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My Captain America: Remembering a comic book artist grandfather

On the podcast: Alumna Megan Margulies discusses her debut memoir, "My Captain America."

Find the full transcript after the Episode Notes.

Episode notes

About the guest

My Captain America book cover

In her debut, My Captain America: A Granddaughter's Memoir of a Legendary Comic Book Artist, alumna Megan Margulies ’08 writes about coming of age in New York City and her beloved “Daddy Joe,” aka her grandfather Joe Simon, a cartoonist and co-creator of Captain America.

In this episode, Megan discusses her relationship with her grandfather, writing as a mother of young kids, getting the perfect cover for her book, and having her mom read her work.

Fellow memoirist and Lesley University MFA in Creative Writing faculty Rachel Manley interviews Megan.

Check out all of our episodes, show notes, and transcripts on our podcast page or just go ahead and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts or Spotify.

  • Transcript

    Georgia Sparling

    This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode we bring you authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life.

    Rachel Manley

    I'm Rachel Manley, a writer and a faculty member at Lesley's Creative writing program. It's really very special for me today to be here talking to Megan about her book, My Captain America, because I think it was in Megan's first term at Lesley that she was my student. She had these wonderfully evocative, very elegant, stories about growing up in a tiny apartment with her family in New York. Her great escape was going to her grandfather's studio Midtown. There were all sorts of stories about the tiny flat and her family and the very seedy neighborhood she lived in and all the adventures outside the home.

    But what I got out of it, that meant so much to me, was this remarkable grandfather. Now you have to understand that I am a Jamaican, I had never heard of Captain America. So he was just this special grandfather that Megan had gifted me with. I had quite a battle convincing her, and I didn't know I had convinced her, that this was really her story. So Megan, it's lovely you're here. Welcome. And I'd love you to read maybe a little from your Captain America.

    Megan Margulies

    Well, thank you so much for having me, Rachel. I'm honored that you're taking the time to speak with me. Just to note, Rachel was one of my favorite mentors at the program and you absolutely inspired me to do this book. So I'll do a little reading here. Some of this material was actually from my thesis at the end of the program, which was quite a while ago, it feels, maybe 12 years ago. And it's when I'm visiting my grandfather as a child with my mom.

    "It was just past 11am when my mom led us into daddy Joe's apartment with her key, he was still asleep. Aside from the faint snores from his bedroom, the apartment was quiet. The almost noon light illuminated Gus mode swirling above canisters of paint brushes, pens and scraps of paper on the drawing table.

    'Wake him up,' she said, 'it's late.' I pushed open the bedroom door just enough to catch a glimpse of him sleeping. He was tangled in a worn blanket filled with down, his feet sticking out the bottom cradling each other, as if to keep from falling off the edge of the bed. Years later as an adult waking in my Boston bed, I noticed how my feet spooned each other in the same way. My pale calves almost identical to daddy Joe's.

    'Daddy Joe, were here.' I whispered from the doorway. After a few sharp quick snores, he slowly climbed out of his dream. 'Hi baby. What time is it? I need coffee.' He pulled himself out of bed with a few close screams of effort and headed to the bathroom for a loud morning pee accented by a fart. I heard the sink turn on as he splashed some water on his face, looked in the mirror and screamed like a woman. 'I'm so ugly.' A dramatic stumble to the kitchen and he was up. The sound of his ancient coffeemaker gurgling to life signal the official start of his day.

    I was only three days old when I first visited Daddy Joe's apartment. Roosevelt Hospital, where I was born, was a few blocks away. One of the first photographs of me was taken in his kitchen. My dad holding my small body and his palms like a loaf of bread. I was the first grandchild in the family and so my nickname for daddy Joe, coined when I was about five years old,stuck.

    His kitchen table, really a small desk against the wall, was covered in containers of almonds, sugar free candy, and old copies of the New York Post. Taking up most of his living room was the drawing table covered with notes, doodles, old pens and pencils that solidified how special he was to the rest of the world. That was where he became Joe Simon, the comic book legend. On his wall, above his electric typewriter, there were a number of pieces of art. One of them, a portrait of him done by Stan Kay, a comic book artist most known for his work on the Superman comics beginning in 1945.

    'This was when I was young and handsome,' Daddy Joe said. 'Stan has since deceased, probably while drawing this ugly face.' He laughed, and then stopped abruptly. 'That's not funny. Rest in peace, Stan.'

    While my mom has a pile of dishes in the sink, I stood beside him at his drawing table. His morning breath mixed with coffee seemed to form a cloud above us as he unearthed a sheet of paper from the night before. It was the start of a Captain America sketch that showed the hero leaping across the page. I could watch Daddy Joe move over the paper forever, shifting my weight from one leg to the other, listening to my mom trying to make sense of his kitchen and the mess of his late night cooking escapades.

    Rachel 

    That is so beautiful. Is it any wonder that I fell in love with Daddy Joe? [laughs] As a child, I grew up with my grandparents, and I had a grandmother who was a sculptor, and I used to go in her studio. I couldn't draw, which she encouraged me to do, so she ended up encouraging me to write poetry. I wonder, Megan, to what extent do you think your experience being there with your grandfather and watching him work his own process of work, to what extent do you think that this inspired you? That this may be the reason that you became a writer? Do you think you would have become a writer, anyway? Could you talk a little bit about the influence that that experience had on you?

    Megan 

    Sure. I mean, that's funny, your story because I watched my grandfather draw all the time, and I so desperately wanted his talent. My grandmother, my dad's mother, got me into poetry. She was an artist as well, but it was something she did, I'd say, more privately. It was just something she did at home and, for a while, didn't really show many people. Daddy Joe was the complete opposite. His artistic work was out there in the world. He had so much confidence in it, and success that seeing him, an artist be successful--And not only his success, just be so comfortable with that being his profession, and knowing his history of being in high school and just knowing "I'm going to be an artist, this is what I'm going to do," coming from parents who had very little money, and he still had that confidence. It really instilled the confidence in me.

    He knew that I loved to write and he always liked to make sure I understood that he was a writer as well. He wasn't just the visual artist.  He was always so supportive. I think that that's what inspired me was just seeing him have this profession and there were no doubts ever in his mind that this was going to happen. So I said, "You know what, this is what I'm gonna do." I always say, I'm not a very optimistic person. But it's funny, I think, with his help, that was one thing I always from a very young age knew that I was going to write a book. I just knew it was gonna happen. I wish he was alive to see it happen. But the fact that my first book centers around him so much and as a tribute to him, I feel very fortunate.

    Rachel 

    Well, I'm certain wherever he is, he's very proud of you. I wonder, Megan, when you were writing at university, you were, as far as I know, single. Now that you are married with two small children, two daughters, I wonder, could you describe your work routine every day? Do you catch time when you can? Do you have a regular routine at a certain hour? How do you manage writing and being a mother?

    Megan 

    It's funny, because I feel like when I was younger, and in the program, I had a full time job, but that doesn't necessarily compare to having two small children. [laughs]  When I had more time, I found it harder to really discipline myself to write. And it was when my first child was born, when she was, I'd say, six months old, I decided to really go for it. I think having such limited time to actually focus on it kind of lit a fire under my ass a little bit that I needed. You know, it could be different for everyone, but just having the nap times, I'm a firm believer in early bedtimes for the children, [laughs] so get them out of my hair, and I have some time after they're in bed. And obviously, childcare whenever I can manage.

    It's funny, I really did some of my better and most of my writing when my first child was very little, and I was truly, truly exhausted. You don't really have the brain capacity when you're that tired and your time is that limited to worry about all those other little things that get in the way of writing. So it was it was a good way to have sort of laser focus on the writing.

    Rachel 

    So now, your mother. I found your mother quite a character. And, in a way, even though there was this special bond between you and your grandfather, your mother had a sort of supportive understanding, even if somewhat exasperated at times, about her own father, your Daddy Joe. I remember her scenes coming in and fixing food for him and tidying up the place as though this was what she could do to facilitate this creative genius that was her father. I wonder, do you have the same sort of relationship with your mother now? To what extent is she, again, a strong support to an artist in her family?

    Megan 

    My poor mom. [laughs] No, not even that I'm a writer. It's that I write memoir and personal essays. [laughs]  You have to feel for the woman. I think about, you know, if one of my daughters told me they were gonna start writing about their childhoods, [laughs] I'd be a little nervous. But yeah, I mean, I think there was a bit of anxiety on her part. A lot of the teenage scenes from my book are us fighting. We had a lot of issues when I was a teenager and being in a small apartment. So only naturally, we fought a lot. And I think she was a little nervous about that being out in the world, but I made sure to let her read the material before it was finalized.

    I allowed her to have a few chances at axing some material. If she was completely uncomfortable with it, I took it out. But she surprised me and she let me keep in most of what I had. There are a few moments of trying to make me feel guilty about what I write about. But she's sort of like half joking about it. And that's all I can ask for, is that she allows me to speak my truth. She kind of wills with her uncomfortable, [laughs] whatever is making her uncomfortable she deals with it, and she doesn't burden me with it as much as she could. And I think just that, in itself, is very supportive. You can't expect your loved ones, when you're writing memoir, you can't expect them to be 100% "Yay" for it, "I'm totally fine with all of this." But it's sort of a sacrifice you have to decide you're going to make.

    Rachel 

    Yes. Well, I know that story well. Maybe I was lucky because my family, they were already public figures. So I think they'd already been analyzed to death. So they weren't that sensitive about it. Well, that's interesting.

    I'd love to talk about your book cover. I think it's absolutely eye-catching, spectacular. I love it. I really love it. I wish I'd ever had such a book cover. I wondered, could you tell me a bit about it? Who designed it? What the concept was? What was it that they wanted to emphasize if it was a publisher? Or was it all your doing? Could you talk a bit about that?

    Megan 

    Yeah, there was a lot of drama with the book cover. Something I learned is that I didn't realize it would be such a fight to get the cover I wanted. I mean, you're fighting with the publisher, and editor and your agent, and you know, everyone has their opinions. But I was sent two cover options. And when I saw this one, I just burst into tears. Because I just felt like it captured so beautifully every theme of the book. I believe the publisher hired, I think it was Face Out Studios in Portland, Oregon, and I actually just got an email from the artist there who designed it, asking if he could get a signed copy of the book. And I was so excited to get the email from him because I wanted him to know how much it meant to me and how much I loved it. I was thrilled to hear he was a huge Captain America fan, so that was an added bonus.

    So actually, my agent and I, we were both in love with this cover. And the publisher wanted the other option that was sent. And it was really also a beautiful cover, no doubt. But it just it had the feel of a nonfiction history of comics type of book. And I just felt like the memoir, the coming of age theme just was completely gone. So we had many emails and my agent fought like hell for me. We had a big conference call with the publisher, you know, I'm trying to make her point why it was the better cover. And we were so happy we got an email the next day totally taken by surprise. My agent said it's really hard to change their minds, you know, "Don't get your hopes up. I'm going to try my best." And then we got an email the next day saying they were gonna let us have the cover.

    Rachel 

    Have you had more of a response from comic book aficionados, Captain America lovers, or just literary readers who love memoir?

    Megan 

    Very little literary readers. And I think this was the biggest hurdle for this book and I'm not quite sure that it made the hurdle, that it got over the hurdle. I think having, you know, memoir in general is sort of female driven. The audience is a bit more on the female side and comic books, as we know, generally, there are women who love comic books, but generally it's seen as a male market. I think it was very tough to have both of those themes together. I think the market really has been comic book lovers.

    I'm always thrilled to get the email from people who don't love comic books a and they still read it and they still get so much out of it, because they see that it, at the heart of the book, it's about love and loss and not just a human, not just my grandfather, but also the place we're from, New York City for me. I really appreciate when people sort of look past that idea. "Well, I you know, I'm not obsessed. I'm not in love with comic books," but they kind of see the book beyond that.

    Rachel 

    Well, I think you'll be pleased to know that actually, this semester, there are three men writing memoir, in our Lesley class. So it's coming around, the genre. And talking of Lesley, I would love you to speak a little bit about the whole process of creative writing schools. You did your MFA with us at Lesley. I never had workshops or writing schools when I was a kid and that was very long ago in Jamaica. So I had to kind of invent the wheel as I went along, which we all have to do to a certain extent, because all our books have separate challenges. But I wonder to what extent did the Lesley experience impact not just on this work, which started as your thesis, but on you as a writer? And possibly what you could say to other young writers, emerging writers who might be thinking of going to a writing school?

    Megan 

    Sure. I think, you know, looking back and working on my book now, I often wonder if I should have done the program a little later, I think I was about 25. But then I realized that there was so much that I got out of the program at such a young age. And it was simply just being around other people who loved writing as much as I did, and who took it as seriously as I did. And being workshopped with mentors, like yourself, who took my writing seriously, was so helpful, much in the same way as just seeing my grandfather be successful in his work and take it seriously.

    I had always loved creative writing, since I was a child, and it was something, I guess you could say I did it for fun. And then when I was 24-25, and I was working full time at Harvard, I just missed that part of my life. I wasn't writing and I knew it shouldn't be missing from my life. So, I was so happy to find a program nearby that I could keep my job, pay my bills, but also take my writing seriously, and give it that moment in my life to really take over and be real. I look back at my writing 12 years ago, and I think, "Oh, you know, I don't think I was very good, then [laughs]." But I don't think that was really what mattered for me in the program at the time. It was just learning that this was a craft that could be important in my life, and that would be okay, if it did take such a large place in my life.

    Rachel 

    I wonder, did you keep in touch with any of your cohort? Several people from sort of loose knit writing groups that meet now and again to talk about their work. Has that been your experience?

    Megan 

    One of my dearest friends was from the program and we kept in touch. And she's always one of the first people I reached out to with anything writing related in my life. I consider her as someone who was there from the beginning. And, yeah, there's a few others that I've kept in contact with. And, you know, they haven't made writing their career. But it's just, it's so nice to find that community of writers, even if it's not their career now. We have this understanding of how just having writing in our lives in any way we can is so important for us. I feel like if you have that writing bug, it's as important as air for you. You can't be happy without it.

    Rachel 

    I know exactly what you mean. And in fact, I have found such a community of like-minded souls at Lesley, not just with the faculty, but with students like you, who I have kept in touch with. A quick question that I just wanted  to ask before I get to my last question, is to what extent were you aware, growing up, of the history of Captain America, of the sort of post World War II climate in America that gave birth to him? Were you aware of that at all? Or it was just a comic book?

     

    Megan 

    It was just a comic book, I had no clue. And when I was writing the book, I had to do a lot of research because I wasn't a huge comic book fan growing up. I mean, it was just my life, like, that was my grandfather. And, you know, I would store it through, he would get a lot of free comic books, and I would pull out the Archie Comics, and Casper, the friendly ghost. Those sort of things, I always enjoyed those. If people found out who my grandfather was, and they were huge comic book fans, I always had to give, "I don't know that much about the comic book history." I had to do a lot of research to sort of round out the book. And I just so happy I did. I mean, just learning all this history. And my grandfather wrote a memoir, a year before he died. And I read it again and I just got a lot deeper into his history and the history of comic books. It was really nice for me to sort of round out the book and my relationship with him and the work that he did.

    Rachel 

    Well, finally, I have to ask you this. What comes next?

    Megan 

    You have to ask. [laughs] I'm really excited about what will come next. I'm hoping that it will come to fruition. I'm work on a book of essays, which is a little terrifying. I so wish that I had the desire to write a novel. I think I could do pretty well with it. But it's just -- so I did creative nonfiction at Lesley and it's just in my blood. I can't let it go. I had a conversation with my agent about what I should do next. Then, by the end of the conversation, I was just like, "Damn it, I'm going to do a book of essays. I have no other choice. This is what I want to do."

    So, I'm working on that and I actually will be presenting my little package to my agent in the next few weeks to see what she says. I'm just hoping and I'm praying that she likes it, that it can go somewhere. This is something that is just about me, about being a woman, being in a woman's body, and what that means and it's just very personal and I'm really excited. I loved writing this tribute to my grandfather and our relationship and I'm excited to just focus on myself and really dig deep. Get dirty.

    Rachel 

    Well, I can't wait to read them. Your beautiful writing, your wise insights. I have had such pleasure talking to you today. I wish you great luck. Or I wish you could come back to Lesley with your essays. So good luck, the best of luck to you. And thank you very much for giving me Captain America, your grandfather.

    Megan 

    Thank you, Rachel so much.

    Georgia  

    Thank you for listening to this episode of Why We Write. For more information about Megan Margulies and her book My Captain America, check out the link in our show notes. We'll also have links so you can learn more about Rachel Manley, who is a memoirist in her own right, and our MFA in Creative Writing program. We'll be back in two weeks with another episode.