To tell the complex story of her great-uncle, bookseller Lewis Michaux, 2010 Coretta Scott King Author Award–winner (for Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal) Vaunda Micheaux Nelson employs an amalgamation of historical research, family stories, and her own imagination. No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller is a uniquely collaged novel, and so I asked Vaunda just how she put it all together.
1. No Crystal Stair is an aesthetically daring combination of fiction and nonfiction, word and image. How is it different from what you imagined it would be when you began?
Vaunda Micheaux Nelson: I set out to write a straight biography for teens. In my early drafts I used quotes by Lewis as chapter headings and envisioned photos as part of the final work. But at some point in the process, and after feedback from people I respect, I saw that it wasn’t working. Unavailable and conflicting information left many crucial questions unanswered. More important, I didn’t feel I’d told Lewis’s story in a way that would move readers to care about and understand this amazing man and the significance of what he achieved. After the project evolved into the “documentary fiction” format, I found more pleasure in the storytelling. It allowed me to explore Lewis in a deeper way and to get to know the people around him more intimately. Sometimes you have to do an awful lot of writing to figure out exactly what it is you have to say. The project may have taken fifteen years, but as I think back on the process, I realize it needed those years. I needed those years to become a better writer. And I made exciting discoveries along the way that led me in unexpected and rewarding directions. I’m relieved the book is finished, but I miss being immersed in Lewis’s world.
2. Lewis Michaux was a supporter of such still-controversial men as Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Marcus Garvey — names you don’t see in children’s books nearly as often as Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, and Rosa Parks. Do you think we have a tendency to play it safe in African American history for young readers?
VMN: I don’t know that I would call Lewis a supporter of Elijah Muhammad. But to address your question, the importance of, and emphasis on, individuals and events in our history are often determined by the media. People like Dr. King and Rosa Parks received greater coverage because they were more palatable to the general public, or have been portrayed as so by the press. There have been a handful of books for youth about Marcus Garvey. I could find none on Elijah Muhammad, though I believe he had a smaller circle of followers than either Malcolm X or Garvey. There is a respectable offering about Malcolm X, but, as you say, nothing like what is available on Dr. King. Garvey and Malcolm were out of the comfort zone, even for some blacks. They were explosive, enigmatic personalities. Most of the grownups in my world saw Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement as extreme and Malcolm X as intimidating. I was eleven years old when Malcolm X was murdered. I’m sure it was covered by the media, but I don’t recall the kind of national mourning that came with the assassinations of President Kennedy and Dr. King. Both of these events saturated the news. I don’t know if publishers are playing it safe so much as looking at the market, a market that is strongly influenced by media, more now than ever. As Lewis said, “If you’re in the book business, you’ve got to sell books.” It’s up to us — the literary community — to help create a demand for topics we find important. I’m not suggesting that publishers don’t take risks. They often do and I’m grateful for that. But they do have to balance the risks with the safe bets in order to stay in business.
3. What bookstore was most formative in your development as a reader?
VMN: There was no bookstore in our small town, nor was there a library. My parents were key in my development as a reader. My mother read to us nightly, and my father introduced us to the work of poets such as Langston Hughes, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Walt Whitman. And Dad wrote poetry himself. Mommy took us to the bookmobile when it came every other week, which I loved, but I didn’t really find a bookstore that had a major effect on helping build my reservoir of children’s literature until, as an adult, I was introduced to Pinocchio, a bookstore for children in Pittsburgh. I worked there in the 1980s and read probably a thousand books during that time. The store no longer exists, but I will always be grateful to owner Marilyn Hollinshead for all that I learned while at her literary paradise. I wrote my first book and made the decision to go to library school while there.
4. What would a twenty-first-century National Memorial African Bookstore look like?
VMN: Hypothetical questions are always difficult for me, but I’ll take a shot. I’m pretty old-fashioned and often feel I don’t belong in the technological world. With the decline of independent bookstores, I can’t imagine a National Memorial African Bookstore like Lewis’s existing today unless the owner is doing it for love, not profit. A twenty-first-century National Memorial African Bookstore would still offer books by and about blacks and, of course, there would be tons of discussion through blogs and other online networks. Lewis would surely get a kick out of having such platforms from which to share his two cents. Instead of street speakers, discourse would be broadcast through Skype or YouTube. The Internet would enable Lewis to reach more people and perhaps offer a larger selection. Sadly, the heart, the spirit, the human interaction, the one-on-one, and the excitement that came with a rally at Harlem Square would be lost.
5. What is the most important thing being a children’s librarian has taught you about writing for children?
VMN: To not underestimate what kids can handle. They’re smart and beg to be challenged. I hope my writing stretches them. Sometimes we make the mistake of believing young readers need to have everything spelled out, that they can’t deal with subtlety. That which is left unsaid is often what gets them thinking beyond the text. The reading process becomes an interactive one, a give and take, a private affair that adds to a repository of experience they can draw from as they negotiate life.
From the April 2012 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.