On the 90-minute commute from Cheney to Pullman to attend graduate school, Laurie Carlson’s eyes often strayed from the road to the cows grazing the rolling hills of the Palouse.
Carlson, who was completing her Ph.D. in history at Washington State University, found herself wondering what the animals were eating, how they were fed, and what their days were like.
To answer her questions, she decided to raise them.
Her interest in the animals also inspired her to write Cattle: An Informal Social History, looking at the symbiotic roles of cattle and humans.
It’s often like that. She recently published a children’s book about Thomas Edison, a notion that came from a visit to her eight-year-old grandson’s elementary class. The result is a biography of Edison filled with activities and experiments for kids to try.
As a child, Carlson mailed stories to magazines. As an adult, before she dared to do her first book, she attended a romance writer’s conference just to be around the other writers.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Carlson says. “I thought I could write romance. I thought I could write fiction.” Instead, she realized that to be a writer she needed to go with her strengths, teaching and history.
After several years of teaching first grade, her creative drive led her to write her first children’s book, Kids Create, still her best seller. Encouraged by her success in the children’s genre, Carlson wanted to expand her audience. But “I was scared to write for adults,” Carlson says. “I didn’t feel I had enough education.”
Her fear pushed her into completing a master’s degree in history from Eastern Washington University in 1998. Once that was done, it just made sense to go after a Ph.D. in history.
By the time she got to WSU, Carlson was a confident grad student, says associate professor of history David Coon. She was more accomplished in her professional career than most doctoral students, having been a published author for many years. Her dissertation was about WSU’s first agriculture scientist, William Jasper Spillman, a suggestion from Coon. In 2005 her research yielded William J. Spillman and the Birth of Agricultural Economics.
“She is relentless in her pursuit of information,” Coon says. “She’s fearless in the sense that nothing dissuades her from writing a book about a subject.”
Carlson has written 20 books so far-ranging in topics of the Whitman Mission to the history of the sewing machine—and has garnered reviews from the likes of Atlantic Monthly and New Yorker.
Carlson’s kitchen table is covered with magazines and yellow pads scribbled with notes, some of which may make it into Carlson’s next book, which has the working title of The Sunlight Solution: How Indoor Life is Killing Us. The idea was spawned by one of her family showing the symptoms of rickets, which is caused by vitamin D deficiency.
Her creative drive and love for the environment and good food led to her start a magazine, Field and Feast, in 2005. She is the editor, photographer, and designer of the quarterly publication focusing on food and how it gets from farm to table.
Carlson fills her days cultivating her interests, whether raising chickens for organic eggs—another idea inspired by simple curiosity—researching her next book, or planning to relocate her farm to the Willamette Valley. Carlson will keep adding to that list, because once something interests her, it’s hard to keep her from pursuing it.