The Sydney Taylor Book Award 2017 Blog Tour features interviews with gold and silver medalists. Visit jewishlibraries.org for the full schedule of blog tour stops and follow the Association of Jewish Library’s blog.
Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy is a warm, personal picture-book biography written by the late actor/photographer’s close friend and gallerist Richard Michelson, and illustrated by Edel Rodriguez, who, as a Cuban émigré, learned English partly by watching Star Trek (you may also know him from his melting Trump face TIME covers and this one from Der Spiegel — wow!). Fascinating was named a 2017 Sydney Taylor Honor Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries.
Six Questions for Richard Michelson:
1. How did you first meet Leonard Nimoy? And were you star-struck? (pun intended)
RM: Leonard and I first met when he was visiting the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA, where I live. I had written the picture book Too Young for Yiddish which he was to record as part of the Nimoy Library of Recorded Jewish Books. (Leonard grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household, and everyone should hear his “To Be or Not to Be” monologue in Yiddish — it is a high point of my presentation.)
We talked a bit about my book and his photography. Leonard was a serious photographer, having built his own darkroom at age thirteen. When Star Trek was canceled after three seasons, Leonard contemplated changing careers; he went back to UCLA and studied photography with Robert Heinecken. But there were lots of folks present the first time we met, and I wasn’t at all star-struck. However, when he called me months later on my cell and I head his distinctive, deep, resonant voice over my then flip-phone, it did seem a bit surreal — like I was being called from another galaxy.
We had similar working-class backgrounds, though he grew up in Boston and I grew up a generation later in Brooklyn. But we shared a sense of humor, and our wives also got along very well, which always helps! Plus it certainly didn’t escape notice that we looked a bit alike, and were often mistaken for father and son. We bonded over a love of art and literature. He was a real mensch — kind and unpretentious; I was blessed to be welcomed into his small inner circle of family and friends, and we spoke daily for the last ten years of his life.
2. Why did you choose to tell his story as a picture-book biography rather than something longer form?
RM: Leonard had already written his own long-form biography, or rather two — I Am Not Spock, which was famously followed twenty years later by I Am Spock. Plus, I am enamored of the picture book form, which combines my two greatest loves, art and poetry. When done well, it is a perfect marriage. I was already a fan of Edel’s political and editorial work, and I couldn’t wait to see what he would bring to the project when Michelle Frey, my editor, suggested him. I didn’t yet know that Star Trek episodes had helped Edel learn English when he first emigrated to this country from Cuba!
I also knew Leonard would be pleased to see his life in picture-book form. He was the first person I called when my book As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom was awarded the 2009 Sydney Taylor Gold Medal, and he was an early reader on some of my other picture book biographies.
3. When and how did you find out about the “live long and prosper” sign’s connection to Judaism?
RM: Leonard was proud of his heritage and regularly spoke about the many things he incorporated from his Jewish upbringing into the Spock character. He first saw the Hebraic blessing he would later immortalize into the Vulcan greeting as an eight-year-old boy in synagogue — and that gesture was the underlying theme of Shekhina — the title of his first photography book and my gallery’s first exhibition of his work. Shekhina is the feminine aspect of God, and Leonard was exploring the intersections between religion and sexuality. He loved the fact that wherever he went, people were unknowingly blessing him in the Jewish tradition.
4. Young “Lenny’s” neighborhood — an integrated one, from the story — seemed very warm and supportive. How did growing up Jewish in Boston during a turbulent time affect his childhood?
RM: While the few blocks around his home were integrated (African Americans, Italians, Irish, Jews) and supportive, as soon as he left that cocoon Leonard experienced direct anti-Semitism. He remembered being called a “Jew bastard” and told not to shop in certain stores. His parents were immigrants who both escaped pogroms in Ukraine: his mother hid in a hay cart and his father walked nights and hid days until he could sneak over the border. Both entered the U.S. as “aliens,” and Leonard completed the circle when he went from a U.S. citizen to become the alien Spock. Leonard was very aware of being an outsider who felt he did not fit in anywhere, and that of course informed his portrayal of Spock.
And as I have emphasized to his many fans during my recent Trek Convention tours, had the current president (lowercase, please) been in power back then, Leonard and family would likely have been just a few more victims of the Holocaust. Leonard spoke out, fought for, and gave his money to political causes that promoted social justice throughout his life.
5. In your experience, did Mr. Nimoy’s spirituality play into his everyday life?
RM: Leonard had both a deep intelligence and a deep spirituality which informed his outlook on life. He felt he had a moral imperative to leave the world better than he found it — the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam. He was both humble and always optimistic. Mostly, however, he was just pure fun to be around. He had a great joy of life and laughed more than anyone I know.
6. What can you tell us that you weren’t able to put in the book?
RM: I’d need a second volume — we traveled together and traded stories over meals for a dozen years. But how about this: When Leonard first moved to L.A., he hired a psychiatrist, not because he needed the therapy, but because she spoke Yiddish, and he just wanted to spend an hour a week speaking the language. Which neatly fits into the theme of my book: reach for the stars, but always remember where you came from.
Six Questions for Edel Rodriguez:
1. You’re a fine artist, an art director, and an editorial illustrator (those Trump covers!) along with being a children’s book illustrator. What brought you to children’s books?
ER: In 1998, Holly McGhee, of Pippin Properties, contacted me about a book she thought I would be good for. She had seen my work in The New Yorker and other venues and thought I could contribute to a book about a little girl growing up in Cuba. From then on, our working relationship flourished and she has represented me on about ten books now.
2. The medium and color palette for Fascinating so perfectly evoke setting without looking old-fashioned. How did you hit on that combination?
ER: I wanted the early part of the book to have a vintage feel, but it had to blend into the second part of the book, which was more futuristic. I felt this technique was the best one to use to accomplish that. The soft tones of family life blended smoothly into the more colorful tones of outer space.
3. Did you do a lot of research into the time period? How?
ER: I looked at old photographs, and received reference from the author and editors. I know the era well because I like some of the artists of the time and have spent time looking at their work.
4. Were you primarily working from photos in your portrayals of “Lenny’s” family? If so, what was it like to illustrate a photographer’s photographs?
ER: I used the photographs as a guide, but I also didn’t want to copy them directly, so I found a middle ground. I like to see how things change according to medium, so I enjoyed seeing the final result.
5. Those pictures of Leonard Nimoy as Spock are “iconic without being imitative.” How do you take a real person (see also: Trump covers!) and make the illustrations your own?
ER: I think one of the most important things is to not get too attached to the source material. Everything becomes a point of departure for me to dive in and express what I think of a person or an idea. It’s something I’ve done since I first started studying master artworks so it’s a normal way of working. I don’t ever want to copy something. I like to see where I will go with it.
6. What, for you, are the intersections/divergences between art, politics, and pop culture?
ER: I think art tries to translate and explain politics and pop culture. If art is the canvas, then politics and culture are the brush and paint.