Behind the Words: Michelle Lee

Posted by on Sep 13, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Michelle Lee

Michelle Lee’s short story, When Something’s Broken Near Water, is a meditation on how life changes after a divorce, the things kept and the things given away. Lee kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her work.

Olivia Lowenberg: When Something’s Broken Near Water, your piece featured in Spry, pulls readers in much like the tide on a beach. What inspired you to write this story?

Michelle Lee: First, thank you for the lovely compliment: like the tide on a beach – I may have to put that on the wall above my desk.  Second, my husband gave me the seed for “Something’s Broken.”  He came home from working out at the Y one evening and told me that an older woman got stuck in a chair above the pool: no one, even the lifeguard, really knew what to do.  So the woman, this woman with her fragile feet dangling above the chlorine, just sat there in my head for days, calling to be rescued.  Then the through-line was born.

What is your writing process like?

Well, ideas come from everywhere: people I know and don’t know; song lyrics by some obscure ’90s band; something my eight-year old might say; an online article on the Hubble; a walk across the college campus where I work … Then I hunt for a scrap of paper (yes, I should reach for my phone, but something feels wrong about that) and jot the nugget down.  In terms of the actual writing?  I meet with some friends once a week to write at a local coffee shop for a few hours (accountability!), but also write whenever I have a free minute.  My day job is English Professor, so it’s challenging to find time to develop my own projects in between grading their assignments.  I’m a slow writer, too: I edit as I go, mostly, so I don’t produce oodles of words on a daily basis. I’m definitely an obsessive wordsmith/over-thinker. And I’m not an outliner or a plotter: I scribble notes a few steps ahead and usually have the “big picture” in mind, but not every scene or reaction.  I’d say it takes me about 8-12 months to produce a solid, get-out-there novel manuscript, because, like all of us, I have to dodge life! Writing short stories and poems was much easier and faster.  I could do those in about a week or two.

What writing advice do you give your students?

Hmmm. It’s so hard to give other writers advice, and students are especially delicate.  But ….

  • Find the small, interesting thing to write about.  Make it mean something. 
  • Plot should grow naturally from the character.
  • Think of your reader: how can you use the genre, the form, to help them connect with your story, your characters?
  • Don’t wait until something is perfect to get it out into the world: perfect will never come.
  • Read what inspires you, read what’s out there in the genre you love.  Soak it in.
  • You don’t need an academic degree to write a strong, wonderful story, but you need to be mindful of craft.
  • Always be professional in your format and correspondence.  Follow editor/agent guidelines.  Be kind to them.
  • Don’t overwrite: even in “experimental writing,” be creative and clear.  Be sure to ground your reader in something real.

What are you working on next?

I’m finishing my second novel, a hybrid of verse and prose. Lately I’ve been writing for a middle-grade audience.  These are readers who still have one foot in the magical world of childhood, where so much is possible – and one foot pointed toward adulthood, where they have to think about grown-up issues. These readers, these characters, have baggage, but it doesn’t weigh them down with so much angst. They have the keen ability to believe in a birthday wish in the same moment they are challenging the “facts” of the world.  And they’re still wide open in their definitions and ideas about love, even when they get horribly hurt.

You have published both poetry and fiction. For you, in what ways does writing one inform the other?

My first novel (which is traveling between editorial desks right now) is a novel-in-verse.  I find the style and genre energizing: the line breaks, the ability to play with white space, form.

I love how the purposeful construction of poetry has this marvelous ability to bring out a character’s emotions, as well as showcase movement of the plot.  When I write prose, the lyricism and liveliness of poetry informs the way I break paragraphs, the way I write dialogue or tag dialogue. I think that’s why I gravitated toward flash fiction and shorter fiction for a while. The brevity of poetry helped make my prose more concise.  Poetry helps me think about how to create beauty and music with an economy of words.

Earlier this year, when I began my second novel, it was clear to me that one character’s voice should be poetry and the other in prose.  The rhythm, the line lengths, the different pacing in genres sparked their personalities.

One of my favorite writers is Kwame Alexander.  The man uses poetry to build such vivid, fast-paced, emotionally compelling novels.

Olivia Lowenberg is a current master’s student at MF Norwegian School of Theology in Oslo, Norway. Her short fiction has previously appeared in Argot Magazine, Cat on a Leash Review, and The Zodiac Review, and was just published in Spry Literary Journal.