By Nicki Richesin, The Children’s Book Review
Published: April 30, 2013
My precocious 9-year-old daughter is a great reader and has even challenged librarians to find books to satisfy her sophisticated tastes. When she came across Michaela MacColl’s captivating novel Promise the Night, I was relieved she had found an author who captured her imagination yet wasn’t “too babyish.” What a distinct pleasure it is to interview Michaela for The Children’s Book Review. Her award-winning books include Prisoners in the Palace, Promise the Night, and her most recent novel Nobody’s Secret. A former resident of France and Russian history expert, she’s a fascinating person and such a gem to share with our TCBR readers.
Nicki Richesin: It’s an honor to interview you. We’re huge fans of your work in our home. I’m curious how you chose the unique protagonists you created in Beryl Markham, Queen Victoria, and Emily Dickinson. What sort of research did you conduct as a part of your preparation?
Michaela MacColl: I’ve come to each book differently. My mother recommended Beryl Markham (she is a private pilot). An editor suggested a novel about a teen Victoria would be fun (she was right!). I’m a big fan of historical mysteries and I was thinking about a topic and noticed a book of Emily Dickinson’s poems on my shelf. My research is easy to start because all these women were well-known and excellent biographies about them exist. Queen Victoria is the most-biographed woman in the world. Sometimes the trick is knowing when to stop.
NR: My daughter was especially taken with your captivating novel Promise the Night, a sort of reimagining of Beryl Markham’s upbringing in Kenya. You created this rebellious girl who befriends a Nandi boy and must grow up very suddenly all while chasing her feminist dreams amidst a world of strict ladylike expectations. She adored the scene wherein Beryl takes her lion’s paw out of her pocket and presents it to her teacher and fellow students. How did you create such a remarkable heroine for little girls?
MM: Beryl had a remarkable childhood full of adventure. When I was writing the school scenes I imagined how a girl like Beryl would react to ordinary class assignments. My challenge as a writer was to invent fictional incidents worthy of her true life. I had to laugh at one reviewer who criticized the over the top incidents – they were all true!
NR: In your latest novel, Nobody’s Secret, you’ve given perhaps the most treasured yet reclusive American writer a boyfriend! That’s quite a feat. Where did this story come from?
MM: Not much happened to Emily during her teenage years and details are sparse. There is one letter that Emily writes about having to refuse a male friend’s invitation to go out riding because she was taking care of her mother. I wondered who it was. The scarcity of information about her day to day life made it possible for me to invent a romantic relationship.
NR: I understand from the spring preview tea at Chronicle Books, that you launched an incredible campaign to find the perfect young gentleman to portray your Mr. Nobody on the cover. Could you describe the hunt for Mr. Nobody and how you discovered him?
MM: Fortunately I’m not involved with the cover… my artistic abilities are nil. Happily the folks at Chronicle Books are great at covers. Funnily enough they didn’t have any trouble finding a stand-in for Emily but Mr. Nobody posed a problem. To appeal to today’s readers they wanted a handsome and mysterious man who had a modern look, but dressed in Victorian clothing. I hear they only had to tweak the hat to make him just right.
NR: You’ve described your books as “modern historical fiction.” How do you make the past modern and also appeal to a young audience?
MM: All the people I write about are long dead. My goal is to make them live and breathe for young readers by showing them that these famous women were teenagers once. Victoria kept a journal and she would gleefully note how late she stayed out at a ball. My teenaged daughter does the same thing after every slumber party. Details like this make my heroines accessible to my readers.
NR: In Prisoners in the Palace, you strike a more romantic tone about the life of the young Queen Victoria. You researched resourceful thieves and even the floor plans of the palace. You’ve said that you love stumbling on details that create entirely new subplots. What did you find the most surprising in your research about this era?
MM: The details I found most surprising were the personal ones. Prisoners in the Palace started from the detail that Victoria wasn’t permitted to walk down stairs by herself. Or that her mother insisted on reading her journal before she could ink in the entries. Those details reveal so much about her daily life and the characters who surrounded her.
NR: What were your favorite books when you were a little girl?
MM: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Black Stallion books (all of them!), Nancy Drew and best of all, A Wrinkle in Time.
NR: If you could be reincarnated as your favorite literary character, who would you choose and why?
MM: I loved Lucy Pevensie in the Chronicles of Narnia, but I think the prize would go to Meg in A Wrinkle in Time. I loved how Meg was great at math (I’m not) and so dogged about finding her father. Also her relationship with Calvin is perhaps my favorite romance because it felt so real.
NR: You’ve studied Russian and Soviet history. Do you have a Russian inspired story/novel you’d like to write one day?
MM: I would like to very much. I’ll let you know when I figure out the story.
NR: Which projects are you currently working on? Do you have any dream projects you’re itching to write?
MM: I just completed a mystery with the Bronte sisters – it doesn’t have a title yet. It will be the next title in the series of “Novels of Intrigue and Romance” from Chronicle and will be published next spring. My dream project is one based on a family story about an ancestress who came here from Shanghai in the 1870’s. Her mother was Chinese but her father was from upstate New York. She was terribly homesick so her father had a three story high pagoda scene painted on a grain barn for her. It’s still there and the farm is called Pagoda Hill. This story is important to my Mom, so I want to be certain of my craft before I tackle it!
For more information, visit: http://www.michaelamaccoll.com
Nicki Richesin is the author and editor of four anthologies Crush, What I Would Tell Her, Because I Love Her, and The May Queen. She is the San Francisco correspondent for Du Jour and a frequent contributor to Sunset, The Horn Book, 7×7, The Huffington Post, and Daily Candy. Find her online at https://nickirichesin.com/.