The Story Behind My Blog's Title

The Story Behind My Blog's Title
Why is my blog named "My Father's Oldsmobile"? Click on the car and find out.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Author Interview: Michelle Levigne

Today I have the privilege of introducing Michelle Levigne, an author who I only discovered last summer, and whose Tabor Heights series has become one of my favorites in the comtemporary Christian Fiction genre. Michelle is here to tell us more about that series, and about the many other books she's written for us to enjoy.

SW: Michelle, would you please tell us a little about yourself?

ML: First of all, I dread questions like this.

SW: Why?

ML: I consider myself pretty boring, actually. You want the stats? Single, over 40, BA in theater/English, MA in communications, focused on film and writing, freelance editor, living in Northeast Ohio, very close to the geographical anchor for my Tabor Heights, Ohio books.

SW: I don't think that's boring! Sounds pretty impressive, actually. When did you first become interested in writing?

ML: I've always loved stories, and sometimes specific stories – either books or TV episodes – caught my imagination and I had to continue them or rewrite them, sometimes add my own characters, whatever. My friend, Barb, sums this up best: We started out as word addicts, having to read everything we could get our hands on. Then we eventually became "pushers," writing, creating our own characters and worlds and scenarios. And trying desperately to get published.

Daydreams took over my life, sometimes to the detriment of studying and classes! I know I got in trouble for reading in class when I should have been working on my homework. I scribbled stories in junior high, and attempted my first novel maybe in 9th grade. The spring of 10th grade, I started writing seriously, trying to push a story out of my head so I could concentrate on semester exams. I've been writing ever since. It's a disease, but at least it keeps me off the streets!

SW: What genres do you prefer writing/reading? And why do they appeal to you?

ML: I like so many, depending on the type of story that needs to be told. I do like a lot of stories that have a touch of the fantastic in them, some otherness – whether it's futuristics or fantasy, paranormal romances, whatever. I do like sweeter romances, such as Debbie Macomber, and chick-litty/family drama books like Kristen Billerbeck (try the Spa Girls series!) and Camy Tang; and the gritty stuff from JD Robb; and the way-out fantasy of Discworld by Terry Pratchett. I have widely varied tastes. It's all fun. My favorite movies run from "Galaxy Quest" to "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir." How's that for eclectic?

So, I write in a lot of areas, too. Why not? Life is too short to limit yourself to one genre or "universe." I have SF with my Commonwealth stories, fantasy/paranormal with my Emerald Necklace and Bainevah stories, Inspirational romance with Tabor Heights, urban fantasy (if I have the definition correct) with my Hunt YA series and my newest "universe," Neighborlee, Ohio. Too much info?

SW: Cool! You've totally inspired me, first because I'm a closet scifi geek and someday I'm going to test my hand at writing it, and second because I have the movie, "Galaxy Quest" nearly memorized word for word. And if I'm ever channel surfing and it's on, I must watch.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Can you tell us a little about the ups and downs on your journey to publication?

ML: It's been a long, frustrating struggle, in many ways. Especially when you keep running into these people who say essentially, "I've always loved to read, and when my kids finally headed off to school I had some free time, so I sat down and in half an hour every day, I wrote a novel, spent a year polishing it, went to a conference and met an agent, who got me a five-book contract." Are they really for real?

I started seriously writing in 10th grade. Took creative writing classes in high school and college. Took the Institute for Children's Literature 2-year correspondence course. Read Writer's Digest. Bought writing books. Studied theater, in the hopes of being able to adapt my novels into screenplays someday (getting there!). I submitted, mostly to magazines like Fantasy & Science Fiction or Analog – mostly got those photocopied rejection letters that don't tell you WHY you were rejected. Then I started entering contests. I entered the Writers of the Future contest 12 times, got 3 Honorable Mentions, and finally won 1st place in 1990. I got a publishing contract for the short story, as well as the prize money … and that thrill of finally getting recognition carried me through until my first book contract in 2000. Yeah, 10 MORE years of struggling and writing, sending out submissions, slowly getting better and better rejection letters, until editors actually told me WHY they couldn't use my book. The ones where the title of your book and your name are actually in the letter, and not writing in a blank space provided in the form.

With that first book contract, with an e-publisher, I stumbled headlong into e-publishing. Discovered EPIC. Got onto loops that talked about e-publishers, made contact with more editors and publishers, proposed more books … and the rest is history. But it took me a dang long time between the first book written on legal pads to now, with my second EPIC win. Maybe I'm a slow learner, or maybe I just took a lot of side trips and routes other people didn't. Maybe I just write stories that people weren't ready to read until now. Who knows?

SW: How do you approach a new project? Do you research and plot before you write? Or do you have a general idea and just go to it and see where it leads?

ML: I get an idea, sometimes just a single sentence, sometimes a full-blow idea that comes from reading a book or seeing a movie and thinking, "I can do better than that!" Usually if the story is pushing at me really hard, I start writing it down. The first draft is always lousy, but I have the bare bones there. Then I put it away – sometimes unfinished – and let it sort of stew in the back of my imagination. Sometimes for years, while I'm working on other things. I use OneNote, which lets me organize my projects and find them and keep them separate, and I can file notes and snippets of ideas whenever I need them. Eventually, I have enough ideas and the story is clear enough in my mind – and the problems that stopped the first draft have been resolved – that I can sit down and actually write the whole thing. Or revise what was there before. Sometimes it takes several sessions of revise-put aside-wait-revise-put aside-wait-revise until the book is ready to be submitted. Often what happens is that along the way, I realize that several books belong together in a series or a community – which is what happened with the Tabor Heights books. I had a bunch of stand-alone stories, and I realized that if I changed names and borrowed characters and settings from one to another, I had a town. All those little details that are consistent from one book to another make it richer, more real. It's fun. I even have a map of the town on the wall of my office, and I have calendars printed out with notes of what happens in each book on that particular day – when events/books do overlap – to make sure that someone isn't doing something in one place, when they should have been somewhere else!

SW: One of my favorite things about the Tabor Heights series is bumping into other characters from previous books. Makes me feel like I live there. Tell us more about this series, and your latest release, A Quiet Place?

ML: Tabor Heights is geographically based on a town here in Northeast Ohio, with characteristics of several towns I've been in, including my college in Iowa. All the main characters go to the same church, and people visit from one story to the next, and sometimes situations that are hinted at or discussed in one book become the impetus or focus for another book.

A Quiet Place is the story of Jeannette, who grew up in Tabor and met a guy who came to town to continue his education after military service. They fell in love, got married, and went to his hometown, eventually planning to go to seminary. Then he died, and his vicious family basically drove her out of town – pregnant. Jeannette returned to Tabor Heights to have her baby and make her life, and planned on a quiet life. Her in-laws had other plans, when they found out she didn't lie and had a baby. The story is about her struggle for peace and to trust in God when her in-laws try to take her son away. And of course there's a romance, with the boy she loved all her life and never even realized she loved him until it was almost too late.

SW: What inspired you to write this series?

ML: I never set out to write a series. I just had all these people and situations in my head. As I kept hitting these "ah ha!" moments, and the town grew more solid and interconnected, I found more stories and more people, who had more stories and conflicts. It's kind of taken on a life of its own. Which, if you think about it, is what a writer is trying to do – create something so real that it writes itself. Or at least create characters who bang on your door at 2a.m., demanding that you tell their stories.

SW: How did you develope Tabor Heights, the town?

ML: It's based on several – Troy, Ohio; Orange City, Iowa; and Berea, Ohio. Geographically, Berea is the base. I took a lot of the actual streets and renamed them, and copied over most of the map of Berea. A lot of buildings belonging to Baldwin-Wallace College are Butler-Williams University. There are a few stores, municipal buildings, churches, etc. that are parallel between the two. But Tabor Heights and the people are totally mine – any similarity between the heroes and villains of Tabor and the actual people in Troy, Orange City and Berea is totally coincidental. Or at least unconscious. That’s my story, and I'm sticking to it. If you see someone in Tabor who resembles someone in any of those towns, that's your choice/imagination. I'm not confirming anything!

SW: I had to have this exact conversation with my family so they'd stop trying to figure out who was who in my novels. I was like, "They're no one! They're who they are because that's how they evolved in my mind."

Can you give us a little history on the characters in A Quiet Place, and how you developed them , and what endears them to you? I'd also love to hear about how the different stories grew out of each other?

ML: Aauugghh! A Quiet Place and The Family Way have their genesis, their germinal moments, from a time when the drugstore messed up my hormone prescription. I swear, I was in chemical depression until I realized what happened. I had 2 very strong images in my head from dreams. One was of a widow standing at a casket, and her husband's family driving her out of town, not even letting her attend the funeral of her husband. The second image was of a young wife telling her husband she was pregnant … and he asks if the baby is his.

Jeannette and Brody and Nathan sort of wrote themselves, just by sitting down and thinking about the kind of heroine I needed to go through the situation, to be in the situation in the first place, and the hero who would rescue her – whether she wanted to be rescued or not. You have to answer these questions, even if unconsciously. When I knew it was a Tabor Heights story, a lot of the "supporting cast" was already there. I made Jeannette and Nathan orphans who teamed up as children, because this made them lean on each other more, and gave Jeannette's friends even more value in her life – she had no one but her friends and church family. I made Nathan a National Guardsman who met Brody in Afghanistan to give Brody a reason to come specifically to Tabor – and give Nathan a good reason for not interfering when he realized Brody and Jeannette were falling in love, even though it broke his heart. A lot of decisions in writing the book were organic and logical – they had to go the way they did for the sake of the story, because the characters were the way they were and wouldn't act "outside the lines" of the way I had already rough drafted them. Does that make any sense?

SW: Sure does! At least to me. I'm writing a sequel at the moment, so I'm actually experiencing a bit of what you're talking about with my characters.

Do you have a favorite in the series, both story and character?

ML: I don't know. Ask any parent which child is her favorite – can she say? I guess the one I'm getting ready to write, the new idea begging to be fleshed out on the screen, that's the current favorite or at least the focus of my imagination. I'm looking forward to Year Two of my Tabor Heights books, when I can revise a novel I call "The Teddy Bear Dancer." It's based on a script I wrote for the Nick Mancuso/USA Network, short-lived TV series "Matrix," that I never got to propose. Other than that … it's hard to answer a question like that!

SW: You write some pretty diabolical bad guys, for lack of a better word. May I ask what inspired them? I don't mean a single person, but is there something you've witnessed in life that you hope to address through these characters?

ML: Okay, big bad confession time: I do take people who've really hacked me off, who have perpetrated injustice and gotten away with it, and I use them as the central core of my villains.

SW: Hey! I think I may know some of these people!

ML: It's catharsis.

SW: I should try that!

ML: You ought to see what I'm going to do with the stories set at the Tabor Picayune, the local newspaper – I worked at a local newspaper for 10 years, and ran into a lot of loonies and just plain nasty people who thought the world revolved around them, and threatened my life because their 50-cent newspaper was 10 minutes late. I get to work off my frustration and some really strange things that happened at the paper while I was working there. And just like with creating my heroes and heroines, I build the villains to fit the situation, the needs of the story. You can't point to one specific person and say, "He's the real Judge Foggerty." Or "He's the White Rose Killer." Etc. I take elements from a lot of nasty people, from a lot of real situations around me, and layer them, disguising people, rewriting them. And they act and talk to fit the story – they don't stay true to the core/germinal character.

SW: What do you hope to be able to accomplish through your writing?

ML: Okay, I can take the high, idealistic road and say that all I want is to share my private playgrounds with other readers and pass along the same enjoyment I have gained from reading other authors whom I have loved. I can be totally mercenary and say I want to get thousands of fans who can't wait until my books come out – and I can make a comfortable living off the royalties. It's a combination of both. I want to write stories people love, and be able to make a decent living so I can keep writing more stories.

And I decided a long time ago that I would stop writing when it stopped being fun, when I could no longer gain some spiritual, emotional, mental nourishment or refreshment or energy from the whole process. A lot of times, when the stories write themselves, it's like I'm going on an adventure just like the reader. That's when it's the most fun.

In a totally spiritual level, it's about stewardship. I want and need to use the talents God gave me, and develop them to their fullest potential, and create something beautiful that will satisfy people's souls and minds, give them something to think about and cheer about and laugh at and cry over. It's been a long, crooked road, and I've taken some stupid detours, but eventually I'm getting to where I should be. And at the end of time, I can proudly point to what I did and be sure of being told "Well done."

SW: Any ideas for future projects?

ML: Finish Year One of Tabor Heights -- roughed books include Detours, Behind the Scenes, Firesong, Forgiven, White Roses (yes, you'll finally learn who the White Rose Killer is) – and two books waiting to be roughed and revised are The Mission and one that keeps changing titles but deals with a woman pilot, a theater director, and some kidnapped kids. Then there's Year Two, with Max and Tony's wedding, The Teddy Bear Dancer, and other events that couldn't be covered in Year One.

Then there's my new fantasy series/town, Neighborlee, Ohio. I describe it as a combination of Roswell, Buffy, and Eureka, but without the weird science and the vampires. My humorous fantasy romances from All's Fae in Love and Chocolate sort of tie into Neighborlee – there are some Fae who visit the town, along with characters from The Hunt series and … well, you'll see!

SW: You make me feel like a slacker. That's okay.

Other than your book, and the rest in the series, do you have any recommendations you'd like to pass along?

ML: That sort of depends on what people want to read. Fantasy – The Emerald Necklace Books. Science fiction – my Commonwealth books, with a YA series called Sunsinger, as well as some stand-alones, adventures and romances. Paranormal romance – the Bainevah series. Inspirational romance – Tabor Heights. I have a genres listing on my web site, where my book titles are listed under several different headings, and readers can investigate whatever appeals to them.

That's a starting place, at least. I also provide a sampler CD with the first chapter of all my books in PDF format. I give those away in contests or at booksignings, and if someone emails me I can send it to them as an email attachment. I'm always willing to give taste of my books – someone might get hooked just like I was when I first discovered my favorite authors!

SW: Your book, "The Second Time Around," was my first ebook purchase. I loved it and I've been hooked on TH series ever sense. I haven't read, "Common Ground," yet though, so I'm a little out of order, but it's on my list.

Michelle is running a fundraiser through the end of March. Half the proceeds from her Tabor Heights novels are going to the Salvation Army, earmarked for Haiti.

AND...check out Michelle's blog for the rules to enter a contest for a motif bag full of goodies, like candles, notepads, soap, coasters, lots of fun stuff. more thing! Michelle is giving away a tee-shirt with the cover art from one of her Tabor Heights novels. the winner gets to choose. So leave a comment to enter the drawing, and I'll announce the winner Thursday morning. In the mean time, take a good look at Michelle's book covers so you can be thinking about what you want.

Have a great week all! And Happy Reading!


  1. Great interview. I'm envious! I always wanted to have a series published. Your TH series sounds awesome. And that's wonderful you are donating money to the Salavation Army for their Haiti fund. I'll be sure to buy one of your books soon.

    I also liked what you said about some people make it sound easy to get an agent and get published. I don't think they are for real. LOL

  2. I love reading about author with REAL publishing stories. Not the "I wrote a book cos I was bored one day, and happened to run into an agent at the grocery store..." Bleh. Awesome, Michelle--hard work deserves reward!

    Cool that you write so many genres, too. Fun interview!

  3. I think so too, Kat. I'm definitely gonna have to check out Michelle's scifi stuff. I think I have issues with the here and now, at least as far as my writing is concerned. I either want to step back in time, or jump forward.


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If you're curious about the story behind the name of my blog, click on the car. :)