Earlier this year, Charlesbridge published a great new biography of Leonard Bernstein, written by Susan Goldman Rubin. The Whole Megillah got Susan and Charlesbridge senior editor Emily Mitchell together to talk about this great book (which I couldn’t put down) and its process.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Susan, let’s start with you. What attracted you to the Leonard Bernstein story?
Susan Goldman Rubin (SGR): For years I have loved the music of Leonard Bernstein, the renowned composer, conductor, pianist, and teacher. Yet, throughout his childhood and teen years he fought with his father over his passionate desire to become a musician. Sam Bernstein wanted his son to have a secure life and go in the family business, The Bernstein Hair Company, or as second best, become a rabbi. This conflict seemed to me a universal story of a young person striving to pursue a dream in defiance of a parent’s wishes. I also wanted to introduce young readers to the great pleasure of hearing Leonard Bernstein’s music through reading the story of his struggle to achieve his goal.
TWM: Emily, what attracted you to the Leonard Bernstein story?
Emily Mitchell (EM): I am a musical theatre geek, always have been, so of course I was familiar with Bernstein. I loved the idea of writing about him for young people – he was such an exuberant character himself, with a compelling rags-to-riches story, and he had a great fondness and respect for children himself. Plus, we had a wealth of archival material to draw from, both through the Library of Congress and the Leonard Bernstein Office. I knew we’d be able to make a fantastic book.
TWM: Who chose the title?
SGR: After many tries, I suggested the final title with input from my wonderful editor, Emily Mitchell. I kept looking for a quote from Bernstein that expressed his love of music. But I also wanted to indicate that this biography would be about his early years.
TWM: What is the greatest satisfaction you’ve had in writing biography? The greatest challenge?
SGR: The greatest satisfaction I’ve had in writing biography is doing primary research and discovering new or little known stories about my subject. For instance, I had no idea that Lenny battled with his dad over his desire to have a career in music despite the exceptional talent he showed as soon as he touched that first piano. The greatest challenge is bringing the subject of a biography to life in a fresh, entertaining manner through anecdotes, quotations, and visual materials.
TWM: Can you say a few words about your photo research? Have permissions ever been an issue?
SGR: I could write a book about photo research! Thank you for asking this question. I began by contacting the Leonard Bernstein Office in New York City and asking for its cooperation. In fact, I went there in person to introduce myself before I had a contract to do the book. With their help I gained access to archival photos, letters, and music manuscripts in the Music Division of the Library of Congress. When I met and interviewed Bernstein’s children, Jamie and Alexander, they referred me to a remarkable seminar, “Leonard Bernstein: Boston to Broadway,” that had been researched and presented at Harvard University, his alma mater. I followed up and went to Harvard to view the exhibit and study the students’ website containing documents I had never seen before and wanted to reproduce in Music Was IT. Permissions are usually a nightmare because the fees charged exceed the limits of a children’s book budget. I was extremely lucky to have the support of the Leonard Bernstein Office and family who granted me permission gratis. Many of the people I quoted generously waived any fees. However, in a couple of instances, I had to curtail the number of my quotes to fit our budget.
TWM: Do photo permissions come out of the author’s advance?
EM: It depends. In some cases the author will receive a larger advance with the expectation that part of it will be used to obtain permissions; in other cases the permissions budget is separate from the author’s advance. We also determine on a book-by-book basis whether the author will be responsible for contacting rights holders and obtaining permissions, or whether the editor will do it (or some combination of the two). At Charlesbridge we don’t have a separate photo research department, so it usually falls on the editor to coordinate the permission process, whether or not she’s actually in touch with the rights holders herself.
TWM: How important is it to have your manuscript vetted by a subject matter expert? Are they hard to find?
SGR: It is very important to have a manuscript vetted by a subject matter expert. Often mistakes are repeated from publication to publication, especially on the internet. In this case I had many people to help me starting with my editor, Emily Mitchell, who had studied music at Harvard. I also had the assistance of Craig Urquhart, vice president, public relations and promotion at the Leonard Bernstein Office. Mr. Urquhart had worked with Bernstein and read the final manuscript for accuracy. Bernstein’s daughter Jamie also read the final text before graciously writing a foreword to the book. And people I quoted read portions of the text containing their words to correct any mistakes. I don’t think it’s hard to find experts by the time the research has been completed and the manuscript is ready to be printed.
TWM: Susan, what is your process for writing biography?
SGR: My process of writing biography is to choose a subject that greatly excites me, usually someone in the arts. I have to believe that this person will be of interest to young readers because of his or her work. Then I look to see if there are other children’s books on the subject, and if so, how will mine be different and add something new. As preliminary research I read everything I can get my hands on about the subject. Sometimes before presenting a proposal to a publisher, I get permission to do the book from the estate. This is what happened for the Bernstein book. Then, after finding the right shape for the biography, the arc of the story, I try to go to contract with an editor who feels just as excited about the project as I do.
Research begins with books and articles written for adults as well as children, then archival materials, unpublished interviews, and my own interviews in person, by email and letter, and on the phone. Of course, for this book I had the enormous pleasure of listening all over again to recordings of Bernstein conducting his own compositions and works by other composers, and watching DVDs of his televised series of Young People’s Concerts. At a certain point it’s time to start writing chapters, one by one. I belong to a marvelous critique group. We meet once a week and bring our work in to be read aloud and discussed. My friends let me know if the writing is engaging, clear and age appropriate. When the first draft is finished I send it to my agent, George Nicholson, for his comments, then on to my editor. Along the way I consider visuals I want to include.
TWM: How long did it take you to research Leonard Bernstein? Was there any finding that thrilled you? What was the greatest challenge in writing the book?
SGR: It took me about six years to complete Music Was IT. The research continued as I did many revisions of the first draft. There were so many findings that thrilled and amused me. I learned that as a boy Lenny banged the piano loudly late into the night and drove his father crazy. When his father wouldn’t pay for piano lessons, Lenny taught other kids to earn the money himself. I talked to one of those “kids,” Sid Ramin, who went on to study music at the New England Conservatory, then Columbia University, and eventually worked with Lenny as orchestrator of “West Side Story.” The best finding of all was the comment Sam Bernstein made to reporters after Lenny’s spectacular debut at age 25 conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. When asked why he had ever objected to his son becoming a musician, Sam replied, “How could I know my son was going to grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?”
TWM: That is my all-time favorite quote in the book!
SGR: The greatest challenge in writing the book was to convey the sound of Bernstein’s music. How could readers understand the thrill of hearing Lenny conduct the overture to his opera “Candide,” or feel the emotions aroused by his moving performance of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue?” The only solution was to provide a selected discography partly based on my own collection of CDs, and a list of videos showing Lenny perform live.
TWM: What are the greatest challenges in editing and publishing biography?
EM: From a practical standpoint, it’s tricky to find the right subject who is both recognizable to kids and yet not already done to death. And once you’ve found that person, the challenge is to tell his or her story in a way that’s engaging and relevant to young readers. There were so many ways Bernstein’s story could have been told: his life as a conductor, his life as a composer, an exploration of one or more of his most famous works, his personal life, etc.
Susan chose to focus on his childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood – what shaped him into the man he became. That’s a popular choice in biographies for kids – the old “Childhood of Famous Americans” model – but it also has risks, since some people’s childhoods just weren’t that interesting. With Bernstein, however, we were lucky enough that his childhood was fascinating: his troubled relationship with his father, his devotion to music from the earliest ages, his grand and romantic friendships, his experiences with discrimination as a Jew in the early twentieth century – the narrative threads just went on and on.
Thinking about biography more broadly again, there’s also a challenge, especially when writing for young readers, to figure out how much to tell about a given subject. Do you go for the full “warts and all” approach, or do you focus only on the positive aspects of your subject? Are you trying to make your subject a hero to your readers, or do you have a more journalistic interest in telling the full story of a person, even the unpleasant or controversial parts?
With Bernstein, the only potentially controversial issue we ran into was his sex life. Bernstein was a somewhat notorious flirt, known to have had many love affairs with women and men, and there seemed to be a lot of open secrets within the musical world about his personal life. Since Susan’s story was primarily about his childhood and adolescence, the details of his adult romantic life were not necessary to tell the story. We felt it would be a disservice to readers, however, not to acknowledge his bisexuality, so Susan included a line in the back matter that simply but clearly explained that aspect of his life.
TWM: What kind of fact-checking process do you use at Charlesbridge?
EM: We use a combination of fact-checkers and expert readers, depending on the subject matter. Most of our nonfiction books are fact-checked in-house, while some go to outside fact-checkers. For books whose subjects are particularly complex, or where the information is newly discovered, we typically find experts in that field (professors, museum curators, scientific researchers, etc.) to review the manuscript and sketches for accuracy and up-to-date information.
TWM: What was the greatest challenge and the greatest satisfaction in editing and publishing Music Was IT?
EM: The greatest challenge was obtaining all the photo and text permissions. All the rights holders we worked with were wonderful, but it did take a lot of time and resources to make sure we contacted everyone we needed to contact. The second greatest challenge was compiling the back matter – especially the multiple pages of quotation sources! Poor Susan got the brunt of that work. The greatest satisfaction, of course, was seeing the finished product, and hearing from readers and reviewers how much they loved Lenny’s story.
TWM: How important was Jewish identity to the throughline of the book?
SGR: Another finding that amazed me was the impact of Judaism on Lenny’s life and music. This theme repeated throughout the book. Because his father, Sam, was a deeply religious man, the family joined Temple Mishkan Tefila and went to services on Friday nights, the big music night. Lenny later said that the “first real music he heard” was at synagogue. At the height of his career he sent a letter to the organist and choir master, Solomon Braslavsky, and wrote, “I never forget the tremendous influence you and your music made on me when I was a youngster.”
At age 14 Lenny went to his first public concert with his father. They heard the Boston Pops perform Ravel’s “Bolero.” Lenny went nuts over the piece, and even Sam loved it because it reminded him of Hebrew chants. So “Bolero” briefly connected them. Years later, Lenny composed a piece called “Hebrew Song” and expanded it into “Jeremiah” (Symphony no. 1) and dedicated the work to his father.
EM: For Lenny, his Jewish identity was bound up in his relationship with his father, and it’s that relationship that formed the throughline of Susan’s story. Sam Bernstein never wanted his son to be a musician, but it’s all Lenny ever wanted – and by rejecting his father’s plan for his life, Lenny risked rejecting his whole identity. I found it touching that Lenny and Sam remained close despite their differences, and that many of Lenny’s compositions were either informed by or reflective of his upbringing in the synagogue. His use of chant, of klezmer harmonies and rhythms – Bernstein used his Jewish identity as a muse, I think, throughout his life. He was also conscious of what his Jewish identity meant to his peers within the musical world. He lived under the quota system at Harvard in the 1930s, and was advised early in his career to change his name to the less “ethnic” sounding Leonard S. Burns – but he refused. He never hid or apologized for being Jewish, and he set an example for other Jewish musicians to follow.
TWM: What advice would you have for aspiring biographers?
SGR: My advice to aspiring biographers is to write from the heart. Choose a subject you care deeply about even if it’s someone not well known. Ask yourself why you want to present this person to young readers. Why is the subject important and relevant? What’s the story? Find the narrative arc of that person’s life either from birth to death, or a particular period that reveals character and predicts future achievement. Immerse yourself in the subject. Do as much primary research as possible to come up with a fresh angle. Most of all, read, read, read well-written biographies for all ages.
This book sounds fascinating, and the interview really explores the challenges for the author of biography. How cool to find an editor who is as thrilled with the subject, and also I learned about the importance of fact checking. I would think Susan enjoyed working with a publishing house that took facts seriously, as part of the authenticity of the final product. Sheila Lewis
This was a fabulous interview and certainly shows us the intense labor of love it is to write such a biography. I can’t wait to read it! Thanks so much for sharing this.
Glad you liked it!
Fabulous “Megillah.” This is a big-time interview in all of its aspects (the subject, the genre, the writer-editor relationship and for writers a veritable encyclopedia of the writing process, accessing sources, obtaining rights, legwork, even a bit of “mazel.” Thanks!
Pnina Moed Kass
Thank you, Pnina!
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