Monday, May 24, 2010

Inquiry VI: Michelle Ray

Today we welcome fellow Gang-o Michelle Ray.

Michelle Ray was born and raised in Los Angeles. She attended Tufts University, where she studied theater history and literature. Michelle currently teaches middle school English in the DC area. Her debut novel Falling for Hamlet is due out spring of 2011. She is represented by the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

EEM: Did you always want to be a writer? If no, what was your initial dream and what led you to writing later?

MR: I didn’t plan on being a writer. I’ve always been imaginative and have a hard time falling asleep. When I was little, my parents would put me to bed and I would fill the time by telling myself stories. I used to pick shows or movies I liked, like “Little House on the Prairie” or “The Outsiders,” and put new characters in them to see how the story might be reshaped. I’ve never stopped doing this. In fact, that’s precisely how Falling for Hamlet came about. I began wondering, what if Ophelia didn’t go crazy? What if she was a modern high schooler? What if she could text Hamlet? But for all those years, I didn’t write the stories down because, well, I wasn’t a writer. My great love was theater. When I got to college, I took a miserable creative writing class and swore I would never share my ideas aloud again. I ended up being a drama major and focused on directing. I graduated from Tufts thinking I’d make a go of that kind of storytelling. But then I realized I hated being unemployed, I hate rejection, and don’t like convincing other people I’m good at what I do. I became a teacher instead, which, if done right, is never dull, involves great stories, and lets me be the boss (much like directing). But I missed creating something, telling dramatic stories. With writing, I get to be the boss of my own story and I get to do it on my own schedule.

EEM: When you began writing, was it instant success and riches or did you find you had to work other jobs in order to continue your dream of being a writer?

MR: My first novel, Falling for Hamlet, will be out next spring, so I have no idea what my writing life will eventually look like. As of now, I’m still a teacher, and honestly, I have a hard time imagining giving that up. I love it. Even when I get frustrated and complain (which I admit I do a lot), it’s a job I’m proud of and I adore working with young people. But who knows what the future will bring?

EEM: What jobs have you held, current or in the past, to help sustain your writing career?

MR: I’ve been a teacher for 13 years. I’ve also been a waitress (I wasn’t good at that), a receptionist (a disastrous job since I had a phone-phobia at the time), a camp counselor (made me love kids), grill cook (I was a vegetarian and didn’t know how to cook meat), and a frozen yogurt server. Of all the jobs I’ve held, the ones that are most connected to writing have been teaching, directing, and interning in the story department of a T.V. network. All of these jobs help/ed me think about what makes a story work (whether it be a play, a novel, or a script). Directing allowed me to think about actions, facial expressions, motivations, and what is or is not said between people. I think in dialogue, which is how I start each part of a story. Then I paint on the layers. That said, my friends often say reading my work is like watching a movie. I’m a film buff and a rather visual person, so maybe this has affected how I pace or describe scenes.

EEM: Which job was the most challenging or strange to you?

MR: I don’t have any cool stories about crazy jobs. I never worked on an oil rig or cleaned the shark tank of an aquarium or anything wild, so I’ll be honest -- teaching is a daily challenge and often quite strange.

EEM: How did you come across this job? Actively seeking or by chance?

MR: When I decided not to pursue theater directing, I got to talking about my future with my then-boyfriend, now-husband, and he suggested teaching. He’d been a teacher in Hawaii for a number of years and loved it. It sounded like a good life, so I got my degree and the rest is history. Of course, when I went back to my high school and told my teachers about my career choice, they all said, “That’s what you told us you were going to do when you graduated.” Isn’t that funny? I had completely forgotten my plan and ended up teaching anyway.

EEM: What was your favorite thing about this job?

MR: I love words and ideas, and I have always loved school. My teachers were so fantastic and made me love learning, so I feel like I’m giving to a new generation the great gift that was given to me. I also love that kids are so weird and honest and funny, and that each day, for better and for worse, you never know from moment to moment what will happen in a classroom. One of the reasons I hated my office and restaurant jobs so much was that they were quiet and predictable. That is not true of a school.

EEM: Least Favorite?

MR: Grading. I hate evaluating works in progress and I hate the time it takes from my writing. Another thing that depresses me is when I feel like I’m not reaching certain students. Sometimes I can’t “crack the code” for making them understand what we’re reading or even how to read better. Sometimes I get upset when I see that they’re bored because, since I’m responsible for the lesson, I consider it my fault if they’re not into the activity. And other times, I worry so much about the choices certain kids are making, and I know that the decisions they make now could affect the rest of their lives. This kills me. People tell me not to take this all personally, but all of it IS personal to me.

EEM: Did your day job(s) allow you to write regularly? Or did you have to get creative to get those word counts in?

MR: Sort of. My workday starts early, so I get out early. And I try to write every day between the time school ends and when I pick up my kids from day care. Then I pick up writing after they go to bed. When I have a tough day at school and am too tired to write, I get a little snarky. I also stop for my favorite shows, like “Glee,” but my husband has gotten used to my saying, “Yeah, I’ll be in to watch in a second,” and an hour passes. I have to set a timer to keep from losing myself in my writing. My family has to have my attention, too, and I feel badly when I want to write and they want to hang out and I have to decide what to do. I’ve gotten good at sitting on the porch with my laptop while my girls play soccer or ride their bikes. I do get frustrated when I have an idea for a plotline or bit of dialogue and they have an idea for an activity that requires me to get up from the computer. I’m not sure what it would be like to have all day to write. I’m afraid I’d just putter around all day. Knowing I have short windows of time makes me use the time well.

EEM: What other effects did it have on your writing?

MR: I spend a lot of time with young people. Watching them go through the ups and down of their teen years (crushes, conflicts at home, hating a teacher, falling out with a friend), keeps the memories of my own youth alive. I draw on hurts and joys from my past to add layers to my characters’ experiences, and working with students reminds me that their feelings are no less valid or intense than that which I feel as an adult.

EEM: Any fun stories from the job(s) that inspired your stories?

MR: I tend not to use any school stories because I think there are some moral issues there that might expose my students’ personal lives. And, even though my friends say my work stories are funny, when I write, I want to escape. But I have included people and places I’ve been. In college I lived in a co-ed fraternity. The house was filthy and reeked. I mean, smelly, smelly, smelly. The banister wiggled, the carpet was stained, people left Chinese food containers out until they molded over. And yet, I totally loved living there. (I can’t say I loved the mess, but I got used to it.) Well, that house and the kinds of parties we had made it into a scene of Falling for Hamlet. Ophelia goes to visit Hamlet in college and just loves how gross it is.

EEM: Have you ever based a loved protagonist or an evil villain on one of your co-workers? Wished you had?

MR: I had a particularly nasty boss who absolutely must end up in a story some day. She was stranger than fiction and made the boss from The Devil Wears Prada look positively tame. She made me put sweaters on her dog and called me stupid and a lot worse when I couldn’t get the wiggly mutt to sit long enough to get the job done. But no, I haven’t blatantly based any main characters on people I know. Smaller characters are modeled after good friends, and pretty much any time you see a teacher pop up in one of my stories, the character is a teacher I once had or one I work with now. And I pick up elements from people I know and add them in -- like my dad’s hat collection found its way into Falling for Hamlet. For another story, a road trip I wrote in was based on one I took with my husband when we drove cross-country before we were married.

EEM: What are you working on now and is the process any easier than your first work?? If so, in what capacity (people noticing it, the writing itself, the confidence?)

MR: My first manuscript took eleven years to complete because it was interrupted by grad school, a new career, having babies, and a lack of belief that I was (gulp) a writer. [That’s something I’ve not adjusted to yet.] That particular manuscript is still not right, but I’ve given up on it. For now. The first steps toward progress were sharing my “dark secret” that I was writing, and then having my friends read and like what I wrote. Their enjoyment of and involvement in my stories boosted my confidence as much as it shocked me. And since selling my first novel, my confidence has grown exponentially. Taking time from my family and from other things I like to do doesn’t seem like a waste of time anymore, and now I know I can tell a good story. I’ve finished two other manuscripts that have been sent to with editors (fingers crossed), and right now I’m working on a historical fiction piece for teen girls set in 1960s NYC. I’ve been mulling the story over for quite a while, but only sat down to write it this week. We shall see.

EEM: Would you change anything if you could begin your writing journey over again?

MR: I would spend fewer hours worrying about whether or not it was worth doing. My husband’s constant refrain has been, “Are you enjoying yourself? Then it’s not a waste of time.” That’s about it. Oh, and I’d go to Paris and Venice a lot. No particular reason except that they’re amazing cities so they must be good for my writing, right?

Thanks Michelle! Can't wait to read "Falling for Hamlet" and best of luck with your new projects!

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