Michelle Hart, the assistant books editor at O, the Oprah Magazine, is also the author of several short stories. The Mire reached out to ask her about writing and reviewing fiction. As you read this interview, you will learn about how writing books brings you into a different world with different people, the most effective way of reading and reviewing a book, why you should lie about how interesting your life is.
Lesley Xu: As a book review editor, how do you decide whether or not to review a book? What are your steps to review a book? For you, what is the most indispensable element while reading a book? Fascinating plot, distinctive character portrayal, stylistic rhetorical skills, creation of atmosphere or something else?
Michelle Hart: This is totally subjective, and in general, I think my taste in books is actually quite limited. First, I prefer to read a story with a female protagonist. I’ll give memoirs a shot, but my true literary love is the novel. I also need humor in my books–you’d be surprised how rare humor is in literary fiction. Make me laugh! Also, when I read, I always mark-up the book with a highlighter or pencil. This helps me both understand the book on a deeper level and why it’s resonating, and it comes in handy when reviewing.
Lesley: What’s been your favorite book you read this year– or what are you trying to do in terms of the books that Oprah covers?
Michelle: This one’s easy. Sally Rooney’s new novel, Normal People, just takes my breath away. She’s only twenty-eight, which, believe me, is young in our industry. She writes about Irish millennials and the illicit affairs they have while trying to figure out how to be adults. For me, no one is better at writing intimacy. She makes magic out of putting two people in a room together.
Lesley: I noticed that The summer of dead birds is on your 30 of the Best LGBTQ Books. When I was doing my book review on The summer of dead birds, I was impressed by how Liebegott overthrew her past by her tender force of writing. I really like the idea of just living in the moment and nothing else. What did you think about this book?
Michelle: I love your take on Dead Birds! It’s a really good observation. I loved the novel’s simple poeticism. It’s lyrical without being showy, beautiful without needing attention. Prose like this allows the author to just tell a compelling story, which Ali does.
Lesley: What pieces of advice would you give novice book reviewers like me as a professional and experienced book reviewer?
Michelle: Write, read, read, write. Find outlets that will let you review books and pitch them. When you’re starting out, they won’t pay you, but you’ll at least amass experience and bylines. Figure out what you love to read, and make that your beat. Also, when you read a book you love, review it on Goodreads. More significantly, if you use Twitter, tweet at the author and tell them how much you love their work. It’s a good way to establish yourself. Sometimes the author will retweet you or even follow you. But please do not tweet negative reviews to authors.
Lesley: I noticed that you are also a writer. I read your short stories Boketto and Roseville, and I found out that you applied third-person perspective in those stories. Is that your preference for some reason or a random choice?
Michelle: I like the detachment third person affords. I’m still close to my characters but am removed from their subjective experience enough to be able to say something interesting about what they’re going through. Because third-person limits interiority, it also causes the writer to increase the speed with which they burn through the plot. I know that’s very technical and crafty, but it’s true. Also with the first person, the voice of the character has to be strong enough or purposeful enough to justify telling the story from their perspective. I could write an entire essay about the perils of the first person, but I’ll spare you!
Lesley: In Boketto and Rolesville, the settings are very interesting. Caroline used to study abroad and fluent in Japanese while Kate worked in Iraq. How did those settings serve its purpose of better demonstrating the story? Where are your inspirations from as a writer? Are your stories based on real-life experiences or are they completely fictional?
Michelle: I’m interested in women who feel out of place. All my life I’ve felt like a stranger in a strange land, and so I think I’m attracted to stories in which women feel this way too. I try to write stories that are as close to my personal experiences as possible. I don’t feel as though I have the authority to tell any other story. Having said that, all of my pieces are fictionalized in significant ways. I was never in the Army, for example. I don’t know a lick of Japanese. But I do know very much what it’s like to engage in relationships outside of public view, and so it’s important for me to keep that level of emotional truth.
Lesley: In your stories, the exploration of an “unhappened” or “unequal” relationships appears several times; for instance, Lily and Kate. What interests you about this dynamic in fiction writing?
Michelle: I’m an only child and spent most of my childhood and young adulthood being alone. When you spend so much time alone, you come to covet that solitude, which often applies to intimate relationships. I am more comfortable being with someone in private than I am being out with them in the world. This could be because I’m gay and the outside world always poses a potential threat. But really I just being by myself–even when I’m with someone else. I’m attracted to telling stories about women who’d prefer the private to the public.
Lesley: I also noticed that you write about high school or college-aged characters. Do you have a preference for choosing the content that is related to high school and young adults? Do those characters help you better tell the stories you want to write?
Michelle: My young adulthood was just so boring that I feel a kind of impulse to just rewrite those years and make them more interesting. The best part of writing fiction is being able to lie about how interesting your life is.
Lesley: When you were in high school, what kind of books do you read? Were you dreaming about being a writer and a magazine editor since high school? For some high school students who are interested in literature and reading, could you give some pieces of advice to them whose expect occupation is literary related?
Michelle: When I was in high school, I became obsessed with a boy who was two years older than me. He was very well read so I would just read everything he liked so I could talk about it with him. One of his literary loves was a short story writer named Amy Hempel, who I came to worship. I would copy sentences of hers freehand into my notebooks. It’s how I learned to write. I think I always wanted to be a writer in the sense that I wanted people to know about my life, but I didn’t want to go out into the world myself. Reading books brought different worlds and different people to me; writing books brings me to other people without me having to leave my house.
I also read a lot of magazine features, mostly at the beach. Magazine writing can also be a very fun way to learn about something or someone new. Amy Hempel actually studied journalism and not fiction writing, which was how she came to write the way she does.
My advice is to keep track of what you like reading and think deeply about why you like it. Half of being a writer is learning what you do and do not like to read. For example, I’ve always hated reading long paragraphs of description. I don’t need to know what a room looks like. So in my own writing, I rarely if ever describe the room the characters are in. In general, read and write as much as you can, in whatever form you want.
Lesley: Both Boketto and Roseville’s protagonists have an international background; Do you enjoy traveling? Talking about your interests, what would you like to do besides writing? What are your strategies for dealing with pressure?
Michelle: I do love traveling. It’s very humbling. I honestly would have no idea what to do if I wasn’t writing. It’s been my life for so long. I guess I would teach, which I also did before I was a book reviewer. I feel like I would literally fall off the face of the earth if I didn’t have books.
Born and raised in suburban New Jersey, Michelle Hart was once profiled in her hometown newspaper for being in the process of writing a novel–a novel she is still in the process of writing. After graduating from college with High Honors in English–for her very upbeat thesis on the relationship between trauma and gender–Michelle went on to graduate school to write buoyantly depressing stories, which landed her a gig as a reader for the New Yorker. She spends an inordinate amount of time thinking of ways to casually begin a conversation with Emily Nussbaum. Michelle has been awarded a fiction fellowship by the New York State Writers Institute and was granted the Feminist Killjoy Award by most of her friends. Other writing of hers has appeared on the Millions, the Rumpus, and the New Yorker. Her fiction has appeared in Joyland and Electric Literature. She has been awarded a fiction fellowship by the New York State Writers Institute and was once profiled in her hometown newspaper for being in the process of writing a novel–a novel she is still in the process of writing.