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Interview with Michelle Shocklee

Michelle has found the perfect way to combine her passion for strolling through civil war forts and museums, with her love for stories from the past. She now writes her own stories that interweave history and the lessons it has taught us. In her latest novel, Under the Tulip Tree, she explores the important themes of forgiveness, reconciliation and facing our prejudices, in a dual-timeline novel releasing this September from Tyndale House Publishers.

Michelle, what a beautiful premise for a story. Under the Tulip Tree tackles some heavy but important themes. What drew you to write about the Federal Writers' Project of 1936 and this era in history?
I first learned about the Federal Writers’ Project while researching my plantation novels. The FWP was known for several projects, offering employment to nearly 10,000 people over the course of its existence, but it was the project known as the Slave Narratives that captured my attention. These narratives are the stories of former slaves, told in their own words, of life in bondage. They are powerful and unforgettable. I knew I wanted to tell their story someday.

Why did you decide to share the narrative between two time periods and two women of different ages and races?
I felt it was important for Frankie to tell her own story, in the same way the real former slaves told theirs. When I read the slave narratives, I feel as though I’m sitting at the feet of the former slave in the same way I used to sit at the feet of my grandma, listening to her spin tales of bygone days. Frankie is telling her story to Rena in 1936, but I take readers back to relive the difficult days of slavery and beyond in Frankie’s POV. I think its far more impactful to have her tell her story rather than to have me narrate it.

I also felt it was important for Rena, a young white woman, to have her eyes opened to things she’d been ignorant of or had taken for granted. Listening to one another is the lesson Rena learned, and it’s a lesson we all need to be reminded of.

What was the most challenging part of writing this story?
Writing Frankie’s story in first-person was by far the most challenging part. Not only had I never written a novel in first-person before, but I knew how important it was to get her story right. I relied heavily on the slave narratives themselves to help me navigate this unknown terrain. Although the character of Frankie is not based on one specific person, much of what she experiences is taken from the narratives. There was no way I could have created a character who’d experienced slavery, the Civil War, and life after freedom without the firsthand knowledge of those who’d lived it.

How did writing two other novels set during a similar timeframe help you with writing Under the Tulip Tree?
Had I not written my previous plantation novels, I probably wouldn’t have discovered the slave narratives. When I set out to write those books, I knew I wanted the slave characters to be as authentic as possible. I didn’t want to use generalities of slavery in the south, but wanted my characters to experience what a slave in Texas would have experienced. I found an amazing research book called I Was Born in Slavery; Personal Accounts of Slavery in Texas that introduced me to the FWP slave narratives. It was that little book—the recordings of former slaves telling their stories to FWP writers—that led me to write Under the Tulip Tree.

From the novels you have written, what literary character is most like you and why?
I think Rena from Under the Tulip Tree has more of me in her than any of my other characters. She was sheltered, naïve, and ignorant of the world outside of her own little sphere of influence. Maybe we’re all a little like that at different times in our lives, but I look back at my younger self and wonder how I could have been so blinded to the pain and suffering of others. That’s probably why I have Rena discover these truths earlier in her life than I did.

I noticed that you started your writing journey with contributing to Chicken Soup for the Soul. Reflecting back, what impact did these shorter pieces have on your writing life and publication journey?
Although I would have enjoyed having my first novel(s) published, I had to start at the beginning and learn the craft of writing. Like climbing a ladder, rung by rung, being published in six Chicken Soup for the Soul books as well as other publications gave me the encouragement I needed to keep going, keep learning, keep writing. Each victory, each story finding a home in print, helped me climb ever higher on the publishing ladder. Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything about my journey to publication, because it’s the story God was and is writing for me. His timing is always perfect.

How do your faith and spiritual life play into the picture and affect your storytelling?
As a person and author whose faith is firmly planted in Jesus Christ, I don’t believe I could ever write a story that didn’t share the truth of the gospel in some form or fashion. While none of my books have a conversion scene of someone coming to know Christ as their Savior, all of the main characters are on a faith journey. For me, writing is a gift from God, and above all else, I want to give him all the glory he deserves through every word.

What’s your biggest challenge in balancing writing time with your other responsibilities?
Now that we’re empty-nesters, my husband and I work fulltime as Estate Caretakers. That means we live and work on a large property, helping the owners with anything and everything. We love what we do, but it doesn’t leave me with as much writing time as I’d like. Weekends are when I work on my current work-in-progress as well as market my books that are out in the world. Thankfully, my husband is my biggest fan and is incredibly understanding and supportive, especially when I send him for takeout because time got away from me.

What does your writing routine look like now versus when you first began writing for publication?
I was a young mother when I began my writing journey. Now that my sons are grown men, I don’t have to juggle my time between family and writing. One of the biggest differences in my actual writing process is that I used to be a panster. I refused to plot. Now, however, I’ve learned that I need a roadmap of sorts to keep me on track. When I start a new project, I’ll write out a 2-to-3-page synopsis. Using it like a roadmap, it simply tells me where I’m going and helps me stay on the best route without getting lost on rabbit trails. But it doesn’t tell me when I’ll get a flat tire, or pick up a strange hitchhiker, or get in a car accident. I still enjoy being surprised by my characters and the crazy things they get themselves into.

If you could go back to the beginning of your writing journey what is one thing you wish someone would have told you from the beginning?
Run your race. Don’t look to the left or to the right. Don’t look ahead or behind. Your race is not so-and-so’s race. Yes, Big Name Author may be publishing five books a year. Yes, Bigger Name Author may have just signed a major book deal while you’re still waiting for your first contract. That’s their race. As Ephesians 2:10 says, God prepared work for each of us in advance. Work—and books!—that only we can do/write. Keep your eyes fixed on the prize that God has for you and rest in knowing that his plans are perfect.

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