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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Author Interview ~ Michelle Richmond

Author photo by Misty Richmond

Michelle Richmond is the author of the story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, as well as the novels Dream of the Blue Room and The Year of Fog. Her third novel, No One You Know, will be published by Delacorte in 2008.
Her stories and essays have appeared in Glimmer Train, Playboy, Oxford American, The Believer, Salon, The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2006 Mississippi Review Fiction Prize and the 2000 Associated Writing Programs Award for a short story collection, and has received fellowships from the Millay Colony, the Saltonstall Foundation, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, among others.

Michelle holds an MFA from the University of Miami, where she was a James Michener Fellow, and teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at California College of the Arts. She has served as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at St. Mary’s College of Moraga, and as Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bowling Green State University.
A native of Mobile, Alabama, Michelle lives in San Francisco. She is the founding editor of the literary journal Fiction Attic, and she serves on the advisory board of the Christopher Isherwood Foundation. She is represented by Valerie Borchardt of Georges Borchardt, Inc.

What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us about?

My second novel, THE YEAR OF FOG, was published in April. The book opens with the disappearance of a young girl on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach while she is in the care of her father’s fiancée, Abby. The novel is narrated by Abby, and the plot centers on the search for the girl and the unraveling of Abby’s relationship with the girl’s father. The book is about memory, guilt, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to get by.

Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head.

When I began writing THE YEAR OF FOG in 2002 (the working title for the book up until publication was OCEAN BEACH), I did not yet have a publisher for my first novel, Dream of the Blue Room. I was spending a month at an artists’ colony in rural Costa Rica when I received an email from MacAdam/Cage, an independent San Francisco publisher, asking me to call them. Making a phone call was a convoluted process involving a long walking trip into the nearest town to purchase a telephone card, so it was a couple of days before I talked to MacAdam/Cage. When I did, an editor there told me they wanted to publish DREAM OF THE BLUE ROOM. I was ecstatic.

Working on my second novel was less daunting when I knew I had a publisher for my first one. At that point, I did not have an agent. I continued writing THE YEAR OF FOG, and in 2003, when I had about 150 pages of the novel (my first book novel had recently been released), I met Anne and Georges Borchardt at the Sewanee Writers Conference. They were only at the conference for a couple of days, but they read the manuscript and I had a lovely meeting with them on their patio. They said they were very interested and invited me to send the book to them when it was finished.

About a year later, I sent the completed draft to Anne, who offered to represent it and did a wonderful job editing the manuscript and helping me shape it to send out to publishers. In January of 2004, I moved from San Francisco to Bowling Green, Ohio, to spend a semester as visiting writer at Bowling Green State University. There, I completed most of my revisions of the novel.

During spring break, I went home to San Francisco, got pregnant, and pretty much forgot about THE YEAR OF FOG. At some point around there, Anne passed me on to her daughter, Valerie Borchardt, who began sending the book out. I believe my son was five months old when Valerie called to tell me that Bantam had made an offer on the novel—this was in the summer of 2005. The offer was for two books, including one that had not yet been written. So as soon as THE YEAR OF FOG sold, I knew I had to begin working seriously on the next book.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work?

I think my self-doubts have more to do with my physical ability to do the work than the work itself. For the first several years of my writing career, I spent most of my free time writing, with no guarantee that anything I wrote would ever be published. After having my son, I had a contract for a book for the first time in my life, but the actual time I had to write was cut drastically—by a good 95 percent or so!
I generally feel that, if I can carve out the time to do the work, I can make it good. This isn’t something that happens in the first draft. It happens over many drafts. With a story, it make take a year or longer to get it to the point that I’m satisfied. With a novel, it takes several years. Sometimes, I spend months or years writing something and then toss it in the end. Which means I probably should have had some self-doubt somewhere in the process to save myself some time….hmmm.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication?

I probably tried to send out my first novel, DREAM OF THE BLUE ROOM, to agents before it was ready. The same goes for my first book, a story collection called THE GIRL IN THE FALL-AWAY DRESS. I was 27 and fresh out of graduate school when I first began sending my story collection out to contests. I was 29 when it was accepted for publication. The version I sent out in the end was far more polished than the earlier manuscripts I sent out. So, while I don’t think you should sit on a manuscript forever, I do believe you should make sure you’re submitting something that is truly finished and polished.

What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?

Pretty much the same old advice you hear from everyone: Write every day, or at least close to every day. Spend at least as much time reading as you spend writing.

To young writers who are intrigued with the idea of “the writing life,” I would say that it’s far more important to sit alone at your desk and write than it is to go to parties and readings and schmooze with other writers. I think some young writers have a romantic idea of the hip writing life and fall in love with the social aspect of the literary world without recognizing that the writing itself is essential. One sees this a lot in my town, San Francisco, where you could go to a different literary event and/or literary party every night. I love parties, but I also know that when I’m at a party or a reading, I’m not writing! The book won’t write itself.

What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve heard?
“Write what you know.” This precludes a certain kind of exploration and discovery that is at the heart of good writing.

Or “outline the story before you begin.” I think this is bad advice for the same reason that “write what you know” is bad advice.

What’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

Some of the magazines that you would expect to be the least open to new writers actually do consider work by writers they don’t know. Glimmer Train, which happens to be one of the highest-paying journals out there, is truly exceptional in that its editors are far more interested in the quality of the work than the name behind it.
Playboy is also quite adventurous in a literary sense, and open to unknown writers, and they pay a whopping $5,000 per story. On the other hand, there are some small, non-paying magazines that only publish their friends, so a beginning writer’s chances of publication are sometimes better with bigger magazines.

Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share?

I couldn’t find an agent for my first novel, Dream of the Blue Room. This was very discouraging, and for a while there I wondered if I would ever publish it. Agents kept telling me the subject matter wouldn’t sell. What I learned from this is simple: if you believe in your book, persist in sending it out.

What are a few of your favorite books? (Not written by you.)

Here is Where We Meet, by John Berger. The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by Milan Kundera. Closely Watched Trains, by Bohumil Hrabal. Death of a Beekeeper, by Lars Gustafsson. Blindness, by Jose Saramago. The Little Disturbances of Man, by Grace Paley. Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell. The collected essays of E.B. White. The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene. Another Day of Life, by Ryszard Kapuscinski. Old Hasdrubal and the Pirates, a children’s book by Berthe Amos that I read hundreds of times as a kid—I recently found a copy on alibris for my son, who loves it just as much as I did.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?

I’m pretty fond of a short story that is included in my story collection, “The Last Bad Thing.” It’s a very flawed story, but it’s the second one I ever published (it came out in Gulf Coast while I was in grad school), and in that story I see all the hopes I had of being a writer, and all the ways I wanted to experiment. Of course, now that I’ve been around a while, I realize that when we writers think we’re being “experimental,” it just means we haven’t read enough to know that what we’re doing has already been done.
But when I come across that story I can still feel the first flush of love I had for writing. The story is set during the first Gulf War—I wrote it while I was living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama as an undergraduate, and I was receiving these long, passionate, and sometimes gruesome letters from my boyfriend/fiancé at the time, who was stationed in Saudi Arabia. Another reason I’m interested in the story all these years later is that it seems to speak to what is going on now, across a generational divide.

Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
Far too much emphasis is placed upon what will sell. I hate the prevailing “wisdom” that story collections will not find an audience.

My other pet peeve is when writers act as though they have it so tough, as if writing is a terribly difficult occupation. Factory work is difficult, coal mining is difficult, housecleaning is difficult, waitressing is difficult. Writing is a challenging privilege. Anecdotal evidence: I’ve fired from a couple of waitressing jobs. I’ve never been fired from writing.)

Take us through your process of writing a novel briefly—from conception to revision.

I’m afraid I couldn’t do this briefly. Basically, I spend a lot of time staring at the computer and thinking, “What comes next?” When it’s going well, I spend a lot of time thinking, “This streak can’t last.”

Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?

I’d love to publish a collection of travel essays. Pico Iyer is one of my favorite writers—I love his blend of memoir and reportage. I used to travel a lot and frequently wrote about my travel experiences for various magazines and anthologies. Since I had my son, I’ve done very little traveling. I’d like to return to that one day.

Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?
Never, ever, not even for a moment. Even when I hit publishing hurdles, I never considered quitting. I love writing too much.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

Favorite—being alone with the page. Least favorite—being alone with the page!

How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?

I do a lot of readings and events. I find it hard to say no when I’m asked to do one, and ultimately, I really enjoy doing them. And I think it’s very important, as an author, to build relationships with local independent booksellers, who are responsible for getting your books into the hands of readers. I also meet with local book clubs fairly frequently. I appreciate the book clubs taking the time to read my book, and I really enjoy talking to readers who have given the book a lot of thought.
Of course, I realize this answer is contrary to my answer about spending too much time living the “literary life.” But in the months following the publication of a book, if you want readers for the book it definitely helps to get out there and promote it.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response?
One reader invited me to engage in a threesome with him and his wife after they both read DREAM OF THE BLUE ROOM. I politely declined, and noted that the novel was fiction. Hello, people, I’m a married woman!

Parting words?

I feel very fortunate to get to write for a living. I absolutely love getting emails from readers who have spent a few hours with one of my books, or even just a few minutes with one of my stories. I’m a pretty solitary person; writing is a way to communicate with the world without having to answer the phone.


  1. Michelle, I so agree this profession is a privilege. Thanks for sharing your story and your heart.

  2. What a wonderful interview. Thanks for the information about Glimmer. I like that publication, but really wasn't sure if they were open to newer writers, although I'd heard it somewhere in passing. And I can't believe PB pays 5k per story. They aren't exactly a publicatin I'd submit to, but it's interesting nevertheless.

    Love your heart and wish you the best with your novels.

  3. You offered some great advice. Thank you.

  4. Great interview, Michelle. I haven't yet gotten a chance to read Year of Fog, but I've heard good things. Many thanks.

  5. "Favorite—being alone with the page. Least favorite—being alone with the page!"

    Boy, can I relate to this statement.


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