Seriously, I’m honored to have Liz Michalski here to answer questions about her debut novel, Evenfall, which has just been released by Berkley, Penguin.
Liz joins us from her home in Massachusetts where she spends her days writing and chasing after her two small children and a medium-sized mutt. (I must add that Harley’s personality makes him sound horse-sized, but I’ll defer to Liz’s judgment. Her descriptive powers trump mine any day.)
Jan: Welcome Liz! In the bookstore, I would expect to find Evenfall in the same section that’s home to the Margaret Atwoods and Audrey Niffeneggers of the world. Do you have an official genre? And care to describe the premise?
Liz: I’ve always thought of this story as magical realism, along the lines of Alice Hoffman. That said, it seems to cross genres, depending on who is reading — I’ve heard it described as urban romance, romance, paranormal… The confusion actually makes me happy, since many of my favorite books are also hard to pin down.
I had a very hard time writing a synopsis, but I’ve finally boiled it down to this: Evenfall is about a man who falls in love with one woman, marries her sister, and spends the rest of his life — and then his afterlife — trying to make amends. But it’s also about hope, and love, and the importance of a really good pair of shoes. : )
You’ve had a busy career in the non-fiction world: reporter, editor, freelance writer with hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles to your credit, not to mention corporate clients. When did you decide to write fiction, and how smooth was your path to publication?
I think in the back of my head I always wanted to write fiction, but it took a long time before I felt I could give myself permission to try it, and even longer before I felt I had something to say worth writing. In my late twenties I took a weekend fiction writing workshop and brought a half-completed novel. The class editor liked it and encouraged me to send it out when it was finished. She even gave me the name of an agent.
I did send it out — to that single agent — and waited. And waited. Six months later, I got a personalized rejection. Did I send the novel back out? Nooooo. I filed it and didn’t write another fictional word for several years.
I started Evenfall when I was 34, just before I became pregnant with my daughter. I put it aside several times. When it was about halfway through, I thought, okay, it’s time to see if I’ve got anything here. Grub Street — a Boston writers’ organization — holds an annual conference where you can meet with agents for a fee. I researched the heck out of the agents, found one I loved — Mitchell Waters of Curtis Brown — and signed up for a one-on-one conference. Mitchell liked what I had, and I asked if I could send him the rest when I was finished with it. Six months later, I sent my manuscript to him, and a few months after that he signed me. He worked with me for about a year on revisions, and then sent it out. He sold it in less than a week. So my path was both short and long, depending on your point of view. 🙂
I’ve said this to you in private, but wowsa on the descriptive powers, lady! A writer could learn a great deal from you about imagery and metaphor. Since I feel personally lacking in that department, I have a few questions:
1. Given that the bulk of your writing experience is in non-fiction, how much of a challenge is it to slip into your more poetic voice? Do you have any rituals or tricks to make the transition?
I’ve always been drawn to descriptive writing, and in my nonfiction writing role, it’s a challenge to pare that down. I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about a scene before I write it — in part, that’s because with two small children I don’t get much time to write — but it’s also a bit by choice. Daydreaming helps me see a scene more clearly.
2. Do your reading preferences reflect your own voice?
Yes, absolutely. I love Alice Hoffman as well as Audrey Neffenegger and Diana Gabaldon. Kevin Brockmeier is another favorite.
3. Any tips you can impart to those of us who’d like to do a better job in our descriptive powers? Any references you’d care to recommend?
I went through a stage where I read a lot of poetry — Billy Collins is a favorite — and I reread Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses every few years. Since I have two small children and my brain cells can’t hold the information they used to, I started keeping a journal that helped me pay attention to the natural environment — what the air feels like in July as opposed to October, what plants are growing in different months, how the clouds appear in different seasons. It definitely helps.
One thing that struck me as I read Evenfall was that it felt more advanced than many debut novels. By that I mean you incorporated significant complexity in its timeline, used motifs even I could spot, and explored multigenerational psychic wounds. Was your beginning scope that ambitious? If not, how did your book evolve?
I think part of the complexity that you are referring to comes from the fact that Evenfall evolved over an extended period of time. Coming back to it after weeks or months off let me see it more clearly, and pick out threads to embellish and develop further.
I tend to write slowly, and that’s partly because I spend so much time revising. I had a very small online critique group when I was writing Evenfall, which was helpful. I also tend to write short amounts — 20 to 25 pages — and then polish the beejesus out of them before I go on to the next short amount. And when I’ve finished about 100 pages or so, I go back and make sure everything hangs together before I go on to the next section.
Writing nonfiction has definitely helped make me a better editor of my own work. I’m more ruthless now about pruning — if it doesn’t advance the plot, it’s out. (Okay, mostly that’s true!)
I’m also lucky in that I have limited time to write, and usually multiple projects going at once. If I’m stuck on a nonfiction project, I can ‘take a break’ by switching to the fiction one. It makes the writing seem like less of a chore and more of a reward, if that makes sense.
I would describe Evenfall as character-driven fiction. How do you go about fleshing out your characters?
It sounds silly, but I spend a lot of time right before I go to sleep thinking about them. Somehow, imagining them during that time makes them seem more real when I wake up. I picture them moving through their days, almost like a mini-home movie — what they look like when they get out of bed, what they do first, what they reach for when they stand in front of the refrigerator.
That doesn’t seem silly at all. Is it a bad sign all mine absently scratch their bellies while reaching for a Red Bull? No, don’t answer that! 😉
And now, peeps, that’s the end of Part 1, but – as you have cannily discerned – Liz has a giveaway. To win a copy of Evenfall, plus a tiny extra secret gift that will be explained next week, you will:
- Comment below or in Part 2 of this interview, to run in one week’s time;
- Live in continental North America and;
- Have your name drawn by RNG.
To have your name entered twice, retweet this post, post a link on your Facebook page, or a link on your blog, then make note of the extra post in the comments below. Contest is open until midnight MST, Sunday, February 20, 2011.
PART II HERE