Welcome to River City Fiction. Thank you for stopping by for the inaugural post. I’m tickled pink to introduce a new favorite author, Michele Young-Stone.
Michele’s début novel, The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, appeared on Richmond shelves in April. Publishers Weekly named it one of the top ten fiction debuts in 2010. Lightning struck 11-year-old Michele while she stood in her parents’ driveway in Chester, Virginia. It’s taken years, but she can finally wear a wristwatch again. She earned her MFA in fiction writing from VCU in 2005. She lives in Richmond with her husband and son.
Opening lines of The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors
She was a girl like you or like someone you knew–from a cracked home, a fault line between her parents, for which she felt responsible. A pretty girl with red hair: too curly to contain in barrettes or under headbands, twisting free, needing to spiral and curl like the ocean waves to her right. The sun was hot, turning her back pink.
Q & A with Michele Young-Stone
How has your life in Richmond influenced your writing?
Wow! No one has asked me this before. I feel totally nostalgic. When I was sixteen, I started going to the club Rockitz (on Laurel Street). I got to see great shows like GWAR, The Circle Jerks, Black Flag and milder shows like The Cowboy Junkies and the Throwing Muses. Across town at The Pyramid, I saw the Butthole Surfers. I remember stage diving and slam dancing at Rockitz. Across the street, I played pool downstairs at Marvin’s bar and grill. For a long time, I was a cashier at the Rite-Aid on Grace Street (It’s no longer there). But my character Becca works as a drugstore cashier in The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, and I definitely drew from my own experiences. Richmond was a fun place to grow up, and I met so many interesting people who inspire my writing to this day. Publisher’s Weekly called my characters “endearing losers” and I love this term because I’ve met a lot of endearing losers. We built towers out of Black Label beer cans and watched the sun rise on city rooftops. I was an endearing loser. It isn’t a bad thing to me.
…And of course, my professors at VCU, where I received all three of my degrees, were instrumental to my writing. Greg Donovan, the editor of Blackbird—VCU’s online literary journal, was my first creative writing teacher at VCU when I was eighteen. (I’ve just aged us both. Sorry, Greg.)
At your readings and book club events, you’re charismatic and gregarious, but you say you’re an introvert. How have you changed since The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors was released?
If I take that test that tells you whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, I am categorized as the latter, but writing is an introverted discipline and without my quiet time to think and write, I’m pretty miserable and useless. When the novel was about to come out, I didn’t know if I’d be able to get up in front of people and read without throwing up. In one of my creative writing classes early on, we were required to read aloud. I couldn’t do it. My voice cracked. I was terrible. I think that it’s because my writing is so incredibly personal, it was difficult to “share” it. That’s all changed now. The more you do anything, the more relaxed you become. One of the writers I’ve met this year, Heidi Durrow, told me, “We’ve worked so hard for this. It would be ridiculous not to enjoy it.” When I read in public, that’s what I’m thinking. I want to have fun. I know that people are rooting for me and my characters, and I appreciate the support so much.
In an earlier interview, you mentioned that you give to many organizations that care for the environment and meet people’s basic needs, but you’re also active helping Richmond’s children meet their basic need for creativity. Can you tell us a little about your work with Richmond Young Writers and other Richmond organizations?
Valley Haggard asked me to participate in this year’s Richmond Young Writers, which was an opportunity to teach creative writing to students ranging from eight to fourteen. It was so much fun! I love seeing what young writers are thinking and doing. There was this one boy who goes to Holton Elementary and when I asked them to write a scene from a point of view they don’t normally use, he wrote a scene from three different points of view. I was so impressed. Just brilliant.
I taught English for ten years. For four years, I taught at Wilder Middle School in Henrico where I started a creative writing program and we published a literary journal, The Wilder Voice. I also had an opportunity earlier this year to visit the Appomattox Governor’s School and work with some fiction-writing students. Again, they inspired me. I am hoping to go back next year. This summer, I participated in a library fundraiser for Douglas Freeman High School at Barnes & Noble. I just think it’s so important to support kids and their creativity. The arts were important to me when I was a teen. They still are.
Abigail, Buckley’s mom, works at Roger’s Gourmet Pork ‘n’ Beans for a time, and your description of canning the Southern food, including the white mold that grows if the cans are filled too high, stands out to me. Many of your scenes involve food, like Marianne Pamplin’s famous potato salad. Are they any indication of your favorite or least favorite “Southern” food?
I think it’s fun to write about food. I am fascinated by America’s perceptions of food, from the use of Margarine during WWII to our love of everything easy and instant. Everything is “super-sized.” Our grocery stores are packed full frozen foods with preservatives and hydrogenated this-and-that. We’re all so food-obsessed, not as an energy source, but as a source of comfort. I tend to investigate this obsession in my writing, whether the character is hoarding food or starving herself.
Your work received glowing reviews from bestselling authors, Publishers Weekly, major newspapers and magazines, and book bloggers. When you were querying agents, what did you imagine publication would be like? Is success what you pictured?
No! I couldn’t think beyond seeing my book in a bookstore and sharing that experience with my husband and son. I couldn’t imagine what “success” would be like. Right now, I’m focusing on my second novel. I guess I feel most successful when I hear from readers who tell me how much they liked my book. One reader said that the book was like a pie that I made and filled with really good fruit. Now, that’s as close to success as anyone can get.
The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors seamlessly shifts perspective and traverses time and place, becoming richer because it isn’t a linear story. How did you decide to write the novel that way?
I don’t think I can write linearly. I mean, I can, but it’s not how I view the world. I remember my writing professor Tom De Haven telling me, “This is very complex. It’s going to be hard to do, especially for a first novel.” I get bored by linear storytelling. I’m influenced by writers like William Faulkner and Toni Morrison—who explore connections that transcend linear ties. Tom De Haven was VERY supportive as my novel developed.
What can you tell us about your next novel?
(Deep sigh here.) I want it to be as good as if not better than The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors. Like The Handbook…, it is not a linear tale. It takes place during the 1960s and 1970s and goes back and forth in time as the reader discovers how a wonderful woman ends up in a bad spot. It’s also a love story.
Your own experiences influenced The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors and Conversations with Dead People. Do you think you have more unique life experiences than most people, or do you have a different perspective on your experiences?
I don’t know. I lived a lot in a short span of time. I did some crazy stuff when I was young. At the same time, I now revel in quiet domesticity.
Finally, where are you most likely to be spotted in Richmond?
Thank you, Michele!
The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors is on sale now in Richmond bookstores. Michele loves to meet with book clubs, so send her a line if you’re interested in hosting. If you want to meet Michele in person, she’s appearing across Richmond in the coming months.
Friday, October 8 Book reading and signing at VCU
Wednesday, October 20 Library talk at Ginter Park Public Library
Come back Wednesday for our first installment of Richmond Authors Recommend with Diann Ducharme, author of The Outer Banks House.