By Charles McGuigan
If you’ve ever watched mitosis through the lens of an electron microscope you understand the mystery of the ordinary. This process occurs a thousand trillion times every nanosecond throughout our biosphere. A curious replication of cells, inexplicable as a miracle of loaves and fishes. And then there’s meiosis and that uncanny waltz of life called “crossing over” when one chromosome embraces another with such passion that the separate strands break apart and then reunite to form new chromosomes, brand new selves, utterly unique, formed out of the ordinary.
As Michele Young-Stone again sits down on her living room floor she invites me to explore more of her collages. Each one is like a capsule of time and space and puts me in mind of those wondrous shadow boxes that Joseph Cornell made by the thousands in the last century. But each one of the collages Michele shows me represents in visual form scenes, and sometimes chapters, from the novel she just finished two days ago, an untitled work at this point, and she’s having as much trouble naming it as a first-time mother.
“When I was writing the second novel I ended up somehow painting all these different scenes,” she says, her legs folded under her. “It (the novel) was initially titled ‘All Things Beautiful’, but it isn’t anymore. And as much as the book changed in the rewriting these are all still relevant to novel.”
She hands over one collage after another and tells me the stories behind them. “This is Isabelle and this is Gloria and they fall in love with one another and then something bad happens and they have to be separated,” says Michele. “This is about Isabelle and how she was raped. This one’s about how Gloria gets married to this guy Jacob who is a super ass____. She’s bemused and battered. This is the cage and this is the butterfly inside the cage. Gloria got sent away and her heart is broken.”
As Michele shows me the narrative collages, adding her own words as a backdrop, the novel begins to take shape, almost like a play on stage with props and characters. Her voice rises and falls, cadenced, studied, each syllable charged with emotion and meaning. She then reads me the final paragraph of this novel, a short passage that she sweated over for days and weeks, making subtle changes. And the words themselves are enough to make your heart skip a beat.
Michele is talking to me three days from now, telling me about a time in her life when things were falling apart. There was no center to hold it all together and her dreams of writing seemed as if they belonged to someone else at some other time.
“I was at the beach and I think it was 2001 and I read Wally Lamb’s novel ‘I Know This Much Is True, “ Michele tells me. “I had quit writing for a long time and I had just sort of given up my dream and then halfway through this book I knew I have to do this and I can do this. And there was something about his voice in that book that spoke to me and I just knew then what I had to do and I was just hell bent on doing it. I realized I had something to say.”
On about that same time she decided not to renew her teaching contract with Nottoway County public schools. She had nothing to fall back on, but Michele knew she had to make some drastic changes. “I just took a chance and quit my job because I could not handle the drive back and forth,” she says.
Michele also moved out of a former life and apartment and in to a new one. “It was a time of breaking away, putting a lot of my past behind me, “she says.
Short on cash, Michele had trouble finding a new apartment and ended up moving in with an old and dear friend named Danny Stone. “After a few months we went out on a date,” says Michele. “Everybody always wondered why we weren’t together because we’d been best friends for so long. I could always tell he was in love with me I just wasn’t used to being in a relationship where somebody was nice to me’ which is something that you have to kind of learn if you’re not accustomed to it.”
A while later they got their dog, Emma Peale, and moved into their cottage in Bellevue. A couple years later they married. “Things were definitely on an upswing,” Michele says. “And right around the same time I decided I was done teaching. I was 31 and decided I had to go back to school because it was my life’s dream to be a published writer and I wanted to study writing full time and I took a class at VCU and a couple other classes to try to build up a portfolio and get on track to get into the MFA program. And I had been rejected before.”
This time, however, she did get in. “Bill Tester was my professor before I actually got into the program and he was pivotal in making sure I got into the program,” Michele says.
She remembers an assignment Bill gave her class. “He told us to go home and write about something we would never ever write about. “ Michele came up with an image and a story line that downright disgusted some of her fellow writers-in-training. “And I volunteered to share first and I remember some people in the class said my story was so disturbing that they felt like they needed to take a shower and some of them could not finish it,” Michele remembers. “But Bill Tester was such a cool teacher that he said, ‘But you know what Michele did is exactly what I asked her to do.’ I did something where I took a chance with something that was pretty out there. He just really respected that. He had great faith in me and he pushed me and pushed me and pushed me to keep at it. He was a huge supporter of mine. I wouldn’t have even gotten in to the MFA program if it weren’t for him. He was definitely the most inspirational writing teacher I ever had. He was really passionate and said, ‘Do the work every day.’”
Which is exactly what Michele did.
In 2004 she turned in her thesis—“The Handbook For Lightning Strike Survivors” and a couple months before she completed her MFA program at VCU Michele bore a son who was named Christopher Robin.
“Giving birth changes your whole reality,” Michele says. “You love this little person more than you love anyone or anything and it informed my novel greatly. Christopher Robin gave me new eyes to see. When I rewrote the novel multiple times I had a new perspective. “
So within a couple of months Michele had given birth to both a son and a novel. Where Christopher Robin had a home in Bellevue with a picket fence, Michele’s book had no home, and finding one would prove a daunting task.
“Almost as soon as I finished my novel I started trying to find a home for it,” says Michele. “ I ended up going to the Writer’s Market 2004 edition and I queried every single literary agent in New York who took literary fiction from A to Z. I got a thousand rejections.”
Then, in 2005 an agent by the name of Michelle Brower read the novel and loved it. “But she wanted some major rewrites and so she gave me all this feedback on it,” Michele says. “And I did the rewrites.”
Things looked promising and then Michelle Brower told Michele Young-Stone that she wouldn’t be able to shop the novel around after all. “She told me, ‘ I can’t take your book on because I’m fresh out of NYU and my boss said I don’t have enough connections to take on a debut novel.’ So I’d done all this rewriting based on her thoughts which I appreciated and so I decided to keep an open line of communication with her and not cut any ties. I said, ‘I appreciate it, I’m really disappointed.’ That was 2005 and then I ended up getting another agent who had the book for a year and couldn’t sell it.”
More disappointments would follow over the next three years including a cavalier dumping by an agent who recommended that Michele hand her novel over to a book doctor for surgery. It so happened that this agent’s husband was a book doctor.
“I was devastated,” Michele remembers. “I mean I was devastated. I was just about to give up.”
But then Michele, on a lark, contacted Michelle Brower. “I sent Michelle an email and I said, ‘Do you remember me three years ago I sent you ‘The Handbook For Lightning Strike Survivors’ ? I was wondering if you would be willing to take another look at it?’. And I meanwhile sent out a bunch more queries again but I really felt like this is kind of it. This was the last shot. It was intense.”
Michelle Brower emailed her back almost immediately and told her that she now had the contacts necessary to sell The Handbook and to send her the complete manuscript. Michele asked for two weeks and the agent agreed.
Over the next 14 days Michele worked feverishly on her novel. “I sat down with the book,” she says. “And I went over it line by line and I ended up rewriting the whole novel and adding one hundred pages in two weeks and then I went to the Post office on a Thursday at one o’clock and said, ‘I want to send this overnight I need it to be in New York by noon tomorrow,’ because I knew if she got it on a Friday she might be tempted to start reading it and that maybe I would hear something on Monday.”
On Monday, Michelle Brower called Michele Young-Stone and told her she loved the novel, that she cried while reading it. “It’s brilliant,” she told Michele. “I want to try to sell it before Thanksgiving.” And then this: “I need you to cut a hundred pages in the next week or two, can you do that?”
“It was funny because I’d just added a hundred pages and I ended up cutting a different hundred pages,” Michele says. “And she ended up getting all these people in New York excited about it. And then on November 14 we were in the Outer Banks and we got two offers in the same day, competing.”
Since then, review after review has lauded the novel. And Michele is hoping her nest novel, just completed, will elicit the same response.
“My second novel is about a woman who grows up in the sixties and then you see her in the seventies as a grown woman,” Michele says. “It opens with a line from ‘Farewell to Arms’ by Hemingway which sums up thematically what the book is all about. The line is something like, The world breaks us all. Afterwards some of us are stronger. And that’s what the book is about. The three main characters are Gloria, Isabelle and Sheffield Shuffler.”
And then we’re talking about The Handbook and I ask her if she is both Buckley and Becca, the write and the painter, and Michele nods. “All the characters are different pieces of me,” she says.
“Buckley is me—an insecure, chubby, buck-toothed elementary school kid who had no friends, who was teased and isolated. And I had my time running from people just like Buckley.”
While Michele gets us water from the kitchen I inspect a number of representations of the Blessed Virgin Mary on a shelf. She is the Queen of Heaven, the Queen of May, the Mother of God, the Evening Star and a hundred other appellations.
When Michele returns with two glasses of water, she sees me inspecting a Madonna and I know what she’s going to say before she speaks.
“I was raised Catholic,” she says.
And though she may not believe all the tenets of the Church nor subscribe to the teachings of the hierarchy, Michele, like many of us, finds herself ineluctably drawn into the mystery of the faith and the manifestation of Mary, Ever Virgin. “I discovered that my Moon goddess was the Virgin Mary and all her many forms,” says Michele. “And after my son was born I went back to the Cathedral and got confirmed, and had our son baptized into the Catholic Church. And I really like the mysticism in Catholicism. I love the church and the belonging. And I love the fact that once you’re Catholic, you’re always Catholic. And Mary. She sits at the left hand of God, she’s the only other person than Christ who ascended into heaven. And the Cathedral being such a great liberal Catholic Church stressed the fact that the person who has the last say so in what you believe is you because the Holy Spirit is inside of you.”
This understanding of the sacred, untainted by power or politics, informs Michele and her writing and there’s constant evidence of this in her novel. As she says, of The Handbook For Lightning Strike Survivors, “The book is mostly about the fact that there are things you can’t ever forget but that you have to be a person who can forgive, because when you’re a person who’s filled with rage and anger it only consumes you and it doesn’t affect the person that you’re angry toward. That’s one of the most important themes to me. Like Buckley in order to move on with his life he had to forgive himself and realize that his mother’s death was not his responsibility and allow himself to be happy. Because so many times we don’t allow ourselves to be happy and life is too short not to. Becca has to let go of her dad. There are things in our life we can control and there are things that we can’t control. So the things you can control you should really take hold of and be really active and inspired and do whatever you can to make your life better, but don’t sit around moping that you have no control. My mom would always tell me that if you don’t have control over something you just have to let it go.“
Just before the interview ends, Michele shows me a painting she made on a yardstick. It shows, as all good stories do, a distinct beginning and a boundless end. And this is how it goes in Michele’s own words: “I do these grow sticks. This is my favorite one because it tells the story. Sperm, egg, zygote, the baby, the little boy, mommy, daddy and little boy. The boy gets taller and bigger and he has a dog a cat. Here he goes to school. Then there’s a girl and he likes her and she like him and she has big feet and then they’re going to get married and they buy a house with a picket fence and they go to the beach and they go camping and to the mountains, fly on airplanes and fall in love and then they have a baby. And then they play music and read and paint and believe in peace love and happiness and then the little boy grows up and he meets a girl and he falls in love. A picturesque love.”