Author Squared: Michele Young-Stone and Cara Hoffman
Two Authors chat about writing, books, and everything in between
Take it away, Michele and Cara!
Michele: I have some questions I’m dying to ask you.
Michele: So, So Much Pretty, is seriously one of the best books that I've read in years. I thought the small town was perfectly eerie and amazingly portrayed. The descriptions were active to the point that I didn’t feel like I was reading description!
Cara: Thank you. I'm really flattered, especially since that's coming from someone who can write the small town with such evocativeness.
Michele: Were you inspired by events/crimes you covered while a journalist?
Cara: Yes. It was a crime that actually happened in a more suburban area.
Michele: Wow! I loved the surprise ending. Did you know how the book would end when you were writing it?
Cara: I knew the ending before I knew anything else.
Michele: Was the ending what "really happened" or no? I ask b/c I NEVER know endings.
Cara: The book was partly based on an abduction/murder. The ending is kind of a logical conclusion to those events given the nature of the characters. Michele, do people ask you constantly about surviving a lightning strike?
Michele: You bet, but in this case, the fiction is better than the facts. I was "really" struck by lightning, but the "facts" of what happened to me were too boring for my novel.
Cara: God!! I assume you weren't struck twice
So what really happened???
Michele: I was knocked unconscious, age 11, but then regained consciousness at some point. We were in my parents' driveway and I was struck and my mom was there. We were both in such shock, like total real shock, that we actually drove to the mall--which is what we'd intended to do when we went outside that day.
Cara: Wow. Did you get any medical attention?
Michele: NO. Which sounds crazy, but that was the best thing about researching lightning and lightning strike survivors. More than 50% of people struck do not seek medical attention, and that statistic is probably even higher. No one believes the victim, and without physical burns, there's no evidence via xray because the lightning travels through your cardiovascular system.
The National Weather Service has only started taking lightning strikes seriously in the past ten years. Nowadays, golf courses and swimming pools have much stricter rules/guidelines concerning thunder. Because if you hear thunder, you are within range of being struck. You can be up to fifteen miles from a storm and be struck. Thunder is the sound lightning makes when it comes in contact with the ground.
Cara: Apart from life experience, what made you want to use lightning strike as the central metaphor for a novel about family and intersecting fates?
Michele: I had a writing professor who said, "There are a million books about dysfunctional families and especially about dysfunctional father/daughter relationships. What is going to separate yours from theirs?” I love magical realism so I thought that the lightning would enable me to do both. Cara, is your second novel also based on a story you covered while a journalist?
Cara: No. It's about the Iraq war and adjusting to coming home and living in a family again.
Michele: Ooh, that sounds fascinating. I guess you are doing a lot of research?
Cara: I'm doing some research--a lot of it not about the war. The book focuses on sibling relationships and trauma. Michele, are you working on a new book?
Michele: I'm working on a third book. Sarah, our editor, and I are going to decide this fall if the second or the third novel is the next to meet the reading world. I think we'll go with the third novel, but since I haven't finished it, we shall see. The third novel has more of an international appeal.
Cara: hmmm. Very curious. Can you talk about it?
Michele: Both the second and third novels explore violence against women. The third novel, The Saints of Los Vientos, tells parallel stories of two girls born with wings: one in Lithuania during WWII, and one in Florida in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Cara: Really interesting.
Michele: The girls are related and connected by more than wings. And the second novel is another "parallel" story about a woman in the 1960s as a teenager and as an adult in the 1970s. It's a love story where the man-woman relationship is the least healthy.
Cara: Do you work on your manuscripts simultaneously?
Michele: No. I can't look at the second book again until I am done with a complete first draft of the third. Otherwise, I would go seriously bonkers.
Cara: Ha. You must have a rigorous schedule
MIchele: I write every day. How long did it take you to write So Much Pretty?
Cara: A little over a year.
Michele: Did it take you a long time to find an agent and editor?
Cara: I was very lucky. My agent Rebecca Friedman picked up the manuscript immediately. It took about five or six months to sell. Which seemed, at the time, like a long time.
Michele: Did you do a lot of edits with Rebecca?
Cara: Very few. She's an incredible reader and has real insight. I have been so happy working with her.
Michele: That's awesome. And I'm sure, like me, you love working with Sarah at S & S. She was my editor at Shaye Areheart/RH, and I trusted her so implicitly, all I wanted to do was to work with her again. Cara, another thing I was wondering: well, two things: I really related to Claire and Gene, in So Much Pretty. Was there a character from So Much Pretty that you really related to (more than the others), and while writing the darker parts of the story, did you internalize any of the emotions, like was it difficult? Did you feel depressed, etc.?
Cara: I do love working with Sarah. It's a great process. As far as the characters in So Much Pretty are concerned, I guess it's no revelation that I related to Stacy Flynn. The reporter. But you know, you really feel all your characters’ emotions whether you want to or not. There were certainly hard scenes to write, and those scenes and the research I was doing on violence made some days pretty difficult. Michele, the parts of your novel that were so moving to me had to do with Buckley and his mom. They were so sad and also edifying. Was it hard to be with Buckley when you were making his life hard?
Michele: Yes. It was really hard being with Buckley. I love the characters Abigail and Clementine, and when I wrote the lightning scene with Bo, the dog, I sobbed. I didn't want to write it. While working on this third novel, I had the worst nightmare I've ever had. I couldn't wake up and every time I thought I was awake, I was still in the nightmare. It was terrifying, and I couldn't figure out where the dream came from, and then when I sat down at the computer the next day, I reread what I'd written the day before, and OMG, but it was a terrible violent scene where I'd had to imagine myself in this horrid predicament, and I'd been so immersed, it'd sunk into my subconscious.
Cara: Yes. It really gets you! I've had those kinds of nightmares before. A long time ago when I was travelling I had several nightmares in which I “woke” into another dream. The tip off that I was still asleep was that a dog started talking to me.
Michele: That's a riot. Thank goodness for that dog! So, I have to ask: Are you having trouble with the social media stuff like Facebooking and Tweeting and having a website? Or is it hard for you to read and talk in public?
Cara: I guess I'd prefer to be writing novels than using twitter. I think of those things as a distraction mostly, but a pretty innocuous one. How about you? Are you finding the time?
Michele: I have a six-year old. I don't know. I think that publicity stuff is super hard. I'd always prefer to write. I used to get really nervous reading in public, but I'm much more relaxed now. I really enjoy what I do. I can't believe I actually get paid to tell stories! It still freaks me out. I was a school teacher for ten years (English teacher). I've had to do a lot of publicity b/c two weeks after my book came out, my publishing house, Shaye Areheart, was dissolved. It was pretty chaotic for everybody so I knew that I had to do whatever I could to spread the word about my book. I didn't want it to die.
Michele: I CAN'T WAIT to read your next book. You have such talent! When do you think you'll be ready to show it to your agent? Or is that a "jinx" kind of question?
Cara: Likewise. I'm excited to see your new work. My agent sold the new novel to Sarah at S&S a few months ago. So it's just a matter of getting the time to finish it.
Michele: Kudos! Congrats! I understand how hard it is to find the time. I'm in that same boat.
Cara: I'm very interested to see what these girls with wings do, and how you make your characters lives intersect--which was such a great strength in The Handbook.
Michele: Yeah. I can't seem to write linearly. I like to have a hundred threads and pull them together. And, this is fun: for every novel I finish, I get a tattoo, so my third novel will be a pair of wings. It's incentive to finish the book.
Cara: If you have a prolific career you will be like the illustrated man.
Michele: LAUGHING!!! The tattoo artist said to me, "You need to write faster. You need more tattoos!"
Michele: Bye, Cara. Keep in touch and best of luck to you. I am so glad Sarah gave me your book to read. I really couldn't put it down. Thank you.
Cara: Thank YOU.
And, THANK YOU, Michele and Cara! Family dynamics, faith, and nature in The Hanhbook for Lightning Strike Survivors and murder, small town secrets, and a great sense of place in So Much Pretty make both books excellent book club picks.
Michele Young-Stone earned her MFA in fiction writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. Once, many years ago, she was struck by lightning in her driveway. She survived. Michele resides in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and son and a community of great friends.
Cara Hoffman has won a New York State Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for her work on violence and adolescents and has worked as an investigative reporter covering New York State's rural and Rust Belt communities, where she reported on environmental politics and crime.