Norman H. Finkelstein is an educator, editor, librarian and writer. For nearly 30 years he has been an instructor in the Prozdor High School Department of Hebrew College in Boston where he continues to teach courses in Jewish history.
Recently retired as a public school librarian, Norman is the author of 18 nonfiction books. Two of his titles, Heeding the Call and Forged in Freedom, both published by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), were winners of the National Jewish Book Award. His biography of Edward R. Murrow, With Heroic Truth (Clarion) received the Golden Kite Honor Award for Nonfiction. His recent titles include The JPS Guide to American Jewish History, (Jewish Publication Society), Plastics (Marshall Cavendish), Ariel Sharon (Lerner), and Three Across: The Great Transatlantic Air Race of 1927 (Calkins Creek). His latest book is Jewish Comedy Stars: Classic to Cutting Edge (Kar-Ben Publishing). He also was the editor of the Jewish Publication Society’s series, The JPS Guides.
He holds B.S, Ed.M, and C.A.G.S degrees from Boston University and B.J.Ed. and M.A. degrees from Hebrew College which honored him with the Louis Hillson Memorial Prize for Excellence in Jewish Education. For nine summers he was a teacher and educational director at Hebrew College’s Camp Yavneh. He is a member of the Authors Guild, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and the Association of Jewish Libraries.
Norm set time aside from his busy schedule to answer a few questions about writing Jewish children’s books for The Whole Megillah.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Why nonfiction? What’s the attraction?
Norman H. Finkelstein (NHF): I’ve always been a nonfiction person and a news junkie. As a kid, all I read–except for assigned fiction–was history and biography. I was the only sixth grader who regularly read The New York Times. At home today, there’s a radio in my bathroom set to the BBC. To me, there is nothing more exciting than reality.
TWM: Do you go after ideas or do ideas come to you?
NHF: Most of my books sprang out of the eclectic bits of trivia floating around my brain. A good detective could even follow a trail as one book sometimes leads me directly to a new topic. One of my earliest books was a biography of Theodor Herzl which led to a book on the Dreyfus Affair. A book on the Golden Age of Radio led to two books, a biography of Edward R. Murrow (winner of the Golden Kite Honor Book Award for Nonfiction) and my newest one on Jewish comedians.
TWM: How many books have you written? Do you have a favorite? Why?
NHF: With the publication of The Man Who Built Schools: Julius Rosenwald and the Education of African American Children by Calkins Creek in 2011, there will be 18. To be honest, I sometimes can’t remember how I wrote them all. My first book came out in 1984. As for a favorite, I like to respond with a quote from Jane Yolen who says “My next one!” That’s not so strange. Once a book of mine is published and I’m on to a new project, that one becomes my obsession until I complete it and then my thoughts move to the next project. I am particularly proud of two books that won National Jewish Book Awards, Forged in Freedom and Heeding the Call.
TWM: What three things do you think are most important to writing Jewish content?
NHF: I think anyone who writes books with Jewish content should have a broad understanding of Jewish history, customs, and practices. A writer needs to take into consideration the fact that Jews are diverse in their own self-identification. Finally, a writer of Jewish books, as in all nonfiction writing, needs to be a careful researcher and double-check facts.
TWM: What is the most challenging part of the writing process for you?
NHF: For me, it’s not the research. I love that aspect of writing. It’s sitting down at the computer to actually write that I find challenging. Trying to come up with a good opening sentence for a chapter causes me much grief and I sometimes spend hours staring at the blank screen and trying out words and phrases until something really hits me. It also doesn’t help that as I sit at the computer, I’m also listening to old-time radio shows on internet radio. Distracting? Yes. But oh so much fun. (I digress easily and don’t recommend my writing style to others!)
TWM: Do you belong to a critique group? If not, why not? If yes, what advantages does it bring?
NHF: To paraphrase the late Groucho Marx, “I would never join a group that has me as a member.” To me, writing is a solitary experience. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love people, especially fellow writers, but am still shy about sharing my writing while it is in process. My first-line editor is my wife, Roz, and she doesn’t get to see my work until it is in a completed first draft. (Then, she does not hold back her constructive criticism.)
TWM: Do you have any favorite sources for writing Jewish content?
NHF: Fortunately, I teach at Hebrew College in Boston which has a wonderful Judaic library and access to Jewish databases on line. I would say that books are my first-line sources for information. Back in the day I remember needing to travel to archives and far-flung libraries. Today, I sit at home in my bunny slippers and let my fingers do the walking. The access to information on the web is beyond my imagination. I like using My Jewish Learning for overviews. I’ve also found that access to old Jewish newspapers through the Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project at Carnegie Mellon University is helpful in getting a contemporary picture of early twentieth-century Jewish life in America.
TWM: I’ve heard it said that librarians are truly the writer’s best friends. Care to comment on that?
NHF: I fully agree with that. And I’m not saying that because I am a retired public school librarian. I have always found librarians and archivists to be the most helpful, selfless people I deal with when I’m working on a book. They’ve gone out of their way to provide materials and suggestions for other sources of information I haven’t even thought of. I hope they are around forever and not replaced by robotic computer servers.
TWM: Have you ever had to kill a project? Why?
NHF: No, but I came close once. I was doing a biography of General Douglas MacArthur when my editor at the time argued that the book contained too much detail about war. I told her that’s what the general did for a living, but she would not be assuaged. That book would have come to an early end if she had not been replaced.
TWM: How do you promote your books? Any marketing tips for our readers?
NHF: I have found being part of the Jewish Book Network is very helpful. The speaking gigs, especially during Jewish Book Month season, sells books. I also like self-promotion since most publishers don’t have the ability or time to spend on promoting the kind of books I write. Sometimes a publisher will produce postcards or bookmarks. Other times, I will create my own with their help and distribute to bookstores, reviewers, etc.
TWM: What other advice do you have for writers of Jewish-themed content?
NHF: Keep abreast of what is being published and where the needs are for new books. One great new resource coming in October is Linda Silver’s Best Jewish Books for Children and Teens (part of the JPS Guides series which I edited). When people ask me what I do, I tell them that I fill holes–holes in kids’ knowledge of history.
TWM: How do you keep yourself motivated?
NHF: By thinking of, or rather imagining, the information I want kids to have but is missing from their Jewish repertoire. Remember, that’s what I do–fill holes. For years, I’ve toyed with the idea of a book for kids about my favorite people, Jewish gangsters. I’ve taught a popular course on the subject to Jewish high schoolers, to the chagrin of many parents. Yet to me, the presence of Jewish gangsters in the 1920s and 1930s demonstrates that in America a Jewish kid could succeed anywhere. So far, no publishers have agreed.
Hard to know which I like better – Norm or his work – both excellent! Thank you, Barbara.
What a wonderful interview. Norm is a great writer and his topics are so interesting. I am looking forward to seeing the book about Julius Rosenwald.