With his new book Fascinating, a children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy, coming out this week, author Richard Michelson is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
As a college graduate, I was well versed in Russian literature and American history; and I could name the dynasties of French and English Kings. But I knew next to nothing about the life my grandfather had lived in his Eastern European shtetl, or how he came to settle in America. I never asked. I do not recall that we ever had a single conversation of substance while he was alive. When my children were studying for their bar and bat mitzvah, I decided I needed to do some research, so I could pass down family history. So I wrote a children’s book titled Too Young for Yiddish, where a boy who looks and sounds a bit like me gets a chance to hear his Zayde’s story firsthand. He learns that “history is what happens to real people,” and he forges a relationship with his grandfather through the miracle of fiction that I wish I had experienced in “real life.”
When I speak to children and they ask the dreaded prepared question, “Where do you get your ideas?” I invite them to go home that very day and ask their parents, grandparents, best friend’s parents, and their best friends about their lives. “Everyone has a story to tell,” I say. “Just remember to write it down.”
When I speak to aspiring authors at conferences, the advice is almost exactly the same. “Be curious about the lives that surround you, and listen carefully. Write down what you hear. Do it now. Don’t wait.”
So how did I forget my own advice in my long relationship with Leonard Nimoy?
When Leonard was asked to record Too Young for Yiddish for the National Yiddish Book Center, we started a relationship that lasted twelve years, until his death. We emailed daily, phoned regularly, and often traveled together. He was a serious photographer, having built his own darkroom as a 13 year old boy. When Star Trek was cancelled after three seasons, Leonard contemplated changing careers and he went back to UCLA and studied photography.
I am an art dealer and ended up handling his photographic career. As we traveled together to exhibitions—and, later, family events—we shared stories of our childhoods, our evolving relationships to Judaism, and our political beliefs. We bonded over a love of art and literature. Mostly we laughed together, often over the fact that we looked alike, and no one would believe that we were not father and son.
Leonard was a first reader as I wrote many other picture book biographies, profiling well known figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in As Good As Anybody and people who I thought had been unfairly left out of the historical canon, like Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King, who was also the first “professional” baseball player, and the first Jewish manager (I have started a petition to get Pike in the Baseball Hall of Fame.)
Why did it never occur to me to put Leonard Nimoy’s story down on paper? Over the years I facilitated countless interviews—everyone was interested in his life—but it wasn’t until I’d watched a documentary, Leonard Nimoy’s Boston, that his son Adam had made (originally conceived as a family memoir for the Nimoy kids and grandkids)—that I realized Leonard’s life story would be perfect to inspire the “next generation.”
At the time, I had no idea that Leonard would pass away three months later from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD (his daughter Julie is working on a documentary to help raise money to fight the disease: COPD: Highly Illogical). In fact, my expectation was that we would go on a book tour together. I give thanks that Leonard was able to read the finished manuscript before he passed on:
It’s wonderful and I’m flattered… It is an amazing piece of work and I love that you decided to do it, he emailed me the same evening I sent him my manuscript.
I am glad I didn’t wait.
Richard Michelson is the author of many acclaimed books for adults and children. His work has earned a Sydney Taylor Gold Medal and National Jewish Book Award recognition. Richard lives with his wife in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is the proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries.