Career guidance is similar in many high schools across the country — a series of adults come in and talk to students about their careers. It was the same process for Michaela MacColl. The only career that made any sense to her was becoming a writer.
“I knew I wrote well and I liked to make up stories,” Michaela told Cracking the Cover. “I dreamed in words. Unfortunately for me, I got distracted. I ended up studying history in college and graduate school. Then I got married, moved to Europe and eventually had kids. It wasn’t until I started telling my kids stories that I came back to writing.”
Since coming back to writing, Michaela has published three novels for young readers — “Prisoners in the Palace,” “Promise in the Night” and, most recently, “Nobody’s Secret,” which features a teenage Emily Dickinson trying to unravel the details of a mysterious death.
Writing for young readers is the right fit, Michaela says. “I wanted to write about famous women when they were younger – before they made the choices that made them famous. The length of the stories I want to tell, the level of historical detail I want to explore and the ages of the protagonist all led me to high middle grade/young adult.”
While coming up with ideas for new books may seem difficult for the average person, Michaela has the opposite problem. “I have a file with enough ideas to keep me writing for the next 20 years!” she says. “I hear an interesting tidbit on NPR, I read about a biography or catch something on the history channel … and I’m off.”
In the case of “Nobody’s Secret,” Michaela was thinking about doing an historical mystery and wanted a famous protagonist. But there was more to it. She also wanted to feature a protagonist about whom people had a lot of preconceptions — and then shatter those preconceptions. “Emily is known for being an eccentric recluse,” Michaela explained. “But she wasn’t always like that. When she was a teen she was very social. She liked boys. She walked everywhere. She attended classes at Amherst College.”
It wasn’t hard to envision Emily as a detective, Michaela said. “She comes from an important family so she knows everyone in town. We know from her poetry that she is a brilliant observer of the natural word and of the human condition. Her poems reflect that she knew about loss and death – she’s often mourning in her work. And finally — she’s a botanist — which led me to the possibility of Emily solving a botanical sort of mystery.”
You can’t just write a novel with a character, however. You need a plot, too. So Michaela turned to Emily’s poetry.
“One of my favorite poems is “’’m Nobody, Who are you? / Are you Nobody too?’ Although the poem is about her desire for anonymity and solitude — she’s talking to someone,” Michaela says. “That person became Mr. Nobody, a handsome young man in town on mysterious business. He not only understands Emily’s quirky personality, he likes her for it.”
It’s that initial connection with Mr. Nobody that sparks Emily’s interest in solving the mystery surrounding him and his death. It’s a mystery that quickly draws readers in as well. “Mysteries are all about creating order from chaos,” Michaela says. “A murder is the ultimate crime and injustice — the world isn’t right until it is solved. I find a good mystery very satisfying. As a writer, it’s a fun puzzle to construct.”
Alas, Michaela fears the imagined scenario would horrify the real Emily Dickinson. “She did not appreciate people taking liberties with her or her work. But there might be some historical inventions that she would appreciate — for example, I had my Emily replace the whalebone of her corset with a notebook.”
“Nobody’s Secret” is the first in a planned series of literary mysteries. The next one, tentatively titled “Always Emily” about the Brontes, comes out in Spring 2014. “How fun is that part of my job is to read and reread ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights?’” Michaela says.
Read the complete transcript of Cracking the Cover’s interview with Michaella MacColl.
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