Interview With an Author: Liz Michalski

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Liz Michalski and her latest novel, Darling Girl
Author Liz Michalski and her latest novel, Darling Girl. Photo credit: Harkins Photography

A former reporter and editor, Liz Michalski now crafts articles on human interest, living, and health as a freelance writer. She lives with her family in Massachusetts, where she loves reading fairy tales and sometimes writing them. She is the author of Evenfall and a contributor to WriterUnboxed, dubbed a “best of the best” website for writers by Writer’s Digest. Darling Girl is her second novel and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Darling Girl?

Inspiration is often fickle and eclectic, and that’s true of this book as well. Inspiration included a crazy dream I had about a Wendy look-alike trapped in a tower and hooked up to medical devices, J.M. Barrie’s sad and fascinating life, and, of course, Peter Pan itself. But also the very mixed emotions I felt as my oldest child approached leaving for college. It made me wonder how Mrs. Darling felt, and later Wendy, standing at the window watching their daughters fly away.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

I tend to think a lot about a story before I start writing it, so the bones usually stay the same, but during the actual process, this book became less about Peter Pan and more about the Darling women, their hopes and dreams and perspectives.

Were you intimidated by the idea of writing a new work based on such well-known novels and characters as Peter Pan?

I try and write just for me—the type of story I love to read and look for on bookstore shelves. But when I’d finished Darling Girl, it did occur to me that some people who loved Peter Pan might not be happy with my version of the story, even though I don’t think it is a huge stretch from the original, if you read it with a critical eye. But that’s also what makes Peter Pan such an evergreen story—that Barrie left so much on the table for others to interpret.

Do you have a favorite Peter Pan pastiche, television or motion picture adaptation/interpretation, or production? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one and if that is the case, please don’t. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)

I love, love, love the 2003 live action film with Jeremy Sumpter. It’s lush and brilliant and melancholy in all the right places. I also love the YA novel Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson and the Peter and the Starcatchers series by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, particularly the audio version read by Jim Dale. I haven’t read or seen a bad Peter Pan interpretation—yet!

What do you think it is about Peter Pan that makes him such an enduring character and that draws you, as an author, and/or readers to his stories?

The original Peter Pan story is just so brilliant and wistful and melancholy, but also sparse—like a beautiful charcoal line drawing instead of a full oil painting. As the boy who wouldn’t grow up, Peter has so much room to be reimagined and reinvented, both by readers and writers. There are so many gorgeous lines in the book that hint as stories we’ll never know, and so I think we’re always left imagining them to ourselves—and if we are very lucky, as I am, sharing those ideas with others.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

A felt bee made by my daughter, a business card for a gorgeous clothing store I fell in love with in Nantucket and regret not buying anything from, and what I call ‘comfort books’—books I can read a few pages of before I go to sleep that doesn’t cause me stress. Right now those books are Travels by Hans Christian Andersen, The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper by Dominick Dunne, and The World of Shabby Chic by Rachel Ashwell.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Hmmm. It’s hard to limit it to just five. Probably in terms of influence and love Susan Cooper, Neil Gaiman, Alice Hoffman, Mary Stewart, and Tolkien.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

For books that my parents read to me, The Big Tidy-Up by Norah Smaridge, The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone and Michael J. Smollin, and The Playful Little Dog, by Jean Horton Berg. The last two are responsible for my love of books with an 'I can’t stop reading but am terrified vibe’. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.)

Books I read to myself that I loved include the Nancy Drew series, the Little House on the Prairie series, The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, The Dark is Rising series, The Chronicles of Narnia series and The Lord of the Rings series.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

My parents were always great about letting me read whatever I wanted, but in fifth grade I got busted reading The Thorn Birds by my teacher, Sister Mary Rose, during class time. I was horrified and figured I’d be in huge trouble but she actually asked to borrow it! Also, the Victoria Holt books I stole from my mother’s nightstand)—I don’t think she would have forbidden me, exactly, but I don’t think she would have been pleased.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Not, faked, exactly, but started and abandoned and started again—A Distant Mirror by Barbara W. Tuchman. It’s still a great book despite my failings, and I hope someday to persevere all the way through. (There are a host of classics I haven’t read, but I don’t fake that I haven’t read them and I still hope to do so someday.)

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

The Lost Spells by Robert MacFarlane, illustrated by Jackie Morris.

Is there a book that changed your life?

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I was a late reader, but I vividly remember the wonder of falling into those books and having the world around me disappear. It was magic in a way I’d never experienced before, and I hold my breath and hope for the same feeling every time I open a new book.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Just one is hard to choose, but I admit to buying multiple copies of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and giving them away. It’s even better if you listen to the audio version. It’s about magic and love and contains a multitude of stories, but ,at its heart it’s about childhood and growing up. It makes me cry every time I listen now.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

There are many. But The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings series is near the top. Every time I read it, I find something new that connects to what’s happening in my life or in the broader world, but it’s never the same as the first time—the magic of not knowing what will happen, whether good will triumph, and the heartbreak of the ending, which has stayed with me all these years. It was the first bittersweet one I’d experienced in fiction, and it taught me so much about growing up, about how you can do all the right things and still not have the ending turn out the way you want.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional artforms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I saw the Turner exhibit at Boston’s MFA a little while ago, and I’m mesmerized by the way he painted light, a kind of soft, diffused, warm feeling I wish I could capture in words.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

Ooooh, can it be a LONG day? Do I have to sleep or can I use all 24 hours? I’d start by waking up early (and perfectly happy, rested, and energized) and walk/run however many miles I felt I needed to do that day on my favorite beach. I’d be back before my family got up, and we’d all have tea and coffee together, and then magically pop into Bag End for second breakfast with Bilbo and Frodo. After a tour of Sam’s Garden, we’d head to Napa Valley to walk around a bit, then have lunch at a fabulous vineyard. Next, we’d sit in the courtyard of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s house to have our portraits painted by John Singer Sargent, then bop over to Cornwall to sit on the beach during golden hour and watch the sunset. And then we’d head to an outdoor dinner party in London with Nora Ephron, Laurie Colwin, Oscar Wilde, Neil Gaiman, Henry the 8th, M. F. K. Fisher, Carrie Fisher, Jane Austen, and Lord Peter Whimsey. Finally, we’d head to Paris for champagne and fireworks at the Eiffel Tower. (But really, I’d be happy with just a day walking on the beach with my family.)

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Q: What superpower would you most like to have?
A: The ability to go back in time to change history.

What are you working on now?

I’m about 40 pages into another dark reimagining of a fairy tale. It is early days yet, but it’s about self-esteem and social media, and the gap between who we are and who we present to the world.

Book cover for Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan
Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan
Michalski, Liz