Five questions for Claudia Mills

Philosophy professor, CU-Boulder
Claudia Mills

Claudia Mills

A voracious appetite for books turned the pages toward a career for University of Colorado at Boulder professor Claudia Mills. As a child reading novels, she found she was less interested in what happened in the story than in what it was all about, why the author thought a particular series of events was worth recording, and what central truth about life was going to be laid bare in the course of the narrative.

So she studied philosophy, a discipline that explores central truths about life. She spent 10 years as an editor and staff writer for the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland before coming to CU in 1993. She found the Boulder campus' Center for Values and Social Policy intriguing and knew it would allow her to continue writing and researching about philosophical issues that arise in public policy and everyday life. She teaches four courses a year for the philosophy department on ethics and social and political philosophy.

Much is written about issues of national and international policy, such as immigration and poverty, she says, but less is available on ethical issues that arise in the course of ordinary lives. She's focused on those concerns, including ethicalissues surrounding parenthood, friendship, goodness and obedience. She also has written 43 children's books.

— Cynthia Pasquale

1. I love the title of one of your papers: "Bragging, Boasting and Crowing: The Ethics of Sharing One's Glad Tidings With Others." This is a time of year when folks might include letters of the year's "glad tidings" in holiday cards. Of course, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, we know of other people's achievements right away. How do you feel about these forms of communication?

Whenever something bothers me in my own personal life, I like to try to think it through philosophically. And I've always had my buttons pushed by other people's bragginess, especially (and this ties into my interest in parenting ethics), other people's bragginess about the allegedly great accomplishments of their kids. Then I thought, well, it's strange that I react this way – if these people are truly my friends, why aren't I glad that they are sharing their good news with me? Why isn't my failure to feel this way a sign of a moral deficiency in me rather than a moral deficiency in them?

I guess I have mixed feelings about holiday letters, Twitter and Facebook. I welcome all of this sharing of glad tidings more when people share bad tidings as well, when people present to each other an honest, "real" assessment of their lives. I've written some essays on the ethics of authorship, particularly focusing on the ethics of using stories about real people (suitably changed) in our work. I think it's a gift we give each other when we share real stories, which give all of us insight into how we can live our own lives better, and which make us feel less alone. But a mere recital of accomplishments doesn't do that at all. That said, I do adore Facebook!

2. You have written many children's books. What role do you feel a book should play in a child's life and do you have a favorite that you've penned?

Book No. 43 just came out this past fall: "One Square Inch," a middle-grade novel about two children who create an imagined fantasy world to escape from their mother's bipolar disorder. I think there are many roles books can play in a child's life. Certainly pure entertainment is wonderful! Overly earnest efforts to teach a lesson tend to be dreadful. But in my own books, I do like to share, through the medium of story, some small truth that helps my child character, and perhaps my child reader, take one tiny step toward growing up.

Our books feel like our children so it's wrong to have a favorite! (I've actually written a philosophy essay on whether and why it is wrong for parents to play favorites!) Some of my books are my favorites because they were harder for me to write; some are my favorites because they've gotten the best reviews or sold the most copies; and some are my favorites because I just finished writing them.

I just finished the sequel to my third-grade chapter book, "7 x 9 = Trouble!," which is about a third-grade boy who is struggling with times tables. The sequel is "Fractions = Trouble!," in which poor Wilson now has to tackle fractions.

3. I always assume that authors are always reading. What do you read and can you recommend a few books?

I do read a lot. I love classic novels: Last summer I read George Eliot's "Middlemarch" for the first time, writing down in my little notebook some of its brilliant insights into our human struggle to be good. I also read a lot of children's books. I thought last year's Newbery Medal winner, "When You Reach Me" by Rebecca Stead, was the best Newbery winner in well over a decade. And I have to confess that I spend a lot of time re-reading classic children's books that I loved as a child. My favorite book in the whole world, bar none, is "Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown" by Maud Hart Lovelace. I consider it to be the finest novel in the English language.

4. What would you consider the hardest thing about writing a book and do you have a special place where you write?

The hardest thing about writing a book, by far, is learning to accept and welcome criticism. I am a member of a writing group and they critique my manuscripts on a biweekly basis. My editor always sends a book back for further extensive rounds of revision. I adore the revision process itself – I think all writers do – but I still hate that moment when someone tells me that he or she doesn't completely love my book just the way it is.

I write on my couch, in the early morning, using a clipboard, a pad of white-lined paper (narrow ruled), and my favorite Pilot Razor Point fine-tipped black marker pen, while drinking a mug of Swiss Miss hot chocolate. I have written all my books between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., all long-hand, and all while drinking my special writing beverage.

5. How do you like to spend time away from the university?

In my life, I have what I call my four pillars of happiness: writing, reading, walking, and spending time with friends. A good day is a day that has any of those things in it. A great day is one that has all of them.