Russell Freedman Interview Transcript
Russell Freedman, the Newbery Award-winning author of Confucius: The Golden Rule and other biographies and nonfiction books, was interviewed by Scholastic students.
Why did you decide to write a book about Confucius?
I've been interested in China ever since I was a kid. When I was a kid, I grew up in San Francisco about a mile from China Beach. I would ride my bicycle down to the beach and walk out across the sand, and I would stand at the water's edge - you couldn't swim there because of a dangerous undertow - I would stand by the water and look across the Pacific Ocean, and I would think, "Somewhere over there is China." If you could get on a boat and keep going, you would end up in a strange and exotic land. I was always curious about China, and when I won the Newbery [Award] in 1988, I wanted to reward myself in some way, and what I did was go to mainland China for three months. I found it so fascinating that I went back for another extended trip, and I had an opportunity to travel extensively in mainland China. When Arthur Levine asked if I was interested in doing a book on Confucius, I was primed for it. I was very interested in the Chinese culture and history.
Did you write this book for people who are already interested in Confucius and want to learn more, or were you trying to hook people who don't know or don't care about Confucius?
Both. I sensed that Confucius is an interesting character. This is someone who lived over 2,500 years ago and is still speaking to us. That people are still reading and repeating what he said so long ago is something I find quite fascinating. I like to write about things that fascinate me because I believe that they will also fascinate my readers as well. I wrote the book both for people who are already interested in Confucius and for people who don't know anything about him but whom I am sure will find him fascinating.
What kind of research did you do to write this biography? Did you know a lot about Confucius before, or did you have to do a lot of research?
I had to do a lot of research. Even if I knew a lot about him to begin with I would have needed to do a lot of research. The more you know, the more research you do. To begin with, I read everything I could find about Confucius. I read commentaries about the Confucian philosophy. I read the histories of China. I read Confucius himself; I read several different translations of the analects. The analects are the sayings of Confucius, the primary source on Confucius, supposedly his own words. There are many translations in English, and I believe I read all of the translations. After I had all of that research under my belt, I made another trip to China. I made my third extended trip to China, but this time I went to Confucius's hometown, which is Qufu in Shandong province. I spent a week or so in Qufu visiting all of the sites that relate to Confucius. I visited the cave where legend says that he was born. I visited his grave, probably the oldest known grave in the world. I visited the huge Confucian temple in the middle of Qufu, on the site where Confucius actually taught. And I attended his birthday party - his 2,501st birthday party to be exact, a colorful ceremony held every year on September 28, which is attended by some of his direct descendents.
I have been authenticating your book about Confucius. I have found everything in your book except the story about the unicorn. Where did you find it?
The story about the unicorn is repeated in several commentaries on Confucius. This is legendary. The hard facts about Confucius are few and far between. The spaces are filled in by legend and mythology. So one of the legends has to do with the unicorn. I'm looking at a book about Confucius right now. It's entirely in Chinese characters. It's called The Sacred Journey of Confucius. It contains woodcut illustrations. The illustrations reflect the legend of Confucius by showing unicorns. The illustrations show all the major events of the life of Confucius. The unicorn was considered an omen in ancient China, both a symbol of good fortune and impending catastrophe (if you find a dead unicorn). The unicorn is a mythological figure, which cannot be separated from the story of Confucius.
Just before Confucius was born, according to the legend, a unicorn came out of the woods and approached his home. His mother, who was about to give birth, recognized the mysterious creature as a good omen. She approached the unicorn, and she tied a bright ribbon around its horn. The unicorn was associated with Confucius through his entire life because of that one event. When Confucius was an elderly man, near his home some people found a dead unicorn. They put it in a wagon and brought it to Confucius. They didn't know what it was. He identified it as a unicorn and noticed a tattered ribbon around the horn. This was supposedly the same ribbon that Confucius's mother had put on the unicorn 70 years before. This was a bad omen foretelling his death. He did in fact die not long after that. The unicorn is an important symbol in Chinese mythology, just as the dragon is. Do unicorns really exist? Do dragons really exist? They do in mythology. They influence the stories that we tell about the past.
Did you learn Chinese to read the book you are looking at now [The Sacred Journey of Confucius]? Did you learn Chinese to write the book Confucius?
A friend translated it for me. I didn't learn Chinese to write Confucius. That would've been a monumental task. I have three friends who can translate Chinese text for me; all three helped me with my research on Confucius. They are acknowledged in my acknowledgements in the book.
You seem to prefer writing biographies as a genre. Why? How did you first become involved in biographical research? What satisfaction do you gain from this type of writing?
That's not correct. I've written on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from animal behavior to American history. I just finished a book on the Bill of Rights, and the last book I published is about the Mexican vaqueros, the original cowboys. I write about many things, including biographies. I became involved when I wrote my first book quite a while ago. It was about young people who earned a permanent place in history before they were 20 years old. It was called Teenagers Who Made History. For example, Louis Braille invented the Braille system for reading by the blind when he was 15 years old. So my first book was about eight young people. It was a collective biography, and I discovered that I loved researching and writing biographical stories. I've been doing it ever since.
When you write a biography, how do you decide which part of the person's life to include?
I feel that to write a biography, you have to include something about the entire life. A person is born and dies, and there's an awful lot that goes on in between. If you are writing a biography, you have to decide what things are the most important, what is the most interesting, what is the most revealing of character, and that's what you include in your biography. The hardest thing about writing a biography is deciding what to include and what to leave out. That's the job of a writer, to make those decisions. You (as a writer) have to decide.
Out of all your biography subjects, which one did you relate to the most?
To the one that I'm working on at the moment. I always get deeply involved with my biographical subject at the time that I'm working on that person. When I go on to the next subject, I become deeply involved again. It's like having many love affairs.
How do you decide what you want to write about?
I always try to write about something I want to learn about myself, a subject that I think will interest my readers, and a subject that I think is important for some reason.
How long have you been writing books?
Do you have a favorite quote from Confucius?
I have several. "Isn't it a joy to make practical use of something you have learned?" "Do you want to know what knowledge is? When you know something, recognize that you know it, and when you don't know something, recognize that you don't know it. That's knowledge." One more: "An exemplary person helps bring out what is beautiful in other people and discourages what is ugly in them. A petty person does the opposite." Those are three quotes that I like a lot. But they are examples of the analects (sayings of Confucius), which is filled with dozens of quotes like that. Perhaps these three quotes will help explain why I was so fascinated by Confucius.
Did you ever get to write fictional books?
No, I concentrate on nonfiction because that's what I think I can do the best.
If you could meet any of the people you have written about, who would you pick and why?
At the moment, I would pick Confucius because he lived so very long ago, and yet he seems so modern, so contemporary. I would like to be able to talk to him and find out how it is possible for someone who lived so long ago to be so much like people today.
Are you working on a new book right now? What do you have planned for the future?
I just finished a new book about the Bill of Rights. It's called In Defense of Liberty: The Story of America's Bill of Rights. I worked on that book for a year or longer. It is going to be published later this year. I have just started work on a secret project, which I cannot reveal until the book is finished. My plans for the future are to keep on writing books because there are more fascinating subjects than there is time to write about them.
I'm in fourth grade. Why would students my age like your new book?
I believe that anyone interested in human beings and human behavior and human history, anyone interested in the world and life would be interested in reading about someone like Confucius - or about any of the people I write about; that's why I pick those subjects.
Why do you think so few people in America really know or care abut Confucius today when his ideas are so universal and very similar to our ideas?
I don't believe that people in America don't care about Confucius. I don't believe that for one moment. They just don't know about Confucius, and that's why I wrote this book.
Were you inspired by someone to write?
I was inspired to write by every book I read as a kid that I loved. I was inspired to write by my father, who worked in publishing and loved books. And I was inspired to write by my fifth-grade teacher, Miss Tennessee Kent, who looked at what I wrote in class and encouraged me to realize my dream of being a real writer.
If you had a second career, what would it be?
To start at the beginning and write more books.
Do you have a contact e-mail for any of your readers to contact you for questions on topics you write about? Do you have a Web site?
There are Web sites on me. Go to google.com and type in "Russell Freedman." You'll find a lot of stuff. You can write to me c/o Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine Books, 557 Broadway, NY, NY 10012.
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
The most famous saying of Confucius has been repeated by many different people, different philosophies, and religions. He's the first one that we know of who said it. He said: "Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself." Five centuries later, Jesus taught the Golden Rule in almost the same words: "In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you." I think that sums up Confucius's philosophy very nicely.