From the African plains to the bottom of the ocean, this writer’s life has taken her a long way from her Owensboro roots.
Carol Kaufmann considers herself a southern girl, despite living north of the Ohio River since 1988. A graduate of Daviess County High School, Kaufmann graduated from Indiana University with degrees in journalism and political science. She never dreamed all the places she’d go from there.
After completing a fellowship at CBS news in New York City, Kaufmann decided to move to Washington, D.C., where she began producing TV news shows and earning accolades for the research work she did as a coordinating producer for “America” at PBS, and as an associate producer for “Good Morning America’s” Washington-based bureau.
A majority of the work at both included researching the elements that went into each story, which Kaufmann enjoyed as a political science major. But, after about five years, the travel and time demands caused Kauffman to leave the television industry.
She returned to college, earning her Master’s Degree in Humanities in 2000 from Georgetown University. It was at Georgetown that Kaufmann spotted a flyer for an international magazine looking for a researcher. Unaware of the specific magazine, she applied and became a staff writer for National Geographic. At first, her job was research-based, and she was a fact-checker for articles others had written. But she took the test to be a writer, and began penning articles for the magazine.
Kaufmann said that when she first began, she thought she would enjoy cultural topics — profiles of people and places that were different from the lives of Americans. And she did, but she said what was surprising to her was writing about natural history and the intersection between animals, places and people.
“At the heart of these stories lies the difficult question: We only have so many resources in the world. How are we going to share them?” Kaufmann said.
Her interest in natural history allowed her to research and write about many places without actually seeing them, but she said she has gone on several memorable trips.
“I loved exploring Istanbul, when we did a story profile of this ancient, earthquake-plagued city. I also was able to do some river diving for an archaeology story in Slovenia,” Kaufmann said.
But, Kaufmann said, by far the most memorable trip she took was to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in a submersible called “Alvin.”
“I was on a research cruise with scientists who were exploring and performing experiments on and around hydrothermal sea vents,” Kaufmann said, recommending readers to look them up. “We spent five days cruising south of San Diego to the area above a crack in the earth’s crust, where the vents form. We spent an hour and a half descending a mile and a half to the ocean floor in complete darkness — sunlight doesn’t travel more than a few hundred feet — to land near the vents. When the pilot flicked on the lights, I couldn’t believe what I saw — a beautiful, serene landscape marked by dark chimney-esque towers that shot plumes of black smoke upward into the water. And around this scene was life. Albino crabs, shrimp without eyes, long flowing tubeworms. It was an amazing experience.”
After writing at National Geographic, Kaufmann used her interest in natural history and authored two New York Times best sellers, Safari and Ocean, along with Polar. Each lenticular book, written by Kaufmann and created by Dan Kainen, describes creatures, with interesting information about the animals in their habitats, including vital statistics about the included animals.
For each, Kaufmann said she went “surface level” and wrote in first-person narratives. For Safari, she went on an actual safari in the Masai Mara, Kenya.
“The text tells the story of what a safari is like, as well as raising questions about the precarious nature of the land and all who live upon it. As parts of Africa become more developed, and as populations rise, the animals tend to get crowded out,” Kaufmann said. “Very simply put, this is why rhinos and cheetahs are critically endangered, and even giraffes are threatened. Many of the charismatic animals you see on safari need room to hunt or graze; otherwise they can’t hunt, catch food, and feed their young.”
For Ocean, Kaufmann said she was lucky enough to go to Placencia in southern Belize during the off season. She is a scuba diver, and a native divemaster took her for several days to aid in her research of a healthy coral reef.
“A healthy reef is not only stunning, but provides shelter and sustenance for amazing sea life,” Kaufmann said. “The Meso-American reef — and all reefs, really — are under constant threat from changing climate patterns, ocean acidification, warmer temperatures, and human threats such as the big cruise lines, speed boats, etc. We just don’t give the life in the ocean the respect it deserves. Left alone, it would sustain itself nicely.”
Kaufmann currently writes full-time for several publications, including the Pew Charitable Trust and The Washington Post, where she writes parenting editorials. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times’ Draft column, AARP, Reader’s Digest, and George. And she recently wrote the book, 97 Ways to Make a Cat Like You.
Kaufmann said that one of the hardest things for a writer to do is to not take criticism personally.
“Once you’ve put your hard-won work out there, it’s fair game,” Kaufmann said. “People can criticize, and be rather mean. But as long as you’re not being lambasted for inaccuracies, which are your fault, not the readers’, then you’ve done what you can do. You’ve created an original that, if it’s any good, will have an effect on the reader. Now, that effect may not be positive, but that’s okay. You have to be strong enough to withstand the storm.”
Kaufmann also recommends to write all you can and let no assignment be too small, saying that she used to write reviews for beauty products.
“These days, writers have so much opportunity because the internet is an insatiable beast that demands to be fed — with content! Someone has to write it,” Kaufmann said, also recommending to read all you can, as it provides research for writers.
“But the only way to get better at writing is to do it — and let a really good editor help you,” Kaufmann added.
Kaufmann currently lives in Virginia with her husband and children, outside D.C., and returns to Owensboro twice a year to see family and friends. Facebook has helped her reconnect with college friends, and she enjoys having reunions with friends from all facets of her life.