This month’s interview is with Michelle Bennington, author of The Angel Maker’s Daughter.
If you had the good fortune to be mentored by a successful writer—of any era—who would you choose, and why?
A deceptively simple question for which I have a complex answer. I think any time writers read another author, it becomes a form of mentorship. And I think one of the hardest things for any well-read writer to do is to choose any one writer to admire or consider a favorite. In my mind I have had the benefit of a great many mentors already. When I read, I read actively, constantly analyzing how a writer turns a phrase, uses description, plots a story, and so on.
Some of the writers I most admire are Jane Austen for her wit/social insight; Margaret Atwood for her style/language; Sylvia Plath in her bold confrontation of emotional/psychological darkness/raw emotion; Pablo Neruda and Wendell Berry for their sensory details, especially the way they handle deep emotion with subtlety and through nature; J.R.R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin for their world-building; Philippa Gregory and Susan Holloway Scott for how they bring history to life.
There are artists who can’t work from memory, but sketch or paint only what they see in front of them. As a writer how much are you reliant on drawing from the people around you for character development?
It’s hard to say to what extent I draw upon real people, because when I do, I never take them as a whole. My characters become more like a Frankenstein Creature: this person’s eyes, another person’s hair, this person’s attitude. Also, I draw upon the characteristics/personalities of celebrities and characters in books, television and movies. But much of the time, when I sit down to start a story, I just get a vision of the characters’ general attributes. And then in the planning of the novel I do a character sketch of the leading roles, but I think the attributes develop subconsciously, out of some sort of mental soup of all the people I’ve ever known. I usually don’t have any one real person in mind, even when writing The Angel Maker’s Child. Though the story is based on real people and events, I had to develop their daily lives, personalities and psyches—and those came out of that mental soup of people I have known in my life and what I know about human psychology and behavior.
I’ve always been fascinated by the tendency we humans have to lie to ourselves. In your novel, what does your protagonist lie to herself about the most?
There are some people who go through life in a cloud of misplaced ambition, who have an external locus of identity, who seek to gain a certain status or material wealth in order to feel a sense of belonging or acceptance from others. Polly Dyer is one of those people. In The Angel Maker’s Child, Polly lies to herself about almost everything; she’s practically delusional. She fails to see how difficult it will be for her to rise socially, even through marriage, given her nomadic and reclusive life, her lack of education, money, and breeding; this ladder-climbing, as it was called, was extremely difficult for women of her lower-middle class station in Victorian England. She lies to herself about her mother’s behavior and criminal involvement. She lies to herself about the man she takes for her husband. She lies to herself about her friendship with Charlotte. Yet, she continues to blindly pursue her goal to marry well and live comfortably in a stable home of her own, even at the risk of her moral and material downfall. Ironically, the closer she comes to falling, the harder she pushes toward her goal. There’s a sort of sadness in that delusion, in that blind reaching. The darkness and sadness of her life was part of what attracted me to the story.
Was there a defining moment in your life when you knew with sudden clarity you were meant to be a writer? If so, can you trace influences or events that led up to that realization?
For me there was no one “light bulb” moment. It was a slow unfurling into the knowledge that this writing thing is what I’m called to do. It is a calling. I haven’t always had faith in that calling. I haven’t always felt secure in it. I have always questioned it. And have even attempted to deny it by choosing other paths in life. But I was always an avid reader, always studied and admired other writers. I discovered a certain power in writers’ ability to create, to bring to life a place, people so vividly that they become real in the minds of readers. There’s something incredibly beautiful and mystic and raw in that power.
Even if I were to never publish, I would continue to write because it’s intrinsically rewarding, liberating. I guess the first time I thought about being a writer was around age 13. I deeply admired Edgar Allen Poe and wanted to write like him. It was probably the first time I was motivated to write as a means of self-expression and creativity. I wrote poetry and it was awful. But the feeling of putting those words on paper, of inventing that thing, was, in a word, sublime.
When I was 16, I received recognition from my English Teacher for a descriptive essay I wrote about the beach. He liked it so much he read it aloud to the class, to my deep mortification. From that moment, I began to notice more praise from family, friends, and teachers about my writing. So I began to re-evaluate my skills and talents and began to recognize there might be some truth to what they were saying.
Around age 19 or 20, I began taking writing seriously enough to hone my skills, to make attempts to publish. But it was far from a straight and narrow road. So my publishing history is sporadic at best. Also, in the beginning, I was focused primarily on poetry, so that is where most of my publishing history lies. Still, I continued to nurture the dream and develop my abilities. The biggest challenge to my career thus far, for various reasons, has been realizing and putting into practice the discipline to write regularly. For the longest time I allowed my emotions, moods, and confidence levels to dictate my writing practices. But I finally came to realize that if this is really what I want then I must, no matter what, develop discipline in my practice.
How often do you write, and do you write by hand or on an electronic device?
I write using a computer. It’s just more convenient and allows me to write, edit, and revise quickly; though my initial and final revisions are always on a hard copy because I catch more on paper than screen. The goal is to write something every day, even if only a paragraph, because it’s just too difficult to get back into the world, the characters, and the storyline when I let more than a day or two pass. I achieve that goal about 90% of the time. Sometimes, it simply isn’t possible. But I make every effort, even writing in the car and airports when I travel. There was a time when I could only write in the early morning, before work, when my mind was fresh and unencumbered by distraction. But I have since learned to write almost anywhere, anytime. It’s easier, of course, if I have a chunk of time first thing in the morning without distraction, but that’s such a rarity these days.
After earning her B.A. and M.A. in English, Michelle Bennington settled in the heart of The Bluegrass where she opens portals to the British Regency and Victorian Eras. Born in the world of poetry, her writing career has come to reside in the realm of historical fiction with her first book The Angel Maker’s Child. As DM Benningfield, Michelle’s poetry has been published regionally in The Zephyr, Aurora, Southern Women’s Review and was a finalist in Still: The Journal 2013 literary contest. Her poetry has also appeared in national anthologies Home for the Holidays and Bigger Than They Appear: Anthology of Short Poems and has appeared on the international Accents Radio Show on Literature, Art and Culture. Once upon a time, as an 18th-19th century British Literature scholar, she presented at academic conferences throughout the southeast and parlayed her love of the Romantic Era into a thesis on Lord Byron and his Turkish Tales.