(photo: Michael Lee's blog)1) When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
My mother read to me; and when her voice gave out, she bought fairy tales on record albums. I would stretch out in the living room and write stories in my heads. Years later, I put words to paper. I began writing during a childhood illness (got sick at Girl Scout camp) and my doctor put me on bed rest for the summer. My mother brought home stacks of books from the library; later, when I was ambulatory, I went to the library with her and slipped The Carpetbaggers and Intern by Dr. X into her stack. A neighbor, who was working on her MA in English, introduced me to Louisa may Alcott, along with high fantasy (The Hobbit). I started writing my own stories on Big Chief pads from my father's dime store. I kept writing, writing, writing. And never stopped, except to get a B.S. in Nursing (Mother thought I needed something to "fall back on" in case I got married and my husband died, a common belief in that era).
2) Did you receive encouragement from any teachers? Other mentors?
No, despite my fascination with words, I wasn't a child prodigy. My family thought I was trying to be artsy, and foolish. I earned "B's" in college creative writing classes.
3) I see that your first book was your memoir. (My Oops!
Actually, Crazy Ladies was my first book (fiction). The memoir, Consuming Passions, was fourth.
What made you decide to write it?
(courtesy amazon.com)I can't explain this without a long-winded answer. I descended from a long line of Southern cooks, and this shaped my world view. Food is a branch of the family, and its members are sweet, sour, bitter, soothing. Both sides of my family are fabulous cooks, men and women. Me, I never cooked a holiday meal--they were served at my mother's house, and she wouldn't let anyone help. She was--and is--a Southern gourmet cook, but while she was willing to discuss food, she couldn't teach anyone how to cook. She'd get flustered.
I was a typical Baby Boomer, raised in a fast food nation. I was always too busy to cook (but never too busy to eat), so I had about two dozen recipes; basic stuff like spaghetti, chicken casserole, macaroni and cheese. Whenever I was working on a book, I always felt so guilty. I just couldn't juggle writing, raise a family, take care of a house, and put decent food on the table. Around my fortieth birthday, I decided to get serious about cooking. By this time, my mother had developed the knack of explaining certain techniques, such as how to make a roux or the best way to fry chicken. I went on a quest, a Foodie quest. Unfortunately, the grocery in my small town carried basic items. I couldn't find saffron or bow tie pasta (or a decent brand of mayonnaise).
Whenever my publisher sent me on a book tour (actually it's Book Tour to many authors, minus the "a" or "the," but I digress), I had plenty of free time, and the media escorts took me to large grocery stores and Foodie places. My favorite place is Southern Season in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I came home, my suitcase loaded with bow tie pasta, cookbooks, specialty jams, rice flour, Ethiopian coffee beans, etc. One time four ladies in Charlotte, NC drove me from one event to the next, and we talked about mayonnaise (Dukes is the best brand, we decided). By this time, I'd started writing about food in a journal, keeping progress of my culinary skills. The entries became essays. I sent a few to my agent, and she sold them to my publisher.
Gone With a Handsomer Man
(courtesy amazon.com)4) When did you decide to write fiction?
It wasn't a conscious decision. That's just what came out of my pen. Publication was a long, weedy road. I belonged to a writing group when I was a student at East Tennessee State (I might add that I was a college drop-out; I went back to school later and earned my B.S. in Nursing).
I received an avalanche of rejection notes. I knew so little about the writing business and considered the rejections to be badges of honor. I pinned them to my wall; and when I ran out of wall space, I put them in a drawer. In the mid-1980s, I started receiving "good" rejection letters--personal notes from editors. Now and then stories and poems were accepted. I wrote two unpublishable novels (didn't show them to anyone--I just knew they were awful. But I also knew that I had to get from point A to B with "practice writing" My first novel, the aforementioned Crazy Ladies, hit the shelves in 1990. I wish I could say, "And it was happily ever after." Nope. I work harder now than I did in the 1980s. Why? The industry has changed. It's harder to find an agent. Independent bookstores are closing.
Mermaids in the Basement
(courtesy amazon.com)5) How do you juggle your obviously extremely busy life? Your home is beautifully decorated, you're an amazing cook, you maintain a beautiful blog, you're married and live on a farm, And oh, did I mention you're a fabulous writer?!
I'm always behind, always swamped, always leaving something undone--but never the writing. If I start a book, I finish it, even if it's horrible and I hide it in a shopping bag. I have lots and lots of bulging shopping bags in my attic. Writing is a priority. I clean the house when I can, but it's a challenge. I have so many obligations right now, I had to make difficult choices. My husband feeds the chickens and mends broken fences. I cook when I'm hungry, and blog when I have the energy. I stopped taking photos of food (only bloggers know the time and energy that it takes to photograph a house, garden, or food); I discovered royalty free photography and purchase the appropriate license to use on my blogs--not a typo. I now have three blogs, and one discusses the challenges of writing. Here are two essays:
She Flew the Coop
(courtesy amazon.com)6) Is there an average length of time it takes you to write a book? How about from the first draft(s) to the finished product?
I don't have a time frame. A book takes as long as it takes. Mad Girls took 4 years. I've been working on A Teeny Bit of Trouble (the second Teeny Templeton novel) for 16 months, and I'm still working on it. Interruptions (read the essays I attached for more information) take a toll. Last summer was filled with family illnesses and household breakdowns--leaky roof, shattered windows, etc. When life is calm, I write faster and end up doing less revision. But life is messy and loud; finding solitude is a challenge. Little things can pull a writer out of a work-in-progress, so it's essential to be disciplined.
7) You've mentioned eating Twizzlers when you write. Do you crave certain foods and beverages when you write?
No, I will eat anything. Twizzlers and Cheeze-Its are quick, and most writers will opt for the quick.
Do you keep a stash at your desk?
I don't keep any food around me. I've got too many papers strewn around, and a spill would be horrid.
8) Do you have a set writing schedule?
Yes. I write from 9 am until 9 pm--longer if the work is flowing. What about when life gets in the way? I try to be very zen-like, but it's a challenge. Mainly I have learned that anything can jerk me out of a book. So I am protective of my writing time.
9) You once told me that all writers get "the heebie-jeebies". How do you handle it when you get them?
If you love to write, nothing will discourage you. But it takes more than love. You must develop your craft and your nerve. You have to write through the fear of failure. Many writers consider our work to be a calling. Look at my essay "The Writing Instinct or Why Writers Do What They Do" or
10) What are your thoughts on how the publishing industry has changed since your first book?
The Internet has impacted the publishing industry. Bookstores are closing, and ebooks are on the rise. Years ago, publishers didn't worry about sales. They believed it took time to develop a career. Now, those days have ended. What's good and/or bad about it right now? Writers must now be social media experts. That takes time, and most of us aren't good at Tweeting or tooting our own horns. Book tours are now virtual. How do you see the future of it all?I don't have a clue. It will be interesting to watch.
Thank you so much, Michael Lee! I really appreciate the time you took to answer my questions. You're truly a Southern Lady!
*Note added June 15, 10:30am. I inserted more of Michael Lee's book covers into this post. I also highly recommend reading the essays on the links provided. They are wonderful!