While we’re happy to be featuring Julius Lester as one of our Vanguard authors, the word Vanguard doesn’t even come close to describing the type of career he’s had. Lester has published over forty books and his novels have received numerous honors, including the Newbery Honor Medal, the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, National Book Award Finalist, National Jewish Book Award Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, Boston Globe/Horn Book Award, and Coretta Scott King Award.
In addition, Lester taught for thirty-two years at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, retiring in 2003. While at the university, he was the only faculty member to have been awarded all three of the university’s most prestigious faculty awards: The Distinguished Teacher’s Award, the Faculty Fellowship Award for Distinguished Research and Scholarship, and the Chancellor’s Medal, the University’s highest honor. In addition, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education selected him as the Massachusetts State Professor of the Year in 1988.
In 2008, HarperTeen released his latest novel, Guardian – the story of the lynching of an innocent black man, and the reverberating effect that this has of a number of characters. School Library Journal said, “Lester’s compelling tale is an excellent purchase for most libraries,” and the American Library Association recently named Guardian to its 2009 Best Books For Young Adults List.
I am honored to present Julius Lester as one of our Vanguard spotlights for 28 Days Later.
You’ve stated in your author’s note to Guardian that once you began writing, the novel “came very easily” – including the scene with Zeph Davis under the bridge. While the scene with Zeph Davis was disturbing, you chose not to show other scenes as vividly and explicitly, such as the rape of Mary Susan and the lynching of Big Willie. Can you speak a little as to why you chose to construct some of these scenes as you did?
The scene of Zeph Davis under the bridge was a surprise. Sometimes when writing a novel, a character will do something that you, the writer, did not think of, and this was certainly the case with that particular scene. But as I went on with the novel I realized that this scene was necessary to set up Zeph’s murder of Mary Susan. But I didn’t know that when Zeph started walking under the bridge.
One of the questions I had to answer was how much detail to put into the rape and the lynching. The rape scene was easy, in the sense, that I did not have to go into detail to make it clear what had happened. With the lynching scene it was a matter to put in enough of the horrific details without making the reader throw up. If I’d been writing the book for an adult audience, I would have put in more details but I thought I put in enough so that the reader would be horrified. Perhaps the most horrific part of the lynching scene was the people having their pictures taken next to the body.
I was amazed by some of the information you discussed in the author’s note to Guardian. Was there any piece of information, any incident, which shocked you the most?
The most interesting information for me was the list of states and the number of lynchings that took place in each. And the most shocking piece of information was the number of whites who were lynched.
As a child of the South, I was elated when Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, as I honestly didn’t believe an event like that would happen within my lifetime. Some would argue that President Obama’s election proves that racism in the United States is on the decline. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Obama’s election certainly indicates a major change in American history. Like you, I did not expect to see a black president in my lifetime. Whether this means that racism has declined remains to be seen. If Obama turns the economy around and is reelected in 2012, I’d say racism has declined. But if Obama is perceived as failing, then we’ll see if racism rears its head again. But I think there has been a major generational shift in American consciousness in which young whites do not carry the prejudices of their parents and grandparents, and these young whites believed in Obama long before most black people did, including me. I am grateful to them for helping to bring about this enormous change.
You’ve been publishing books since 1968. What do you think has changed the most in the industry since you were first published? Are these changes for better or for worse?
The major change I’ve seen in publishing is that when I started getting published, I could call up an editor, present a book idea, and the editor would give me an answer on the phone. Now editors do not have that power. They have to present a book to a committee, and even if the editor-in-chief of a company wants to publish a book, the committee can turn down the book, and the editor-in-chief is helpless. I had this happen recently. Publishing houses are now owned by European conglomerates that care only about the bottom line, not the quality of books published. Publishers are willing to give millions of dollars to celebrities for books that don’t sell. The changes have been for the worst as far as I’m concerned.
In addition to having a long career as an author, you were also a professor in the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts. How has your teaching career affected your writing?
I taught for 32 years at the University of Massachusetts and I loved it. Teaching and writing were both very creative activities for me. Teaching kept me in touch with young people and young energy, and that was good for my writing. Things I taught in the classroom certainly made their way into my writing and vice-versa. I can’t imagine having done one without the other.
Can you tell us a little about your next project?
Presently I am involved in working on translations of French children’s books with my French teacher and close friend, Kimberly Buescher. We have just completed translating a book of stories from Senegal that have never been translated. The manuscript is presently making the rounds of publishers, and we have our fingers crossed that someone will agree with us that these are wonderful stories that children and adults will love.
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