***My interview with Michele Young Stone originally appeared on jamesriverwriters.org ahead of the 2010 James River Writers Conference***
Michele Young-Stone is full of surprises. From being a lightning strike survivor herself to publishing an exquisite debut novel, nothing can stop this self-proclaimed ‘glass half-full kind of gal.’
An MFA graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University, Michele has been writing creatively since she could scribble words with her crayons. Even after earning an ‘Unsatisfactory’ in First Grade for her messy handwriting, the author within prevailed.
In a starred review, Booklist called Michele’s The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, “Luminescent.” Publishers Weekly added “[she] has created a host of endearing losers—young, old, literate, and simple, all full of longing. What she does best is portray the incredulousness of the unlucky.”
QUESTION 1: How have your own life experiences guided your writing?
In major ways — My childhood and teen years weren’t “typical.” As a kid, I was a bit of an outcast. I had frizzy hair, buckteeth, and I was overweight. As a teenager, I “took a walk on the wild side.” I feel fortunate to have survived. All my experiences have really added to my writing. I’ve met a lot of unusual characters, and having been an outsider at different phases of my life, helped me to create the characters Publisher’s Weekly dubbed “endearing losers.” Like me, my “endearing losers” turn out pretty good in the end.
QUESTION 2: So many people struggle with writing believable, multi-dimensional characters. In The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, there is not a simple soul that enters your pages. Your characters are tragic and lovable, complicated but natural. What advice would you give writers about creating strong characters?
Let the characters come alive on the page. Don’t dictate to them. Rather, see where they take you. You’d be surprised at the places you’ll go. For instance, I didn’t intend for many of the characters in my book to come onto the page. They just did. I ran with it. Some of them were cut, and some (like Buckley) were essential to the story. I love all of my characters so much. I say that they come from my “monkey mind” — a term borrowed from writer Bill Tester. When the Monkey Mind is at work, it’s like a Zen state. I try not to worry about the final product. I try and enjoy the moment. I’m learning about the characters as they play out on the page.
QUESTION 3: In The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, your characters move across the country from New York to Texas to Arkansas to North Carolina. How important is it to you to personally know the locations you write about?
It is important. I did a lot of research on Chapel Hill, including interviewing residents and spending time there. I LOVE New York and have visited many times. As far as Texas and Arkansas go, I did a lot of research, but I had these images already implanted in my mind from stories I’d heard here and there over the years. There were seeds from my childhood in those places.
QUESTION 4: You earned your Masters of Fine Arts from Virginia Commonwealth University. How important was your MFA to your writing career? Would you recommend an MFA to other writers?
It was tremendously important. I went to the MFA program having previously been rejected by the same program and other programs, so by the time I got in, I took it very seriously. I knew that I had a natural ability and drive, but I didn’t know a lot of technique. I didn’t understand the importance of revision that they really drill into you in MFA school. The experience also taught me to crave constructive criticism. Anything that makes my writing better is great. I am especially grateful to Bill Tester and Tom De Haven for their support and feedback.
I would only recommend an MFA to writers who are committed to the craft. You should only go to an MFA program if you’re determined to “learn technique,” not to show off what you already know. It’s definitely about growing and trying new things.
QUESTION 5: What has your debut novel taught you about the publishing process?
More than I ever wanted to know! It’s crazy. I knew that screenwriting was a collaborative art form, but I had no idea how many people — from the agent, editor, assistant to the editor, proofreader, publicist, marketing director — were involved in publishing one novel … and there’s more. There’s a whole team of people that decide when your book should go on sale, what the cover should look like, etc. If you have time, check out the story on my book’s cover. You wouldn’t believe how many incarnations the cover had.
All that said, the thing that I carry with me wherever I am, as regards my novel’s publication, is “Yippee! Yippee! Publishing a novel has been my dream since second grade. How many people have their dreams come to fruition? Yippee!” I hope everyone will read the book and spread the word! Thanks.
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