Q and A with Richard Michael
Author combines sci-fi with Jewish values
By Cindy Mindell
Authors always bring their own life experiences to their writing, and Richard Michael is no exception. Michael, who became a Ba’al Tshuvah in his late 40s, returned to the Orthodox Judaism his family had drifted away from. When he started writing “New Terra and Beyond” four years ago, “I decided to try something different in science fiction,” he says, “and introduce old-time values into the story.”
A lifelong sci-fi fan, Michael, 68, grew up in East Hampton, Conn. in the ’50s and ’60s, reading Isaac Asimov, watching TV classics like “Space Patrol” and “Star Trek,” and listening to “Bantro the Planet Man” on WTIC.
He spoke with the Ledger about the life experiences that helped shape and inspire “New Terra and Beyond.”
Q: Tell us the basic plot of your book. Q: Why did you write the book?
A: While I was studying elementary education at the University of Hartford in the mid-’60s, I took a creative-writing course, and the professor told me, “Write and publish.” After I graduated, I taught, sold life insurance, washed dishes, and then worked for the Connecticut Department of Social Services for 33 years until I took a buyout in 2003.
I started thinking about the book in November 2006, and wrote until February 2007, when my mother passed away. I took it up again in April and published the book in mid-2009. I think the impetus was my work at Social Services and the phenomenon of getting older and seeing more of life. I could not have written this 30 years ago.
Q: How did your work with Social Services shape your values, and those that you bring to the story?
A: When I began working for Connecticut Social Services in 1970, I suddenly realized that I had led a sheltered life, and this was quite a shock: there were people who brought babies into the world and didn’t want to know about them – especially so if they were young men who had impregnated their girlfriends. I eventually became more or less inured to this, as a physician becomes inured to disease and death, but this by no means made it acceptable. I am no longer discouraged by this, because I now see that we are not helpless to change the situation, although it is an ongoing challenge that could last for generations.
The first thing is that children have to be taught the basic values from birth onward, not only by our preaching, but by all of us actually living them. A child growing up must see for himself or herself that the adults in the surrounding society live by these time-tested values. Of course, this will be more of a challenge if the child is being raised in a single-parent home – by Mommy, who perhaps was never married – nevertheless, the attempt should be made, even if Mommy has to someday admit to her children that she had made a mistake, and that is why there is no “Daddy.”
Personal responsibility must by taught by our leaders and our teachers, as it was when I went to public school. We have a President who said that if his daughter, who was nine at the time, were to make a mistake and become pregnant, he wouldn’t want her “punished” with a baby. How much better it would have been had he said that we all must take responsibility for the choices we make. That is what being a real leader is! If we compare this to how Sarah Palin and her daughter handled this issue in their family, we can see at a glance what this means.
Q: How did you come back to Orthodox Judaism, and how did your religiosity affect the story?
A: I started working toward living a more religious life in the early ’80s, when I was living with my wife and daughter in Middlefield. My wife became very ill and said, “When I get better, we’re going to move to New Haven and live among Jews and live as Jews are supposed to.” But she never did get better. Our daughter was already attending Southern Connecticut Hebrew Academy and I sold the house and we moved to New Haven. I felt that, because all her friends were Jewish and I always knew where they were and what they were doing, I never had to worry about what she was up to.
While I was writing the book, I consulted with a rabbi visiting from Chabad in Rechovot, Israel. I told him what I was doing and he said, “It’s fine as long as it doesn’t conflict with the Torah.” There were sections that I thought might be problematic, so I rewrote some of the book. For example, I originally had an Artificial Intelligence being composed of atoms and force fields, an invention only possible centuries down the line, which had the power to put a planet together, gather DNA, and make creatures. I thought that people might misunderstand my intention and see the character as God-like, so I decided to lessen its powers.
Q: How do you see the role of the science fiction genre in influencing values and attitudes?
A: Science fiction, as I see it, is a method for speculating what may be possible in the future in terms of scientific and technological development. Technology is only a tool, and this can be used for either good or evil – a point I think is made clear in the course of my book. I have attempted to use this genre as a backdrop for a basically moral and religious message, and at least one friend has advised me that the message was clear. I don’t think that all science fiction stories are involved with delivering moral, religious or philosophical messages, and furthermore, it is not my place to say that they should be. My point is to show that it can be done, and I think I have done it.
For more information on “New Terra and Beyond” and author Richard Michael: www.newterraandbeyond.com