As I’ve recently discovered, creativity is a fickle thing, sometimes abundantly overflowing, at others, full only of empty promises. The elation of success, and the frustrations of failure, are part and parcel of the writer’s life, except for the lucky few. So, as my thoughts turned toward the nature of creativity, it happened I came upon a series of tweets from writer Anne Michaud about her forthcoming novel, ‘Wild Swan’. I asked some questions, and the more I found out, the more intrigued I became. Here was a writer in the grip of an unstoppable creative maelstrom. Ideas more subtle and profound than anything I had witnessed before were filling her head from dawn to dusk. Dumbfounded, I could only look on in admiration, and awe.
A tidal wave of envy swept through me. I must tap into this bounteous outpouring, before my own dribble of inspiration dried, and rather than a writer, I was left a mere shrivelled husk wearing human shape. So, unable to contain myself any longer, I decided I would risk it all and ask Anne for an interview. Humiliation, rejection – these only would have been my lot had Anne refused. However, she has been incredibly gracious, and deigned to grace my humble blog with her presence. It is my honour, pleasure, and nefarious plan to introduce Anne, and Wild Swan to you now…
TJ: Anne, if you would please take a seat – thank you. Yes, the wrist restraints are entirely necessary for the interview, I promise. Now, we just need to put on the helmet– and plug it in. You’ve never been interviewed like this before? I promise you won’t feel a thing… What, sorry I was just preparing your sedat… coffee? Will it hurt? Well I said you won’t feel a thing… What do you mean, that’s not the same thing? Please, calibrating the Cranial Suction Device is a delicate operation, I need to concentrate… There, but why are you nervous? You have only a fifty percent chance of permanent brain damage, and the facial scaring will be minor. OK, another question? Oh, that was just flipping off the safety catch, and deactivating the limiters. Now, shall we begin?
Anne: Only if you promise to stay away from that dial.
TJ: Oh, don’t trouble yourself about this little thing. *Turns dial to full*
TJ: Anne, I know ‘Wild Swan’ hasn’t been written yet, and you may want to keep the details under wraps for now, but for those who don’t know, how would you describe your forthcoming novel?
Anne: Here’s what I can say about, it… …is based on Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, but I’ll bring in elements from the old Russian tale Wild Swan into it (Odette and Odile aren’t related in the ballet, but they are the daughters of Rothbart in the old folks tale). It’ll take place in St. Petersburg, Russia, the story will have a strong urban fantasy vibe, and I’m going deep into an epic love story…
…Syd wants to win Anadea’s heart before they get separated by different universities, she’s on the quest to find out what’s really going on in her family business. A tale of love, drugs, and learning to fly.
TJ: There’s a lot of classical influences there, and I know before becoming a writer your background was in the visual arts. How do you feel this, and your film-making experience, have influenced your creative processes as you write?
Anne: My years spent behind the camera and then whipping up screenplays influence my entire creative process, I must admit. I see scenes and then hear my characters’ voices; I imagine sequences and then outline my plot; and I can never start a new project if I don’t have the first moment we meet the main character. And sometimes, I grab an old unproduced script and change it into a novel, like I’m doing for Wild Swan.
TJ: Before we move on to find out about your novel, can you tell me a little about how you got your original ideas for Wild Swan the screenplay? Were there any people, places or events that helped you formulate the original ideas? How, where and when did the original ideas come about?
Anne: I danced classical ballet from 4 to 12, so Swan Lake has always been a favourite of mine– the music, the tragic love story, the bad-ass owls turning into magicians, have been in the back of my mind for a while. I was finishing my Master’s in screenwriting in the UK when I read that every piece of Art, after being around for 100 years, becomes public domain. I was *so* excited to then pour MY Swan Lake into a screenplay, and it has been kinda successful in screenplay competitions, but never enough for a sell.
I’m a perfectionist in the sense that until a story is to its best (or what I think is), I can’t let it go. So 6 years after writing the Swan Lake script, I’ve decided to give it another go, but with a MUCH darker take: no more prince and princesses (since I’m not a fan) and no more magic (enough on the shelves, already). This time, it’ll be about genetic mutations, a drug lord, and first loves in St. Petersburg, Russia.
TJ: It sounds like your ideas have really progressed from the original screenplay all those years ago. Can you tell me how you thought up these new themes? What made them come alive for you? Which ones are developments of your original ideas, and which amount to a re-write of the original?
Anne: It’s a complete rewrite. I kept wondering why I couldn’t come up with richer subplots when I realised: you have to write what you love and love what you write.
I love gritty and dark, I love a realistic portrayal of young adults, with complex world-building, so it includes sex, drugs and a little rock and roll imposed on itself. I want the girl to be strong and save the boy, I want him to be pining over her, I want everything to stand in their way– so this is what I’m doing, instead of doing another version of Swan Lake, the ballet.
I’ve got my work cut out for me, not only do I have to write a story taking place in a city I’ve never visited, but the amount of research about genetic mutations is quite a task as well. No fear, I believe the saying ‘write what you know’ is bullshit, always have, always will.
TJ: You say of your two romantic lead characters, “… I want the girl to be strong and save the boy, I want him to be pining over her… .” Many YA novels have a strong female lead, and given the romantic thread you intend to weave through the story, it’s likely the book will appeal to women. How are you going to write your male lead, Syd, so that he pines after Anadea, and yet is still a strong enough masculine figure to still appeal to your female readers?
Anne: I’m not worried to find a thread guys and gals can identify with – we’ve all been there, liking someone who isn’t feeling it, so I’ll inspire myself from my own experience and ‘write from the heart’. Oh, and I’ve been reading tons of YA novels with male protagonists, and I’m not scared to tackle this Syd of mine. Actually, I can’t wait to try my hands at a boy’s inner monologue.
TJ: Why set the story in St. Petersburg? Russia obviously has links with the original Swan Lake, but why not use Moscow, Omsk, or any other city?
Anne: I wanted to set the story someplace else than North America, going somewhere exotic that I could identify with, aka a northern country with cold weather and snow. Russia was an obvious choice since I’m obsessed with it, but Moscow is too big and I’ve explored it through ‘Rebel’, so I wanted something new. As I begun research on ‘Piter’ (see? I’m getting the lingo already), I discover that not only did Tchaikovsky live there, but he was greatly influenced by the romantic canals and white nights for Swan Lake. As soon as I found out, the deal was done: St. Petersburg it is!
TJ: St. Petersburg is not very far from the ‘Vampire and Werewolf’ countries of eastern Europe. With such a rich culture, folklore, and setting to draw on, why not use these traditional monsters, as opposed to choosing mutants, and save yourself a lot of research?
Anne: There’s a melancholia that Russia beholds, a rich folklore of myths and legends, a texture that is almost impossible to define. Plus, I’ve grown tired of traditional monsters since they’re everywhere, on TV, and on bookstores shelves. I want to bring something new, something unexplored– and you should know by now that I am one who loves complicated plots and will suffer for my work.
TJ: What about the research process itself; what sources do you use that fuel your creativity the most, and do you find while researching you are further inspired with new ideas, or developments of existing ones?
Anne: For this project, I really want to add a Russian flavour to the novel, for the reader to feel transported to St. Petersburg, to have them experience another country, another vibe. I’ve googled about the city, the canals and bridges, the Summer Garden, the architecture and the nightlife, but I’ve also rented every film I could possibly find that has been shot in Piter. And so far, every new image gives me an idea, developing my plot depending on what I see and learn. It’s the first time I’ve ever moulded my story to a city – and I’m LOVING it.
TJ: Not being able to write from experience to give fiction authenticity, the ultimate aim of the fiction writer has to be to achieve suspension of disbelief, and an internally consistent alternate reality. Did you make a conscious choice to be more honest about the way teenagers live their lives than many other YA authors, to increase the believability of the story, or do you have another motivator for your more ‘up-front’ portrayal of young adults?
Anne: I’ve been torn between telling it like it is, with the sex and drugs and danger, and do like most YA authors and write pure fiction by taking all the reality out of the equation. These elements that parents don’t want in their kids’ lives are there, whether they want to address it or not– so do I write to please parents or for teens to identify with my characters? I’m choosing the honest approach for ‘Wild Swan’, since the plot and storyline could not function with it, and because I’m thinking realistic elements are crucial for a Sci-fi novel.
TJ: As you near the actual writing stage– what about the writing process itself, how much of the plot changes after your initial planning stage? Do you have any creative methods of motivating yourself to keep going? How do you keep the writing experience fresh during the long process of writing a novel?
Anne: I usually use index cards, one for each chapter, guiding the characters to the plot– not this time. I’m outlining each chapter on a huge piece of craft paper and only dictate the storyline and plot points, leaving out the characters reactions and actions. I want to try out a more free approach to it, to let my characters evolve through the twists and turns, to let them guide me through this story. I’m planning to write 3k each day through December, leave it to rest for a couple of weeks, then tackle the rewrite in the new year. I don’t need motivation to keep going – I love to write so much, I can’t conceive my existence without it.
TJ: One of the last creative decisions to make will be the artwork for the front cover. Have you got any idea about the look and feel you would like to see on the cover art? How much input do you like to have in its selection?
Anne: Well, I’m trying the traditional publishing route, so if ‘Wild Swan’ does get published, I’ll have little to say about the cover art. But if I did, I’d want the cover to be dark (of course), with a glimpse of flickering water and birds’ feathers– something with shadows and movement, maybe even an old Impressionist painting.
TJ: When the book is finally done obviously, the last stage is marketing and promotion. Do you have any innovative ideas of how to get people informed and excited about Wild Swan?
Anne: I don’t know how to answer this, TJ!!! It’s so far off into the future, especially with the book not being written, it feels weird to even think about that. Do you mind if we leave this question out??
TJ: Hopefully, I’ll be able to persuade you to leave it in, as I think other writers would like to know they don’t need to have all the answers…
Anne: I’ll spray-paint my book’s slogan on birds and free them in high schools – are you happy, now?
TJ: Yes, and I believe that brings things nicely to a conclusion. Anne, it’s been a pleasure, and thank you for the time you’ve taken to answer all my questions, and for sharing your creativity and insights. I’ll remove the straps and the helmet now– you’ll be pleased to know your face doesn’t actually look too scarred, a little stage make-up should sort it out.
I wish you all the best with the writing, and publishing of ‘Wild Swan’, I think it’s going to be a fantastic read.
Anne: Well, I hope Wild Swan will live up to your expectations. If not, you can always drag me back in your chair of torture and fry my brains out. Thanks for having me, even if I’m starting to have a serious headache from that helmet. Oh, look over there, a bird! *runs away*
TJ: Hmmm, she moves really rather quickly for a writer, supposedly at her desk all day doing no exercise, and except for seeing things that aren’t there, she still seems cognitively unimpaired…
Now she has gone, and I have her creativity in a bottle! I’m not worried though, that lady has so much, she’ll never even miss what I have stolen… and now it is time to drink, and write the best story I have ever written!!! MUUUHAHAHAHAHA!!!