Bria Brissey’s Interview with Michelle Gagnon

I’m pasting Bria Brissey’s interview with Michelle Gagnon where she discusses her debut YA novel, Don’t Turn Around.  I found the interview here at shelf life:

Michelle Gagnon’s Don’t Turn Around hits shelves today. The first in a planned trilogy, Don’t Turn Around follows 16-year-old Noa, a computer hacker who uses her skills to stay off the grid, safely anonymous. Check out the trailer and first two chapters here. In honor of her YA debut, Gagnon chats about the inspiration for the book and shares what she learned from the hackers she consulted for the book.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did you come up with the idea for Don’t Turn Around?
MICHELLE GAGNON: I was really fascinated by some of the things happening with Anonymous, the hackers group. I don’t necessarily agree with everything they’ve done, but I thought it was a really interesting use of technology and the fact that there’s a whole group of people who can take over systems and fight things from behind the scenes. And teenagers are such amazing computer whizzes, they are far better than most of their adult counterparts. I thought it would be interesting to see what a couple of teenage hackers would do if they actually formed their own group that targeted issues that were more their concern. Out of that, I got the idea for Peter’s group, Alliance, which is loosely based on the Anonymous model. And then Noa waking up on the table, that was just something that an editor and I had discussed. I kind of took the idea and ran with it, and I created this fictional illness that was only effecting teenagers.

This is your first young-adult novel. Why make the switch to YA?
I’d never really considered doing young-adult novels, but one of the things that a friend pointed out to me is that I’ve actually had a teenage character in almost every adult novel that I’ve written. He suggested that I work with characters who were just teenagers and tell everything from their perspective. It was fun to go back to that mindset of being young and having everything be so important and critical. Having all the emotions be so much more intense, and having such a very clear sense of right and wrong, which I think tends to get muddier as you get older.

I hear you had your own computer meltdown while you were writing. What happened?
I had such a computer meltdown! I have no idea. That’s the great irony of this book is that I am such a luddite — I spend a lot of time at the Apple store at the Genius help desk. And I had a bunch of hackers who were helping me with this book, and they thought that it was absolutely hilarious. And now, working on book 2, I’ve split my time between San Francisco and L.A. I fly Southwest, and one of the flight attendants on one of the flights a couple of months ago—while I was working on book 2—handed a glass of wine to the person next to me and spilled the entire thing on my keyboard. So that was the demise of my next computer. So apparently with each book in this trilogy I’ll be suffering from horrible computer failures that I’m going to have to claw my way back from.

So you worked with actual hackers for the book? How did you meet those people? 
I have a good friend who runs an IT company called Rocket Science. That’s a real thing. They don’t do exactly what I say they do in the book. They are more of an IT support company. But the place is full of 20-year-olds who know more about computers than any person has a right to. The head of that company is a good friend of mine, and he referred me to some people.

Did you learn anything interesting?
What they really drilled into me is that there’s a difference between hackers and crackers. Hackers there’s not really a malevolent intent behind it. They’re trying to test systems and find doors, but not necessarily do harm. If anything they consider themselves to be White Hatters who are doing this for the good of the companies and the networks that they’re infiltrating. And then there are crackers who are more like the equivalent of a teenager spraying graffiti across a wall. Not a graffiti artist, just trying to deface something. And the hackers very much look down on the crackers. I wasn’t aware at all that there were these two very separate camps, and that was something that they clarified for me.

Anything else you want to add? 
Going through this I really learned a lot about the foster care system, and one of my great sources of frustration was that it was really hard to find groups that were actually helping kids in the system. A lot of the stuff that I put in about Noa’s childhood and her upbringing was based on real stories that I found. Kind of by chance I found out about an organization call Rising Tides that another friend of a friend recently established. [Rising Tides is a] non-profit where you can directly support foster teens who are aging out of the system. You can directly help kids who turn 18 and have absolutely no one to rely on. It’s really amazing idea and an amazing group. So I’ve been working with them a little bit to start supporting them and helping them get off the ground.

Author Interview with Camille Noe Pagan

I understand that titles are often changed throughout the publishing process.  Tell us how your title came about.

Hi Michael, thanks so much for including me on your stellar blog.

I was about halfway through the first draft of this novel when the title, The Art of Forgetting, came to me. It seemed spot on—and happily, my editor and publisher agreed! My agent tells me this is extremely rare, so I don’t anticipate it will happen for future novels.

What new things did you learn in writing this novel?  For example, did you already have knowledge of Traumatic Brain Injury?

I’m a journalist by day, and I was writing an article about brain health when a doctor pointed out that brain injury is extremely common in women under the age of 40—more than breast and most other cancers, in fact. I started to research the topic and discovered that even a seemingly-small injury could lead to significant personality changes. It wasn’t long before I realized I had a great book plot on my hands. I did a lot of research while I was writing Forgetting—combing through medical journals, interviewing neurologists and even people who’d experienced brain injuries. What I learned is that while there are often commonalities in individuals with brain injury, no two brain injuries are identical in their symptoms. As a novelist, this gave me leeway to be creative with my plot and characters.

It seems your characters negotiated their friendships with care.  All of them had their own unique qualities, their own memories, and perspectives shaped by remembered things.  How did you balance the many needs, issues, and negotiations which were at work?  

It was an extremely organic process: I tried to create characters who were true to life, from their larger motivations. I have to give a lot of credit to my agent and editor; this being my first novel, I made a lot of rookie mistakes—like having too many side characters—during earlier drafts. My editor, especially, helped me cull unnecessary information in order to streamline the story.

Who was your most challenging character to listen to, write, create?  Do you know why?

Julia, hands down. She’s a very strong personality—someone with natural confidence who rarely doubts her own decisions. For that reason, she’s magnetic to Marissa, who can be meek and wishes she herself was naturally more confident.

Even after suffering a brain injury that alters her personality, many of Julia’s (often unlikable, if realistic) traits remain. Some readers told me that they hated Julia from start to finish, but the response I hear more often is that readers have had someone similar to Julia in their lives at one point.

Your story has a lot about body image, physical activity, and health in it. From running and dancing to building young girls, there’s a lot there.  All of these are lengthy, relevant topics for children, youth, and adult readers.  What kind of reception have you gotten relative to those topics?  Any interesting feedback or stories from your readers?

You know, as someone who’s been writing about women’s health and psychology for more than a decade, I had a lot of material to work with and it felt natural to use it for my first novel. Women, especially younger women, spend a lot of time thinking about body image—not just their own, but body image as a concept, and what it means to be a woman comfortable in your own skin. I wanted this to be reflected in Marissa, who works at a women’s health magazine and struggles with some of the messages that her magazine conveys to readers.

The very best feedback I’ve received has been from readers who’ve suffered brain injury or who know someone who’s experienced brain injury. Not long after my novel was published, a woman who had copyedited the book contacted me. As it turned out, someone close to her had recently suffered a brain injury, and she said that my novel had been a source of comfort during that difficult time. It was the highest praise I could have received. To connect on that level, even with one reader—for me, that’s really the whole point of writing.

How would you like people to talk about this novel?  What connections would you instigate from the book, if you could do so?

I didn’t write the book with a message in mind; the most I hope for with any novel is that readers will laugh a little and maybe cry a bit, too. The books that move me most are both funny and sad.

Discuss this stage of your novel’s life.  It’s written, edited, and published.  What are you doing with, for, and because of it now?

After 18 months of promoting Forgetting—before and during the hardback release, and then again when the paperback came out two months ago—I had to step back and just let it be. Right now, I’m focused on making my second novel as strong as it can be, which requires solid blocks of writing time and mental focus. Which means stepping away from Facebook, Twitter and blogs. It’s not easy!

What are you reading these days?

I’m just about finished with Nora Ephron’s HEARTBURN; the woman was a comedic genius. I recently read Matthew Norman’s terrific debut, DOMESTIC VIOLETS, which reminded me very much of Jonathan Tropper, who is one of my all-time favorite authors (I can’t wait for his latest, ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO). I also enjoyed Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL—that’s sitting on the NYT bestseller list for a reason!—and Deborah Copaken Kogan’s THE RED BOOK. I’ve read a few that I didn’t love, too, but mum’s the word on those. It takes a lot of work to string 80,000+ words together in a coherent manner, so even if I didn’t connect with a book, you’ll never catch me trashing it or its author.

Are you working on anything you can talk about?

Absolutely! I just wrapped up the first draft of what I hope will be my second novel. It’s about four childhood friends who grew up in the Detroit area, one of whom becomes famous, and what happens when they reunite in their mid-thirties. I’m also reworking a historical fiction novel that I wrote last year. It needs a lot of work, but I have my fingers crossed that it will be published one day!

How can readers follow you and support your work?

My website is; I’m also on Twitter at @cnoepagan and Facebook:

Book Giveaway and Interview With Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I have the pleasure of including an interview with Ms. Dolen Perkins-Valdez on my blog.  Her fiction touches upon my writing interests, historical fiction and the stories of African Americans.  When I contacted her about her novel and about the possibility of an interview, she suggested that we wait until after the paperback was released.  That happened in January, and when I reconnected with her, Ms. Perkins-Valdez was happy to be interviewed.  I’m giving a copy away, so see below for more information on that.  Here’s the interview.

MW: You started this novel by stumbling upon something.  Tell us about that.

DPV: I was reading a biography of W.E.B. DuBois by David Levering Lewis, and I came across a line about the origins of Wilberforce University. Lewis wrote that it was once a resort hotel popular among slaveowners and their slaves.  I was shocked and intrigued.

MW: Before learning of your work’s success, I didn’t think most people rushed to discuss how white mistresses lived in and around their husband’s slave wenches.  What was it like preparing this great novel as a WIP?  What was it like to pitch the project?

DPV: As I was writing, I just focused on telling the story. I wasn’t thinking of it as a “great novel” or anything like that because it was my first book and I wasn’t even sure if it would be published.  Once I decided to pitch it to agents, I just described the story as honestly and confidently as I could.

MW: I think I read that you had a little trouble pulling together historical fragments as you researched.  How would you suggest that writers, communicators, and people in general tell history?  How do we pass on stories these days?

DPV: I hear from so many people who have fascinating family stories.  I always urge them to write those stories down.  Most cell phones have built-in voice recorders, sort of like mini-cassette recorders.  At the very least, people should talk into these and then save the audio files on their computers and/or e-mail them to the tech-savvy members of their family.  Those of us who are younger should solicit the stories from the elders in our family.  Many oral stories will be lost if we don’t do this with a greater sense of urgency.

MW: Did you find new things or learn things as you worked on the manuscript?

DPV: Of course! Yes, I learn so much when I’m working.  There are many things that can’t possibly make it into the final book.  Not only do I learn a lot about history, but I also learn a lot about how to tell a stories.  Writing is a craft, and it takes many years to master.  I am still learning.

MW: You’ve probably been asked a lot of questions since publishing the novel.  What question haven’t you been asked that you really want to answer, and what is the answer?

DPV: I can’t think of a good question I haven’t been asked.  Recently, however, in Santa Monica, an audience member asked me about Jeremiah in the book and why he won’t take orders from the overseer’s wife.  I’d forgotten all about Jeremiah! I insisted that there was no Jeremiah in the book.  That was a funny moment.  People are often surprised when authors forget what they wrote, but it can happen sometimes.

MW: What’s next and how can my blog readers stay in touch with you?

DPV:  I’m working on a new novel. It’s a historical novel, but it is not a sequel to WENCH. I hope my fans will be patient.  In the meantime, please pass the news about the book.  There are still lots of readers out there to reach.  My website is and I’m on Facebook at

In celebration of the release of Dolen’s paperback, I’d like to give a copy away to someone who answers a question: What book or author has helped you see more clearly some part of history or life?  I’ll randomly select a winner by Thursday so have your comments by Wednesday, midnight.