A Chat with Author, Michele Young-Stone
Carrie: What inspired you to write THE HANDBOOK FOR LIGHTNING STRIKE SURVIVORS?
Michele: I set out to write a novel about a girl’s affection toward an unresponsive dad—and the consequences of that relationship. But, a fellow writer reminded me that there were a million books just like that. He asked, “What will set your book apart from the pack?” It hit me: When I was eleven, I was struck by lightning. I’ve always liked magical realism, especially when it’s grounded more so in the realism—when we’re reminded that not everything can be explained by science, so I thought, “This is my hook.” The lightning makes the main character think that she has magical powers. What little girl doesn’t naturally think she possesses some degree of magic—with our without lightning?
Carrie: In general, how does an idea for a book come to you ~ Does it perk slowly in your mind or does it come in a flash?
Michele: Actually, my novel ideas start with a scene either observed or imagined, like a girl holding onto homemade wings, climbing onto a bus (from my most recent work-in-progress). From there, the characters take over and I allow the story to unfold. Sometimes it’s a mad rush where I’ve been known to write 1,000 pages to get to 100 pages.
Carrie: Give us an idea of the plot of THE HANDBOOK FOR LIGHTNING STRIKE SURVIVORS without giving too much away.
Michele: Oh boy! Two strangers, seemingly with nothing in common, are brought together by the electric force of lightning. Becca, brought up in academic affluence, and Buckley, brought up in poverty, are connected throughout their lives by the folks they meet and by this uncontrollable element—lightning—that causes him to write The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, a handbook Becca purchases.
Carrie: What is the primary message you’d like your readers to take away from THE HANDBOOK FOR LIGHTNING STRIKE SURVIVORS?
Michele: Have hope. Have faith. No matter how bleak our circumstances, there is possibility. There are things in life we can’t control, but we can control our response to those things. No one has to go with the flow. We can turn things around.
Carrie: What was the most difficult scene to write? Why?
Michele: There were multiple scenes that were difficult to write, but ultimately, it was the final scene because it was pivotal to the book’s success, and more important than word choice and pacing (elements I struggled with in other difficult chapters), I wanted a “satisfying” ending, the right ending, and for the longest time, I wasn’t sure how the book should end. I had to wait for the characters to tell me their thoughts.
Carrie: Which character do you identify with the most in THE HANDBOOK FOR LIGHTNING STRIKE SURVIVORS? How much of yourself did you put into these characters and did you realize you showed up in the book?
Michele: Mary Wickle Burke, I guess. I say that because I can relate to her emotions. She can be interpreted as less than sympathetic, but she wants so desperately to be loved. I related to that need, and I wanted to make her empathetic, but entirely human. Also, she was fun to write.
Carrie: Did you realize you showed up while you were writing or only afterwards upon review?
Michele: While I was writing the book, especially when some of my MFA novel workshop peers thought she was a “not-so-nice”character. I loved her. I saw all this disillusionment and hope in her. At the same time, I’m in every character, not just Mary. I had to imagine the circumstance and emotion for each. For example, one of the characters, Patty-Cake, could be possibly unsympathetic, but I loved her. I understood her. She’s the over-achiever in me. It was the same way with Becca and Buckley. The artist in Becca is the artist in me. The writer in Buckley is the writer in me.
Carrie: What are you reading right now?
Michele: Allison Titus’s Sum of Every Lost Ship (poetry) and Heidi W. Durrow’s The Girl who Fell from the Sky (fiction).
Carrie: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced your writing?
Michele: Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arundhati Roy, Gunter Grass, Flannery O’Connor, John Irving, J.D. Salinger and Wally Lamb.
Carrie: What is your go-to book and/or author?
Michele: It’s a toss-up: The Tin Drum or The World According to Garp. Or this question is too hard. I love The Tropic of Cancer. I always get a good laugh from that book. I love Sula too, and if it weren’t for Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True, I might not be a novelist today. I was so taken with his first novel, that I vowed to keep at my craft—no matter what—and haven’t looked back.
Carrie: Can you offer a glimpse into your “real life” and share with us a bit of your personal life—Outside of writing, what’s important to you?
Michele: Spending time with my son, who’s five. My husband, his passion for surfing. I like to go to the gym. I paint and make collages. Vegetarian for twenty years. I’m a member of the Humane Society of the United States and of the Jane Goodall Society. I care about the global community. I care about animals. My husband and I donate to charities attempting to slow down global warming, to help endangered species, to preserve wildlife habitats, to feed the homeless and hungry globally and locally.
Carrie: Tell us something surprising about you and/or something very few people know about you.
Michele: I’m actually introverted or I feel that way. I prefer a night at home to a night on the town.
Carrie: What has been one of your biggest struggles and/or successes (professional/personal) and what have you learned from it?
Michele: Biggest struggle: Having a child and continuing to write and get published. It’s terribly difficult to be a good, even adequate, wife and mother and pursue a writing career. I’ve learned that it can be done. Anything is possible if one is persistent.
Carrie: Have you ever had a nickname? Tell us about it.
Michele: “Micki Moose.” When I was born, my dad took one look at me and said, “Moose!” I was a big baby. Nowadays, my nickname is Shel. All of my son’s friend’s call me “Shel” and I really like it.
Carrie: Who is your biggest fan?
Michele: My mom. My parents used to think I was copying what I wrote out of books. She is extremely proud. And my husband. They’ve both always believed in my abilities and perseverance.
Carrie: What was the best advice you’ve ever received—do you follow it?
Michele: “If you do nothing else, put your ass in the chair every day.” Oh yes, I follow it. No doubt.
Carrie: What is your favorite literary turn-of-phrase / quote / word picture?
Michele: “Kill your darlings.” Let go of what you love for the sake of the larger book.
Carrie: What did you learn about yourself while writing THE HANDBOOK FOR LIGHTNING STRIKE SURVIVORS that you may not have expected?
Michele: Motherhood enriches everything. There are always new perspectives to gain at every point in life. Writing the book, I was only thinking of things from the young adult’s perspective. Rewriting the book, I had a mother’s perspective. Those are two very different angles. The latter is more powerful and enriching than I ever thought possible.
Carrie: What’s next for you ~ Anything else you’d like to offer?
Michele: More books! All Things Beautiful, a love story of sorts, and a third one in the works.
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