Saturday, July 19, 2008

An Interview with DeLauné Michel

First off, I'd like to thank DeLauné for taking the time to answer a few questions. I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to post this interview. Also, thanks to Lori for helping out with the giveaway, details below.

Here goes:

The Safety of Secrets takes a serious look at the costs of secrets-- large and small. What drew you to this theme?

I wanted to explore betrayal in a lifelong friendship. And it occurred to me that the currency of intimacy in a best friendship is secrets, so I wanted to see what would happen to that relationship when its most powerful secret is given away, and given away thoughtlessly, like so many pennies dropped on the floor. I was interested in the way that secrets are used to ally and/or alienate ourselves from those that we love. There is such stark and deep knowledge of one another in an ages old friendship that I wondered about how some secrets are used as a mask to hide and protect ourselves, or are used to continue to be that person that we think our best friend needs, or to try not be that person anymore, even when we still are. All of that layering and hiding are essential tools in Hollywood. I think one trait that distinguishes stars from other actors is their ability to appear completely exposed while in fact they presenting only and exactly what they want us to see. I felt there was a mirroring of Fiona and Patricia’s friendship’s emotional landscape with their careers in Hollywood.

Your book reveals the unofficial Hollywood caste system that no one talks about, but everyone knows exists. How do you know so much about the inner workings of Hollywood?

I was an actor for many years in Los Angeles, so I got to see that first hand. What I found fascinating about that caste system while writing this book is how much easier it can sometimes be to be comfortable with the enormous success of a new friend as opposed to that of an old. The difference in success is the same, the difference in bank accounts is the same, and yet none of that seems to matter. I wanted to see what, if anything, could hold Fiona and Patricia’s friendship together in the face of that. And it isn’t only worldly success that wrecks with relationships, but also a great marriage or the birth of a child, all of those life markers that should be the happiest times in our lives, yet often are accompanied by the withdrawing of someone dear. And as far as how that plays out in LA, I think that caste system is one of the reasons that industry can be so addictive: every move one makes is a point gained or lost. It is impossible not to get caught up in the constant scoring, like some giant video game that never ends.

You really capture the insider's view of L.A. How does L.A. inspire you?

I went to LA from New York in my early twenties with a boyfriend and meant to stay only a few months. I couldn’t imagine not living in New York, but I fell completely and deeply in love with LA. It was everything the West is held up to be: open and expansive and raw. Just standing in the sun, in that silver-tipped light, with desert winds moving around, I felt transformed. I needed to, and loved to, write about LA the way a child might write about a parent. That city made my adult self. It is an endless trove for me and it can’t help but continue to be prominent in my work. The biggest challenge when one’s real estate is well-tread, so to speak, is to write with a fresh view. But my answer to that was to write about the city the way I know it to be, which is to say a wonderful and terrible god that happens to be comprised of people and nature and architecture.

You seem equally inspired in writing about the South. What's the source of your interest in Louisiana?

I grew up in South Louisiana, a part of the South that is basically almost its own country. South Louisiana has its own traditions and history that are very separate from, not only the rest of America, and the rest of the South, but even the rest of the state. I have always identified myself first as coming from that particular world. My father’s family has been in New Orleans since the 1600’s. My mother’s family - my namesake, in fact, Hélene DeLauné and her husband Jules André - arrived in South Louisiana during the French Revolution. Marie Antoinette gave my namesake jewels help her leave to escape the guillotine. So, I have a deep connection there. And yet, I moved to points north and west where I had to, and continue to, seek out other ex-patriots who understand why my one-word answers are three pages long, and why when I apologize for anything from terrible traffic to the Saints losing again that I don’t think I’m responsible. It was impossible, and would have been foolhardy, to live in NYC and LA without taking on some of their mores, and I wanted to. But my core cannot change, thank God. It is where I draw my strength. There have been many times in my life when I have thought that whatever hardship I was enduring was nothing compared to my namesake’s leaving the court of France for the wilds of South Louisiana, and that has helped.

You come from a very literary family, including first cousins James Lee Burke and Andre Dubus III. How many published writers are there in your family? And what's it like growing up with so many writers? Is it intimidating?

At last count, I think there are ten published writers in the two generations living today, but I have no doubt there is a cousin somewhere that I am overlooking. Growing up with all those writers was a wonderful experience. I learned firsthand what a dinner table is truly for, and that is telling stories. It was heaven to sit around and hear all the relatives painting pictures in the air with their words, all the while knowing that someone else at the table was just waiting to jump in to tell their own even more fascinating tale. So it could be a bit competitive, but only in the most fun kind of way. Dinner lasted for hours. In a sense, it was a relief once I finally started writing because I knew no one could interrupt me! But my family, all of them, has been nothing but completely supportive and encouraging. I sent the first two stories that I wrote to my Uncle Andre (Dubus, who wrote the story, “Killings” that the film “In the Bedroom” was adapted from), and he wrote me back and said that he wouldn’t change a thing. That I used the word “which” more than he preferred, but so did Dick (Richard) Ford, and look where he was. Then my editor felt that way, too, so maybe Andre was right!

You moved to New York at a young age to model and skipped college. How has that experience informed your writing?

My education has never been rooted in academia, even when I was in high school. I started modeling when I was fourteen (okay, this was Baton Rouge, but still), then at fifteen began teaching modeling to women older then myself and to residences in a home for battered women to raise their self-esteem. In what would have been my senior year of high school, I was living on my own and was the manager and buyer of a clothing store. I basically was living like a 30 year old at 18. Then I moved to New York City, had an unexceptional fling as a model there and in Europe, then returned to NYC, and settled down to what I really wanted to do and began studying acting.

I was fortunate to have great teachers from the Actor’s Studio, the Neighborhood Playhouse, and Juilliard. I learned about such things as character development, building an arc, when to start a scene, themes. I just had no idea that I would eventually use all of that in my writing. And acting classes are tough. There is such a stripping down that happens, but finally in a good way. It taught me to hear criticism, but to balance it against what I know to be true. And one of the great gifts that studying and working as an actor gave me for my writing, was that for all those years, I was one of many people all working together to tell a story, and the story had to be (or should have been) more important than any one person involved. That still gives me great perspective when I’m working; I try to make the story that I am writing more important than how I feel about writing it.

Coming to writing from the background of an actor having read and worked on scripts and plays taught me to view the work theatrically, or at least, cinematically. I see the scenes playing out and I hear the characters in them. Many times, they surprise me. It feels a bit like watching my novels unfold in front of me.

I am grateful that I had to and did all those different things that were like a slow unraveling of the outside person that I thought I was or wanted to be only to have this life revealed. There are many times when I think about some of those lives, and the different ways that my life could have gone, and I look forward to writing about what that could have been.

What does The Safety of Secrets reveal about the strength and fragility of human relationships?

I wanted to explore the dualistic nature of both in a relationship. That sometimes the things that we think bind us together the most are exactly what can tear us apart. And I wanted to look at why people stay in – or leave – relationships. Though part of me really feels that this is a question better answered by the reader. I do think that a novel doesn’t really exist until someone reads it. Like that saying that if a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Well, I think novels get their “sound” when someone reads it, and brings to their reading their own life, and imagination, and interpretation of what is on the page. I think the novel is the most intimate of the collaborative arts. That is one reason I love to visit book clubs with my novels, either in person or by speakerphone, because then I get to understand them in a way I otherwise can’t. So, honestly, I would love to hear what readers think about this one.

And finally, can you tell me a little about the Spoken Interludes and Spoken Interludes Next programs: what you do, when and how where they started, and what future plans, if any, do you have for expanding the programs?

The series initially grew out of my love for parties. Growing up in South Louisiana, I always get terribly homesick during the Mardi Gras season. So, one year, when I couldn’t get home, I decided to have Mardi Gras myself. So, I had a lot of parties, and friends came and brought friends, then those people came to the next ones and brought friends, so the parties got quite large.

A few weeks later, I went to the post office after a theatre audition, and I was waiting in line, thinking about my parties and my audition when suddenly I realized that if my parties had been a play, it would have had great audiences. So I thought, “Why not let a performance be in the middle of a party?” Then I decided that I wanted the performance to be stories, since storytelling is the original form of theatre, and because it is what we do when we go to parties - we break into little groups and tell each other stories about ourselves. I wanted it to be as if someone at a party got up and told a story, but instead of a small group of people hearing it, the entire room listened.

At that point, I had already written my first two short stories which had won recognition, and I wanted to write more, but frankly, I do better with deadlines, so I figured scheduling myself to read them in public would be a pretty good deadline. And I had so many friends, including a sister, who were writing that I decided to make it written stories. At that time in LA in 1996, there were many places to read poetry, but very few to read short fiction or essays, so I felt it might be filling a need. I also thought it would be a way for writers to connect with their audience without having to wait for publication. The first show was in May of 1996 and, to my great surprise, it sold out. The series has been going strong ever since.

In the years since, Spoken Interludes has been heard on National Public Radio, and has had special shows in conjunction with other organizations including the Getty Museum. Writers such as Ann Packer, Mona Simpson, Bruce Wagner, Alice Sebold, Michael Korda, Arthur Phillips, Arianna Huffington, and Michael Connelly, including newer voices, have come to read their work.

In early 2001, I made Spoken Interludes a non-profit arts organization so I could develop an outreach writing program for at-risk teenagers. My formal education was cut short at the end of eleventh grade due to family matters, so reaching out to teenagers in that way is very important to me. The Spoken Interludes Next writing program is an eight to ten week writing course where students, in small groups of six to eight, work with professional writers to learn how to write their own short story. The program ends with a graduation reading for the students that family, friends, and the public all attend. The first session was that spring in a downtown LA high school. The following year, we brought the program to a high school in the LA Juvenile detention system. The program continues to teach students in three high schools and one foster group home in LA. Spoken Interludes Next has served homeless and gay teenagers in other facilities. We also had a literacy program for fourth graders, Spoken Interludes Read, in a downtown LA grammar school.

In 2004, I moved to the New York City area with my family, and started the Spoken Interludes reading series here. The reception was immediate, warm and welcoming, and I feel the same sort of family connection with the audience that I felt in LA. Spoken Interludes continue to have readings in LA twice a year, and I am currently in the process of starting Spoken Interludes Next here in New York, as well. Both areas of programming have been a great gift in my life.

My thanks again to DeLauné. For more info on Spoken Interludes, DeLauné's books, or to check out her blog, please visit her website.

Last but not least, I have one copy of The Safety of Secrets up for grabs (yep, first interview and first giveaway). Safety is a wonderful heartfelt read that I highly recommend. To enter, simply leave a comment here before Thursday, July 24. I will announce the winner on that day, be sure to check back to see if you've won if you don't have an e-mail link through blogspot.


windycindy said...

Greetings! J.Kaye sent me and I am glad that she did! Fascinating interview. Please enter my name in your delightful book drawing. Much appreciated.....Thanks, Cindi

Cheryl said...

Wow great questions. I have learned so much more about this author who is new to me. Thanks for that.

It now makes me want to go out and read all her books.

Icedream said...

I have been looking forward to this giveaway since you first mentioned the book Becky. I was drawn to the idea of a betrayed friendship and I loved DeLaune's repsonse in your (great)interview.

Unknown said...

Great interview! Finally, someone else who understands that "apology" does not equal "responsibility" and that dinner is not just a meal. Nice insight into the author's background. I have to admit I am much more likely to look for her book now, I want to know what the secret is!

Melsy626 said...

Awesome interview, thanks so much!!!! :)

I would love the opportunity to win this book, it sounds like such a terrific read!!!! :)

Thanks for the give away!!! :)

Margay Leah Justice said...

I also found you via J. Kaye's site and I'm glad I did. I have heard a lot of great buzz about this book and would love a chance to win it.

Anonymous said...

Hey. Thanks so much for having me on your blog. Your questions were so thoughtful and insightful; I really enjoyed doing this Q&A with you, especially since you are another Louisiana girl!! And thanks y'all for all those sweet comments. If you do pick up the book - or win it!! - I hope you enjoy it. I'd love to hear what you think. You can find me at www.delaunemichel.com.
Thanks again, Becky. This was so lovely of you. have a great weekend.

Jaime said...

I would love to be entered! This book is on my wishlist!

Bunny B said...

Great interview! This book sounds interesting! Thank you for the chance!
bunnybox9 at gmail . com

tetewa said...

I came from J. Kaye's blog also! Enjoyed the interview and would love a chance for the book. tWarner419@aol.com

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you did this interview. The author is new to me and I'm thrilled to hear about this book. Finding new authors is part of the fun of reading! Thanks for sponsoring the giveaway.
doot65 at comcast dot net