10 QUESTIONS FOR… novelist Michelle Cameron

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Author interview with Michelle CameronFruit-of-Her-HandsMichelle Cameron Peter Vidor

Michelle Cameron is a historical novelist whose debut novel, THE FRUIT OF HER HANDS: THE STORY OF SHIRA OF ASHKENAZ was released by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster in September 2009.

Michelle is also a poet whose IN THE SHADOW OF THE GLOBE, a verse novel of Shakespeare’s life, was published by Lit Pot Press in 2003. Named as the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s 2003-4 Winter Book Selection, IN THE SHADOW OF THE GLOBE has been performed in a variety of venues, including the Stella Adler Studio of Acting’s Shakespeare Benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids.

Michelle is Creative Director of Interactive Media Associates, a digital agency specializing in Internet planning, design, development and Web marketing. A creative producer, writer and editor with more than 20 years of professional experience, her clients include performing arts companies, non-profits, universities, and corporate companies. 

Born in New Jersey, Michelle moved to Israel at the age of 15. She completed her secondary and university education there, and served in the Israeli army. Michelle lives in Chatham, New Jersey, with her husband and two college-age sons.

1. Tell us about your latest book.

This is from the Pocket Book Spring 2009 catalog:

Based on the life of the author’s thirteenth-century ancestor, Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg, a renowned Jewish scholar of medieval Europe, THE FRUIT OF HER HANDS: THE STORY OF SHIRA OF ASHKENAZ is the richly dramatic fictional story of Rabbi Meir’s wife, Shira, a devout but rebellious woman who preserves her religious traditions as she and her family witness the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.

Raised by her widowed rabbi father and a Christian nursemaid in Normandy, Shira is a free-spirited, inquisitive girl whose love of learning shocks the community. Her life changes radically when her father remarries in the hope of gaining a male heir and Nicholas Donin, a handsome scholar with radical views, comes to study with her father. Donin tries to capture Shira’s heart but her father will not allow her to marry such a firebrand. When Shira’s father is arrested by the local baron intent on enforcing the Catholic Church’s strictures against heresy, Shira fights for his release and encounters two men who will influence her life profoundly – an inspiring Catholic priest and Meir ben Baruch, a brilliant scholar. In Meir, Shira finds her soulmate.

Married to Meir and living in Paris, Shira blossoms as a wife and mother, savoring the intellectual and social challenges that come with being the wife of a prominent scholar. Yet once again her life is darkened by Nicholas Donin, now an apostate Jew who has converted to Catholicism and carries the fervor of the Inquisition. After witnessing Donin’s burning of every copy of the Talmud in Paris, Shira and her family seek refuge in Germany. Yet even there they experience bloody pogroms and intensifying anti-Semitism. With no safe place for Jews in Europe, they set out for Israel only to see Meir captured and imprisoned by Rudolph I of Hapsburg. As Shira weathers heartbreak and works to find a middle ground between two warring religions, she shows her children and grandchildren how to embrace the joys of life, both secular and religious.

Vividly bringing to life a period rarely covered in historical fiction, this multi-generational novel will appeal to readers who enjoy Maggie Anton’s RASHI’S DAUGHTERS Brenda Rickman Vantrease’s THE ILLUMINATOR and Geraldine Brooks’s PEOPLE OF THE BOOK.

2. How did you get started as a writer?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. But I didn’t approach my writing seriously until after I took a hiatus from it, because I was a mother with two growing boys and a full-time job. Early after the birth of my first son, I had tried and failed to have a young adult novel published, and was feeling discouraged about ever writing professionally.    

I returned to writing when my youngest son was around six years old. He couldn’t stop himself from scribbling stories, poems, and cartoons, and watching his joy, I realized I had given up something that was precious to me. So I began to write ― poetry at first, because it was quick and, even with revisions, could be completed in a relatively short period of time.  I wrote in the dojo waiting room and the bleachers at the Little League game.

I began to attend readings, workshops, and seminars, where I would meet other writers. I was encouraged to start to submit my poetry and was published. I took the subject of my young adult novel ― Shakespeare and his compatriots at the Globe Theatre ― and started to write a poem cycle, which flowered into IN THE SHADOW OF THE GLOBE, a verse novel, which was published in 2003 by a small literary press.

When I began THE FRUIT OF HER HANDS, I started to write it, too, as a verse novel. But the book had a mind of its own and wanted to be a full-blown historical novel. When I finally listened to it, the writing just flowed.

3. What does a typical day look like for you?

When Simon & Schuster asked me to answer a series of questions for my “Author Revealed” page on their Web site, one of the hardest was to describe my life in eight words. I finally came up with the following: “4:30 AM writer, 9-5 day job, forever mom.”

My alarm goes off at 4:30 AM and I write for two hours before preparing to go to work. It’s my favorite time of the day, because there are no ringing phones and no one wants me to find something for them. It’s just me and the computer. 

I then prepare for work. The day job occupies me until around 5:30 PM. Home to dinner, family time, relaxation. Bed generally by 9 PM so I can do it all over again.

4. Describe your workspace.

I work in the study that adjoins my bedroom and overlooks our suburban street, with a huge apple tree in front. I’m surrounded on all sides by floor to ceiling bookshelves, in which just a portion of our family library fits (we have books in every room of the house).  I have a huge desk that my husband carefully constructed out of various pieces of Scandinavian modular furniture, which gives me room for the stacks of books on the topic I’m researching, my computer monitor, a printer. There’s even space for someone to face me on the other side of the desk.  It’s a cluttered and comfortable space.

5. Favorite books (especially for writers)

BIRD BY BIRD is probably the book I mention most when I talk about books ABOUT writing.  But I personally subscribe to the theory that you can get more out of reading good books ― both classic and contemporary ― than books about writers. Some of my favorites? Clearly, I have a deep and abiding love for Shakespeare, but also Jane Austin, George Eliot, and J.D. Salinger, among many others.

6. Tell us 3 interesting/crazy things about you

Interesting/crazy thing #1 – My parents moved to Israel when I was 15. It was 1973 and I went to a boarding school near the Lebanese border. The Yom Kippur War started for me when three Syrian MiGs were chased across the sky by a Phantom jet. We spent the next couple of weeks in the bomb shelter.

Interesting/crazy thing #2 – One of the most marvelous experiences of my life was tied to my job. We built a promotional Web site for a sponsor of a major Cezanne exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Because we delivered in record time, the sponsor arranged for us to attend a special showing of the exhibition ― about 10 of us in an otherwise closed museum. We were able to get up close and personal with masterpieces and it was unbelievable.

Interesting/crazy thing #3 – I was a wallflower growing up – the one in the corner who watched the party instead of taking part in it. Maybe one of the reasons I was drawn to writing was because I could be sparkling and charming there, if nowhere else. After some initial trepidation, I began to feel liberated when reading my writing to other people. I realized I had changed dramatically the day I got up and read a poem called “Penis Envy” to a group of about 100 people. And I suddenly found myself the most popular person in the room!

7. Favorite quote

This varies with the season, but it’s almost invariably one by Shakespeare. Right now it’s: “Fie upon this quiet life! I want work!”

8. Best and worst part of being a writer

The best part of being a writer are those days when the story and the characters just take over and all you’re doing is hanging onto the keyboard as they tell you what words to put in their mouths and what they want to do next. It’s generally NOT what you wanted them to do ― but so often, it’s even better than what you’d planned for them.

The worst part – aside from not having enough time – are the days when you start to suspect you can’t really write. I know I’m not the only writer who suffers from this! Generally, I can dispel this suspicion of inadequacy by reading what I’ve written before. If not, it’s time to go for a walk and clear my head.

9. Advice for other writers

Having spent years thinking that I would never be published, I know how frustrating and lonely writing can be. One of the best pieces of advice I received was to connect to other writers – join a class, a workshop, a writing group. Go to readings and support other writers. When I began to do these things, not only did I feel less alone, but I found that the best writers are a generous group who want to help you do the best writing you can.

10. Tell us a story about your writing experience. 

When I was writing THE FRUIT OF HER HANDS, I discovered Maggie Anton. At that time, the first novel in her Rashi’s Daughters trilogy was not out yet. Because we were both writing about medieval women in a Jewish setting, I pre-ordered the book and placed myself on Maggie’s email list.

I loved the first book and when Maggie came to New York for some readings, I decided to contact her. I hesitated a long time before clicking the send button, but I figured the worst she could do is say no. I asked if she’d have just a few minutes to talk to me during her stay in New York.

She wrote back and asked me to join her on a walk through Central Park on the morning before one of her readings. It was the middle of the summer and I figured we’d walk a little, then find a place to have coffee or something cold. So I dressed in cool clothes ― a light skirt and blouse, a pair of sandals.

When Maggie joined me, I realized my mistake. She was dressed for serious WALKING – in shorts, a tee-shirt, and sneakers. We walked around and around Central Park, while she generously gave me invaluable advice and insight into how to market the book when it was finished ― and I ignored the blisters forming on my feet as unimportant.

Where can people buy your book?

One of the wonderful things about publishing with a major publishing house is that the book should be available everywhere – Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Booksamillion, Costco.

If you buy in stores and don’t see the book, this debut novelist would be grateful if you’d ask the store to order a copy!

If you buy online and want a quick way to purchase the book, visit my Web site at http://www.michelle-cameron.com. You can click right from the home page.  (Though while you’re on the site, stick around awhile!)

If you want to learn more about me, visit my “Author Revealed” page at www.simonandschuster.com.

And to connect:  Join the group on Facebook or follow me on Twitter.

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