Today I’m happy to introduce you to Susan Michalski, author of Safe Distances
and the upcoming novel, Stellar Navigation. I met Susan through a mutual friend, and when I read her first novel I was struck by the similarities in our themes: trauma and repression, memory and betrayal. Though her fiction falls under the YA umbrella, she doesn’t shy away from adult content. Her upcoming novel, Stellar Navigation, is due out this summer.
1) Tell us how the idea for your Geodesy Series came to you. How long has this story been taking up your mental space?
I had this idea years ago, like in my thirties, about twins who had gone through an enormous tragedy that triggered psychic powers and they would go out on the astral plain and find others like themselves and lure them into this sort of messed up little commune. I actually wrote that book too, but it was horrible, and I knew that there was no saving it because the plot was so thin. Then years later the plot of SD came along with Sage, so I went back and stole the twins from that book, made them younger, and focused the story on surviving trauma rather than perpetuating it. I have always loved young adult fiction and since I am totally a young soul, that genre was the perfect fit. As far as mental space, I have been living with this story for a decade, but I didn’t get serious about researching PTSD and parapsychology experiments until maybe 2010. I started the character journals that summer too, so I could develop really distinct voices and personalities for each of them. The back stories of characters emerged from the journals. Essentially the characters told me their stories. Weird. I know.
2) Describe for us your relationship with your characters. What made you want to write more than one novel about them?
I love this question because I do have a relationship with each of them, just like the “real” people in my life. Sometimes I love them and root for them, and sometimes they tick me off and make me want to scream at them to wake up and smell the espresso! Sage is the character I most relate to. I think I kind of blow through my life, sucking the marrow out of every experience like she does. I never judge or let some societal norm keep me from being open to love on lots of levels. The downside is that, like Sage, my decisions aren’t always the wisest or the most thoughtful. I get Sage and I love her openness and hate her foolishness. Elena is like my best friend, the one who sees all the beauty in life even though her naiveté is maddening at times. She is like a luminescent moth in a pitch dark forest, real and ethereal in a way I wish I was, but can never be, so I just want to be near it to breathe it in. I will save the boys for the next question, but I have both maternal and sexual feelings for both of them. I just love guys and their otherness (I know you get this). They are like these miraculous, strong, gorgeous beings that have such an intense vulnerability that is so unlike feminine vulnerability. The cool thing about my characters is that they each represent an element. It wasn’t exactly planned, but once I noticed it, I brought it out as much as I dared. So Sage is Earth, Elena is Air, Finn is Fire, and Ethan is Water. Their relationships play out much the way the elements mix, too. Wild the way the subconscious contrives all that. That’s the magic of being a writer, just saying.
3) You know that I adore Finn, and Ethan makes me crazy. How have your other readers responded to your characters? Do you have a favorite?
I love that you love Finn and hate Ethan. In fact I channeled some of your hatred into Dr. Robineau in Stellar Navigation when she calls him spoiled and stubborn. As for others, I would say, to the person, every reader prefers one or the other, and the split is about 50/50. Oddly, it’s the mothers of boys who hate Ethan the most. I think that’s why I love him the most. He is my favorite character, though the hardest to write, probably because his story arc is the widest. He is the most damaged and therefore has the longest journey to take. Plus I just want to take care of him and make it all better. He won’t let me, luckily, because that would be a really boring story. Finn is the fave of all the single ladies. What can I say? He is HOT! What girl can resist the bad boy? Not me. That’s for sure. My male readers all want to BE Finn so they choose him over Ethan, too.
4) You write a damn good sex scene. Do they come easily to you? How have your readers responded?
For all the writers out there hoping to write a sizzling sex scene one day, listen up. This is THE secret. Have sex with lots of people: boys girls older younger gentle and rough. Then stop for a LONG TIME. The only way to write great sex is to know what it feels like and to feel like you will never have it again in the flesh. Too much detail, I’m sure, but detail is key. If you feel that depth of longing, you will experience (and write) every tactile, aural, visual, nasal, and (What is the adjective for taste?) taste detail that leaps vividly from your memory. One of my largest groups of readers is men between 30 and 60. I’m sure you can guess why they like the book so much.
5) We have some similar themes in our writing: trauma, memory and repression, to name a few. Why do you feel drawn to these topics?
Another great question. Trauma shapes us in ways that scientists are only beginning to understand. It changes the brain chemistry, altering the essence of who we are, for better or worse. Trauma gives us a choice: let it make me stronger or let it destroy me (though the choice may be programmed before we are even born). I think people who are made better, faster, stronger through trauma are ABOVE the rest of the population in some way. Something about earning stripes comes to mind. Memory is another one of those great unknowns. My interest in it stems from growing up with 7 siblings, and though we grew up in the same house and lived the same events, it never fails that we remember them in vastly different ways. Our minds are not video recorders that capture facts in the form of memory. Instead the mind is like a sculptor and the event is the clay. The memory molds and morphs the event to suit our needs and it never stops, so a memory of my 11th birthday today might be miles from what it will be when I am 70. And yet, memory to us is REAL and hard to the touch. We stake our lives on it quite literally sometimes, never grasping that memory is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Repression is the sculptor turned magician, because he takes what is there and makes it seem to disappear, but it resides all along in the lining of the sleeve just waiting to fall out and reveal itself. The stuff of great stories real and imagined! Book four, Finn’s story, deals with that in spades.
6) How do you categorize your fiction? Do you consider yourself more of a Young Adult writer, an Emerging Adult writer? Who reads Safe Distances?
I categorically refuse to categorize my series! But I did ask a librarian to take a stab at it. Geodesy Series is NOT “Emerging Adult” or “New Adult” fiction largely because that very emerging genre space is occupied mainly by romances. And while Safe Distances has some romantic moments, the story is really a mystery of histories, and the other two installments are more action/adventure/mystery with very little romance. I don’t really fit well into the YA space either, which is becoming a landscape of post-apocalyptic revolutions, horror stories, and supernatural romances with a sad cancer story or two thrown in for good measure. Again my books are none of these, but the characters age from 17 to 21 in the series and the themes appeal to a similarly aged audience, I think. YA also has some really specific rules that I break, too: no sexual content beyond kissing and no swear words, but any amount of violence is AOK. (Meg Cabot breaks these rules too, so I am at least in good company). So the verdict is that the Geodesy Series is young adult fiction for older teens and above.
7) Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Do you furiously write for hours and then revise, or do you deliberate over every word? Do you prefer writing longhand or do you need your computer to really get in to your story? Do you write mostly at night or during the day? And (I always love this question) what do you snack on while you’re working?
Back in the day I needed an hour to get in the mood with candles and wine (like courting sex), but now I can do it on the fly for ten minutes while I’m waiting in the traffic line to pick up my kid from school or in my work cubicle at lunch time. (Like quicky, baby-making sex after 10 years of marriage – it gets the job done). I am only half-joking, really. So I spend a good deal of time at the front end getting to know my characters. The plot comes to me like a bolt of lightning all at once with a profound headache that follows. I take that and break it into “scenes” like it’s a movie in my mind. Then I jot down the director notes (dramatic goals for each scene: mood, plot, forward, character evolutions, funny moments) with an opening hook and a closing zinger for each chapter. (This changes a bit as I roll forward, but it gives me some rails to ride on). Then I just go chronologically. I live the events of the story in my mind while I’m walking, running, showering, cooking, driving, breathing (sometimes the events don’t make it into the novel but they happen anyway). Then as soon and as fast as I can I get that part of the story in writing. I move back and forth each time I sit down to write, honing a part I already wrote and writing new material too, even if I only have ten minutes and I only get one sentence written. The going back gets me back into the scene and the moving forward moves me forward. The bottom line is that because the movie is always playing, I am desperate to get it down on the page. It eats at me until I do. Also I NEVER EVER stop at the end of a chapter or book. I get at least a third of the way through the next chapter or book before I revise the one I finished. This is because of what I like to call the faucet principle. As long as the faucet is running (even if it is only at a ten minute trickle some days) then the pipes can’t freeze up. It’s all about inertia. A writer in motion tends to stay in motion; a writer at rest tends to get blocked and depressed. Revision has to wait because it exists in a different realm in my brain, and if I turn on the part that is good at revision, the part that is good at creating immediately turns off, and you know what happens to the flow then. I never eat when I write. It’s too intense for me. It would be like eating when I’m running. But I do drink, anything anyone else serves me. Getting up to get a drink is out of the question.
8) I know you’ve done some photo shoots of scenes from both Safe Distances and Stellar Navigation. What has that experience been like for you?
OMG! It has been like bringing the novel to life. I can only imagine the elation of having a novel brought to life in a movie or series. The kids who I found to become the characters are nothing short of perfect in so many ways, and my photographer (one of the first people who read my book) gets the vision in his soul. He is a real artist with all the emotion and sensitivity that this kind of project calls for. I also have a composer writing a score for the book trailers too. Lots of pieces to make come together, and even though it has been time consuming, it has inspired me in my writing in ways I never imagined. On kind of a crazy note though, I have a tough time sometimes when I’m interacting with the kids, separating the real person from the character. I might be having a conversation with Jeremy, the pedicab driver with a philosophy degree, but my heart is talking to Ethan. It freaks me out a little.
9) How soon will we have the next installment (and can you give us a teaser)?
My goal is to have Stellar Navigation out by my birthday at the end of June. I am past the halfway point, and I tend to write faster and faster as I get into a book. With Safe Distances I wrote the last 250 pages in less than 10 weeks, and I only have maybe 150 left to go on this book. As for a teaser, I will tell you that Stellar Navigation is Elena’s story and it is all about power and weakness and how they are ultimately illusions. Like SD, SN is a mystery of motivations. WHY? WHY? WHY? is what the reader will ask again and again. I have some amazing new characters to love. Cayde is a fourteen-year-old, hyperactive, telekinetic, black boy with a goofy sense of humor and the sunniest of outlooks in the face of great darkness. His foil is a nineteen-year-old girl named Jordan who is all about the dead, who she writes to on a black wall with an awl. The there’s Jamie, the mentor, who shows Elena her power despite his weaknesses. The crossing-character is Dr. Caroline Robineau. I’ll let you figure out if she is evil or good. The through theme from Safe Distances is the deep and dark secrets that all the characters keep and eventually reveal with devastating consequences. Maybe you will like Ethan a little more this time around, but he does take a dark turn. It was inevitable. Wasn’t it?
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