I started writing in second grade, but I didn’t realize that I was a novelist until I couldn’t keep any of my short stories under twenty-five pages. I had dreamed of being a published writer since second grade, and at age 32, after teaching high school English for seven years, I went back to college to study fiction-writing full time. I attended a three-year MFA program at VCU in Richmond, VA. I actually decided to return to school and pursue my dream after reading Wally Lamb’s novel, I Know This Much Is True. There was something in that book that spoke to me and told me that if I was ever going to be really serious and go after my dream, the time was then.
How did you come up with the idea of your first book?
My first novel, The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, in an early form, was my thesis. For four years, from 2004 to 2008, I tried to find a New York literary agent to represent my first book. I acquired hundreds of rejections. I actually queried every New York literary agent from A-Z in the 2004 edition of The Writer’s Market, and this was before you could submit electronically. Everything was done by snail mail.
After all those rejections, what kept you pushing forward?
Being a published novelist was my life's dream. Every time I got a rejection, the only thing that made me feel better was to send out another query. I refused to give up.
What happened from there?
How did that all come together?
We had first spoken in 2005, but because she was new to the business, she couldn’t represent my book. In 2008, I was once again starting with "A" and querying agents in New York. I tried her again, and after reading my revision, she made some suggestions and told me that if I could make those changes and get it back to her within two weeks, she felt certain that she could find a home for it. On November 14, 2008, I had offers from Algonquin and Random House. It was very exciting.
Were there more rewrites before the final edit?
Yes, there were more rewrites after I found my editor, but there weren't "a lot". I am now on book #3 and a pro at rewriting. Everything is in service of the novel, of the story and the characters.
How do you write? Did you do an outline first?
I wish that I could outline, but it’s not like that for me. I start with images and characters and I have to write and write and rewrite to find the story.
What type of publicity does your publisher expect you to do in promoting your book? What do they do on your behalf?
I’m expected to have a social media presence, to tweet and facebook. Also, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet other published writers, and we are all very supportive of one another. In particular, my first novel, The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors came out around the time of Heidi Durrow’s novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and I had the good fortune of doing two book events with her at Word Brooklyn.
Also, there were a lot of things I didn’t understand about the business of publishing, and writers, Sheri Reynolds and Therese Fowler, went out of their way to support me.
What did you learn in writing your first book that helped you in writing the second book and getting it published?
It’s not easy. It’s never easy. It takes faith and persistence and thick skin, which most writers, myself included, do not have. You have to constantly remind yourself, “I can do this. This is what I do. I write every day. I have faith that if I keep doing what I love, something magical will come of it.”
What do you know now about writing that you wished you had known sooner?
Don’t even bother sending your novel to anyone until it’s as perfect as you can get it.
Library Journal "...a novel that's both fanciful and brutally realistic, soaring as it does between angelic beings and heartless dictators. From America to Lithuania, from past to present, this is a heart-wrenching tale..." What made you chose that setting for your story. What gave you the inspiration?
I knew a man from Lithuania when I was sixteen. He couldn’t go home. He’d had to flee his country during World War II, and for nearly fifty years he couldn’t return to his homeland. I became fascinated by the fact that Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia were trapped between two madmen, Hitler and Stalin. Was there a lesser evil? No, there wasn’t. I wanted to tell a story about WWII that hadn’t been told, about the faith of a beautiful country and her people and how they not only kept their customs through the Soviet occupation, but even prior to Stalin, they were a resilient people who were determined to keep their language, art, stories, and music alive. They still are. I have learned that to have the faith of a Lithuanian is to have perfect faith, which also relates to the quote that begins the novel. “The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.” J. M. Barrie
Since are a number of references to the Beatles or their songs with this book, are you a big Beatles fan?
There are Beatles references in everything I write. I am a big fan, but in general, music informs my work. There is a theme of salvation through art, whether it be visual, written or musical in everything I write.
I read an excerpt from this book and it showed pictures as well. How were the pictures chosen?
Actually, my marketing representative chose those pictures and published that wonderful excerpt on my behalf. She is amazing.
What is the best advice you’ve been given about writing or that you’ve learned that you would like to pass along?
Never give up. Have faith. Be persistent. Go to the page with confidence and gusto. Write every day, even when you don’t feel like it.
I have a third novel, tentatively titled A Great American Novel, under contract with Simon and Schuster, and I am also working on a fourth novel, a historical piece following the American Revolution about the 60,000 British loyalists forced to leave the United States.
That's all for today's interview. If you would like to learn more about Michele's writing and upcoming books, here's some links to assist you.