The Whole Megillah (TWM): Since you had a personal relationship with Leonard Nimoy, were there differences in writing this picture book biography vs. others you’ve written where no personal relationship existed?
Richard Michelson (RM): Every book has its own challenges and difficulties, so while writing about a close friend presented some potential pitfalls. I wasn’t particularly worried, as Leonard and I had discussed his poetry and photography and film/theater work in the past, and I knew he appreciated my honest appraisal—whether or not we disagreed (we rarely did); nor was I worried about “letting him down” or having him interfere with my own creative choices. That said, I was clearly relieved that he seemed so enthusiastic about the text.
When I wrote Tuttles Red Barn: the Story of the Oldest Family Farm in America or Twice As Good: The story of William Powell and Clearview, the only golf course designed, built, and owned by an African-American I had the added pressure of proving to the Tuttle and Powell families that a total stranger who they had never met or heard of, could be trusted with their family histories. With Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King I had the opposite problem of trying to track down a descendant (I never did—still looking). Writing those biographies, I was hoping to shed light on a little known American story.
With As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom the issues were much more similar to Fascinating, as I had to take lives that everyone thought they knew, and find a fresh angle to tell the tale.
TWM: In writing Fascinating, what were the challenges? The satisfactions?
RM: The challenge was overcoming expectations that this would be a “celebrity biography.” I needed to convince parents that there is a real reason to read this book with their young children who, frankly, are not likely to have heard of Nimoy or watched “Star Trek” yet (though they might have seen the figurines).
The satisfaction has been hearing from librarians and other advance copy readers (the book is not yet published as I answer these questions) who say, “I was not a sci-fi fan, or a Trekker, but this is a moving heartfelt biography that imparts real values and will appeal to a wide spectrum of kids.”
I was heartened by Leonard’s continuing challenge to himself to defy expectations, to embrace his acclaim, and yet never allow it to infringe on his other artistic pursuits, both artistic (photography, live theater, poetry) and human (political engagement, advocate for young artists, a deep love of family and friends). He had an intellectual curiosity about all things that inspired me, and that I hope will inspire the readers of this book.
TWM: Why did you decide to write Leonard’s story while he was alive? Why in that moment?
RM: We traveled together on and off for the last dozen years of Leonard’s life, and we had much time to sit over meals and trade stories of our childhoods, and aspirations. But because it was such a personal relationship, it truthfully never even occurred to me to write about Leonard—which shows that good ideas can be right under our noses, but too close for us to see them (embarrassing, since in my workshops I encourage all writers to mine their “family and friend” histories). It was after I’d watched a documentary, Leonard Nimoy’s Boston that his son Adam had made (his latest documentary film is For the Love of Spock), a project which was originally conceived as a family memoir for the Nimoy kids and grandkids—that I realized Leonard’s life story would be perfect to inspire the “next generation.”
At the time, I had no idea that Leonard would pass away the following year from COPD (his daughter Julie is working on a documentary to help raise money to fight the disease: COPD: Highly Illogical ). In fact, my hope was that we would go on a book tour together—or that I would at least Skype him into venues (we did that a couple of times when he recorded my earlier book Too Young for Yiddish).
TWM: Did you interview him for the book or base your narrative on conversations you had in the past?
RM: Conversations we’d had in the past—I did not want Leonard to know I was writing the book, until I was done. I didn’t want the extra pressure on myself to meet a deadline, or to explain why I abandoned the project if it was not working out. As I mention in my afterword: I sent my draft to Leonard. It was Thanksgiving morning 2014, and I heard back immediately in an email… It’s wonderful and I’m flattered. . . . It is an amazing piece of work and I love that you decided to do it. That evening, after finishing the turkey, Leonard wrote again with some corrections—names, dates, and a very few edits.
TWM: As a participant in the art world, what has been your reaction to the book’s illustrations?
RM: I did not know of Edel’s work (by name) when my editor suggested I check out his site and I immediately thought it was a perfect fit. I didn’t even know at the time that Edel had taught himself English when he arrived in this country from Cuba, by listening to old “Star Trek” episodes! Edel was able to take a realistic historical text and give it a sci-fi graphic look without losing any of the humanity.
TWM: How do you plan to promote the book?
RM: Your wonderful blog is a good place to start! And I will be speaking at some Star Trek conventions (including Mission 50 in NYC), schools, and I have been contacted by many JCCs and other Jewish organization (the famous Vulcan salute, as you may know, was based on an orthodox prayer) —I have a lecture I give titled: Jewish Literacy: Seeking Out New Frontiers. Join Richard Michelson as he boldly explores the universe of “children’s” literature, and narrates his own journey from uninformed atheist to someone whose books are being used to advance Jewish literacy. Richard will focus on his latest book, Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy and discuss what Jewish Picture Books and Leonard Nimoy have in common. And how both are helping to spread Jewish values and raise the “next generation” of Jewish kids. I am available for hire!! I am also pleased to note that it is both a PJ Library and Junior Library Guild selection. I will be signing Fascinating at the Yiddish Book Center Sept 18th, at 4 after their screening of “For the Love of Spock.”
TWM: What are your favorite PB biographies and who are your favorite PB authors (other than yourself)?
RM: I read fairly widely but most of my reading is poetry. I am so busy keeping up with the almost 60 author/illustrators I represent at R. Michelson Galleries, that their books alone keep me way too busy. In the last couple of years I have exhibited illustrations from wonderful biographies (and autobiographies) by Emily Arnold McCully; Wendell Minor, EB Lewis, Brian Pinkney; Raul Colon Eric Velasquez, David Small, Uri Shulevitz, Kadir Nelson, Barry Moser, Mordicai Gerstein and others. And speaking of Mordicai, I am pleased to be speaking on December 18th at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art with him and three other masters of biographical writing (and my good friends), Jane Yolen, Lesléa Newman, and Barbara Diamond Goldin.
TWM: Any advice for aspiring PB bio authors?
RM: This is boring advice but the old truths are the best: Read, read, read—and see what the best of your elders and contemporaries are doing. And more importantly, sit down and write. I mean right now. Still here? We all have a million reasons why we don’t have time “right now.” Since this is the last question and you are done with the interview, instead of scrolling back to Facebook, and checking your email: WRITE!!!
About Richard Michelson
Richard Michelson‘s many books for children, teens and adults have been listed among the Ten Best of the Year by The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and The New Yorker; and among the best Dozen of the Decade by Amazon. He is the only author in the 48-year history of The Association of Jewish Libraries to receive both its Sydney Taylor Gold and Silver Medals in a single year. Michelson is a three-time finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and the Massachusetts Book Award. Other honors include three Skipping Stones Multicultural Book Awards, a National Parenting Publication Gold Medal and an International Reading Association Teacher’s Choice Award.
Michelson is the owner of R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton MA, where he recently served two terms as Poet Laureate. He is the recipient of a 2016 Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship in Poetry.
Michelson’s Jewish-themed books include As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom; Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King; A is for Abraham-A Jewish Family Alphabet; Too Young for Yiddish (recorded by Leonard Nimoy); and his just published Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy. The Language of Angels: A Story about the Reinvention of Hebrew is forthcoming in 2017.