Monday, 12 March 2012

Author Spotlight - Q&A with Michelle Levigne

STEPH: I don't know much about "The Mission." What's it about?

MICHELLE: The Mission, the building, is an old school that Tabor Christian Church bought and is using as a community outreach. They have a daycare, a kitchen that puts together meals for shut-ins, and a senior center. Now that the Arc Foundation has partnered with them, they have the funds to make renovations and start using those locked up, damaged rooms, and start expanding their services.

Paul Hunter comes in as new head custodian -- he was introduced in "Forgiven," as friend and mentor to Brock. He is taking the place of Rich Thomas, who had been stealing from the Mission and ended up putting Pastor Wally in the hospital when he was caught. Paul is a widower with a 5-year-old daughter, Sammy.

Claire, our heroine, is Pastor Wally's right hand. She and her wheelchair-bound brother, Tommy, have been in Tabor about 6 years now, and as far as anyone knows, they are alone in the world. Which, the reader soon learns, is only partly true. There was a big schism in their family, partially resulting from the accident that put Tommy in his wheelchair when he was a child. Their past tries to catch up with them during the events of the story.

STEPH: "The Mission" is part of the Tabor Heights Series. What's the underlying theme of the series that ties the books together?

MICHELLE: It's funny, but I don't really think about themes when I write the stories, but I always end up with one. I think the general theme is facing your past, learning when to forgive, and when it's a waste of time to give someone a second chance, because you'll only get hurt!

Paul has a bad past -- he rescued his wife from an abusive family situation, and in the process was falsely accused of kidnapping her, and served some jail time. Those abusive, powerful, lying relatives don't have any use for him or Sammy, his daughter, until it profits them. At the same time, Claire is facing a recurring "family problem," that she thought had been left behind forever -- to the point that no one in town even knew she had more family than Tommy.

Then there is a "secondary" relationship/couple, who have to learn to look past a pretty rotten shared past -- her mother had an affair with his father, destroying both their families. How far do you let the ripple effect from those bad choices impact your life? It's one thing to say you're both innocent of the crimes of your parents, but how do you live like you believe that?

STEPH: How long did it take you to write?

MICHELLE: Well, I wrote the first twenty pages or so about ten-plus years ago, then I had to put it aside. It just wasn't going anywhere. Last summer, I picked it up again and wrote the first draft in August -- for the Camp NaNoWriMo challenge. Then I did three revisions and turned it in to Gail in November. So it was a fast, fast write and revise process. And I had a really sparse outline to work from, so I had very little idea what I originally planned on writing when I first started the book so many years ago.

STEPH: Did you have to do a lot of research for the novel?

MICHELLE: No -- mostly because I had been getting brainstorms and snippets of ideas for months, since I started revising all the other Tabor Heights books, and had a good idea how other people's stories would impact The Mission -- once I got it written, of course. There are some events or incidents that closely echo actual events or relationships that I either witnessed or heard about -- would you call it research?

On the other hand, I had to do a lot of looking back through other people's stories in Tabor Heights to make sure that I didn't contradict the days/dates of events, and that I didn't have people show up on one side of town when they should have been on the other side of town. That sort of stupidity that I thought I had handled -- but no matter how carefully you keep those calendars and notes and maps ... something slips through. It's frustrating, but still fun. It's like a puzzle that's half-blank as you put the pieces together, and the picture only appears once you have some of the pieces in place. If that makes any sense ........
Sometimes, writing my stories is like hearing someone tell me the story as I'm going along -- I didn't plan for something to happen, or I didn't even know that person existed, but it's like they step up and tap me on the shoulder -- or sometimes whack me across the back of the head to get my attention, like Gibbs on NCIS -- and say, "Hey, what about me? Don't forget to tell them about me!"

I love when that happens.

STEPH: What was the inspiration for the story?

MICHELLE: Don't laugh, but in a roundabout way, it was "MacGuyver."

I was trying to sell a script to the show, in what turned out to be the final season. My script featured MacGuyver working with a community outreach group that had a handicapped awareness day project, and he spent the day going around town with a guy in a wheelchair who happened to be a comedian. The "threat" through all this was that the wheelchair comedian's brother-in-law had criminal connections in his past, and they were threatening the whole family to get this guy to rejoin their organization. Of course, MacGuyver saves the day.

Anyway, I got the "brilliant" idea to turn that script into a Tabor Heights book, but I had to have a set-up, establishing the family in town. I already had established the Mission elsewhere, and I had put Claire in charge -- why not give her a handicapped brother with an extremely smart mouth? But there was the little girl and the husband with criminal connections ... where have they been all this time? So, in a roundabout method, to be able to eventually write Tommy's romance, I had to write Claire and Paul's romance, first.

STEPH: The cover has a construction sign displayed on a fence in front of a building. What's the meaning of the cover?

MICHELLE: Well, it's generally referring to all the new construction and renovations about to take place on the Mission itself.
If you want to get philosophical ... the construction and renovations taking place in the lives of the characters? Nah ... let's not get philosophical. I sometimes do a lousy job filling out the art questionnaire, and Jenifer always does a fantastic job, finding artwork near to what we ask for, or she goes off in a different direction and that alternative works better than what we writers envisioned. She's incredible, and we're so lucky at DBP to have her to make our stories "pretty" and catch reader's attention long enough to read the blurbs and consider buying the books.

STEPH: How long have you been writing?

MICHELLE: *sigh* More than 30 years. At least, that's how long I have been writing with the conscious intent of getting published "someday." High school, definitely. I had this story in my head and it was interferring with studying for semester exams. We were a college prep high school, and those semester exam grades were dang important, so I had to kill this story to let me study. Always before when I tried to write down stories, they died in agony. This one didn't. The rest is history.

STEPH: Do you have an ebook reader? If so, which one?

MICHELLE: Dedicated readers: Nook

Multiple-use gizmos that have e-book programs on them: iPod and iPad, with software for Nook, Kindle, and iBooks.
I also had a very old Palm Tungsten that was my first e-book reader. It still works! I'm holding onto it for sentimental reasons, and also because there are some books on it I haven't loaded onto other readers yet ....

STEPH: What's your writing space like?

MICHELLE: Right now it's a very crowded mess, because it's full of projects to get ready for RT -- I'm making T-shirts and mousepads for other authors to give away, and filling up boxes with freebie stuff to mail ahead of me. And notes all over the place for projects and updating my web site, and my walls are covered with charts and maps and notes to myself of things to do. It's wall-to-wall furniture with shelves full of books, and a computer hutch, and a drafting table where I do most of my work, and a rolling cart with my stereo on it and ... And a NordicTrak in the center of the room that I should be using at least three times a day, but I'm lucky if I get on it once a day. I am not going to lose all that weight for RT that I had hoped to ....

STEPH: Fun question: What do you do for St. Patrick's Day?

MICHELLE: Nothing, except maybe eat corned beef and cabbage. Yeah, I'm booooooooring!

When I worked Downtown Cleveland, we would stop and watch the big, noisy, fun parade that went down Superior Avenue, right under our windows. That was convenient. People would show up first thing in the morning, so there were always people in costumes and carrying all sorts of Irish-y stuff on the bus and the Rapid. It was fun!

It's not that big a day for me. Sorry.
Part of it might be that I'm Italian, not Irish.

What's the song Joanne Worley sang, in that dramatization of "The Gift of the Magi"? Something about mixing Minestrone with Irish baloney ....

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