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Michelle Levigne

I grew up reading and loving "impossible" things in my stories; my earliest memories are of "The Cat in the Hat," and fairy tales. I remember discovering Mowgli when I was in third or fourth grade (wolves are VERY big in many of my stories even now) and the Blue Fairy Book not long after, and devouring mythology around the same time. I tried to stage a play in 4th grade based on the story of Atalanta, and fell in love with Odysseus when I read The Odyssey in 7th grade. (My novel, The Dark One, came out from LTDBooks in November 2001 and is Penelope's side of the story.)

Most of my books begin with "what if" or "why couldn't" or "this would be neat if ..." I remember rewriting Star Trek episodes in my head, and then going on from there. In tenth grade, my daydreaming got so bad I wrote it down to get it out of my head so I could study for final exams. And that was the beginning.

True Caderi is my fourth sale, my first here at Awe-Struck, and belongs in the Commonwealth "universe." I have quite a few books planned in the Commonwealth, and I hope you enjoy this one and come back for more!

Awe-Struck says: The titles Awe-Struck has written for Awe-Struck thus far are True Caderi, Azuli Eyes, Scout's Pride, By Fire and Stars, and Chorillan. Be sure to watch for the 5th and last book of the Chorillan Cycle, Silver Azuli on March 24, 2006.

Michelle welcomes visitors to her website at http://www.MLevigne.com/. Book trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnBidzGAhFs



Interview

Q: What made you start writing and when did you start?
A:
Final exams in high school.

I'm serious!

I went to a private, college prep high school, and we always had week-long exams at the end of each semester. Just before that week started, I saw a movie and the storyline stuck in my head. I daydreamed a lot, revising it, making it my own private playground, so to speak. Since junior high, I had been doing this with TV shows and books I really liked, that I wished wouldn't end when it came time for the final page or the closing credits.

Anyway, the story took over so much, I had a hard time studying. Now, up until this point, I had tried writing down other daydreams and story ideas, and they just shriveled up and died as soon as I applied ink to paper. I thought writing down this daydream-gone-amuck would provide the same cure.

Wrong! It turned into four yellow legal pads full of scribbles. I spent the summer revising it. The next fall I took typing class, which spared me writer's cramp and saved my eyesight. By this time, I was hooked on 'playing God' and screening my own private movies in my head. Now I knew how to create the books I wanted to read, when I couldn't find them in the library or the bookstore. And the rest is history.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?
A:
C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, T.A. Barron, T.H. White, J.D. Robb, Jennifer Crusie, Holly Jacobs, David Weber, Anne Crispin, Homer, Anne McCaffrey, Mercedes Lackey, Sue Grafton, Terry Pratchett.

Q: How do you come up with the idea for a book? Once you have an idea, do you plot it out, fly by the seat of your pants, or what?
A:
Ideas come from everywhere. Overheard bits of conversation, fragments of stories, movies/books that stay in my head, or even movies/TV shows/books that are so bad I know I could write the story a whole lot better. I throw all sorts of scraps of ideas into a general file in my computer, or when I get a new idea I combine it with others that have been waiting for a while. Sometimes I get ideas that I realize help fill in the blanks in other ideas/story ideas. Eventually, enough scraps and details come together that the story feels ready to write.

I do a combination of plotting and flying into the mist, so to speak. I have a general idea, a good idea of how to launch the adventure and where I want to land. The flying into the mist is the part in between. Sometimes I go off on tangents or ideas come to me in the middle of writing that first draft (or revising the third or fifth) that are so dang much better than the original. I give myself plenty of maneuvering room and freedom to follow those diverging paths. Sometimes it's a waste of my time, but other times I end up with a much better story than I started with.

Generally, I have enough structure that I don't get lost, but also enough freedom to explore and discover some interesting and fun things along the way. Writing the book can sometimes be as much adventure for me as reading it is for someone else. At least, I HOPE so ....

Q: What type of writing schedule do you have? Is it flexible, or do you have a goal for each writing session?
A:
I try to write every day, first thing in the morning. Other than that, it's catch-as-catch-can. I spent between 2-1/2 to 3 hours each work day commuting, so that's a lot of my writing time eaten up with travel. And, working in advertising, our day ends when the work ends, so sometimes I get home pretty late, and exhausted from proofreading all day long, so that also eats up my time and energy and creativity. Fortunately, I have an AlphaSmart Neo, and half my trip each way is by train. If there's no one sharing my seat on the train, I manage to get a few pages of rough draft written each day. So yes, my writing schedule is very flexible! It has to be, to survive. My goal? Write as much as I can, whenever I can, wherever I can get away with it.

Q: Do you ever use real people as the inspiration for characters in your books? If so, why do you choose those particular people?
A:
I use TV/movie actors as physical models for my main characters. Sort of like 'casting' them, as if I were putting together a movie. I sometimes borrow fictional people from TV and the movies as the framework for some characters, whom I then alter and redesign to fit my story needs. Different hair, occupation, style of clothes, personal habits. That sort of thing.

Sometimes, I admit, I use people I really, really dislike as the models for "redshirts" in some of my stories. For instance, a co-worker who was a total pain to work with, I would set up as a lunatic fringe element whom everyone is glad to see end up in a coma. Funny thing is, even if I described these people down to the last detail (which I never, ever do) they would never recognize themselves as the creeps who got hung up by their knees and used as pinatas.

Q: Tell us about the first time you got the call or the email from a publisher wanting to publish one of your books.
A:
It was in conjunction with the Writers of the Future Contest. Heading into Christmas of 1990. "Relay," was the TWELFTH entry, in the course of about 4 years. One thing WOTF taught me was persistence and discipline. It takes a lot of work and determination to submit a new 40-page story every three months.

I answered the phone, and at first I really didn't hear what Rachel, the contest administrator was saying. You know how it is, when something happens and you're so sure it's a dream, you don't let yourself believe. By some fluke (I was sure I was going to find out I was the only person who sent a story for the fourth quarter) I was the first-place winner. I went from 3 honorable mentions to top of the class, writing a straight action-adventure piece, rather than an introspective, 'meaning of life' type of story that I THOUGHT the people at WOTF wanted. Important lesson: write what you want to read, not what you think the contest judges are looking for. About an hour later, it had finally sunk in, and I started making phone calls. I was a winner, I was getting $1,000, plus royalties for publishing the story, plus an all-expense-paid trip to Hollywood for the awards ceremony and a week's stay at a writing workshop with the other finalists for each quarter of the year.

Pretty heady experience. I thought that being a WOTF winner was an automatic ticket to publishing contracts and kissing the 9 to 5 commuting lifestyle behind. Wrong! It took me another 10 years before I got my first book contract. Persistence pays off. Either that, or I'm obsessive compulsive.

Q: If you include love scenes in your books, are they difficult for you to write? How do you decide whether to include a love scene at that point in the book, and if so, how explicit to make it?
A:
Yes, they're often very difficult. I like to leave a lot of things to the imagination. Your personal imagination is going to give you a much more stirring, compelling love scene than something with precise anatomical detail. Which, to my way of thinking, just raises the 'ick' factor.

For me, the love scenes are more about the emotions, the growing bond between the two characters, finding expression through the senses. The love scene has to be a natural extension and progression of the story. Writing sex just because it's page 50, and by this point in the novel there should be some sex - that doesn't work for me. Quite often, if I don't close the bedroom door, I at least put a curtain between the characters and the narrator - they've become real people to me, and I hope by the time they end up in bed they're real people to the readers, too - so they deserve some privacy, right? If the story demands following the scene from first kiss to falling asleep in each other's arms (and if he doesn't stick around until morning, he's a dead man) then I get it over with as quickly as possible. Because it's all the things leading up to the lovemaking, and their reaction to it afterward that matters, not the 'and the earth moved' moment itself.

Q: Do you write related books, such as series that revisit characters and/or settings you've written about in previous books? As a reader, do you read other authors' series?
A:
Definitely, yes. I spend so much effort in creating the universes, the societies and backgrounds, that the people and organizations take on a life of their own. I discover new characters in the writing of a book, who practically demand their own book. I love discovering book series that do that, going backward and forward in history, following their descendants, going off on tangents, so that a minor character in one book becomes the hero in another.

Often what happens is that I get book ideas and write the rough drafts, then put the books aside while I work on something new. When I go back to do a second or third or fourth draft, I realize that if I tweak certain details, change names or locations, suddenly it fits like a puzzle piece with another book that I've either roughed or plan to write. That's what has happened with my Commonwealth books. I created the Leapers for a contemporary SF series I call Wildvine County - basically, the adopted daughter of an Air Force colonel finds out she's an alien. (Kind of rough on her father's career, though.) I used her story for Alex, captain of the Estal'es'cai in "True Caderi." Then I realized that the Leapers belonged in the same universe with my Young Adult SF series "Sunsinger," and that put Bain Kern's adventures two generations before "True Caderi." All of a sudden, I had history and multi-generation stories coming together. It's great fun. I could literally write Commonwealth Universe stories for the next twenty years and not run out of ideas.

Scary thought, huh?

Q: How much of your own life and experiences do you put into your books?
A:
A few years ago, I could have said "Practically none." Now, however ... I have scenes that take place in a small-town newspaper that are loosely based on my miserable years answering the phone at the local paper. And I have a wedding dress, unused, hanging in my closet, which is the inspiration for a Chick-lit novel I wrote (still looking for a pub) called "For Sale: Wedding Dress. Never Used." And I used my experiences in film school and theater in other books I've written. But only snippets, nothing substantial. More like texture and flavor, not actual events.

My life right now will probably never end up in anything I write. Somehow, I doubt a book about the derring-do of a proofreader for an advertising agency would make for very thrilling reading ... unless maybe she was a crime-fighter after hours?

Q: Do you ever suffer from writer's block? Have you found any effective ways for dealing with it?
A:
Usually when I hit a brick wall with my writing, it's because I've made a big mistake in plotting or characterization, and my subconscious realizes it before my conscious mind does. A few hours or even a few days away from it usually helps the answer rise to the surface. It's amazing the number of solutions or brainstorms that come to me while I'm reading a Honda or Borders ad for the tenth time in one day.

When time away, liberal applications of chocolate or a Stargate marathon don't help jar things loose, I sometimes put the story aside and work on something else. I always have at least a half dozen projects clamoring for my attention.

Unfinished stories are like spoiled children. They won't cooperate until you ignore them. Then they straighten out and invite you back to play with them again. Suddenly, this brainstorm will hit (usually in the shower or some other place where I can't write it down) and the problem unravels itself. It's often a "Well, duh!" moment of revelation. Which can be fun, as long as I don't end up banging my head against the wall in utter frustration.

The thing is to relax and don't let the block turn into a monster. It only has the power that I allow it to have over me.