This is the 13th instalment in a new interview series on writing, profiling women writers who’ve written and published books while also working, parenting, volunteering, caring for family, attending school, and ALL OF THE THINGS.
This week, I'm pleased to introduce Canadian author Michelle Butler Hallett. Michelle is the author of This Marlowe, a book I just devoured in one weekend.
I write hybrid fiction. I try to understand what a story needs, and I’ll use whatever tropes and practices I must. This can make my work hard to classify.
The genres and practices I mash up most often are literary fiction, historical and alt-historical fiction, espionage fiction, and speculative fiction. (Yes, I consider North American literary fiction, living in and often reacting to the long shadow of British and American Modernism and their inheritances of colonialisms, to be a genre.)
I’ve got six books out there. First came a short fiction collection called The shadow side of grace, which also functions as a seed bag for many subsequent and future projects. The stories take various narrative approaches.
My first novel, Double-blind, is narrated first-person, unreliably, by American psychiatrist Josh Bozeman who is complicit with patient abuse under MK-Ultra protocol. The realism in Double-blind is under strain to mirror Josh’s unstable grasp on his reality.
My second novel, Sky Waves, is my first big alt-historical fiction project, set against the development of radio in a Newfoundland that votes Responsible and not Confederation in 1949. It’s structured as a drew, which is a row of 98 meshes in a fishing net, in 98 interconnected, timeline-hopping, multiple-POV chapters.
My third novel, deluded your sailors, follows a main character from Sky Waves called Nichole Wright, and in it I play with and mock the idea of roman à clef, a practice I dislike, and I introduce some magic realism through the patriarchal and dangerous figure of Reverend Elias Winslow, a fallen angel in human form who has developed dementia. Elias cares nothing for what he takes from whom, yet Nichole still shows him some mercy, even if she’s not sure why. Between two big sections following Nichole lies her manuscript for a historical novel which mirrors some of her own emotional realities and grows out of a failed play. Deluded your sailors also takes on Newfoundland’s reliance on tourism and asks just what “culture” as an economic product means.
I had a long break between deluded your sailors in 2011 and my next novel, This Marlowe, in 2016. Part of that was refreshing my practice and finally tackling a story that had been haunting me since 1993 – just what the hell happened to Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe in the spring of 1593 – and part of it was illness.
This Marlowe is based on the last few months of Christopher Marlowe’s life. It’s been called literary fiction, espionage fiction, historical fiction, and a thriller – again, I mashed together what the story needed. I don’t shy away from the often squalid nature of intelligence work, and I also intend This Marlowe to be a meditation on power, duty, and love.
Those three themes are also at work in my newest novel, Constant Nobody. Mostly set in Moscow in 1937, during that horrific summer of the Great Purge, Constant Nobody follows British intelligence agent Temerity West and Soviet NKVD officer Kostya Nikto. They meet first in Spain while carrying out their respective country’s interests in the Spanish Civil War. Despite being political enemies, they fall for each other, then go their separate ways.
They meet again in Moscow by chance – though Kostya later argues it must be more than chance. Kostya, who by orders should have executed Temerity in Spain, gets her out of a dangerous situation in Moscow and brings her to his flat to hide without really thinking through the additional dangers of this situation. Yet if he hadn’t acted … So Constant Nobody is about power, duty, identity, and love and functions as a hybrid of espionage, feminist, historical, and literary fiction.
I have two large fictive worlds, the world in which Newfoundland joins Canada in 1949, very much a mirror of our world, and the world in which Newfoundland votes Responsible in 1949 and tries to make it alone. Works are interconnected within those worlds. A future project will return to the alt-historical Newfoundland I first developed in Sky Waves and deluded your sailors.
When my kids were younger, and when my health allowed it, I would rise between 4:30 and 5:00 each morning and get some fiction in before getting the children fed and off to school, and them get myself off to my dayjob. My husband was always a full partner here, and, especially when the kids were really little, I could never have written as much as I did without his parenting work.
The kids are grown and out on their own now. I still rise early as my health allows, because I love that sunrise solitude, and I can get a lot done. I’m at my best in the mornings. I don’t often get much good work done in the evenings, as I’m just too tired, and on weekends I try to balance between rest and fiction work.
I do not enjoy the privilege of being able to survive without a dayjob, and while I’ve received support from Arts NL, I’ve not been successful with the Canada Council in well over a decade now. Then throw in the ank spond … so it’s hard. But I’m not giving up now. Slow and steady and all that.
It was a short story called “Resistance,” and Event accepted it in the autumn of 1993 for publication in spring of 1994. I was building up quite the rejection slip file, so that acceptance knocked me over.
I’d submitted the story with the byline ML Butler, and a friend asked me why, and what was I trying to hide. I didn’t have much of an answer. I was also getting married in December of 1993, and I was able to get Event to change the byline to Michelle Butler Hallett. They were very kind about it.
The dialogue in “Resistance” is punctuated with em dashes, something which I do in all my fiction, and the story itself, loosely based on a Germanic fairy tale, is violent, gruesome, and weird, aware of the weights of history but not hopeless. So right from the start, I can see now, my practice was intact. I had a voice.
In 2011, after more than twenty years of come-and-go symptoms and a long, damaging flare, I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis. It’s a painful, debilitating, and sometimes degenerative autoinflammatory immune-modulated disease which attacks the spine, the pelvis, rib cage -- and in my case every other joint, too. Ank spond tries to fuse the spine into one long bone. It can also attack the eyes, gut, lungs, and heart.
I had a bad reaction to a first-generation biologic and then had to wait several years for a new class of biologic to be approved. I started that one, Cosentyx, in 2016, and now have less pain and fatigue. To remain able to work and keep my dayjob, without which my family would have been in serious financial trouble, I took prednisone for years, with predictable side effects of significant weight gain and a swollen face. I was able to wean off pred a few years ago. I have not, however, achieved any sort of remission, and ank spond remains a problem.
How did I overcome this? I haven’t. I work with it. Sometimes I can write for hours. Sometimes I can’t sit or stand in one position for more than a few minutes before the pain takes over. Sometimes I’m too tired to get out of bed.
While I have a planned schedule of early mornings and weekends for my fiction practice, I have to be open to adjustment and re-adjustment. I have tried working through fevers, agonizing pain, and disabling fatigue and only made myself worse. I’ve also written a lot of shite under those conditions.
I can’t rely on my health, and I can’t rely on external financial support for my practice, so it’s a new fight every day. It can be exhausting.
Flexibility is the only way I can get through it – that and the recognition that writing novels is a long game.
At the lowest points of my illness, I’ve thought about it. At those points, I’m often too sick to write or even read. I then think about how I’ve worked my dimpled arse off to get this far, and I know damn well my head’s still bristling with stories, so the idea of giving up is always an abstract anyway.
If I did try to give up, I would become quite unhappy.
I feel like I might, just might, be starting to understand how novels can work.
I still have a lot to learn.
I love reading to an audience, just love it. I’m good at it, too.
The first moment I hold the published version is a big thrill, like holding a newborn baby.
If I’m avoiding writing, it means I’m afraid of something: my characters’ truths, my own truths, or my ambition outpacing my abilities. In these moments, if there is no other obstacle, I have to give myself a bit of a pep talk.
Every one of my books sits atop a pile of failure, of multiple drafts and total re-writes. I fail my way to success.
Sometimes I just don’t want to fail, so that’s when I need the pep talk.
I got a lot out of Stephen King’s On Writing and from Robert McKee’s Story.
More often, though, when I admire a piece of work, I analyze it as though writing an English exam. I try to take it apart and see how the author put it together, and I call that picking the stitching. For me, that’s been a very effective way to learn craft. (Who knew I’d spend so much of my life after university writing English exams?)
I can’t say they’re mentors, because I’ve never even met them, but I can call them influences.
Anna Akhmatova, Marie-Claire Blais, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Gaddis, Franz Kafka, Pat Lowther, John LeCarre, Christopher Marlowe, Flannery O’Connor, Anthony Powell, Ian Rankin, and George Orwell come to mind.
I also had the good fortune to study with David Adams Richards and then Alistair MacLeod through the Humber School for Creative Writing.
I am deep into research and outlining for a new novel, and I’m a bit intimidated by what I want to do with the narrative approach. The amount of historical research needed is also scary. So I’m all kinds of anxious about it.
At the same time, outlines for two other novels and a miniseries screenplay are taking shape.
The usual advice is to be fierce, set boundaries, carve out time for yourself, and write a little every day. Sometimes for women that is just not possible, and that difficulty needs to be respected.
If you’re caring for young children and aged or unwell parents at the time same, or going through a relationship breakup, ill yourself, homeless, hospitalized, living with or sheltering from an abusive partner, sometimes all the boundaries, intentions, and ferocity you’ve got won’t help you write.
So my first advice is to be kind to yourself. If you’re overwhelmed, do not beat yourself up with accusations of laziness.
Once you can even think about an hour or so to yourself that does not involve a desperate need to sleep, do a little bit each day, or as close to that as you can. It does add up.
If you navigate a busy life with to-do lists or bullet-lists, put those organizational skills to work and outline your goals. Then maybe start outlining your project.
Figure out precisely what’s holding you back. For me, concrete, well-defined goals, and then meeting them, take some of the fear out of that amorphous blob of Writing a Thing.