Author Interview & Giveaway: Michaela MacColl on Nobody’s Secret

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Michaela MacColl‘s latest book is Nobody’s Secret (Chronicle, 2013)(discussion guide). From the promotional copy:

One day, fifteen-year-old Emily Dickinson meets a mysterious, handsome young man. Surprisingly, he doesn’t seem to know who she or her family is. And even more surprisingly, he playfully refuses to divulge his name.

Emily enjoys her secret flirtation with Mr. “Nobody” until he turns up dead in her family’s pond. She’s stricken with guilt. 

Only Emily can discover who this enigmatic stranger was before he’s condemned to be buried in an anonymous grave. Her investigation takes her deep into town secrets, blossoming romance, and deadly danger.

Exquisitely written and meticulously researched, this novel celebrates Emily Dickinson’s intellect and spunk in a page-turner of a book that will excite fans of mystery, romance, and poetry alike. 

On your website, you describe your work as “modern historical fiction.” What does that mean?

I write stories about people who are long dead (they can’t complain about anything I have them do in my stories!). The times they lived in can seem alien and impenetrable to young readers.

My goal is to write about my characters (fictional and nonfictional) in a way that feels fresh. I don’t mean that I have my characters do things that are anachronistic to the period – Emily Dickinson is not going to join the Pony Express or run for president. Rather I want the stories to feel modern enough to my readers that they are willing to get sucked into the past for a little while.

Another facet of this is that the world has not changed as much as we think it has. Emily Dickinson called housework “pestilence”. Princess Victoria rated every party she went to by how late she got to stay up. Beryl Markham happily rushed into danger to save a beloved pet. Some motivations are universal.

What about other times and places calls to the storyteller in you?

Nobody’s Secret is the first in a series of literary mysteries. This one is a murder mystery with Emily Dickinson inspired by a poem. The next one (tentatively titled “Always Emily”) is about the Bronte Sisters and draws heavily on their beloved moors and the terrific themes in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. You can’t write about historical figures without learning about their times and where they lived. So for now, I’m attracted to the life and times of wonderful female writers.

Aside from this series, I have a family story I would love to tell set in the 1870s that begins in Shanghai and ends in rural upstate New York. Stay tuned – I’ll write it eventually. Here’s a hint as to what it’s about (this is a barn in Baldwinsville, NY c. 1880)

Could you tell us a bit about your path to publication–any leaps and/or stumbles along the way? 

My path was fairly standard – long and painful! I began writing when my kids were 3 and 5. When my first novel was published, they were 12 and 14.

Of course I wasn’t writing full time. I was researching and trying to learn the craft. I took classes with the amazing Patricia Reilly Giff. A recommendation from her got me to my agent, George Nicholson of Sterling Lord Literistic (but not for the first book I sent him – he still hates that one!) for the book that became Promise the Night. We shopped the book around for two years with no luck.

At the same time I started writing the novel about Queen Victoria that became Prisoners in the Palace. That book clicked and a major revision of Promise the Night convinced Chronicle to take them both on.

I know I’ve been lucky. But I was also completely stubborn and refused to give up. There was one truly awful weekend when one publisher loved the book and was going to offer a contract after the weekend. But by Monday they had talked to their British arm and decided against it.

I had to admit I took to my bed for a day or two. But Chronicle was the right publisher for it, and I’m so happy that Prisoners ended up there.

Congratulations on the release of Nobody’s Secret (Chronicle, 2013)! What was your initial inspiration for this story?

I love historical mysteries. I inhaled the Brother Cadfael mysteries as a kid. So I was looking for a project like that, with a strong female character who had instant name recognition. But also someone who was a challenge – I didn’t want to compete with all the excellent books about Elizabeth I for example!

It was also intriguing to thing about writing about a writer. Not only do you have the biographical information about the person, you also have their body of work. I have three books of poetry on my shelves, John Donne, Shel Silverstein and Emily. Emily it was!


What were the ah-ha moments and challenges of bringing it to life? 

I needed to figure out what would make Emily a good detective. She had some obvious ones – she’s well connected in town so she has access to everyone. She clearly is observant – just look at the almost naturalistic elements in her poems.

But when I found she was a botanist, then I had my ah ha moment. I found that her favorite flower, an Indian Pipe, is actually hard to find. So the a clue with Indian pipes became a “CSI”-type clue that lead to a crime scene.

It’s also the perfect flower for her – it’s not a flower at all. It’s a fungus that grows on decomposing matter. No chlorophyll at all. Quirky and beautiful (to the initiated) – just like Emily!

For you, what competes most with writing–a day job, family responsibilities, both? How do you find balance or at least type while lopsided?

There’s always so much to do. My teenaged daughters seem to need me more now than when they were younger – and their demands require more. Now they need me to listen hard, not ask too much and help them without alienating them. It was much easier when all they wanted was mac and cheese!

And of course there’s always laundry, grocery shopping, housekeeping (pestilence!) and my longstanding volunteer commitment with the United Nations, the local historical society and the community garden.

Writing is hard, and its easy to find reasons not to do it. But deadlines are my friend and they keep me to task.

Oh, and did I mention that I have three enormous cats who all insist on their fair share of my attention too?

Prince who is not valiant in the least.
Jasmine – the grouchy matriarch of the clan with the softest white belly
Momo (who has excellent tastes in books)

Cynsational Notes

Want to know more about Michaela and Nobody’s Secret? Catch up with her tomorrow at Cracking the Cover.

Michaela MacColl studied multi-disciplinary history at Vassar College and Yale University, which turns out to be the perfect degree for writing historical fiction. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and three extremely large cats in Connecticut.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win Nobody’s Secret by Michaela MacColl (Chronicle, 2013). Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

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