Walter Dean Myers is a virtual icon in young adult literature two-time winner of the Newbery Award; four-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award; and author of numerous books, both fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose. Myers recently took time to answer a few questions about his latest book, a biography titled The Greatest: Muhammad Ali.
Why this book on Muhammad Ali?
There have been a number of books on Ali, but they don't seem to place him in a historical context. Ali came along toward the beginning of the civil rights movement, and for young African Americans he represented everything they wanted to be. He was young. He was a very attractive young man. He was outspoken, not a hater, but still he was very much "out there." Another factor that attracted people, both blacks and whites, was the fact that he was one of the first major fighters who did not seem like a naturally tough guy. Muhammad Ali's nature was sweet. You could imagine him as being this guy who did poetry "float like a butterfly; sting like a bee." I thought I could bring him into the context of that era.
What made you focus on his professional rather than his personal life?
Well, there were a couple of things. When athletes reach Ali's stardom and come from a very limited background, it is very difficult for them to even understand how to deal with this fame and with people fawning over you who didn't even know your name two weeks ago. It's very difficult for these people to deal with that. All of a sudden you're famous. That doesn't happen to writers, by the way. There's another factor, too. So many times biographies get into the area of their subject's slips from grace. It sells more books. But, it's like defining Thomas Jefferson, who was probably the greatest president this country has had, in terms of "did he have an affair with Sally Hemings?" I think it's stupid, you know.
What did you find that surprised you?
The first thing that surprised me was although he was loved as a public figure, many fighters did not like him. They respected him as a fighter, and they respected what he did for them economically that he raised the stakes. You know, among fighters there is this fraternity of pain, the idea that all these guys go through tremendous physical pain. They understand that they do this, but what they want from each other is this level of respect. Muhammad Ali didn't do that. Ali was one of the few fighters who actually ridiculed other fighters. So while many fighters respected his skills and the fact that he would fight anyone who came along, many didn't like him personally. That surprised me. Another thing that surprised me was prior to writing the book, I looked at fighting as, "Oh this was an interesting fight; this was a good fight." I really thought fighters were different from other human beings, that they could take it. It didn't hurt them as much as it would hurt us. I found that this is not the case. The guys suffered enormous physical pain. I was also surprised at how many of them were very, very, badly damaged. The danger of the damage to the bodies, the brain is just so extensive. So it's really a much more brutal sport than I ever imagined it to be.
So you haven't heard his reaction to this book?
No, I haven't heard anything yet, but I expect to.
What's your next project?
I have a book coming out about my own growing up in Harlem, looking back on my first 17 years. I'm surprised at what a bum I was. My poor mom. I'm also working on a couple of projects with my son Christopher: a book on the blues and a book of Bible stories. It's fun working with him.