This week author Richard Michelson is giving us a tour of his writing space. Richard Michelson is a both a poet and a children’s book author. Some of his children’s books include As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom, illustrated by Raul Colón; Tuttle’s Red Barn, illustrated by Mary Azarian; and Across the Alley, illustrated by E. B. Lewis. As Good as Anybody won the Sydney Taylor Award, and in the same year his book A is for Abraham was awarded the Silver Medal. This was the first time in the award’s 41-year history that both top honors went to the same author.
His latest book is Busing Brewster, illustrated by R. G. Roth. This is a historical fiction picture book about desegregation in the 1970s. Brewster is about to start first grade when his Mama announces that he and his older brother will be taking the bus to a new school this year, the one in the white part of town. The transition to the new school isn’t an easy one as Brewster and his brother aren’t given a warm welcome, but Brewster finds sanctuary in the school library and kindness in the librarian. The story gives a very focused, individual perspective of this time period, with an author note at the end to expand on the history.
I’m embedding a video interview with Richard Michelson in the Rockstars of Reading series put together by JustOneMoreBook.com, which I highly recommend if you have 15 minutes to spare. In the video Richard shares some of the manuscript drafts and work that went into creating one of his picture books. He also talks about his first children’s book, Did You Say Ghosts?, illustrated by Leonard Baskin, and how after that book went out of print he was approached by Harcourt who wanted to reissue the book but with new illustrations. And so an adapted version of that story lives on now with illustrations by Adam McCauley. I thought it was particularly interesting to hear what Richard had to say about seeing his words illustrated in two different ways.
In addition to being an author, Richard is also the owner of R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, MA, and the curator of exhibitions at The National Yiddish Book Center. For more information about Richard Michelson and his writing, visit his website.
Describe your workspace.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, I had a large sunny upstairs room overlooking the woods in front of my Amherst home.
Then my daughter was born.
Next upon a time I was moved to a smaller, less sunny upstairs room overlooking the backyard of my Amherst home.
Then my son was born.
So here is the window in the back corner of the unfinished basement where I have my study.
Come on in. Let’s walk downstairs. Watch your step.
Turn left at the ping pong tableand left again at the boiler.
Here it is. Come on in. Look around. Leonard Baskin’s bronze Sentinel sits in the window sill. Neil Waldman’s cover illustration for Too Young for Yiddish is above my desk (my son posed as “the young me” in the book).
This bookshelf is where I keep children’s books.
And this shelf is for poetry (top 2 rows), history (next 2) and novels (bottom 2).
BTW: The woodcut (by Cyril Satorsky) was above my desk when the study was upstairs. When I moved out, I neglected to transfer the art, until a friend suggested that a picture of the father, Abraham about to sacrifice his son, Isaac, was an odd choice to be hanging above my son’s crib for the first two years of his life.
So now that my kids have grown up and moved out–my daughter has been living in NYC for ten years, and my son, for seven, will I ever move back upstairs?
No.Their bedrooms upstairs remain empty, but I’ve come to love it down in my cozy dark burrow, where sunny skies cannot distract me from my work.
Describe a typical workday.
I’m up at 7:30—or maybe 8:30. I drink coconut water and eat my oatmeal in bed while I read the paper and check morning email on my computer.
8:30 (or maybe 9:30) to 11 in my study, whether writing or just sitting. Then off to the gym (Pilates) or out on my bike.
1 to 6 (or 9 Fri/Sat) I am at R. Michelson Galleries, where I get to hang out with the work of many of our greatest illustrators and artists—(you can check out www.RMichelson.com) but yes, it is still a job, and keeps me from my writing.
List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
1. The Poem Book my daughter wrote for me is on the window sill, blocking out what little light there is. . .
2. The ducks my son made for me. . .
3. And my family photos:
They are all meaningful for the same reason. They remind me – when work is going badly—what life is really about.
And also, coming in at #4, I like my old typewriter, retired in the corner.
Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.
I sharpen pencils before I begin typing (still do this though I write on my computer).
What do you listen to while you work?
The silence and my imagination.
What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
Baby carrots. Hummus and crackers. Bananas. Sounds boring but I have reached the age where I follow doctor’s orders.
What keeps you focused while you’re working?
Who’s focused? Check email, write sentence, check email, check email again, write sentence, check Facebook, answer questions about what keeps you focused for a blog entry, take pictures of workspace, check clock, write sentence.
Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?
Computer. Can’t read my own handwriting.
How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?
I would be happy to let the muse lead me, were she/he to visit. Unfortunately, my address must be unlisted. So I plow ahead word by word and line by line. It is a bit like building a road by laying bricks in front of myself as I walk. And each time a new line is added, I go back to the beginning and start reading all over again from the first word, until I forge on a little bit further. Fortunately I write poetry and picture books. I could not imagine constructing a novel in this manner.
If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
I need total solitude. I get distracted enough as it is. But my dog Mollie is always welcome at her usual spot.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?
I tend to overwork, not under-work, so I need to apply the brakes, and give myself perspective, more than I need a prod. Here are a few reminders I keep in my desk drawer:
“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” –Bertrand Russell
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. –-Thomas Alva Edison
“It is harder to live one day with honor, than write a book as great as any the world has known.” –Stefa Wilczynska to Janusz Korczek