Michelle Schusterman lives in New York City and is the author of several novels and series for children and teens.
Michelle is building a strong portfolio as the author of wide-ranging stories for young people. Her series include I HEART BAND and THE KAT SINCLAIR FILES (Grosset), and her standalone novels comprise OLIVE AND THE BACKSTAGE GHOST and MARIONETTE (Random House). In addition she has co-written UNCONVENTIONAL, a novel about fandom of all kinds, which will publish with Scholastic.
She is also a musician who has played steel drums for several bands over recent years, and has recorded four CDs in addition to countless live performances.
When and how did you start writing?
Like most writers, I wrote horrendous amounts of stories and terrible, terrible poetry when I was little. Oh, and I went through a brief phase after reading HARRIET THE SPY that involved carrying around a black-and-white composition notebook and spying on everyone. I still have it; apparently, I saw some interesting things. (I should add that I lived in New Orleans at the time, and this phase coincided with Mardi Gras. Lots of fascinating things for a young spy to observe during that madness!)
In high school my focus shifted to music, which was my major when I went to college. I began writing seriously while living abroad in Brazil a few years later. I had a travel blog and started a YA novel about clones. When I moved to Korea, I developed a bad case of pneumonia and tuberculosis that put me in bed for a few months and caused me to lose my teaching job. It was either write or stare at the ceiling all day. So I finished and revised my novel and started querying, and got an online internship with Matador Network, a travel site and media company. Turns out getting sick led to a pretty awesome career change!
Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
Roald Dahl was and will always be my favorite children's author. (He's actually my favorite travel writer and photographer, too. His biography is pretty astounding.) It's hard to remember that far back, but I'm pretty sure the first book I read of his was MATILDA. The rest – CHARLIE, JAMES, THE BFG, the wonderful WITCHES – followed shortly. HARRIET THE SPY was definitely a big one too – I don't remember how many times I read it, but it was a lot. And I was a huge Beverly Cleary fan in elementary school. Ramona felt like a close friend.
In sixth grade, I read every single book in the original Nancy Drew series. When I discovered there was a modern (at the time, anyway) Nancy series, I was in heaven. I was 13 and at an outlet mall with my mom, aunt, and sister. We went into a bookstore first, and I came out with two four-packs of new Nancy Drews. I promptly parked myself on a bench outside while my family shopped. Six hours later, I'd read the first four books and started the fifth as soon as we got into the car. Nothing like a good mystery!
Can you talk us through your career so far? What were the key moments?
Getting tuberculosis changed a lot. When I got back to the US from Korea, I became a full-time freelance writer. It took several months and wasn't the easiest transition, but it was worth it.
When I realized the aforementioned YA novel wasn't going to be The One that led to representation, I started on another book. And I had an epiphany – I wasn't a young adult writer, I was an middle grade writer. I love reading YA (and MG and adult, for that matter), but the stories I want to tell are very much middle grade. So I wrote a story about a 13 year old girl who contacts ghosts through her blog, and it was the most fun I'd ever had writing anything. When it was time to query, things went a little differently; I had two offers in the first week.
Sarah calling was absolutely a key moment. She'd requested the full manuscript on a Saturday. Sunday afternoon I was writing at a Starbucks when my phone rang. She offered representation right there, and I was floored. I remember the barista asking if I was okay – apparently I turned pretty red.
Another key moment of my writing career happened in Puerto Rico. I was on assignment for Matador at the Saborea food festival. I joined a group of journalists and photographers waiting for Ted Allen, host of the Food Network show Chopped, to finish a demonstration. Really, I just wanted a picture with him, but I sucked it up, told myself to act like a pro (even though I felt like a total fraud), and interviewed him for about ten minutes. I was terrified, but he was incredibly nice and it went really well – well enough that when I interviewed a few Iron Chefs later that day, I had a little bit more confidence. That whole trip was a transition for me; it was when I started to believe it when I called myself a journalist.
And of course, an incredibly key moment was getting the I HEART BAND deal! That felt so serendipitous; it happened so quickly, and it's about band! My very first book deal is about something that defined my childhood (and adulthood) – music. It's wonderful.
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organise your time? Where do you look for inspiration?
I won't lie – sometimes I write in bed in my PJs. But my favorite place to write is the library. A few months ago, I discovered that the library in downtown Seattle has a writers' room with private cubicles and lockers and plenty of outlets for laptops. It's not just peaceful, it also has an "office" feel that puts me in the right frame of mind; it's time to work. (Something that writing in bed, no matter how pleasant, doesn't offer.)
As far as organizing my time, I just set daily goals that I know are doable. I write at least 2,000 words of fiction a day (with obvious exceptions – holidays, traveling). With my editorial responsibilities for Matador, it's more of a weekly thing; sometimes I'll edit three submissions in a day, sometimes I'll spend two days researching an article.
I also allow myself very short Internet breaks. For example, when I hit 1,000 words, I'll open Tumblr for five to ten minutes.
As for inspiration, I'd say travel is what does it most for me. It's where the two sides of my writing career collide. I can't think of the last time I visited a new place and didn't leave with an idea for a story. A few months ago I was in Québec City, passed a sign for a ghost tour (les vísítes fantômes!!), and immediately ducked into a cafe to jot down an idea. In New Orleans last fall I visited the architecturally stunning campus of a "Home for Unwed Mothers" run by nuns – story idea. Being in a new place makes me start asking "what ifs," and "what ifs" are what lead to stories.
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
Nothing new here, but this is what I was told from the beginning and I still feel is absolutely true: 1. Keep writing no matter what, and 2. Don't compare yourself to others.
Writing can be excruciatingly hard when it feels like the rejections are piling up, but it's vital; with every sentence you write, you get better. And it's nearly impossible not to compare your career with other writers, not with Twitter and Facebook and blogs that allow us to read about the successes of others every hour, every day. I wrote four books before I got a book deal. Some writers will write one book, find an agent, and sell that book. Others will write ten books before an agent even requests a full. That doesn't necessarily make the first writer better than the second. And wondering 'why did that happen for her and not for me' won't get you any closer to your goal. Just keep writing.
Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?
1. Outlining. Every writer has a method. Some go for the 'seat of my pants' method, and it works. Others plot on notecards, or make timelines, or just word vomit a huge synopsis. After a lot of trial and error (with emphasis on the error), I've found that I absolutely need to outline. With I HEART BAND, I went with the Snowflake Method, and it's been amazingly helpful. In the past, I've ripped through the first several chapters of a rough draft, then inevitably drag in the middle – I know how it ends, but I don't know how to get there. But when I have a good outline, there's no lull. I can still change and adjust the outline as I get to know the characters and they take over the story; but having the bones of that story first makes all the difference in the world.
2. Voice: the difference between the book I queried unsuccessfully and the book that landed representation. Some writers have it right off the bat; with others, it takes time to develop. For me, I really think it was that switch from YA to MG. My natural storytelling voice is tween-y. I say that proudly.
3. Dialogue. Obviously there's overlap between dialogue and voice, but even when I find a character's voice, I'll still come across stiff dialogue when I go back to revise. Reading dialogue out loud is invaluable.
Which favourite authors would you invite to a dinner party? What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?
The dinner table: Lemony Snicket, Roald Dahl, Eva Ibbotson, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Maurice Sendak, Madeleine L'Engle. I'd serve poached salmon and pan-fried oysters, with lemon tarts for dessert.
I wish I'd come up with Willy Wonka. The man owns a magical chocolate factory. It just doesn't get any better than that.
Of course, inventing Harry Potter would've been a pretty nice deal, too.