I met author Liz Michalski through Backspace and knew she would be a great addition to Women’s Fiction Writers as soon as I read the first chapter of Evenfall. There’s a lot of overlap under this broad umbrella genre, which is one of the reasons it appeals to me — to most of us. The nuances we write into our stories is what makes them special. The imagination is what makes them fiction. Liz is the perfect example of patience and perseverance — she believed in her story — and she was right to do so.
Many thanks to Liz for taking the time to share her insights with us today! I hope you’ll give her big cyber-hugs in the comments.
Author Liz Michalski Talks About Harnessing Chutzpah, Enjoying Women’s Journeys and Letting Your Characters Breathe
LM: Someone asked me what my first job was recently, and I realized that, aside from babysitting and a few things in high school, I’ve never had a job that didn’t involve writing in some capacity. I’ve always been immersed in words — it’s like breathing. But it took me a long time to get to a place where I was comfortable trying fiction. And it’s not because I was afraid to tell a story — I’ve been making up stories since I was a kid. I think it was more because saying you are going to write a novel — and then try and sell it — seems like incredible chutzpah –particularly when you are surrounded by really good writers. So it took me awhile to leap.
It also took me a bit to finish Evenfall. I started it just before I had my daughter, and finished it after the birth of my son, about eight years in all. Some of that was just a time management issue — between working and the kidlets there wasn’t much daylight left over. But I think the extra time made for a better book — after putting it aside I could go back and my ear would have gotten so much better, I could identify what was clunky and what wasn’t working, and then fix it. Then fix it again.
ASN: I know that you are also a journalist/editor/freelancer. How did you make the transition to writing women’s fiction? Was it – or is it – difficult to go back and forth between fact and fiction?
LM: I’d always been drawn to the character pieces as a reporter, the stories in which I got to interview people, not just write about events or politics. I think writing a novel was a natural extension of that. Working on nonfiction and fiction at the same time was actually beneficial — when I was stuck on my novel, I always had a deadline to turn to to get my writing juices flowing again.
ASN: There’s an element of paranormal in your book yet the story is definitely one of women’s journeys. How did you balance the two — or do you think one “genre” outweighs the other?
LM: I think the characters in my novel are the strongest element. There’s a paranormal element, for sure, but it’s less of the focus and more like a soft breeze blowing at the edges of their lives. Evenfall is a little bit of a ghost story, and a lot of a love story, but at its core it’s about two strong women searching for home and for second chances.
ASN: Last Tuesday on Women’s Fiction Writers we talked about first lines and hooks. Your book opens with “Nina sees the man first. It’s a warm summer day, the kind where, when I was alive, you’d have found me down the creek.” I love that right away we are entrenched in the setting as well as the fact that our narrator here is a ghost. Do you think that is misleading or again, part of the balance of the book? Was this always the opening?
LM: The story is told in three parts, from three different points of view. Frank, the ghost narrator, is in first person. His voice is the most immediate, although he has the least power, the least ability to affect change. Andie and Gert, the two other characters, are much stronger and more immediate characters, but they are in third person, which helps to balance them against Frank.
And yes, this was always the opening. I woke up one day with the lines in my head. I liked them, so I wrote them down, but I wasn’t planning on doing anything with them.
ASN: How did you get the idea for Evenfall?
LM: A few weeks after those lines came to me, I was touring a house much like Evenfall. The attic was this calm, peaceful space, and just seemed like it would be the perfect home for the ghost who had woken me up!
ASN: What is your definition of women’s fiction?
LM: To me, women’s fiction is all about the journey, either external or internal. Women have so many roles in their lives, so many challenges and choices, it seems like a constant act of reinvention. Women’s fiction captures that. It’s not necessarily about a happy ending (although I love it when there is one!) it’s about what happens along the way.
ASN: What are some of your favorite works of women’s fiction, other favorite reads and hooks you when you read?
LM: For women’s fiction, my favorites would have to be The Good Mother, by Sue Miller; A Woman of Independent Means, by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey; Gods in Alabama and Backseat Saints, by Joshilyn Jackson. I’d probably throw in White Oleander, by Janet Fitch, as well. Other favorites include The Time Traveller’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, A Blind Man Could See How Much I Love You, by Amy Bloom, and Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver. I’m also madly in love with Dorothy Sayers, and I have to give a shout out to my new favorite, the Demon’s Lexicon series by Sarah Rees Brennan. And of course anything by Alice Hoffman and Diana Gabaldon. And Lee Child. You can see I’m a bit of a book slut.
ASN: What is your best advice for women’s fiction writers?
LM: Be authentic. Write the story that speaks to you, not what you think you should be writing. And give your characters room to breathe — let them be themselves. Not every character is going to be likable or perfect, and that’s okay. Showing their warts makes them more believable. Finally, read, read, read — not just women’s fiction, but anything you can get your hands on. Figure out what holds your attention (and doesn’t) across genres, and then see how you can make it work for you in your own writing.
Liz Michalski’s first novel, Evenfall, was published by Berkley Books (Penguin). She’s been a reporter, an editor, a freelancer writer, and has written hundreds of articles for newspapers, magazines, and private corporations.
In her previous life, she wrangled with ill-tempered horses and oversized show dogs. These days she chases after small children and a medium-sized mutt. She likes dark chocolate caramels, champagne, and licorice tea (preferably not all served at once). In summer you’ll find her visiting farmers’ markets and trying to talk her family out of making her swim at the Connecticut shore. The rest of the year she’s home in Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and son, hard at work on her next novel.