'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Friday 26 March 2010

Author Interview: Chrissie Michaels

Who is this talented person? Chrissie Michaels

What does she do? She’s an author.

Where can you take a peek at her stuff? sites.google.com/site/chrissiemichaelsorg

What’s her story? I was born in Lancashire in England but grew up in the south eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Now I live in country Victoria close by many wonderful stretches of coastline, where I spend the time gardening, growing vegies and going for long walks along the beach.

We have five children between us and two grandchildren. I work part-time as a secondary school teacher. Just yesterday my Humanities class spent a double lesson at the beach for a coastal geography unit of work and we all agreed it was the best classroom in the world!

For a few years I taught professional writing at TAFE, as well as doing some childcare work in a crèche, which means my oldest student so far has been 78 and my youngest, two weeks old!

How long has she been writing? In a recent interview I said I’d been writing for about fifteen years, but when I counted again it came to just over twenty. Either time passes quicker than I think or I must be becoming (more) forgetful. Now, come to think of it, when they were little, my kids used to call me Forgetful Jones after the character in Sesame Street.

When I first started writing I joined a writer’s group, then entered a few writing competitions and won prizes. This was the impetus to send my work off for publication. I remember that I handwrote my first children’s poem because I didn’t have a computer. I was amazed when it was accepted.

What genre does she write in? Mainly historical fiction these days. In Lonnie’s Shadow was my first Young Adult novel. I hope Lonnie will also have some appeal to a general adult readership, especially those interested in history, as it is set in Little Lon, Melbourne, 1891.

What other genres has she written in? Lots of historical of late, with some sci-fi. I enjoy writing for different age groups and in different styles ― junior fiction; poetry and short stories for both children and adults; a few news articles in the Age and some magazine articles. I like to experiment, especially with styles and narrative structure.

When you’re a teacher you’re always putting ideas into lessons, so I’ve also done some teacher texts. These were co-written and came out as the Personal Writing Portfolio series, published by Oxford University Press.

A few interesting projects have also come my way. One was developing a Mauritius educational kit (in French and English) after a school language trip to the island, while another was writing educational scripts for computer animated Maths and English lessons for the UK. My favourite project was as a writing consultant for Museum Victoria’s Big Box exhibition, One, two, three – Grow, where I got the opportunity to write major and minor rhymes. They are still there after ten years.

Why does she write? Why do I garden? Why do I walk? I guess it’s just part of what I like to do. I’m a person who lives a lot in my head; although having said that, I’m a bit of chatterbox, or so I’m told.

What made her decide to write young adult fiction? I never actually make a decision about where the writing fits when I come up with an idea. It sort of unfolds, takes on a will of its own.

Does she remember the first story she ever wrote? The first short story was a sci-fi one called Somewhere In the Night sky, never published. The story combined both sci-fi and history as it had something to do with World War II and Hitler as time travellers. I still have a copy somewhere and I’m still quite fond of it, even though I clearly see why it is unpublishable!

The first poem I ever wrote (and kept) was a poem about lost love. I was fifteen and had broken up with a boyfriend. It was full of angst.

In Lonnie’s Shadow is due for release in May. What’s it all about? In Lonnie’s Shadow revolves around a group of teenagers who are trying to make a fair go of life, although many things are conspiring to make their life difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to know who they can rely on. Secrets are kept and promises made.

There’s plenty of action and the characters find themselves facing many hot spots – theft and kidnap, gang warfare and murder - and they have to make some pretty serious choices.

The idea for Lonnie came from a visit I made to Museum Victoria back in 2002 where I saw their wonderful Little Lon exhibition. It was after the most recent of the archaeological digs around this area, sites that were due for rebuilding. It’s staggering to think the Museum now has over 500,000 artefacts in this collection. I spent ages there, trying to unravel the stories behind this vanished community.

Shortly afterwards, I decided to do some historical reading and In Lonnie’s Shadow began to emerge. The story’s narrative structure draws upon the artefacts (some real and many imagined). Each chapter title is an object and has some significance to the storyline, either literally or metaphorically.

In Lonnie’s Shadow is packed with topical themes and loads of drama and question marks that will both fascinate and even educate teens. What does Chrissie hope her book imparts to its readers? The 1890s were such an amazing time in Melbourne’s history – so modern in many ways, yet so different in others. I guess it’s for teen readers to pick up on the similarities with our own contemporary lives: the rites of first love, dealing with gangs and peer pressure, working out who you can trust and whether or not you’ve made the right judgement or decision to do something, having to face the consequences of our actions.

There are a few violent encounters in the story and they run close to the bottling and the assaults that still happen today. These may raise some questions about how we go about handling violence in our society.

1891 was also the time when Marvellous Melbourne was coming upon hard times. Little Lon was regarded as the town’s underbelly. It’s a tough place to live but there is a strong sense of family (for Lonnie and Carlo at least) and the community sticks together. Hopefully the novel will give readers something to keep on thinking about – both in the issues and in the values.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles she has experienced on her writing journey? Time is the greatest obstacle. And getting in the zone, without totally ignoring everything and everyone around you!

What does she love most about producing books for young adults? Having a great publisher for one thing! I have been most fortunate that Ford Street Publishing has had faith in this novel. The whole gang – Paul, Saralinda, Meredith and Grant have been fantastic to work with.

Also… Idealistically: exploring the ways we can offer some hope in life; finding ways to sort out problems; having faith in yourself; never giving up the hope of finding someone who will listen to you; knowing there are decent, honest, caring people around, knowing who your friends really are… Hopefully these values come across in the novel.

What advice does she have for anyone wanting to write a book in the young adult genre?
Don’t dumb it down.
Kids aren’t fools.
Stick to life.
Vampires are big (although Lonnie doesn’t have any!) but transient.
It is good to find and follow the trends.

If she couldn’t be a writer, what would she be? First and foremost: Dr Who’s sidekick; then working for World Vision or Amnesty; an archaeologist, anthropologist or historian; maybe a librarian.

What other things does she value? Family, gardening, enjoying good food (straight from the garden), walking and reading. Oh and… writing.

What young adult books does she love? When I was a 17 year old, these are the books I loved the most and I think they still are my favourite YA books ( I should mention that I fell in love with French authors in my first year at Uni):

Anything by Émile Zola
Anything by Honoré de Balzac
Madame Bovary
To Kill a Mockingbird

Modern(ish) choices:
Dog (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the night time…)
I’m not Scared
Pool (another Ford Street title)
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

What would be her perfect day?
Up early.
Sun shining.
Lots of time with my loved ones.
Writing, gardening, walking, eating … all very leisurely done.
Good conversation, lots of laughter.
A dance and a cuddle.
A good book
Back in the nest for the night.

What five words best sum her up? Happy, optimistic, confident, patient, tolerant.

What’s next for Chrissie Michaels? The next novel is on the way – but coming out in dribs and drabs; it crosses two centuries and spans two countries. You guessed it – historical! I’d love to have a picture story book published one day.

In Lonnie's Shadow will be available from May, 2010 in any good bookstore or library. It can also be ordered through Ford Street Publishing by emailing here, or through Macmillan Publishing Services by emailing here.

If you are in Melbourne, Chrissie will be featured in the 15 Minutes of Fame section at the Melbourne Emerging Writers Festival in May 2010. She will be discussing and reading from In Lonnie’s Shadow. Drop by and say hello!