Writing/Righting History & Getting Toddlers to Eat – Author Delin Colón Three Random Questions Interview

delinglasses1aDelin Colón is a writer and freelance editor with a background in clinical psychology.

Bonnie Ferrante: Welcome, Delin. You have had a number of career paths. Tell us a little about them and how they led to your writing.

Delin Colón: Thank you, Bonnie. Actually, I wrote my first poem at the age of eight (in 1958). Several were published in minor literary magazines during my high school and college years. Then came essays and short stories.

While I had majored in French and French literature in my undergraduate years, I turned to clinical psychology in graduate school which combined my love of research and working with people, and led to counseling children and adults in a variety of clinical settings such as psychiatric hospitals, halfway houses, walk-in clinics and a juvenile detention center. This background led to a job as a technical writer for Sociological Abstracts. I loved the challenge of reducing an experiment or study down to four sentences describing the essence of the article.

A decade or so later, as the co-owner and manager of a stairbuilding company, I saw a need in the marketplace for a clearinghouse of all kinds of writers and formed a company that matched freelance writers with jobs. But the real impetus for publishing my first book, Rasputin and the Jews, came from reading the memoirs of my great-great uncle who spent a decade as Gregory Rasputin’s secretary/manager.

Ferrante: You have written two very different books, a historical nonfiction called Rasputin and the Jews and a picture booked titled Zeke Will Not Eat. Let’s talk about the first one for a bit. How much research did that involve? Did you have the plot and then do the research or did you discover the plot as you researched?

Colón: Actually, Rasputin and the Jews: A Reversal of History is the culmination of 15 years of researching the writings of people who knew Rasputin. My father had always told me that his great uncle, Aron Simanovitch, had been Rasputin’s secretary. For years I tried to research my ancestor but with little luck until the late 1990s when I found, on the internet, an out-of-print copy of Simanovitch’s memoirs in French. It did not seem to have been professionally edited at all, as there was a lot of repetition and poor organization of the manuscript. However, what struck me about it, first of all, was that my great-great uncle was one of the few Jews permitted to live outside Russia’s Pale of Settlement where most Jews were confined. But even more importantly, his memoirs conveyed a completely different image of Rasputin than history and myth have recorded.

My second book was my English translation, with historical annotations, of Simanovitch’s memoirs, titled Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary by Aron Simanovitch.

Ferrante: How do you organize your research and make it easy to find something you read later on? I read that you worked on the book for 15 years. You must have been buried in documents.

Colón: Most of the books I read about Rasputin propagated the demonic myth that had been fabricated by the Russian nobility to discredit him. But there were quite a few quotes and memoirs from those who knew him intimately, on a nearly daily basis (such as my great-great uncle and Maria Rasputin), that told the story of a humanitarian (who, okay, loved to party) who, contrary to government policy and to the wrath of the aristocracy, advocated equal rights for oppressed minorities as well a voice in government for all citizens.

With regard to organizing the research, I used a simple index card file with the subject and date of the quote or event at the top, the quote in the body of the card, and the title, author and page of the resource information at the bottom. The cards were then organized by subject matter and then chronologically within each chapter’s subject.

Ferrante: Can you give us a sentence or two about Rasputin and the Jews?

Colón: Rasputin and The Jews: A Reversal of History is the product of research providing evidence that the Russian nobility, clergy and bureaucracy conspired in a smear campaign against Rasputin because they saw him as dangerous:

  1. for advocating equal rights for Jews (in opposition to the laws restricting their lives)
  2. for the popularity of his upbeat sermons of a loving God (in contrast to the fear of God preached in the Russian Orthodox Church)
  3. for being anti-war and preaching peace during World War I.
  4. and for believing that all citizens should have a say in government…the biggest threat to the nobility.

Ferrante: Why did you challenge the tradition beliefs about Rasputin?

Colón: History is written by the victors, not by the common man.  It became clear to me that Rasputin became a collateral victim of, among other things, the virulent anti-Semitism of the aristocracy, bureaucracy and clergy. My research revealed that it was not only my ancestor’s experience that Rasputin was a generous man, a healer and a progressive humanitarian, but that others who knew him well witnessed the same traits, refuting the demonic image. For me, it was a matter of righting a century-old injustice. Interestingly, Rasputin and The Jews led me to a correspondence with Rasputin’s great-great granddaughter in France. She tours Europe and Russia lecturing to dispel the myths about Rasputin.

Click on the cover to buy Rasputin and the Jews

Ferrante: Your latest book is a picture book for children, Zeke Will Not Eat.  Why did you choose this subject?

Colón: I’m in the process of writing a series of books for 2 to 6 year-olds, addressing typical toddler issues. Zeke Will Not Eat is the second one. I’ve done some research on the most common problems parents of this age group face and not eating is high on the list. The first book, Katy Rose Likes To Say NO!, addresses that stage where children assert their independence and establish themselves as separate from their parents by saying “no.”

Click on the picture to buy Katy Rose Likes to Say NO!

Ferrante: Did the technique used in the book come from personal experience?

Colón: Yes it did. It was a technique I devised for myself as a child, using my imagination to make mealtime more interesting for myself. It was completely internal and not something I mentioned to my parents or siblings.

Ferrante: Do you have any other tips for parents having mealtime difficulties with a child?

Colón: At the beginning of each of these little books, there is a note to parents explaining the behavior and its purpose in the child’s development. With Zeke, I note that, barring medical issues, there are a variety of reasons for a child’s unwillingness to sit down at the table for a meal, from filling up on snacks and drinks too close to mealtime, to feeling excluded from the conversation, or simply exercising newly found manipulative abilities.

Click on the cover to buy Zeke Will Not Eat

In Katy Rose, my note to parents stresses that it is not only normal, but developmentally necessary for children to go through a “no” phase in order to assert themselves in the world and establish a Self, an identity separate from their parents. As powerless beings subject to adult authority, “no” is often a child’s first taste of power and individuality. But when it becomes routine defiance or is hurtful to friends, it is an opportunity to teach compassion and the unfortunate consequences of negativity. There is also discussion on when it is important to say “no.” One way to avoid “no” is to make statements rather than ask questions, reducing the possibility of options. Rather than asking, “Do you want to go for a walk?” saying, “Let’s go…” or “Now we’ll go…” assumes the event will occur and doesn’t give an option.

Ferrante: The illustrations seemed odd at first glance until I read how they were done using the same 150 shapes arranged and rearranged to create pictures. Why did you choose this technique?

Colón: I grew up in a small town on the east coast that was essentially an artists’ colony. My mother is an artist and we were always given art projects to do, in a variety of media. One of the most famous artists in our town was Ben Shahn. His teenage daughter, Susie, happened to be visiting at my friend’s house when I was about 7 years old. She sat us kids down on the floor, cut a huge variety of shapes from construction paper and had us arrange the shapes into an image on a blank piece of paper. It was like doing a jigsaw puzzle with no ‘right’ outcome; just whatever our imaginations could conjure.

I’ve been enamored of this technique ever since, and have a website of other images I’ve created, in addition to the book illustrations. (http://delin-colon.pixels.com/)

I have nothing in mind when cutting the pieces of varying shapes, lengths and sizes. The challenge is in turning them into illustrations that convey the text. One image might take a couple of days to a week to produce. By the way, all of the pieces used in Katy Rose were also used in Zeke, with a few dozen more added for the latter. Instructions for doing such a parent-child art project are at the back of each book. Alternatively, a child could color in the black and white images, as one would in a coloring book.

Ferrante: I don’t think people realize how challenging it is until they try it.

What are you working on now?

Colón: I’m conjuring the third book in the series which will be about telling the truth, a more difficult and abstract concept than the first two. Interestingly, my research revealed a study showing that children are more likely to tell the truth after hearing positive stories (like George Washington being praised for admitting he chopped down the cherry tree) than they are after hearing stories with negative consequences for lying (like The Boy Who Cried Wolf or Pinocchio

In addition, I have half a dozen rough chapters of an existential coming-of-age novel illustrating how Self and Identity are shaped and the conundrum that there is no absolute Self without outside influences.

Ferrante: Interesting. That’s similar to Buddhism.

Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to share with my readers?

Colón: This is the most thorough and in-depth interview I’ve done, with questions that pertain specifically to my work, as opposed to the general, stock questions that others ask every writer. I’ve really had to think about them. I just hope that your readers find some of my work of interest.

Ferrante: I’m sure parents of toddlers will appreciate your tips.

Three Random Questions:

Ferrante: What was the craziest thing you ever bought?

Colón:   I’ve never been a lover of shopping and have generally stuck to practical items but several decades ago I was intrigued by an ad for an electric device that could be set at various brain wave frequencies to induce alertness, memory, sleep, creativity, or relaxation. I was especially interested in increasing the Theta waves for creativity. At different times, I tried each different setting, wearing dark goggles that pulsed light flashes at different rates and head phones that played tones in the desired frequencies. They all tended to produce the same result for me: I’d fall asleep and have some very bizarre dreams. Not long after, I’d be awakened by one of my teenagers asking when dinner would be ready. Frankly, I never noticed any greater creativity, fatigue or relaxation in the ensuing meal preparations.

Ferrante: In your opinion, what song has the most beautiful chorus?

Colón: That’s a tough one. I guess the one closest to my heart would be Helen Reddy’s “You and Me Against the World:”

You and me against the world,
Sometimes it seems like you and me against the world,
When all the others turn their backs and walk away,
You can count on me to stay.

It describes perfectly the close relationship I had with my older son, a musician who, even at the age of 27, before his death eight years ago, proudly described himself as “mama’s boy.”

The song continues:

And when one of us is gone,
And one of us is left to carry on,
Then remembering will have to do,
Our memories alone will get us through
Think about the days of me and you,
Of you and me against the world.

Ferrante: Oh, I am so sorry. I can’t imagine losing my son. My deepest condolences.

Last question. Do you like your first name? What would you like to have been called?

Colón: I do like my first name (accent on the second syllable: de-LIN) mostly because I created it. It is not the name on my birth certificate, but a mash-up of my names that I’ve been using for over 50 years. I was given a Hebrew name, Chana Dvora, and though I like it, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, especially with the guttural “ch.” But if I had it to do over, from scratch, I always thought “Kate” suited me.

Again, Bonnie, thank you so much for this opportunity. I don’t think I’ve ever given such a heartfelt interview … probably because I was never asked such well-considered questions.

Ferrante: Thank you. I try to make my interviews unique to the interviewee. You’ve shared a lot of information with us. This is, by far, the longest interview I’ve printed but it is chock full of value and cool ideas. Thank you for participating.

Zeke Will Not Eat was reviewed on this blog March 20, 2017.

Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages

Three random questions are from a Bit of Banter, the Game That Gets You Talking)

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