2017 debut author Bree Barton recently interviewed 2016 debut author Michele Bacon about her gut punch of a novel, LIFE BEFORE, published June 7, 2016 by Skyhorse/Sky Pony Press.
About the Book:
Life Before is a compelling, thoughtful coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old boy on the run, the danger following him, and the life he’s left behind.
Buy a signed and personalized copy from Secret Garden Books in Seattle.
About the Author:
Michele Bacon writes contemporary fiction for adults and young adults. She often writes about family, friendship, and the blurred line between the two. Michele geeks out over many things, but especially board games, skiing, and international travel. She recently spent a year on sabbatical in Christchurch, New Zealand, where she may have left her heart at Ilam School. Wherever Michele is in the world, she is drawn to people’s stories, so she wants to hear how you met your best friend or fell in love with your partner. She lives in Seattle with her husband and three young children. Read more at michelebacon.com.
Bree: First off: congratulations on such a terrific debut! LIFE BEFORE had me on the edge of my seat from the first page to the last—I read it in a single afternoon. Where did the seed of the idea originate?
Michele: My greatest childhood fear was the seed. I grew up in a violent household, and for much of my childhood I was terrified that my father would kill my mother. When things were particularly bad, I plotted elaborate escape plans, including hitchhiking to Baltimore County to live with my oldest friend. When relatives gave me birthday cash, I stashed it away just in case. (I don’t advise this; I hid a 50-dollar bill so well that I never found it.) Xander’s story is fiction, but it’s based on that fearful what if of my childhood.
Bree: One of my favorite things about the novel is the relationship between Xander and Jill. For me it’s the central heartbeat of the book and one of the best platonic friendships I’ve seen, proof that Harry got it wrong in When Harry Met Sally: men and women CAN be “just friends.” Did you always know this was a central piece of the book? How did you craft that unique relationship?
Michele: Several readers have asked this. What does “just friends” mean, anyway? I think platonic friendships are pretty freaking great!
Having one true friend changes everything: your perceptions, your confidence, your self-worth, and your feeling of belonging. Particularly because his family life is a mess, Xander needed one friend, and that friend needed to know all his secrets.
Jill was his best friend from the first draft; I never considered a guy instead. Until fairly recently, the majority of my closest friends were male. I wanted that platonic male-female friendship for Xander. I was particularly keen to depict the difference between how he interacts with his best friend, Jill, and how he reacts with girls he wants to date.
Bree: Tackling domestic violence in a novel can be daunting, and you do it supremely well. What were the rules you set for yourself while writing? Was anything “off limits”?
Michele: I didn’t want to be graphic; we see Xander’s abuse through his memories or hear it from outside the house. I focused on the abuse’s effects on Xander, his relationships, and his life instead of the abuse itself.
Then I read Jeff Zentner’s (amazing and beautiful) debut, The Serpent King, and I questioned my decision. Jeff puts the abusive father on center stage, and it feels more real. Even now, months later, I can feel that character’s index finger pushing into my chest. I will never cast important details in the shadows again.
Bree: I love that Xander is very much a seventeen-year-old boy. Tell me about writing from the POV of a male teenager. Was it fun? Challenging? Freeing?
Michele: I don’t think a character’s gender defines how they think and feel; we all are more alike than we are different. I suspect Xander’s story would change very little if he were a girl.
I had difficulty writing the aggression we see from Xander twice in the book, but that’s not because I’m female, it’s because I’m not aggressive! I also wanted to get his feelings for Gretchen right. I remember my first love vividly, but I needed the perspective of someone whose first love was a girl. In talking to friends about their first true loves, I was stunned to hear that many—even women—considered the female body a mystery.
Bree: I ghostwrite business books for my day job, so I’m always trying to negotiate the balance between writing for other people and writing for myself. You’ve worked in government, nonprofits, and consulting. How have these other jobs fed or hindered your creative impulse? Was it impossible to juggle both simultaneously?
Michele: I am impressed that you juggle business writing and creative writing; I could never make it work. Those jobs killed my creative impulses, but I pull from those experiences now.
I had difficulty prioritizing writing early in my career. When I worked for state government, I was just out of college and very eager to coach a speech and debate team. I loved coaching, but it devoured my creative energy. I couldn’t coach speech and write, and I knew I wouldn’t coach speech once I had a family—another priority—so there was a window.
My writing went on hiatus while I coached speech, but then I became a management consultant. I often worked 15-hour days and was on 100–percent travel. I kept a journal because I had no time for friends. I spilled my guts and concerns in entries that began O’Hare Hilton, room 9109, or DFW or CLE or BWI. Consulting killed every other aspect of my life.
While doing good and important work in the nonprofit sector, my creativity rebloomed and my writer’s brain turned back on. I started writing notes again. Characters popped into my head, and new book ideas were born.
It’s been a journey for me. I feel like I’m finally right where I belong.
Bree: You’ve written an important novel that, in addition to being sharp and funny, will inspire a lot of people. What’s the main takeaway you hope to give a young reader? How about an adult reader?
Michele: I hope readers—teens and adults alike—consider integrating all their experiences into their sense of self. Most people have life experiences they wish they hadn’t—they have a parent in jail, or their GPA is well below average, or they have made some very bad decisions—but keeping those secrets can create an internal schism that makes it harder to move on with your life.
Some people feel broken, or suspect people would reject them if their ugly secrets come out, but hiding what you perceive as shameful parts of yourself doesn’t make it any less a part of you. Claiming those parts of yourself is rehabilitating, and will let you move forward.
The Cyclopes (i.e., lightning) Round
Weirdest object on which you’ve written story ideas:
On a wrapped birthday present I was giving someone else. I asked for the paper back after she’d opened it.
What were you reading at Xander’s age?
At 17, I sulked through whatever my teachers forced me to read. (One of my characters *also* loathes Hardy.) I discovered Arthur Conan Doyle as a teen; I’ve always loved mysteries and sleuthing.
Best thing anyone’s said to you about your writing:
“She sat at her computer, in tears, while reading it.”
I know you have three daughters, so this one’s for all the writers with kids: What’s a secret for placating young children so you can write?
If you raise your children with almost no videos, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood will be pure magic when you’re under deadline.
A golden baking tip for those of us who are kitchen-challenged:
Balance your solid/liquid fats to suit your desired texture. If you want a chewier cookie, substitute oil for butter 1:1. (This is the secret to my ooey gooey brownies.)
About the Interviewer:
Bree Barton hails from the land of thrift stores and popsicle-stick Jesuses. She likes soft furry things and gourmet cheese, preferably not soft furry things on her gourmet cheese. She once appeared in a film as “Pilot Casting Associate,” and shortly thereafter a barista at her favorite café said, “Hey, you were that casting associate!” This brief exchange marks Bree’s crowning achievement.
Bree’s fantasy debut, the artist formerly known as BLACK ROSE (currently awaiting a more badass title), comes out from Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins in fall 2017. You can find her at breebarton.com or tweeting saucy things @BreeBartonYA.