Kate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?
Michelle: Through a series of serendipitous events that involved my agent matchmaking me with an editor who, like me, was a Texas band geek, I was commissioned to write the I HEART BAND series for Penguin. All four books were published in 2014, and the first book in my next series, THE KAT SINCLAIR FILES, was released September 1st, 2015. At the moment, I'm finishing up the first draft of the sequel. I also have a horror-fantasy novel about a haunted theater which will be published by Random House Children early 2017.
Kate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.
Michelle: A few weeks ago, I spilled my entire thermos of iced coffee one minute into a writing workshop and still managed to teach for six hours despite not being properly caffeinated. Still awaiting my medal of honor.
I'm also pretty proud of how I've scavenged my rejected projects for parts and turned them into books that sold. My first middle grade book received one offer during submission, and it was ultimately rescinded. I took the elements that editors liked - the balance of spooky/funny, the ideas about ghosts and blogging - and used that to create THE KAT SINCLAIR FILES. I wrote three versions of a horror novel for my agent before we decided to trunk it. Last year, I dusted it off, pulled out the few things she loved (the characters, the theater setting), changed what she said wasn't working (um…the entire plot), wrote a brand-new draft, and it sold! Readers will finally get to meet Maude Devore and her creeptastic vaudeville show in early 2017, seven years after I started writing about her.
It's important to know when to let go of a project that just isn't working. But that doesn't mean you have to give up on all the ideas that inspired the project. Sometimes you've got a gem in there, a truly unique character stuck in the wrong story, a powerful theme lost in an overcomplicated plot, and it's just a matter of digging that seed out and using it as a starting point to grow a new project.
Kate: What's the best compliment you've ever gotten? Or Tell us something that makes you proud.
Michelle: Once I had a new student come to one of my writing workshops for a trial. Tween, moody, no eye contact, one word answers ("Do you like writing?" "No."). His weary mother said he was in trouble frequently at school, and that he especially struggled in English class. She actually apologized to me for his behavior before the workshop had even started. Clearly, neither of them expected this to be a good experience.
Ninety minutes later, he left my workshop having written several pages of a really intense story with lots of action. He'd also given the other students very thoughtful feedback on their stories. His mom (not bothering to hide her shock) asked him "so do you want to come back?" Eyes still downcast, but now struggling not to smile, he said "sure, yeah." This was last year, and he still comes every week.
If I may put on my Sorting Hat for a moment: I strive to be like Helga Hufflepuff, the only Hogwarts founder worth a damn as an educator (in my opinion). Because while those other founders just wanted to work with students who shared their passions and traits, "good Hufflepuff, she took the rest, and taught them all she knew." I love - LOVE - working with students who are already as excited about writing as I am. But helping a child who's been beaten down with report cards and standardized test scores telling him he sucks at writing find joy in the creative writing process - that's when I truly feel like an effective teacher.
Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work?
Michelle: Until my mid twenties, I was kind of an asshole about feminism. I wasn't a card carrying Women Against Feminism member, but I definitely rolled my eyes at the term ("sure I believe in equality - but shouldn't it be called equalism?"). I prided myself on my love of action movies and dislike of make-up and other "girly" stuff. I was annoyed by those women who kept trying to tell me I should stop being the Cool Girl who loooooved going to Hooters with the guys. ("But the wings are so good!" They're also good at like a dozen other chains, Past Michelle.)
At some point, I realized that if countless people who were/are significantly more educated on the subject than me thought the word "feminism" was a more appropriate term than "equalism" or "humanism," well, maybe I should at least do some research to find out why. I didn't understand this at the time, but this was actually me trying to figure out why the word feminism made me, personally, so uncomfortable.
I read a lot of fascinating essays and opinions. I wish I could remember what, exactly, I was reading when I had this revelation about sexism, misogyny, and how the patriarchy functions. In simplest terms, when I finally went from defining it as the idea that
Men > Women
Masculinity > Femininity
that's when I started seeing how sexism affects and oppresses different types of women in different ways. I started seeing how men and boys, too, suffer in a society that tells them they must Be A Man (By Adhering to a Highly Specific Set of Standards Largely Based on Stereotypes and Bullshit).
That's also when I realized the real reason I'd never wanted to call myself a feminist - because of the "fem." Femininity is weak! Except it's not. Once it hit me that I'd been buying into all that B.S., I had no problem calling myself a feminist.
However, I honestly don't care if others call themselves feminists or not. Yes, there is a stigma attached and it's frustrating to watch others reject the word (and the idea itself) out of a lack of education on the subject. But ultimately, a person's actions and what/who they support are what really matter to me. I'm more likely to agree with someone who says "I don't call myself a feminist, but…" than one who says "I'm all for feminism, but…"
Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?
Michelle: Buy their books. Listen to their music. Watch their movies and shows. Give them your business. And then - most importantly - shout about them from the rooftops. Word of mouth will forever be the best thing you can do for anyone's project.
Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?
Michelle: Drop the "aspiring" - you're already badass. If there's something you want to do or be right now, go for it. Right now. Think you're not quite ready/prepared/qualified/whatever? Go for it anyway. Successful people are the ones who are always reaching.
I HEART BAND!, was published in 2014 by Penguin's Grosset & Dunlap imprint, and was a 2015 Scholastic Book Club pick. The first book in her next series, THE KAT SINCLAIR FILES, was released on September 1st, 2015. She also has two horror-fantasy novels coming from Random House Children in early 2017 and 2018. Michelle is a screenwriter for GY Empire, a New York-based production studio, and an instructor at Writopia, a non-profit organization in Manhattan that offers creative writing workshops for children and teens. She is also a proud team member of We Need Diverse Books.
Learn more about Michelle at:
http://michelleschusterman.com / @Mi_Schu
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