, worked what I love, and now write about what I love.
Why UMaine for your undergraduate work?
I knew the University of Maine had a solid history department. I didn’t realize just how solid until I was a student. I was alternately awed and challenged all four years. I was always impressed by how my professors — Howard Segal, Jerome Nadelhaft, Alex Grab and Ngo Vin Long — took an interest in me and encouraged me.
Were you involved in research or scholarship as an undergrad? Or was there a faculty member with whom you worked closely?
I was privileged my senior year to work part-time for Professor Howard Segal. At the time, he was writing on Lewis Mumford, a pioneer in the field of history of technology. I learned a great deal from Professor Segal about how to research, synthesize and write. We have kept in touch ever since.
When you were at UMaine, what was your favorite place on campus?
I liked sitting under the trees around Stevens or sitting in the warm sun on the south side of the library with a bunch of friends.
Most memorable UMaine moment?
When I was a freshman I returned from class one day to find a note from a friend that something terrible had happened and to come to her room immediately. She was an immigrant from Iran, so naturally I imagined horrible things had happened to her family. When I found her, she told me about the explosion of the Challenger. Of course the accident was a terrible tragedy for our country, but I was touched by how she was so personally affected by the disaster. She might not have been born here, but this was now her country and she now shared every achievement and loss
While in Orono, I spent too much time:
Like everyone else, I spent too much time at Pat’s Pizza.
Favorite professor (and why)?
I have two. Howard Segal was an inspiration and a mentor to me. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Jerome Nadelhaft who challenged me to think broadly and constantly challenge myself.
Classes that nearly did you in?
Calculus and Physics were the bane of my existence. I studied so hard, but couldn’t wrap my mind around the most basic of concepts. I only scraped by with passing grades due to the patience of my instructors.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have …
Taken more risks. It is only now that I’ve safely reached adulthood that I have discovered the value in trying new things, seeking out people with vastly different opinions or lifestyles, opened myself up to the world more. But, I’m grateful to have learned the value of it at any age.
How does UMaine continue to influence your life?
The University of Maine gave me a firm foundation in learning and life. The university taught me so much — in and outside the classroom. I am grateful to have learned the value of knowledge, persistence and friendship.
Best advice to humanities students?
Be adventurous. Try new things. Seek out new people. Go places. Ask questions. Although you’ve been in school for many years, this is only the beginning of your education. Be open to everything. You never know what new world might open up to you.
If not an historian and a writer, what would you be?
I’ve always admired artists, musicians, actors and dancers for their ability to transcend the limitations of the everyday. But I’m afraid I have no natural abilities in those areas. Maybe I could write about them. That would be almost as good.
Image Description: Michele Albion