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Jon Sternfeld never planned on promoting his new book. As a seasoned co-author (sometimes referred to as ghostwriting), his job is more often behind-the-scenes. He spends dozens of hours interviewing and getting to know his collaborators, crafting compelling biographical narratives out of their stories and memories — and when the final project hits shelves, he lets the subjects themselves shine.
He meant to do the same for Michael K. Williams. The pair met several years ago — Sternfeld had recently co-written Stone of Hope, a memoir from justice reform advocate Jim St. Germain, and Williams’ was interested in finding someone to help him write about his own political activism. They would spend three years working on what eventually became Scenes From My Life, and were nearly done with the manuscript when Williams died in September 2021. Sternfeld put the final touches on the book, submitted to the publishers, and now finds himself tasked with sharing the story of his late friend and collaborator.
“I can’t tell you how strange this is and has been,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “When Mike first passed, I was just dealing with the shock and grief, I wasn’t even thinking about things like deadlines or promotion. And now, I’m speaking about his legacy — and while I feel outmatched by the responsibility of it, I do accept it.”
Ultimately, he says he realized that his resistance to the publicity machine was doing a disservice to Williams’ story and the message he wanted to spread to his fans: “People are going to want to hear from Mike, and I talked to Mike to write this book with him.”
Scenes From My Life is just that: scenes. It portrays different snippets of memory from the late actor’s life, starting with his childhood in Flatbush, Brooklyn, moving through his young adulthood when he begins to discover a love for dance and the theater, and ending on his most memorable Hollywood roles. Threaded throughout the book is Williams’ wake-up call, of sorts, to a life of political activism — specifically centered around the subject of reimagining the youth justice system. The actor’s nephew, Dominic Dupont, was sentenced to a prison term of 25 years to life when he was only 19, and through Williams’ visits to him in prison and his work on the documentary series Raised in the System, he became a staunch advocate for reform.
“The book’s existence was meant to put these issues that he cared about in front of people, and on TV and in magazines,” Sternfeld told THR. “He wanted people to care about the kids in the system, to know about the work they were doing with his organization We Build the Block, and he wanted his story to be part of that mission.”
Ahead of the memoir’s release, Sternfeld spoke with THR about his years spent interviewing and writing for Williams, and what he hopes readers will take away from their joint efforts.
To start, I’m sure I’m not the only one who would be curious to hear how you got your start as a co-author…
It’s a good question! I was a high school English teacher for a couple years, and I realized my favorite part of the day was being in the book room, so it hit me that I wanted to be in the book world. I went to work at a literary agency, and then I became an editor at Lion’s Press. They got bought out and laid everybody off and when I was driving home from the office in Connecticut I got a message from a book editor who mentioned that a couple of senators wanted to write a book together and would I be interested in ghostwriting or co-writing? That led to other books and now eight years later this is what I do.
When you first met Mike to talk about the book, did you know right away that you were a creative match?
I was going to take the job, if offered, no matter what because I was an enormous fan. If I’m being honest, there was no way I wasn’t going to do it. When I first met Mike and his agent, I got the feeling they were interviewing me. We sat down in his agent’s office and then when it was over Mike was like great, let’s get started. I thought, oh, did I get the job (laughs.) But I was enormously moved by what he was talking about in that first meeting, which was his documentary he’d done alongside his nephew Dominic, about kids in the [prison] system.
You worked together for a longer period than is typical for a memoir; what iterations did the book take?
When he started, Mike wanted to make a book that was almost entirely through the lens of criminal justice. That’s where his heart was, it’s what activated him. Mike’s a very humble person, he didn’t want to write a book that was like: look at me, I made it. But I thought we could tell parts of his personal story that inform the work that he does, so we picked scenes from his childhood, his teenage years. The final version isn’t necessarily an autobiography, it’s a look at the pain and the struggles. He wanted people to know he knows what they’re going through because he went through it, too. I remember early on him telling me a sort of embarrassing drug story, and I asked if he was okay putting that in the book — and he said, “Yes, I don’t think I have the liberty of leaving that out.” He didn’t want to talk about how special he is, or to glorify anything. He felt a duty and obligation to everyone who would buy the book.
As the interviewer of sorts, was it hard for you to punch through his humility and convince him to tell you about his accomplishments?
The more I talked to him, the more I realized that the reason he doesn’t like being complimented — or rather, didn’t like being complimented — was he thought it let everyone else off the hook. He didn’t want to get special treatment for working with kids in the community, he wanted to normalize the idea that — and I’m speaking from his point of view here — look, we made it, but shouldn’t we go back? Are we leaving bread crumbs for people to get out of where we came from? He didn’t want that work to be newsworthy, he wanted it to be totally normal.
What, in your conversations, made him the most animated or passionate?
He talked about wanting to get in touch with his own power. In his final years he was coming to a place where he wanted to be a producer, he wanted to shepherd projects. He admitted that he had suffered from what he called the “shut up and dribble” mentality: just get on the stage and dance, or in front of the camera and act, and don’t tell these white people what you think. But he talked about understanding that his influence could get more Black filmmakers jobs or get Black perspectives into boardrooms, and that was important to him. He was dealing with a media and a Hollywood establishment that had maybe gotten used to him being very easygoing and he realized he wanted to fight for what he wanted to see in those worlds. A lot of his anger came from what he felt were these boxes that Black talent was put in. He would talk a lot about, we have to build our own table because they’re not inviting us to the table. And ultimately that made me want to be very conscious of making sure he felt in control of this story, too. I didn’t want this to be another stage he was put on.
What portion of the book, or story that he told you in working on the book, are you most fond of?
I loved hearing about his origin story, which is him in front of the TV watching the Janet Jackson “Rhythm Nation” video. It was a such a moment of joy, and becoming, for him. When he talks about singing in front of the mirror with a hairbrush, or watching Soul Train, he would just light up. There’s also a good story in the book about his dad, who he was not close with, taking him to a club — and Mike sees the way the lights and the music come on and it just lit something inside of him.
Considering his filmography, and having gotten to know his story so well, which roles stand out the most to you?
I watched everything he did many times. I will say he did not want to cover all of his film and television career in the book — he did not want to go through every role. He wanted to focus on the ones that spilled over into his life. One that stands out is The Night Of, the HBO series he did with Riz Ahmed, where Mike plays a person that he could have become. The character is an addict, running the drug game inside the prison, and there’s so much pain in the character. Because of all that he went through, there’s a version of Mike that could have been hardened by his pain. And I know that watching Mike as Omar in The Wire was one of the defining television experiences of my life, as I’m sure it was for many people, but Mike really talked a lot about his role on When They See Us. He played a father of one of the exonerated five, then known as the Central Park Five, who allowed his son to sign a coerced confession. He talked about his own mother and the way she was always working to protect him.
Given the nature of Mike’s death, there’s a potential for the narrative around this book’s release to become more about the way he died than the way he lived. I’m curious what his hope was for the takeaway from this book, and also whether he would want there to be any sort of message offered from his death?
I know that if he were here promoting this book, he would be talking about how he didn’t want to be in the spotlight — he wanted to be the spotlight itself. He wanted to shine light on other things. He wanted to ride the wave of the book into a larger discussion in the culture. The book is meant to be very forward-looking. When it ends, you really feel him as someone who is ready to get out there more than ever and create change. Mike was in a great place in the months before he died, and I say that as someone who saw him go up and down. He was celebratory. But he would also be the first person to point out that his addiction was real, it’s serious and it never goes away. It really sucks that you’re talking to me and not him. I feel it in every interview, that Mike should be here talking about his passions, his issues.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Scenes From My Life: A Memoir is on shelves now.
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