I love stories about events that really happened and people who really lived–and kids do, too. And today I am especially pleased to share the biography of the famous mime Marcel Marceau–Monsieur Marceau–written by my friend Leda Schubert, illustrated by Gerard DuBois, and just published by Roaring Brook.
Leda opens the story with a performance–
Look at this man.
He climbs imaginary stairs.
He bows to an invisible person.
He tames an imaginary lion no one can see.
He plays a violin that isn’t there.
and then moves us into history and biography, adding the important details of Marcel Marceau’s life. Marcel Marceau’s father died in a concentration camp during World War II. The book includes this moving quote from Marceau: “The people who came back from the camps were never able to talk about it.” Marceau later said, “‘My name is Mangel. I am Jewish. Perhaps that, unconsciously, contributed towards my choice of silence.’” His statements are both accessible to young readers and thought-provoking to older readers. Very wonderful.
Since this blog has a focus of non-fiction, I asked Leda if she would answer a few questions about writing non-fiction. And she generously agreed.
1. What inspired you to write about Marcel Marceau?
I had, of course, known about Marcel Marceau for most of my life. In my senior year in college, I even took a course in mime, having fulfilled a vast array of academic requirements. But it was a note from my agent, Steven Chudney, when M. Marceau died that propelled me into investigating his life, and then I was hooked.
2. The book has a very satisfying pattern of first taking readers to a performance and then giving us some biography/history, during which we hear Marcel Marceau’s voice. Then we see more of the performance. And then more biography. This alternation works so well. Can you talk about how you arrived at that format for the book?
Jackie, you probably know better than I do how mysterious the process of writing a book can be. The first line came to me out of the blue, and it never changed, which is unusual. The rest fell into place, more or less, after a great deal of research. The truth is that I began writing and researching right around September 23, 2007, the day after Marceau died. Five years ago! Given the truly tragic state of my brain cells, some of the process details (most, actually) have faded. Interestingly enough, I was just talking about the book with a friend in my teeny writing group, and she commented on how the tenses change. Present tense during performances, past when describing his life. I can’t remember doing that consciously! It just happened.
And the present tense works so well to put readers right there in the audience.
3. What was the hardest piece of writing this book?
I think the hardest part was figuring out what the core of this story would be. A picture book biography needs an arc of some sort, but it’s not exactly easy to fit an entire life into fewer than 800 words. So we writers must first immerse ourselves in the life of our subject and then begin choosing what to tell and how to tell it. Same for adult biographers, of course. At first I thought the World War II material shouldn’t be included, because this is a picture book, after all. But then I understood that there was no way I could leave it out; that it formed Marceau’s life and that it was a good part of what drew me–and my editor, Neal Porter– to his story. Once I revised that section, I felt I could move forward. I already knew a great deal about the western front in World War II, but I knew nothing about Marceau’s part. So I needed to decide what to do about the evacuation of Strasbourg, the concentration camps, and Marceau’s bravery in the face of unimaginable terror. Then there was the rest of his life! I hope I did a good job.
You did a wonderful job. The contrast between his early life, with its courage and sorrow, and his life as an entertainer is one thing that makes this story so moving and so right for readers of all ages. It made me hungry to know more about Marcel Marceau. And I also loved the added information–tips for readers who would like to try miming from Rob Mermin of Circus Smirkus.
4. You have also written Ballet of the Elephants (Roaring Brook, 2006), a non-fiction story about the performance of 50 elephants and fifty human dancers, choreographed by George Balanchine with music by Igor Stravinsky. How do you decide when you want to tell a non-fiction story as opposed to using the same material to inspire a fiction story?
It comes down to this: something grabs my imagination and worms its way into my sleeping and waking hours. Soon I find myself unable to let go of a sentence or an image, and I’m off and running. Plus I love research, so non-fiction has its own huge appeal for me. Is it the same for you? Your SNOWFLAKE BENTLEY remains one of my all-time favorite books. I’d love to know how you arrived at those opening sentences!
5. Do you have any words of advice for those who have never written non-fiction but would like to try?
See answer to number four. Read widely. Read things you’re curious about, read lots of the kind of books you might want to write. Read newspapers. Search obituaries. Start a clippings file/Word file of things that pop out at you and awaken your curiosity. Review it periodically. Find something that won’t let you go. Write from a place of absolute passion, if not obsession–that’s crucial. Example for me: there was a woman who ran the world’s only nut museum. I’ve been pondering this for years.
6. Is there a question you would like to answer that I did not ask?
Yes. “How do you feel about the art of Gerard DuBois?”
Answer: I am in awe of his work. I thought–truly–that this book would be next to impossible to illustrate. So much is invisible! Thanks to Neal Porter who found M. DuBois, and thanks to Gerard DuBois himself, the illustrations exceed by 1000 times any expectations I had. I dance for joy.
I agree, the illustrations are a perfect fit.
Thanks so much Leda, for the interview and for the wonderful new book.