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Literary Mystery: Michaela MacColl on 'Always Emily' (Q&A w/ event details)

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Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Michaela MacColl.

Ms. MacColl is the author of Always Emily (Chronicle Books, $16.99) and will visit the Fairfield University Bookstore on Saturday, May 10th. (See event details below.) A graduate of Vassar College, she attended Yale University for graduate studies. Her first book, Prisoners in the Palace, was published in 2010; this was followed by Promise the Night (2011) and Nobody’s Secret (2013)—the first in her “literary mystery” series for teens. Ms. MacColl lives with her husband and two daughters in Connecticut.

Always Emily was published last month and is a selection of the Junior Library Guild. The book received a starred review from School Library Journal (“Filled with life, death, mystery and witty humor”) and high praise from reputable critics. Publishers Weekly noted, “The prolonged climax is satisfyingly action-filled and breathtakingly resolved,” while VOYA: Voice of Youth Advocates enthused, “MacColl has crafted a fictional tale of suspense and romance that is guaranteed to bring new readership to MacColl, as well as to the classic tales by both Brontë sisters.”

From the publisher:

Emily and Charlotte Brontë are about as opposite as two sisters can be. Charlotte is practical and cautious; Emily is headstrong and imaginative. But they do have one thing in common: a love of writing. This shared passion will lead them to be two of the first published female novelists and authors of several enduring works of classic literature. But they're not there yet. First, they have to figure out if there is a connection between a string of local burglaries, rumors that a neighbor's death may not have been accidental, and the appearance on the moors of a mysterious and handsome stranger. The girls have a lot of knots to untangle— before someone else gets killed.

Now, Michaela MacColl invites readers to explore the mysteries of her creative process …

1) What inspired you to write ALWAYS EMILY – and what hope or intent do you have in featuring the Bronte sisters as protagonists for your readership?

I find the Bronte sisters were fascinating, both as writers and as young women in the mid-19th century. For me the first goal is always to try and tell a good story but I have a secret hope that if I can hook my readers on the Brontes as people, I’m halfway to putting to Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights in their hands!

2) This book marks your second “literary mystery.” Why did you decide to venture into this territory – and how does this series represent both a continuation of your roots in historical fiction and a progression of your aspirations as an author?

My first book (Prisoners in the Palace) was about Queen Victoria – a very famous woman. I enjoyed portraying her as a teenager, confounding our preconceptions about the short, stout gloomy woman we see in the portraits. My second novel was about a writer, Beryl Markham and her wild childhood in Africa. (Promise the Night). When I was looking for my next project, I wanted to use famous writers as teens. I love historical mysteries so that seemed to be a good fit. I love finding a possible mystery in my character’s biography. The mystery in Always Emily comes from neighborhood gossip that the sisters would have been very familiar with.

3) Tell us about your research process. Also, how do you endeavor to balance fact with fiction – and what do you find to be the key(s) to bringing history alive for readers?

The research seems to be the thing that people think is most daunting. It’s odd for me because I find the research the most fun and by far the easiest part of writing historical fiction. I used to over-research – it is possible to learn too much. It becomes too much to organize and difficult to use in a story. But the more experienced I get, the better I am at understanding what I’m going to need. The trick is to be efficient, but also to keep your mind open for that little detail that defines your story.

When I wrote Always Emily, I started with the biggest most definitive biography I can find. In this case, it was The Brontes: Wild Genius of the Moors, The Story of a Literary Family. The paperback version of this is 1184 pages (that’s not a typo). After that, I read all the other credible biographies looking for little tidbits that might inform the story. I find that I develop a clear understanding of the character through her biography. Finally, I research all the extra bits I need based on my story. I spent a lot of time on bog bursts, the Freemasons and hydrophobia (rabies) for Always Emily.

4) What responsibilities do you hold when featuring real-life people as characters – and can you share with us what first interested you in exploring the lives of those who grew up to be famous?

My first responsibility is to tell a good story. Second, is to be true to my historical character. I can’t have them do things that are impossible or out of character. I can present them with an unusual situation that poses a challenge they must rise to meet however. My Author’s Notes are where I come clean – where I delineate between history and fiction. That’s important because my readers may not have any basis to judge what’s true or not.

I’ve always loved the personal side of history – what made these women become so interesting?

5) What are the unique challenges of writing for a YA audience – and how have you found your own life experiences (education, personal/professional roles, countries of residence) to influence your work?

My characters are always teenagers, like the bulk of my audience. I take it back to their teen years to show my readers that anything is possible. I’m terrible at following trends, so I tend to write the stories I would have liked to have read when I was a teen. I have teenaged daughters, so they help me keep a modern sensibility that I think is an appealing way to be introduced to historical figures.

6) Leave us with a teaser: what comes next?

Louisa May Alcott! Think philosophers, fugitive slaves and poets!

***

With thanks to Michaela MacColl for her generosity of time and thought and to Nancy Quinn, Special Events Coordinator at the Fairfield University Bookstore, for helping to facilitate this interview.

Ms. MacColl will appear at the Fairfield University Bookstore (1st floor) on Saturday, May 10th, from 12-3pm for a meet and greet with readers. This event is free and open to the public; copies of Always Emily will be available for purchase and signing. Address: 1499 Post Rd. in Fairfield, CT.

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