With three advanced degrees between them, Amy Hackney Blackwell and Christopher Blackwell are anything but dummies--they just write for them.
The Greenville, South Carolina, couple two years ago churned out Mythology for Dummies in about four months to provide a basic overview of the role myths have played through the centuries in explaining life. The 384-page book focuses on Greek and Roman gods and heroes but also covers myths of Native Americans and peoples of Scandinavia and Asia. It has sold so well that it has been translated into Spanish and Dutch and will soon be available in German and Russian editions.
"We didn't want this to be goofy stories about cultures that didn't have meteorology," says Chris Blackwell, an associate professor who chairs the classics department at Furman University. "We wanted stories to teach something about people, to show that myths can exist alongside of rational explanations."
He was offered the assignment in 2001 after a colleague declined an offer by Hungry Minds Inc. to write a Latin entry in the publisher's "Dummies" series of books. Blackwell says, initially, he wasn't interested because of his hefty teaching load, but his wife was looking for freelance-writing assignments after having given birth to the couple's second child that spring. And so, they took on the assignment as a team.
"I don't know anyone who knows all mythology, so we did it with an eye toward what we already know," says Amy Blackwell, who had learned about Japanese myths during a two-year stint teaching English there after leaving Duke. She also holds a master's in history from Vanderbilt University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.
After putting the children to bed each night, the Blackwells would stay up until midnight doing research and putting together one chapter after another. "Amy's job was to rein me in, because I would write so many pages on Homer or some other topic," says Chris Blackwell, whose doctorate is in classical studies. "We tried to keep it close to our research sources while making it easy to read and understand."
Still, the authors sheepishly admit that a few errors made it through the editing process and into print. "That's to be expected when you write a book in four months, but that doesn't diminish the value of the scholarly research that went into it," Amy Blackwell says.
The book has made the couple minor celebrities on Australian talk radio, where they are routinely invited to speak on late-night call-in shows; it's midday in South Carolina when they answer questions from curious Aussies about religion and mythology.
The book has also boosted Amy Blackwell's career by helping her retain an agent and land other writing jobs. She has since published a book on Irish history and now is putting her law degree to work by writing a law dictionary for the Barnes & Noble bookstore chain.
Chris Blackwell, who earned his bachelor's at Marlboro College, says that being associated with a "Dummies" book hasn't hurt his professional standing, either, noting that he was promoted and granted tenure shortly after the book was published. "The colleagues whose opinions I care about all thought it was a hoot," he says, adding that he asks his faculty critics how many books they have published in five languages.
"It's the responsibility of scholars not only to advance knowledge but to make it relevant to the general public," he says. "We need to get people interested in our fields, or no one is going to care about what we do anymore."
Amy Hackney Blackwell '91 and Christopher Blackwell Ph.D. '95
No dummies on myths
August 1, 2004