Julius Lester Interview Transcript
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
What is your favorite part of being a writer?
My favorite part of being a writer is putting words on paper. Because through those words, I can create emotions in the people who read the words. And so, I live a very solitary life. But writing is my way of being in touch with people. So, if I don't write, I don't live. Writing is something I have to do.
Where did you come up with the idea for What a Truly Cool World?
What a Truly Cool World is based on an old African-American tale called "How God Made the Butterflies." It's a tale that I retold in a book of mine called Black Folk Tales, which came out in 1968. In Black Folk Tales I retold it like it is in the original. But in What a Truly Cool World, I created new characters. I just thought I'd have some fun with it!
Why did you choose flowers and butterflies to "decorate" the world with? Is there something special about these two species?
Not really. Flowers and butterflies are in the original story. And also flowers and butterflies are small things that are very beautiful and colorful. The world would be a pretty drab place without either.
Did you get to choose the illustrator for What a Truly Cool World? How did you and Joe Cepeda work together to create "your vision?"
I chose Joe Cepeda in consultation with my editor at Scholastic. Writers don't choose illustrators. Publishers will send a number of books done by different illustrators. We talked about it and decided that Joe would be the best. The illustrations are entirely Joe Cepeda's vision. I made no suggestions to him, I've never met him. And I think what he has done is fabulous.
In From Slave Ship to Freedom Road, how did you choose Rod Brown for the illustrations?
I did not choose Rod Brown. In fact, the way that book came about was my editor called me and said that she had wonderful paintings by an artist named Rod Brown, and she wanted to publish them. But she didn't have a text and asked if I would write something. So I looked at the paintings and I liked them enormously and decided to write some text. Generally, the author writes and then the illustrator illustrates. This is the only book I've done where the illustrations came first.
What made you want to write From Slave Ship to Freedom Road?
I think it was the power of the paintings ó they evoked an emotional response from me. Whereas in To Be a Slave, I had concentrated much more on the historical aspects of slavery, From Slave Ship to Freedom Road gave me the opportunity to talk about slavery in a much more personal, emotional way.
Where did you get the title for From Slave Ship to Freedom Road?
I have no idea. That book went through several titles, none of which I remember. Sometimes it takes me just as long to come up with a title as it does to write the book. The title seemed to cover the time span of what the book dealt with, but I have no recollection of what made me come up with it.
How are you able to understand so profoundly the feelings of a slave?
I feel that one of the things I've been sent here to do is to give voice to those who are dead. I say sometimes, only half-jokingly, that I feel much closer to the dead than I do to the living. I don't have any rational explanation, but I feel like I know them ó they live inside me and they've chosen me to tell some of their stories.
Which of your closest ancestors was a slave?
Three of my four great-grandparents were slaves, including my great-grandmother, who died in 1933 or so, before I was born.
What made you want to write To Be a Slave?
My initial impulse was to find out about my own slave ancestors, particularly my great-grandparents. I've always been interested in my family history, so part of the reason was very personal. The other reason was that once I started doing the research and finding all these documents where ex-slaves talked about what slavery was like, I wanted others to know that those we called slaves were really human beings. So the book comes out of my need and desire to communicate the humanity of those whom history calls slaves.
The book To Be a Slave is so powerful. Will you publish other books dealing with slave narratives?
I will. I'm in the process of negotiating a contract with a publisher to do some more books about slavery. To Be a Slave was nonfiction. I've also done two other fictionalized accounts of slavery: The Long Journey Home and This Strange New Feeling. I'm going to be doing a lot more.
What gave you the idea to write This Strange New Feeling?
I am really fascinated by what it was like to have been a slave. Slavery is my favorite part of American history. There are all these stories - adventure stories, love stories - that I want people to know and to understand.
How do you feel about your ancestors being slaves?
There are mixed feelings. On the one hand, I'm sorry that they had to go through something like that. But on the other hand, if they hadn't been, I wouldn't be here now. I wouldn't exist. So, there are mixed feelings about it.
What was it like growing up in the South during the 40s and 50s?
I grew up in a time of segregation, in a system where blacks and whites were kept separate and blacks were discriminated against. It was certainly difficult. But at the same time, I grew up inside a southern black culture where there were a lot of stories and traditions. Much of my interest in and feelings about the past come from the fact that I grew up very close to all this. It was difficult, but I would certainly not change any of it. I got a lot from it that I wouldn't have gotten from living in a city in the North. So I'm glad I grew up in the South when I did.
How were you involved in the civil rights movement? How did you feel about Malcom X's and Mr. Luther King Jr.'s assassinations?
During the civil rights movement, I primarily did two things: I was a photographer and I was a musician. I also led singing at mass movements throughout the South. I remember very vividly the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was not a complete surprise, but it was still very shocking. Both events were very shocking to me.
The last line of To Be a Slave reads: "cause the white folks have been and are now and always will be against the Negro." Do you believe this to be true?
I personally do not believe that to be true. I think that, certainly in my lifetime, I have seen a lot of change. But, it's important to rem'ember that there are black people who do believe that's true.
What do you think we can do to help lessen the racism in this country?
A couple of things come to mind. The first is not standing in judgment of people because they are born into a particular race or ethnic group. The second is being aware that every person you encounter is an individual, and that each person wants to be treated just like you want to be treated - with respect. Each of us wants to be accorded dignity; each of us wants to be liked. Getting rid of racism just means treating other people the way you want to be treated. It's not that hard. We also need to learn to respect each other's differences. Just because somebody eats a food that's different than the food you eat, or dresses differently, it doesn't mean that your way is better and the other person's way is inferior. They're just different.
I am an African-American girl in an all-Mexican class. I get many good comments about my singing, but sometimes I get offended by what people say. How do you stay so strong when people put you down?
You stay strong by listening to yourself. You stay strong by not believing the negative things that people say about you. People say those kinds of things because they recognize that there is something about you that is different; that you have something that they may not have. So they try to bring you down - they want to bring you down to their level. If you have a gift for singing, you have a responsibility to honor that gift. The final thing that I would say is that the people who put you down really do not know you. Try not to give their words so much importance because they really don't know what they're talking about.
At what age did you start writing?
I was around seventeen when I started writing. That's when I started to write seriously - like it might be something I'd want to do with my life.
When was your first book published?
In 1968. My very, very first book was published in 1965. It was a book I did with Pete Seeger called A Folksinger's Guide to the 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly. It was an instructional book on how to play the 12-string guitar.
What is Pete Seeger like? What was it like to work with him?
He is a very, very nice, soft-spoken man. He's very shy - which you wouldn't think about someone who gets thousands of people to get up and sing. He cares very deeply about people. Working with him was very easy.
How did you decide to start writing books for children instead of for adults? Is it harder or easier to write for kids?
The way I got into writing for children was totally by accident. It never occurred to me. After I finished writing my first adult book, my editor commented to me that I had a very simple writing style, and she asked me if I would like to meet the children's book editors. I did, and she asked me if I had any ideas. I told her I was doing research on slavery and she asked me if I would like to do a children's book about slavery. It was one of the most fortunate accidents in my life!
As for the second part of the question, writing for children is in some ways harder. There's probably nothing more difficult than writing a picture book - you have to do so much in so little space. Writing is difficult, period. The challenges are different in writing for children than they are writing for adults. But writing is hard work.
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
I'd say rewriting. I love to rewrite. When you reach the point of rewriting it means you have a good first draft. The basic work of conceptualizing has been done. Now I can get to the detail, finding the right word, the right music to the sentence. If you want to be a writer you have to enjoy the process of writing more than the final product. I think most people are so interested in the final product that they skip the process. And so, writing takes a lot of patience.
Have you ever been dissatisfied with one of your books after you finished writing it?
No, generally I do not turn a book in until I'm satisfied it's the best that I can do at this point in my life.
Do you base any of your books on your life experiences?
Sure, I think there are two ways of looking at that. One is the obvious autobiographical aspect - taking incidents directly from my life. But not so obvious is that everything that I write is based on my life, in that it's coming out of my emotions and feelings. Generally, there's a problem in my life that I need to solve, so everything that I write stems out of my emotional concerns. Not every black person cares about slavery, for example. But even though I was not a slave, I write about slavery because of a personal need.
How do you feel about your books, and what inspires you?
It is really very wonderful for me to sit here and look back at all the books that I've written. They're spreading onto the second shelf now; they're next to my desk. I started off as a college student wanting to be a writer. To look back and see that I did indeed accomplish that - to look at all these books with my name on them - it gives me a deep feeling of satisfaction.
Where do I get my inspiration?
Well, a lot of my writing comes from the fact that I have a question - there's something I want to know, and the only way I can know it is by writing about it. Some of my writing also comes from a feeling inside that I want to understand or explore more. So I don't know that I get inspired as much as I muse about something, and then one day it crystallizes. But generally, my books come out of my own curiosity, and my desire to share something that I know or that I have experienced. For me, writing is a way of sharing and being in touch with people.
Do you ever get writer's block? What do you do when this happens?
Not really. Writer's block is simply not knowing what you want to write. Ernest Hemingway once said that when you stop writing for the day, don't get up until you know where you're going to start the next day. So, a lot of writing takes place for me away from the computer. There's time spent writing at the computer, and then there's time spent writing in my head. I do a lot of writing sitting in the bathtub every night. I get some of my best ideas while sitting in the bathtub. I'll do in my head actual sentences. Then the next day when I sit down I'll have the first few lines ready to go. A lot of the problems that I may have in a book I will work out while sitting in my bathtub.
Do you only write for work? Do you keep a journal or write letters or anything like that?
I used to keep a journal a lot. I haven't kept one for the past ten years or so. But keeping a journal was very important to me. I learned a lot about writing by writing in a journal. And letters too - copious letters. I don't write letters that much anymore, but I do spend a lot of time on e-mail. E-mail is more immediate, more convenient.
What do you think your best book is?
Generally my best book is the one that I've just finished. That's like asking a parent who their favorite child is. There's no way to answer that question. I think for now my favorite book is a novel called Pharaoh's Daughter. It's set in ancient Egypt and it tells the story of the life of Moses from when he was a teenager. I'm working on a trilogy about Moses' life as seen through the eyes of people around him. It's my favorite because there's one character in it - the pharaoh's daughter - whom I really love. I think she's my favorite character. And I've learned so much about ancient Egypt. It will make readers look at history differently, and think about Moses differently. I think it's great.
Have you ever traveled to Egypt yourself?
I have not, but I'm planning to. It's on my list to do in the very near future.
Do you ever write about your life in your books?
Oh, sure. I've written an autobiography that is called Lovesong: Becoming a Jew. It's about my conversion to Judaism. I've written a lot of nonfiction autobiographical essays. I tend to write about myself more in adult books and essays than I do in my children's books.
Were you raised Jewish or did you become Jewish later on in life?
I converted to Judaism in 1982. My great-grandfather on my mother's side was a German Jew. My father was a Methodist minister, and I was raised in a Methodist church. The story of my conversion is long. To make it short, I will say that after searching many years for a religion, Judaism was one that really spoke to me and made me relate to God, and that was a very cool feeling.
How do you like teaching college?
I love teaching college. I have a natural rapport with college-age students. I really enjoy teaching college.
Who told you the story of John Henry? What made you decide to do this story?
I always knew John Henry as a song. I used to be a folk singer and "John Henry" is a well-known folk song. The idea to tell the story as a book came from the illustrator, Jerry Pinkney. John Henry had always been a hero of his as a child, and Jerry wanted to tell the story of John Henry in a book. It was his idea.
Is there a figure in history who is not well known that you would like to write about?
Well, I think that all of my writing about slavery and telling the stories of people who were slaves - is about unknown people. I like to write about people whom history sees as anonymous. I want to give voice to people who have not had a voice. So, to answer your question, I'm already doing this with my work.
What inspired you to "retell" Shakespeare's play Othello?
The idea started from a book of love stories from western civilization that I was going to do. I came across Othello, and I was so taken with it I decided to do a whole book about it! It's such an incredible story. I became aware that I felt that Shakespeare didn't know very much about black people. There were gaps in the story, and I wasn't satisfied with the way he portrayed Othello as a black man.
Was it hard to retell Othello so kids can understand it?
Doing the novel Othello was probably the happiest writing experience I've ever had. I could not wait to get up in the morning and start working on it! It was hard, just like any book is hard. But John Henry was a much harder book to write. The hard part of writing Othello was in doing the research - how people ate, what they wore, things like that - and then fitting it into the text. John Henry, on the other hand, was very hard because picture books are like writing poetry - you only have a few pages. Every word has to count.
How long does it take for your work to be published?
If it's a straight book of text, anywhere from nine months to a year. If it's a picture book, generally there has to be time for the artist to do the illustrations. Then it can be about two or three years.
Do you have any tips for young writers?
Read, read, read, read, read. You have to know what other people have written. You have to have a good grasp of literature. There is no substitute for knowing what other writers have done and how they have done that. You learn how to write by reading - reading just everything. My second bit of advice is that you have to know grammar. Reading will give you a wide vocabulary, but grammar is the basic tool - the trade of how to put words together most effectively. The art of writing is how to write a good sentence.My final word of advice is rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. There are pages in some of my books that I probably rewrote 10, 15, 20 times until I finally got the words right. The way you write it the first time is seldom the best that it can be.
What author do you think inspired you the most?
I really don't have one. I've always read very widely. I guess there are some writers I can think of: James Joyce, William Faulkner, and James Baldwin. But they're not children's writers.
What types of books do you like to read?
I like to read all sorts of things. My favorite type of book to read when I want to relax is detective fiction.
What are your hobbies?
'I collect American and Israeli stamps, and also United Nation stamps. I collect wine. And in the spring and the summer I love to work outside clearing brush - we live on 12 acres in western Massachusetts. There's always a lot of work to do outside.
Who were your childhood heroes?
Childhood is a long way away. I don't know that I had any. I think that things are different now because of the pervasiveness of TV. But having grown up in pre-television days, nobody comes to mind. Well, one person just came to me - Beethoven. I used to have a bust of Beethoven that sat on the piano. I guess I liked Beethoven; I liked his passion.
As a child, did you start to think books were fun to read?
Well yeah, but I grew up in the 40s and 50s - pre-television. Books were a big deal. I have always loved to read. You know, I used to read a lot of comic books. I don't really care what the kid reads, as long as the kid reads!
Do you think it's important for children's books to have a lesson or moral?
Absolutely not. I think children's books should be well written and enjoyable to read. I would like them to give children the experience of the magic and wonder of language. Children are more than blank slates who should always be taught and lectured to.
Do you think you have touched people with your books?
People have been nice enough to let me know that I have. I consider myself to be very blessed in that my books have found their way into the hearts of a lot of people.
How does it feel to have won all of the awards that you have?
Awards are wonderful. It's always nice to be honored for one's work and to know that people think your work is very good. It's very encouraging. Winning awards makes me want to write more books!
Do you use your books to try to inspire others around the world?
Nope. Well, I guess I don't have any control over how people respond to my books. The only thing that I can control is the quality of the writing and thinking that goes into the books. If people read something of mine and are inspired, I am certainly gratified. But I don't know that I can take any credit for that. I certainly write knowing the kind of response I want the reader to have and knowing how I want the reader to feel at a certain point; but whether the reader responds that way is something I don't have any control over. Some people are inspired by my words and some people are turned off by my words - but they're all the same words!
Are any of your own children writers?
No, both of my sons have writing ability, but they saw how much writing dominates my life and I think they kind of turned away from it because they wanted to be different. I don't know that being the child of a writer is necessarily a great thing. Basically, I have to write to live and I don't think my sons wanted to make the same sacrifices.
Can you talk a little about your TV and radio shows in New York? What were they about?
I was on the radio for eight years. It was a live show. I played music, took phone calls on the air, and talked about what was on my mind. The TV show was also a talk show in which I interviewed all kinds of people. It came on once a week from 10:30 p.m. to midnight. It was great fun, but it wasn't like the TV talk shows now - not like Jerry Springer. It was at the opposite end of that.
What kind of music do you listen to or play? Were you inspired by the jazz movement?
I don't enjoy listening to music that much anymore. I haven't listened in years. The primary reason for this is because I have a passion for silence. I love silence. Back in the 60s and 70s, I was quite inspired by jazz, and listened to quite a bit of it, especially John Coltrane. The only music I do know now is when I act as a cantor in synagogue, and that's it.
How do you think technology will affect the way children today learn to read and write?
Well, I teach at the University of Massachusetts, where I've been since 1971. What I'm seeing is that technology's effect on student's ability to read and write is negative. Each generation of students I deal with is more visually-oriented than the last one. Children nowadays seem to learn more from television, film, and music than they do from books.
What do you think we can do to keep kids reading and writing, even though there is so much other stuff going on around them, like TV or guns in school?
I think essential to keeping kids reading and writing is to start reading to them at a very early age. Read to them, as well as supervise and control the amount of time they watch television. I'm not opposed to TV, in fact I love it. But I never let my children watch TV by themselves. And so I have watched a lot of Scooby Doo, Flintstones, all kinds of stuff. But I never let them watch by themselves.
Did you hear about the school shootings in Colorado? What is your opinion of it? (Note: On Tuesday, April 20, 1999, 12 students and one teacher were killed during a tragic shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.)
Of course, like everybody else I'm quite horrified. And, I would certainly like to understand what's going on in our country that we seem to be producing children who take delight in killing. So, I think we as a nation need to understand that. And right now, I don't have a clue.
Julius, do you have any final words for the audience?
Find out what it is that you have to do, and then do it, and you'll be very happy in your life. I've certainly enjoyed hearing all your questions. I've been very impressed with the range of questions, which covered so much of my work. And I am flattered that you are familiar with so much of my work. The last thing I would say is to keep on reading! Keep on reading!