KN: Where did the spark for Across the Alley come from?
RM: The lovely thing about writing is that sparks come from so many directions, and if you are lucky, they somehow fuse themselves into a single whole in your mind.
Prior to beginning this book, my son was practicing violin daily (under duress), and wishing he could be outside playing ball (in his case, soccer, not baseball). During that same period I was invited to give a talk in Brooklyn, and missing my turn (pre-GPS) I happened to drive though my old neighborhood for the first time in many years.
When I was born, East New York, Brooklyn, was 90-percent Jewish. A short 12 years later, less than 10 percent of those living in the neighborhood were Jews. Across the Alley, is set at the 50/50 tipping point, when Jewish kids and black children shared the streets equally, but rarely played together. In this case Abe and Willie’s bedroom windows face each other’s and they become secret best friends.
KN: You grew up in Brooklyn. Did you have a friend across the alley?
RM: I did, but not to the same extent that Abe befriends Willie, nor was I as courageous as these two boys in stepping out of my comfort zone. What fiction allows us, of course, is to reinvent our lives (less generously called, as my mother might say, “lying”), and both complicate or improve on our personal history.
KN: What would you like readers to know about violinist, Jascha Heifetz?
RM: Just listen to the music! His tonal beauty is unmatched, setting the standard against which violinists are measured to this day. But I admit that for my purposes I was mostly drawn to the music of his name—Jascha Heifetz. The four syllables roll off the tongue, and I love reading them aloud.
KN: Why did you choose to include Abe’s grandfather instead of his mother or father?
RM: Hmm. I don’t know if this has a definitive answer, as I did play with different family relationships for both boys. But I’d recently finished my books Too Young for Yiddish, which involves a Jewish boy and his grandfather; and Happy Feet, about a black child and his father; and I didn’t seem quite done with those relationship structures. Also the age range worked, as I needed a Jewish character whose mental outlook would have been shaped by the Holocaust, and a black character who was stuck in the mindset of the world at the time of the Negro Leagues. I wanted the adults to be forced to confront their prejudices and find a new zest for life through the achievements of Willie and Abe.
KN: Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?
RM: Sure. Along with Across the Alley, a number of my titles deal with racial issues and hopefully provide a good starting point for classroom discussion. Busing Brewster published this week (!!!!) is about a black child bused to an all white school and As Good As Anybody: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King’s Amazing March Towards Freedom is about the real life friendship of these two great religious leaders. You can read more about these and my other books on my site www.RichardMichelson.com;
KN: Thanks for the interview.
RM: Thank you, Kate, for providing this valuable opportunity for authors to make our books better known to educators and readers.