It’s Meet the Author Monday! Each week we get to meet a new author and get to know a little about them, their writing process, publishing experience, and tips for other writers. Today we’re talking to Donald G. James, author of Manners Will Take You Where Brains and Money Won’t.
About Donald G. James:
Donald G. James is a husband, parent, brother, friend, and mentor who enjoys reading, traveling, and using his experiences to inspire the next generation.
Donald developed an early interest in aviation and international affairs due to his frequent travels with his parents to Africa, Southeast Asia, and Europe. In grade school he learned about the planned supersonic transport (SST) and the new jumbo aircraft, the 747. The idea that you could fly faster than the speed of sound or in an airplane as gigantic as the 747 captivated him. Both Donald and his brother Dennis wanted to pursue aviation careers. Dennis is now a Captain with American Airlines.
The experience of living in developing countries and a desire to solve problems of destitution inspired Donald to pursue International Relations and Economic Development academically, though he never lost his interest in aerospace. While considering employment options after graduate school, Donald applied to and was accepted into the Presidential Management Intern program. He was recruited and hired by NASA, beginning at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in 1982. He returned to California, transferring to NASA’s Ames Research Center in 1984.
Donald decided to make a career at NASA after the tragic Challenger accident in 1986. The loss of teacher Christa McAuliffe and the tremendous outpouring for the nation’s first educator astronaut persuaded Donald that NASA was one agency that could inspire generations to be the next explorers. Donald loves being around smart people doing cool science, building better and faster planes, and engineering spacecraft that explored low earth orbit and the cosmos. For Donald, working at the Agency that led America and the world to human exploration of the moon is an honor and a privilege.
Career highlights include: serving as Ames’ Education Director from 1999 to 2006; co-leading Ames’ first open house attracting a record-breaking quarter of a million visitors in one day (1997); serving as project manager for NASA’s successful bid to host the International Space University’s 2009 Summer Session Program; being accepted to the Senior Executive Service. Of all the amazing experiences Donald had, he counts one as the most gratifying: a young graduate student told Donald after a talk he gave that she was inspired to go into engineering when Donald visited her 7th grade class a decade earlier.
In August of 2014, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden selected Donald to serve as the Agency’s Associate Administrator for Education. Donald retired after 35 years—all with NASA—on March 31, 2017.
Donald holds a BA in International Relations from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He received a graduate Fellowship from the National Science Foundation and completed an MA in International Economic Development from the American University in Washington, D.C. Donald also studied economics at Cambridge University, England in 1975 and attended Harvard’s Senior Executive Fellows program in 2004.
Donald enjoys speaking to groups, especially young people interested in aerospace careers. Currently, Donald consults to companies interested in doing business with NASA and serves as the Education Director for the non-profit Hines Family Foundation. His first book, Manners Will Take You Where Brains and Money Won’t: Wisdom from Momma and 35 years at NASA is due early 2021.
Donald lives with his wife Tanya in Pleasanton, California. They have two children.
Author Interview with Donald G. James:
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- Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Writing is like going to the gym. I am energized when I am actually writing. Before and after though, I am tired.
- What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Hiring good editors. There’s a special place in Heaven for them.
- What does literary success look like to you?
From a book’s conception, to writing, to editing to publishing is all “wind”. It’s not visible. Literary success for me is when the wind makes the trees sway, circulates the pollen, and turns the wind turbines. This is where the wind is visible, in its impact. Literary success to me is impact. Did I have a positive impact on my audience? Were they moved like the blades of grass on a wind-swept hill?
- What inspired you to start writing?
Since I didn’t consider myself a “writer”, for me to actually start writing took some inspiration. That inspiration came from three sources: First, soon after I retired I was speaking to a group of students. One student during the Q & A asked me what I would advise my 25-year old self if I could go back in time and knowing what I know now. Among other things, I said emphatically that I would advise young Donald to work on his manners. The seeds for me book were planted that day. The next defining moment came when, a month after that talk, my mother unexpectedly died. I loved my mother dearly and this was a difficult time for me. In clearing out her house to sell, my brother and I came across a piece of paper titled “Muriel’s Eight Cardinal Rules of Life.” I called them “Momma’s Rules” and felt called to use them to write a longer answer to that student’s question. The third source of inspiration came from my next-door neighbor. One warm Fall day we were outside chatting and I started sharing some things I have been thinking about – things that would become some of the pillars of the book. I got more and more animated in our talk, when he stopped me and said “you REALLY should write a book about this.” It was THAT assertion that flipped an internal the switch where I went from “thinking” about writing a book to actually writing a book.
- What time of the day do you usually write?
I write best in the morning; but as a first-time author I noticed some quirks that I had to address. My inspiration for ideas to write about came at odd times any time of the day. I had to keep a notebook close by, or my smartphone to capture a thought. I like to use Microsoft’s One Note. It can be on my phone, iPad or desktop and syncs automatically. I always had one handy.
- Are you on social media and can your readers interact with you?
Facebook and LinkedIn; Anyone can reach me via my website: www.donaldgregoryjames.com.
- Writing can be an emotionally draining and stressful pursuit. Any tips for aspiring writers?
One of the best pieces of advice I received had to do with my imminent retirement and it turns out it was useful for this first-time author. A colleague shared with me that you need three things to have a successful retirement: 1) purpose 2) structure 3) social life. Best advice ever. Turns out that same advice helped me write my first book, especially #2: structure. I read, while surfing online for advice for first-time writers, that having structure and a routine helps with efficiency. Since I was retired it was especially important for me to maintain a to-do list (prioritized) and a calendar, as if I was at work (because I was working). I made sure I scheduled breaks and I gave myself permission to renegotiate my agreement with myself on any aspects of writing. The key was that there always had to be a new agreement. I would declare one moment that I would change my mind and just not write today. I had to also declare what the new plan was. Of course, I had to keep my word to myself. I found being a first-time writer is like going to the doctor’s office and they tell you to undress before the doctor comes in. You’re naked and other people are going to see you. You’re just waiting for the judgment. Writing was like that for me. I learned to welcome criticism from my brother, my casual early readers, my formal beta reviewers and my editors. I learned to always ask any reader how I can make the writing better.
- Is there lots to do before you dive in and start writing the story?
My work is non-fiction but I think what I am about to say will apply. I wish I had done one thing before I started writing in earnest and that was to create a mind map for the contours of the book and then return to the map to fill in details, show linkages, etc. I did a crude outline (basically what I thought my table of contents would be), but a mind map would have saved me headaches later. Let me give an example, something that was so fundamental that it could have doomed the book. I tell a lot of stories in my book to illustrate a point or brighten a message. I often would refer back to a story to strengthen the weave of wisdom. When the book was complete, proofread, and formatted for publication – camera ready – I was asked to review the PDF. It was formatted ready to go. It was during this review that I made tweaks to things like where the page numbers should go and what information should be at top of each page, etc. As I read through the manuscript, now what seemed like the 100t time, I came upon a reference to one of my favorite stories. I realized, all of a sudden, that I didn’t remember which chapter I put the story. So I did a search by keyword and to my horror, the story was nowhere to be found. I concluded that somewhere in the editing process I must have decided to delete that story. The problem was that I didn’t delete past and future references to that story. The poor reader would have come across a reference to Farmer Brown and wondered “who the hell is Farmer Brown?” Had I constructed a mind map that would have identified the stories and all of the references to them, I would have known to eliminate all vestiges of a now excised story. The lesson is that as much as know my content, I don’t remember where everything is so I needed a map.
- Do you listen to audiobooks? If so, are there any you’d recommend?
Listening to audiobooks more and more. Currently listening to Obama’s book. I also listened to Michelle Obama’s book. Both are quite good.
- What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a pilot and I wanted to work on the design of the supersonic transport. None of those things happened, so I encourage students to consider that their path forward may take some interesting twists and turns. Learn to embrace that.
- Your hero?
My Dad. My Dad was born an orphan in Jim Crow America. As a poor Black kid in Philadelphia, pre-civil rights, the deck was clearly stacked against him. But my dad had an attitude that said, “the rules don’t apply to me.,” He was eventually adopted and reared by a strong-willed Aunt. My Dad went on to attend college at Middlebury then to law school at Yale becoming one of the few Blacks to graduate from an Ivy league law school then. My Dad practiced law in California, became an assistant attorney general for the State and eventually left law to take a leadership position in the Peace Corps. His winding road in foreign service eventually led him to be named US Ambassador to Niger by President Gerald Ford. So in spite of my Dad’s many flaws and shortcomings, he is my hero because of the distance he travelled from an orphan to Ambassador while facing significant racial, economic, and social headwinds, especially in the early years.
- Share something your readers wouldn’t know about you.
Ronald Reagan taught me how to do a flip off a diving board.
- If you could cure a disease, what would it be?
- What’s your favorite spot to visit in your own country? And what makes it so special to you?
Just about any shore in Hawaii at sunset. That is as close to Heaven as I can imagine.