Interview with Author Michelle Compton – Ramona Portelli Blog

Interview with Author Michelle Compton

Author Michelle Compton has been a bibliophile for 28 years.  It started small.  Her mother used flash cards with words and pictures to play games with her when she was a young child, and she read to her whenever she could.  Michelle practically lived in libraries.  By age 3, she was able to pick up a novel she’d never seen before and read the words.  By the time she reached kindergarten, Michelle was bored with studying the same story all week with the rest of her classmates because what they worked to learn came naturally to her, so the paraeducator would take her aside and let her read different books to her.  Being an only child, made her shy, so while other students had friends, Michelle had books.  Her rewards for behaving in class and getting good grades were books.  Their school also had the yearly young authors’ conference.  To summarize, she doesn’t remember a time when she has ever walked past a bookshelf and thought one day, her own book would be among the others.

At age 17, Michelle was in her final semester of senior year, and the school librarian played an April Fool’s joke on her.  She sent a slip saying Michelle owed $27.95 on a book called Jesters Unite.  She got to thinking two things:  One, there was no real book by that title, and two, that was a real shame because it’s a great title.  “I was young and close to graduation.  In other words, the future looked like sunshine and rainbows.  It was time I wrote my first novel.  I enjoyed it so greatly that I wrote four more”, she stated in this introduction.

Looking back, they’re neither of the length or quality of her current manuscripts, but like she said, Michelle was young, and they were her firsts.  At the ripe old age of 18, she knew she would not rest until she was commercially published.  Rejection was just proof that she would one day make it big, for all the greats had suffered in their lives.

At age 20, Michelle discovered FanFiction, and her life had new meaning.  (She has written over 100 stories on the site.)  Then she reached age 23, and began to have overpowering desires to read certain books.  She felt physical pain, like an anvil was crushing her chest, and lost interest in her hobbies.  All she wanted was those books.  “Why didn’t I just go to the library and put myself out of my misery?  The books didn’t exist!  I had ideas of what would make amazing books I would love so dearly, but no one had ever written them, and I couldn’t do it myself because I wasn’t good enough”.

Eventually, the pain overcame her sense of logic, and thought if she could just read one sentence, or better yet, one page, the pain would go away.  Maybe she could just hold onto it until she met a good writer who would turn it into a book that would be beloved by so many, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is why at age 28, Michelle find herself cranking out historical fiction novels.  To her delight, they’ve actually turned out a lot better than she ever thought they would, but she has also spent 10 years…yes, a full decade, over 1/3 of her life…thinking she should be commercially published instead of being her own publisher, and unfortunately, she has yet to achieve her goal.

Ramona: Tell me more about your latest book

Michelle: My latest book is actually about St. Peter, but I presume you want to talk about Amicus and the Slave since it’s the one I’m currently sending out to try to find friends.

Like many of my works, Amicus and the Slave is historical fiction.  It depicts the life of a young slave, maybe 12 to 16 years old, in the 1st Century Roman Empire.  His master is so ruthless that the slave contemplates escape, but running away is punishable by being mauled to death by wild animals in the arena as a public spectacle, and even without the threat of capture, the North African wilderness is an inhospitable region of intense heat, little food, and a powerful lion known to kill heavily armed men.

It’s kind of funny that I based it on Apion’s legend because Apion himself retold stories he heard during his lifetime, kind of like Homer, so who knows how many different true events and exaggerations went into the making of this iconic tale?

Ramona: What was the most challenging aspect of writing?

Michelle: Trying to keep my heart from breaking.  Writing may be an art, but publishing is a business, and marketing is a bloodbath.  It’s easy to become discouraged to the point of despair, and there have been several times I’ve wanted to burn my books…as in literally set them on fire with my barbecue lighter in my backyard.

You were expecting me to say the research, weren’t you?  Here’s a little secret your teachers never told you:  Research is fun!  It’s not just poring over some encyclopedia in the library.  No, no, no!  You get to grab your best friend and put curtains over your clothes like togas and eat supper on the floor to pretend you’re having a Roman dinner party.  You get to go to the zoo and watch feeding time for the lion and pretend the chicken leg is a human hand, and you’re next!  You get to stand in the yard while your mother points and laughs at you, or take laps around the track while playing maniacal laughter on your phone.  You get to learn so many phrases in a foreign language that you actually start to understand the language, thus impressing your friends when you can translate the Latin in a cathedral, even though none of you are Catholic.  Whatever experience your book requires you to research, you get to do (although I highly recommend drawing the line at illegal and/or immoral activities.  Do not endanger yourself or others; odds are some geniuses on YouTube have already done something similar, and you can just watch them and learn from their experience)

Ramona: What motivated you to become an author?

Michelle: I don’t suppose you’ll believe me, but this wasn’t all my idea.  I never wanted to write any religious/inspirational fiction because one, I wanted my characters to be generic so they’d appeal to readers without touchy subjects like personal beliefs getting in the way, and two, I didn’t want to be like Janette Oke.  One Janette Oke book is a great story, but after two or three, you realize they all sound the same.

However, you remember our little talk about how the desire to read certain books was so overpowering that it basically forced me into it?  Well, some of those books are historical fiction based on the Bible, thus turning them into inspiration/religious fiction.  Don’t tell me God is without a sense of humor!

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve told God, “These novels weren’t my idea!  I didn’t ask to be in this situation!  I went out of my way to avoid it!  You wanted these books!  I prayed that my desire for them would be taken away or that another person would write them!”

I guess God has His reasons for what He does, and we’ll have to wait and see what comes of this series.  In the meantime, what can I say?  I’m only human.

Ramona: How many books have you written so far?

Michelle: Written or published?  I’ve got four published on Amazon/KDP.  I have five novellas and a short story that I’ve written that haven’t made it to publication yet. 

Amicus and the Slave:  This is the one we’ve been discussing.

Facing The Arena:  Also set in 1st Century Rome.  A female gladiator has three brothers:  One thinks he’s Spartacus.  One is a centurion.  The third is a Christian.  What could possibly go wrong…besides everything? 
Before you ask, I don’t know if this is an independent work, a companion novel, or a sequel to Amicus and the Slave.  I purposely left it up to the reader to decide.  Not fair if I do all the work, right?

God Of Goshen:  An ancient Egyptian woman is just settling into her new role as wife and expectant mother when the water in the well turns to blood.  As one natural disaster after another occurs, her only refuge is among the Hebrew slaves of Goshen.  She can only pray the plagues will pass before her child is born. 

We all tend to grow up thinking of the Hebrews and the Egyptians as “good guys” and “bad guys,” respectively, but we forget there were innocent people whose lives were ruined (or lost) simply because of a corrupt government official.

Lord Of Lions:  King Cyrus of Persia leaves the newly conquered land of Babylonia in the hands of his relative, Darius the Mede.  Although uncertain of his role as statesmen, King Darius soon finds a wise, trustworthy advisor, Daniyyel, but the king soon discovers the true lions are not the creatures in his menagerie, but the other lords of his court. 

Ramona: What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?

Michelle: Guess.  Obviously, there’s the Bible.  Aesop’s fables.  Grimm’s fairy tales.  When I was younger, I was a huge Dear America and The Royal Diaries fan, but then I noticed the books were all too predictable.  I love Carolyn Meyer’s books, but after doing a bit of historical research, I now realize she made some glaring errors, such as having Cleopatra die of a snakebite (a myth inspired by Shakespeare) and having a woman wear a toga.  (In ancient Rome, only a prostitute would wear a toga; it was a man’s garment.)  However, her series based on the Tudors is quite interesting.

To be honest, more than other books, my writing is influenced by real life.  I personify problems I’m having and let the protagonist defeat the character based on said persona.  In Amicus and the Slave, I realized only after writing the novel that I accidentally made the slave have clinical depression (based on his varying emotional reactions), and that’s an illness I actually have.  You can probably guess a lot about me from what I write.  No, I’m not a psycho who tortures and kills people, but yes, I do like to know the science behind injury, illness, and death.  Yes, I’m fascinated with the bonds between human and animal, and yes, I have been attacked by lions, wolves, a tiger, a grizzly bear, and an elk.  (I survived because all involved animals were infants.  I would gladly welcome other such “attacks” in the future)

Ramona: What is it like to be your own book publisher?

Michelle: Expensive!!  Let’s just say it would be MUCH better if I didn’t also have to be my own book marketer.  I’m a writer of words, not a hawker of goods.  What do I know about making a product attractive and finding someone to sell it to and convincing them to buy it?  Right now, I’m having to purchase my own books and give them away just to gain local recognition.

Believe it or not, it isn’t easy finding groups of strangers willing to hear your song and dance number about why they should give you money to read your book.  Furthermore, in a crowd of any 3 authors, you’ll hear 5 contradictory reports on how you should get your book published. 

Writing isn’t just sipping tea in a garden with a quill pen and a journal on the table.  It’s myriads of ideas you’ve never managed to work into a book and a stack of manuscripts that are your entire world, but no one else seems to have time to notice.  It’s having conversations about the lives of your characters as if they were real people and researching questions you never thought to imagine and picking apart minute details.  Above all, it’s frustration.  No two authors can give identical advice for how to go commercial, and even when things are going well and you find readers, it’s a pyrrhic victory because you always want more, like a fire that can never be quenched and only grows stronger from fuel.

Please understand I’m not out to discourage anyone.  If you can’t get through more than a day or two without writing because you feel physical illness if you don’t, then you are truly an author, and by all means, write on.  It is your calling.  Your destiny.

However, there’s no need to go into the situation blindfolded.  Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes.  There will be opposition from people who haven’t even read your book.  (I get harassed by both overly zealous Christians and atheists.)  There will be financial costs trying to promote your book, and the burden will overwhelm you at times.  Other writers will tell you to forget it and be content because publication is the part over which the author has the least control.  You’ll have to decide for yourself how far you want to go with your writing.

Do what you can with what you have.   Pray about the rest.  Keep reaching out to anyone who will listen to your “Wait!  I have a book!” speech.  It’s all any of us can do.

Ramona: Are you in process of preparing and writing new books in the near future?

Michelle: Pull up a chair and get comfy!  We’ll be here all day.

My short story, “The No Bell Prize,” will be published as soon as I find an illustrator.  My novel about St. Peter will be available as soon as I think of an appropriate title.

I’m also considering revising the five novellas from my youth.  It’s not their fault they were written when I was young and inexperienced.  The plots are still pretty decent, and it seems a shame to waste a good story.

I’m currently working on The Sword and the Shepherd, which will be a novel based on David and Bathsheba.  I’m also working on companion novels from the points of view of Adam and Eve.  (I was just going to write one from Adam’s point of view, but after the first chapter, I had people begging for a story with Eve, so you know, anything for my fans, right?) 

Stepping away from ancient times, I’m also working on a variation of the Robin Hood legends.  Ready for this one?  What if Robin Hood and Maid Marian were the same person?

Then there’s my work in progress set in contemporary times where all the characters are basically the human versions of farm animals.  There’s also going to be one in more of a tribal setting where the characters are the human versions of African animals.  (Yes, I’m aware that I watch too many nature documentaries.  Thank you for pointing that out) 

I’ve also started writing a collection of poetry.  So far, “The Lion’s Lullaby” and “Quiet Reflection” seem to be the most popular, but the response is generally positive to both my humorous and serious poems, so I’m feeling somewhat optimistic here. 

I’ll be elated if I can actually finish my collection of short stories revolving around the first Christmas by December.  So far, progress isn’t looking good, but I have two whole months before I officially have to admit defeat, so I may as well keep trying.  I did find out it’s not copyright infringement if I tell the story of the Little Drummer Boy, as long as I don’t use music or write excessive lyrics in the book, so I’m very happy about that because I get to use it as one of my short stories.  Another is about an adolescent woman and her younger sister who deliver a baby boy in a stable.  (Your first guess about the infant’s identity is probably correct)

Ramona: In your private life, you’re a great animal lover, and got so many pets. How did you become such an animal lover?

Michelle: I don’t really know.  I’ve loved animals ever since I can remember.  I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have a pet dog or cat.  Like all little girls, I loved riding horses.  I watched Disney movies with the talking animals in far off lands.  I saw deer in the field across from my yard and heard the coyotes howl at night.  My parents took me to the zoo as a way to have fun.

My dream job would combine travel, animals, and literature.  I’m not afraid of snakes or spiders, but strangely enough, I’m afraid of mice.  I have two pet rats that I cuddle under my chin and allow to ride on my shoulder, and I’m afraid of mice.  I have no idea why, but when I see a mouse dart across the floor, I have a cartoon elephant reaction.

Ramona: What is your advice for aspiring writers?

Michelle: In Heaven’s name, don’t do it!  Find another hobby!  Save yourself before it’s too late!

However, if it’s too late already, here are some tips:

1.    Not all beta readers are the same.  I paid $50 a book for someone who turned out to be as helpful as sugar water in a mosquito infested swamp.  I also paid $17 a book for someone who gave so much helpful advice in great detail that I’m convinced she could make her living as a professional editor.  It can get frustrating finding someone, but if you do, you won’t be sorry!  He or she will point out the most minor things that never crossed your mind, and you’ll realize that makes your story perfect.

2.    Forget how other writers tell you to write your book.  A lot of beginning writers have complained to me that they can’t finish their outline.  If an outline works for you, then by all means, go for it.  If you prefer to dive right in and see where the story goes, don’t bother with the outline.  I personally never write them because my stories always end up different than how I had originally planned, so an outline would be a waste of my time.  Some writers will also tell you to set aside a chunk of time every day and just write.  Others will say write a few sentences here and there when you get a chance.  Some say silence.  Some say music.  Ultimately, you know how inspiration works for you.  Experiment a little and see what’s best: an outline with silence, an hour of freeform with music, ritual with coffee, whatever.  Don’t feel pressured to follow a certain format for how to get words on paper.

3.   A lot of writers get hung up on “The story’s not going how I intended” or “This chapter is a mess” or “I can’t think of the right words here.”  Just write.  You can always go back and make corrections later.  You cannot, however, work on your manuscript if you have nothing to work with.  Write.  Make something…anything at all…exist.  There are reasons the first draft is called the rough draft. 

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