Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Guest Interview with Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

NOTE: Carl, you won the copy of No Crystal Stair! Congrats! You can either leave your email in comments below or send me your mailing address via my website. This contest is now closed.

It's my treat to present a wonderful discussion between Doret of The Happy Nappy Bookseller blog and Vaunda Nelson, author of No Crystal Stair. Doret is also giving away a copy of the book! Just leave her a comment on this post. If you don't win here, in the spirit of the book, may I suggest purchasing it from an independent African American bookstore such as: Hue-Man in NYC, EsoWon in L.A., Marcus Books in San Francisco or The Wild Fig Bookstore in Lexington, KY?

Also, you may be interested in reading the NY Times obituary of another famous Harlem bookseller, Una Mulzac.

Everything below is from Doret. Enjoy!

Leave a comment to be entered to win a copy!

When I finished No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, I wanted to give the book a hug but since that wasn't possible I figured I'd do the next best thing and interview the author.

Hi, Vaunda and welcome. Can you tell us a little about No Crystal Stair

No Crystal Stair is a 15-year labor of love. It’s about two things near and dear to my heart -- books and family. It’s is the story of a remarkable man who was a pioneer in the struggle toward literary diversity, a pioneer in the efforts to make more African and African American literature available in America. The man was the Harlem Professor, Lewis Michaux, my great uncle. His National Memorial African Bookstore became a Harlem landmark -- a gathering place for scholars, politicians, activists,writers,artists, actors, and athletes -- until its closing in 1975.

Congratulations on the starred Kirkus Review . What exactly is a documentary novel? (After this interview was complete, No Crystal Stair received another starred review from Horn Book Magazine)

Thank you. Insecurity, doubt, lack of confidence are often a writer’s companions, so when the work is recognized in a positive way, as with the Kirkus star, it does the heart good. I’m thrilled!

After this project evolved from straight biography to its current format, my husband, Drew, started calling it ‘documentary fiction’. Think of it as the book equivalent of a film documentary in which individuals with some connection to the subject share their thoughts and experiences amidst historical photos and footage -- all filtered through a writer’s imagination. I included as much factual information
as I could, while filling in the gaps with some informed speculation (my best guess) about what might have happened to, or been said about, Lewis.

What was your family’s response when you told them about this project?

They were -- and are -- happy, supportive, proud.

Were you able to find any writings or journals of any kind that were kept by Lewis or his brothers Lightfoot and Norris?

No, but I was able to acquire audio tapes and transcripts of interviews with Lewis. Reading his words and hearing his voice were invaluable to developing his character in No Crystal Stair. There’s a short, online clip of Lightfoot preaching that is priceless.

In the book there are photographs of a lot of important African Americans including Malcolm X and some of the Black Panthers. Also, I was actually surprised (happily so) that you really got into the close relationship Lewis had with Malcolm X, a man who was important to the movement, yet seems to be overlooked a lot. Were you ever worried your publisher would say don't focus so much on Malcolm X?

Actually my editor, Andrew Karre, was very excited about Lewis’s friendship with Malcolm X and, early in the process, I thought he might want me to expand this aspect of the story. But Malcolm is such a powerful and fascinating figure, he could easily have taken over the story. Andrew and I worked together to keep him in perspective, to include only Malcolm X materials which were relevant to Lewis’s story. It is, after all, Lewis’s story.

There's a photo of Nikki Giovanni's first book of poems, Black Feeling, Black Talk, published in 1967, along with her thoughts on the National Memorial African Bookstore.

Did you have the opportunity to interview Giovanni?

Yes, by telephone. It was one of the wonderful gifts that working on the project provided. She was kind, funny, and generous with her time and stories.

Interspersed throughout are files that the FBI kept on Lewis Michaux. How did you know such files existed?

I suspected they might exist for several reasons: the rallies that were held outside the store; Lewis’s black nationalist, often controversial, views combined with his outspoken nature; and his close relationship with Malcolm X.

Did Lewis really let people who couldn't buy a book read for free in a back room?

My research says he did. It was a crowded space and his office was back there, so he may not have directed everyone to the office area, but customers certainly could read in the store. I even have an old photo showing the store with a sign out front that reads, “Harlem’s Most Complete Lending Library.”

Lewis Michaux and the National Memorial African Bookstore was a great influence on the Black community. Why do you think a book hasn’t been written about Lewis or his bookstore before now?

Honestly, I don’t know. There were articles about him and the interviews I noted earlier. He and the bookstore are mentioned in numerous books, but none solely on him. This is one of the reasons it was important for me to take on the task. But I don’t consider No Crystal Stair the definitive work on Lewis Michaux.

I was telling a friend (while in a bookstore) who has worked at several, including black owned, about No Crystal Stair. In return she told me about a Swedish documentary she watched recently called The Black Power Mixtape. Have you seen it yet?

Lewis Jr. told me about it, but I have not yet had the opportunity to view it. I look forward to seeing it. I haven't had a chance to watch the documentary either but I have seen a few clips, including one with Lewis Michaux.

Were you ever worried about capturing the essence of your great uncle's larger-than-life personality?

Yes. This is a major reason I abandoned the straight biography and shifted to documentary fiction. Those early attempts lacked the heart I hope I was able to convey in the final book. The new format gave me more options and flexibility to help readers see Lewis’s spirit, his intelligence, his charm, as well as his weaknesses.

Many book lovers, no matter their age, have dreamed of owning a bookstore. Do you think or hope Lewis Michaux’s success with the National Memorial African Bookstore will inspire someone to ignore today's obstacles and take a chance on their own store?

I love spending an afternoon in a cozy independent book store and patronize these stores when I can. It would be a fine thing if reading about Lewis led others to take on the challenge of opening stores of their own. As you suggest, there are obstacles today that didn’t exist when Lewis was in business, but Lewis had to overcome many difficulties, too. Owning and operating a bookstore is hard work whatever the time period. It would take passion and courage to take the risk, but passion and courage often lead to great things.

Vaunda, thanks so much for your time. I hope you and No Crystal Stair have a great year.

Thank you for your kind enthusiasm for No Crystal Stair.


Marian said...

Sounds like a fascinating book. I'm one of those who dreams of owning an independent bookstore, so I think I would enjoy it.

Carl Scott said...

What an interesting interview. I'm glad to hear that these pieces of history are being kept alive. Thank you and my thanks to Ms. Nelson as well.

Wilhelmina said...

Back in 1968,when I was 18, I traveled to NYC and went straight to Harlem to see Micheaux's amazing book store. Those were memorable times and the energy in the bookstore was remarkable. So many books! I can still picture it well. This book sounds wonderful.

Jessica said...

This sounds like an interesting novel!

Mona said...

What a great interview! I love reading books about books and about important African American leaders, and this book sounds like a happy intersection of the two.

I hadn't heard of this book before, but I'm intrigued and will be adding it to my to-read list.

Bonnie McCune said...

Wanted to let you know that the question of Black authors and promoting their works is featured on romance writer Delaney Diamond's blog, with lots of comments. See http://delaneydiamond.com/2012/03/26/black-authors-in-the-aa-section/ The more connections we have, the better. Bonnie McCune, author, "A Saint Comes Stumbling In"