Yona Zeldis McDonough: From Madame Alexander to Marilyn Monroe
Yona Zeldis McDonough is the talented author of many books for readers of all ages: fiction and non-fiction for adults and award-winning children’s books. She has most recently written the highly anticipated second book in her Doll Shop series, The Cats in the Doll Shop. Although a prolific writer, Yona still makes time for school visits and readings. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.
Nicki Richesin: It’s a great pleasure to interview you. You have proved a prolific writer of both fiction and nonfiction for adults, in addition to your award-winning children’s books. My daughter adored The Doll Shop Downstairs and The Cats in the Doll Shop. Could you explain how you first discovered Beatrice Alexander, or Madame Alexander as she’s known, and how her story inspired you to write about the resourceful Breittlemann family?
Yona Zeldis McDonough: I remember Madame Alexander dolls from my own childhood. I longed for them though I never had one back then. As an adult, I started collecting dolls and bought a few of Mme. Alexander’s creations for my collection. When I was reading about her early life, I found out that her father owned and operated America’s first doll hospital. It was on the Lower East Side and the family lived in an apartment above the shop. Beatrice (she was Bertha in those days) and her sisters were allowed to play in the doll hospital sometimes and when I learned that, I just knew: here was a perfect setting for a children’s story.
Many of your books are set in Brooklyn, where you live with your family. Why has this area of New York proved such a “fertile ground” as you put it in your work?
YZM: I love Brooklyn. It’s so vast and filled with its own history, character and even mysteries. It is both a part of New York, and yet retains a separate identity. I grew up in Brooklyn and so it holds many associations for me.
You’ve written a great many biographies for children, including most recently Louisa: The Life of Louisa May Alcott and The Doll with the Yellow Star. You collaborated on your earlier biographies with your mother the painter Malcah Zeldis. How did you enjoy working on these projects together?
YZM: As one friend said to me, “Your mother is not a person, she’s an event!” I very much enjoy working with her. She’s lively, passionate and has lots of great ideas. We brainstorm to find subjects on which we want to collaborate; we’re a very good team.
I understand you’re putting the finishing touches on a new biography about Laura Ingalls Wilder for Holt. Wilder has such a devoted following and even after all these years, her Little House books have remained in print. You must have felt a bit of a responsibility in honoring her memory for her fans. Did you discover any interesting details about her life?
YZM: The sheer volume of material on Wilder is formidable and I am not sure I found much that was new. However, I do think I offer a new and perhaps feminist interpretation of the material. In the bio I wrote, I tried to stress how her mother’s influence did so much to shape her life. Her mother was an educated woman, and wanted her daughters to be educated as well. She read to them, and did her best to see that they went to school, which was unusual for the time and their circumstances. Even after Laura’s older sister Mary went blind (from an illness), Laura’s mother was insistent that she receive an education, and managed to save enough money to send her to a college for the blind in another state. I was so struck by that. Most people would not have thought educating any girl was so important, yet Laura’s mother made so many sacrifices in order for Mary to have an education and become self-sufficient. And later, Laura communicated her love of learning to her own daughter Rose; Rose became a well-known journalist and author. I tried to stress the continuity there: how the love of books, of reading and writing, was forged and passed on by mothers to daughters.
I read on your blog that you’re putting together a new collection of stories loosely based on the lives of your American parents who lived in Israel during the fifties. You were born in Chadera while they lived there. What have you learned about your parents or yourself while doing your research?
YZM: I can’t say I learned anything factual about my parents or their past; even though my stories are based on real events, I have completely made them over, cannibalized them if you will, in my writing. The stories are more about the search and less about the discovery. I’ve also enlarged the canvas to include some stories about my grandmother as a child and a young woman; one of these stories takes place in Russia, a place I have never been but long to go. And in my fiction, I can.
You edited a highly praised collection of essays about Marilyn Monroe, All the Available Light: A Marilyn Monroe Reader. Why were you initially drawn to this project and why do you think Marilyn has held such a fascination for her fans? Will you go see the new film My Week with Marilyn?
YZM: She is that forever compelling combination of beautiful and damned. Her Cinderella-like transformation from unwanted orphan/abused foster child to Hollywood star fulfills a very powerful fantasy so many of us seem to have. I have mixed feelings about the new movie; MM’s presence was so incandescent on screen that I see no need to watch someone impersonate her. Yet the film will add to the discussion in some fashion and I suppose I will succumb.
What are you dreaming of writing now?
YZM: I’m working on a new novel set in 1947 in both New York and Connecticut. And I have some children’s projects, both fiction and non-fiction, that I’m hoping to get launched as well.
Nicki Richesin is the editor of four anthologies,What I Would Tell Her: 28 Devoted Dads on Bringing Up, Holding On To, and Letting Go of Their Daughters; Because I Love Her: 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond; Crush: 26 Real-Life Tales of First Love; and The May Queen: Women on Life, Work, and Pulling it all Together in your Thirties. Her anthologies have been excerpted and praised in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, Redbook, Parenting, Cosmopolitan, Bust, Salon, Daily Candy, and Babble.