Interview with Vaunda Nelson

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Vaunda Micheaux Nelson credits her love of books to her late parents, who faithfully read to her every night. Through her work she hopes to give young people some of what her parents gave her — opportunities to grow through story. Her latest book, Dream March: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington is a Random House Step-Into-Reading History Reader. Dream March was starred in School Library Journal and selected as a best book for 2017 by the Chicago Public Library. Vaunda’s young adult book, No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller won the 2012 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction, a 2013 Coretta Scott King Author Honor and prevailed in the 2013 School Library Journal Battle of the Kids’ Books. Vaunda has been a teacher, newspaper reporter, bookseller, recreation specialist, children’s librarian, and has served on Newbery and Caldecott Awards committees. She holds master’s degrees from The Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College, Vermont, and from the University of Pittsburgh School of Library and Information Science.

Get to know more about Vaunda by visiting her site here.

Mandy Becker & Cheyenne Lopex: When did you begin writing?

Vaunda Nelson: I was about eleven or twelve. I started writing little poems—not very good ones, of course, but that’s how you start—and when I was in high school my stories and poetry began to reflect social issues. One of my poems was about a captive bird. It was my youthful attempt to deal with the concept of freedom and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s murder.

My parents read to us nightly and, through them, I came to love stories and be awed by how they could make me feel. Later, I began to hope I could make someone else feel that way, too.

MB & CL: Which authors inspire you and why?

VN: There are too many to name. I am inspired by writers who can create magic with very few words, who know how to use language with economy and who trust their audience to read between the lines. I admire writers who make me forget I am reading a book.

MB & CL: What sparked your interest in writing historical picture books? What are some of the ethics of writing historical figures?

VN: My first book, Always Gramma, grew out of family history, so, in a way, I began with an historical picture book. Most of my early books sprang from family history. Subsequent books were inspired by historical figures I’ve found fascinating. Picture books (fiction and nonfiction) are for all ages. I like being able to speak to — and hopefully enlighten, move, and entertain — this wide audience

Ethically, it is important to be as true to your character or historical subject as possible. In early drafts of Bad News for Outlaws, I invented—based on my research — dialogue to create drama. I soon realized that Bass’s life was so remarkable that it didn’t need to be embellished. Every word of dialog in the book is from documented sources. As long as an author conducts meticulous research, does the homework, and is true to the subject, I feel any subject should be open to any writer.

In No Crystal Stair, when I made the decision to go with the documentary novel approach in which I speculated and imagined to create voices for my characters, I could no longer call it nonfiction. I’d crossed the line into historical fiction.

MB & CL: What do you hope young readers will take away from your books?

VN: The joy of experiencing a great story, an appreciation for the subject matter, new knowledge, hope, and aspiration.

MB & CL: What was the transition from writing picture books to your full-length documentary novel No Crystal Stair like?

VN: I had previously published three middle-grade novels, so I had already written for older readers. I love all formats — picture books, early readers and works for more mature audiences. No Crystal Stair required a shift from nonfiction (straight biography) to fiction when I recognized there was not enough source material to accomplish the biography I had envisioned and that my early drafts lacked the emotion I was reaching for. After many years of trial and error, I arrived at the notion of the documentary novel. Not only did this new format enable me to tell the truth of Lewis’s story, it allowed me to bring my characters to life, to reveal Lewis’s spirit, intelligence, charm and weaknesses, as well as to enjoy the creative process.

MB & CL: What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book? How did the research for No Crystal Stair differ from your usual research, if at all?

VN: The research varies widely depending on the nature of the book. Each subject requires its own approach. I begin with intensive research — books, periodicals, online searches, library archives, interviews. Then I start writing, often not knowing what shape the work will ultimately take. This first attempt often helps me find a format, sometimes not. It always leads to more questions and additional research. With time, a format emerges, and I am back and forth between writing and tracking down answers as new questions arise.

No Crystal Stair required more travel and on-site research than previous books. I acquired source material from family members, the Schomburg Center in Harlem, Howard University, the Hatch-Billops Collection, court records, church documents, FBI files, census records, death certificates and other vital statistic sources, and oral histories. I traveled to New York City, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and Newport News, Virginia. Many questions went unanswered and will likely remain so. When faced with contradictory information, I weighed what I could, drew conclusions and made educated guesses. I was more troubled than ever before that I could not interview dead people. I try to counsel everyone with an interest in family history to interview and record relatives, particularly the elders, NOW while they can still share their insights and stories.

MB & CL: What are some of the difficulties of writing about a family member?

VN: Keeping the peace and respecting boundaries and privacy can be concerns, but I believe if you are sincere and respectful in your approach, it all works out in the end. Asking for input and opinion, without allowing censorship, goes a long way.

Family lore can be unreliable as people often remember the past differently. In researching Lewis, I found he was quite a raconteur who sometimes embellished facts and then forgot, or didn’t care, that he’d done so. For example, he suggested to people that he was ten years older than he was, I believe, because he got a kick out of appearing more youthful than the age he claimed. So, do I tell the story I feel is true, or the one that Lewis himself told? He left me with a thousand such decisions.

These kinds of inconsistencies were confounding as I attempted to research and write straight biography. I wanted to get the facts right. Documentary fiction gave me the freedom to speculate and imagine. The mysteries surrounding his life added intrigue and led me to wonder. This wondering brought me to truths that I might not have otherwise discovered. But, as someone trying to uncover family history, I wish I had more answers. My search isn’t over.

MB & CL: What was your greatest take-away from writing No Crystal Stair?

VN: Honoring a remarkable man, Lewis Michaux, and playing a part in sharing his journey and keeping the story of his amazing bookstore and what he accomplished alive. I am proud of that, and I think my uncle would be, too.

PRR Writers, Cheyenne Lopex and Mandy Becker

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