Q&A: Michel Stone

Border Child by Michel Stone Border Child: A Novel tells the story of Hector and Lilia and the brighter future they dreamed for their family in the United. States. Author Michel Stone drops readers into the contemporary immigrant experience of a marriage at the breaking point, strained by the consequences of wanting more for the next generation. Stone’s first novel The Iguana Tree (Hub City Press), was the University’s Freshman Summer Reading Program selection in 2013. The novel examines the obstacles of pursuing a new life, set amid the perils of illegal border crossing. From publishing in her hometown of Spartanburg, Stone has gone on with her second novel to land a deal with Random House, working with the legendary Nan Talese. Below is a Q&A with Stone from April 19. Clemson World met with Stone at the bookstore in the front of Hub City to discuss Border Child, immigration, writing, research and Stone’s next read.

Clemson alumna Michel Stone

 Q: Tell me about what are you reading right now.
A: Well I read 85 percent fiction, 15 percent nonfiction. I’m reading the book by Sam Quinones called Dreamland. I met Sam through the publication of The Iguana Tree. He was an L.A. Times reporter at the time and he used to keep a blog called “Tell your true tale.” So he had me write a little story — a true story — about my process of researching for The Iguana Tree. He wrote this book called Dreamland about the current heroin and opioid addiction problem in the United States, which is nothing I’d thought much about, but I kept hearing these horrible stories about this rampant epidemic. He’s traveled around the country and heard these heart-wrenching stories about seemingly well-adjusted young college students who just fell off the rails and started doing drugs with devastating consequences. It’s a really sad story, but it’s interesting and a hot topic in our country right now. He’s such a great writer.

Q: What else is on your bedside table?

A: Fallen Land by Taylor Brown. He’s a Southern writer. I read his first book – loved it – so I just bought it this week.

Q: Did you intend Border Child as a “Part 2” to The Iguana Tree?

A: No, the opposite of that. I didn’t want to alienate any readers who may come across Border Child and if they had not heard of The Iguana Tree, pass by the book and not read it. So, I worked very hard with my editor, Nan Talese. She’s fabulous. I worked really hard with Nan to make sure this is a stand-alone novel. And I think it is.  The back story is woven in. [pullquote]If you didn’t read The Iguana Tree, you’ll get Border Child. If you did read The Iguana Tree, you’ll recognize characters and settings, since it involves the same family four years later with a continuation of their story.[/pullquote]

Q: I noticed the chapters were broken up in a way that introduced more characters than The Iguana Tree, where it was mostly from Lilia and Hector’s perspective exclusively. What made you decide to broaden the perspective?

A: When I wrote the first draft of The Iguana Tree, it was from four perspectives, alternating characters, Hector, Lilia and the American farmers they worked for, Lucas and Elizabeth. My editor for that said, “You know, the American characters are vital to the plot, but the chapters written from their perspectives are sort of,” (he didn’t use the word boring; I’m using the word boring) “but vanilla.” He said he wanted to race through those chapters to get on to the chapters from the Mexicans’ perspectives. That was kind of a tough day for me. I thought the book was finished. The information was relevant and important, but I had to rewrite them from the Mexicans’ point of view. And he was right, it was even more interesting for me as a writer to write from the Mexicans’ point of view because it forces me to see things from a fresh perspective. So, in Border Child I knew it would give the book more texture and round out the main characters if we could see the action and those characters from other Mexican characters’ points of view.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your experience there and how that informed your writing.

A: Before I wrote The Iguana Tree, I knew the story in my head that I wanted to write, but I had not been to Mexico. So, during the course of writing that book I went to Mexico. I went to a little village called Puerto Angel, on the Pacific Coast deep down in the state of Oaxaca. I chose that place, after doing research, because I wanted the village my characters were leaving in Mexico to be similar to the place where they landed in the United States; and I knew I wanted them to land on Edisto Island in Charleston County, South Carolina. I know that area well. It’s rural, it’s agricultural and it’s on the coast. So, I said, “Where in Mexico is rural, agricultural and on the coast?” This village of Puerto Angel was described as a “Sleepy, bucolic little fishing village.” I thought, “This is perfect!”
I just changed the name to Puerto Isador from Puerto Angel. Changing the name gives me some creative freedom. No one can say, “No, the village isn’t like you described it”
I’m now working on a third book that’s set in Honduras. I’ve just fallen in love with Latin America. So, in the past seven years, I’ve been to Mexico three times, Nicaragua once, Costa Rica three times, Honduras once.
I don’t want to go to the touristy places…. but I like to go like an investigative reporter where I’m among the people and eating what they eat, going to their churches and sitting around their tables.
[pullquote]But I feel that if I’m going to write a book about these places, I can’t sit back in my air-conditioned office in Spartanburg and write these stories. As cliché as it sounds,  if my five senses haven’t experienced a place, then I don’t feel qualified to set a story there.[/pullquote]

Q: How does someone in Spartanburg become interested in immigration and these family issues in Mexico when it’s so different from your daily life?

A: I could back up to my childhood growing up on Johns Island, a rural farming community. Every spring, summer and fall I would see the migrant workers in the tomato fields and the soybean fields. I was curious about them.
I lived at the end of a half mile long dirt road that split pine woods and tomato fields. Every day going to school I would ride down that dusty dirt road and see the migrant workers working near my house. They were so mysterious to me because I knew at the end of the farming season they would be gone. [pullquote]As a child I wanted to know, “Where did they come from? Where do they go?[/pullquote] And do the children like this lifestyle and do they go to school?” I had so many questions about them.
But what triggered these books was an encounter about a dozen years ago when I met a young family on Edisto Island who confided that they were here without the proper paperwork and had crossed with their infant son. Immigration was a hot topic  so it wasn’t a surprise. But what surprised and haunted me, finally becoming the catalyst for The Iguana Tree was that they crossed with their infant. I was curious how someone does that. I wrote about them in my journal and that writing eventually became a short story and eventually became The Iguana Tree.

 Q: What made you say, “I need to write a stand-alone book and revisit these characters.” 

A: The first year after The Iguana Tree came out I said I was not writing another book about these characters. I’d started another book. Then a year after The Iguana Tree was published I was in Hermiston, Oregon because that town had chosen my book for its community read. They had a town hall meeting that resulted in standing room only. The community college had read my book, the high school had read my book, the library had done an event – the whole town rallied around this novel, and they flew me out to Oregon for these events. They treated me so wonderfully. They told me they chose my book because their town was about 35 percent Latino, which surprised me. It’s a big agricultural community with apples, watermelon, asparagus;  hence the significant Latino community there. They thought the novel would be something the whole community could enjoy. When it came time for the Q&A someone raised her hand and asked if I would write a sequel.  I was so moved by the fact that there were so many Latino people in that room that I said, “Yes, yes I will write a sequel.” The whole room erupted in applause. It was all I could do not to cry. I had always feared the Latino community would say, “Who is she to tell this story?” And sometimes I wonder that, too. When they cheered I knew that writing the next book was the right thing to do. I probably knew, at some level, that it was the right thing to do all along because I wasn’t done with these characters yet.
The next morning I was in the airport in Pasco, Washington about to fly back to South Carolina. The local had a headline that said, “Author says it here first, sequel to The Iguana Tree coming.” I started taking notes for Border Child on the flight home that day. I wrote the entire way across the country. I knew it was meant to be because it was so easy to write. It was fun to write. It got me excited to be back writing a novel that would require more research. I love to write fiction that requires me to learn something along the way.

Q: What do you think you learned while writing Border Child?

A: I learned about the plight of families …I began to consider the human condition more deeply. If a novel doesn’t speak to the human condition it’s lacking. We just think about immigration from a 30,000-foot view. But for me as a novelist to dial down to one family in one place and figure out their motivations and their struggles with the backdrop being the border and immigration — that was something I wanted to illuminate. A family, a person. [pullquote]Even though they were fictional, they were derived from real people, real stories. That’s the most fun for me in writing, to illuminate the people in the shadows.[/pullquote] And in doing so, to show how people regardless of background or socioeconomic situation or skin color, really have many of the same motivations. We all share the same emotions. There are certain experiences in life that tie us all together.
Q: You talked about looking at 30,000-foot perspective of immigration. How do you approach discussions that come up that are a little more political than focused on your book?

A. When The Iguana Tree came out I was scared people would want to talk politics with me despite this being a work of fiction. It isn’t non-fiction. And I never proclaimed I’m an expert on this issue – and I still say I’m not an expert on this issue. There are people who are far more knowledgeable about that (immigration) than I am. But I do think often Americans, on both sides of the political spectrum, talk out of both sides of our mouths. Those immigrants are putting down our flooring and doing our landscaping and they are working in our meat packing plants and they are cleaning our houses and they’re doing a lot of things that we’re really grateful for. And while many folks say we need to solve this issue, but if we really, really were to “solve the issue” so-to-speak, where will we be? I don’t know. I have people who come up to me all the time to talk about, “Oh, I love so-and-so- this Latino person who I know through my business. But we’ve got to figure (immigration) out.” On a personal basis, people value individual immigrants whom they know. So, it would be interesting to see if we resolve this issue in some way. It will be a lifestyle change for many Americans if we somehow no longer had undocumented immigrants in this country. As a writer, I write because I have questions, not because I have answers.

Q: It was interesting that you had Lilia and Hector separated for so much of the novel. What was the intention of having them go through their own separate journey in Border Child?

A: I love to write where I bounce back and forth from perspectives. You saw it in the first book (The Iguana Tree). And I’ve learned that each perspective has to have its own weighty issue. They needed to both have struggles that pulled the reader back and forth. When you get to a chapter from Hector’s perspective I want you to want to come back to him, but at the same time when you finish a chapter for Lilia’s perspective, I want you to want to come back to Lilia. I want both stories to be pulling the reader along.

Q: For Hector’s journey, he definitely gets into some seedy trouble. Hector is this very noble man. How did you say, I’m going to take this character through this journey that makes his character questionable?

A: I had a friend of mine who read both books said, “I think Hector became a man in Border Child because he is putting others before self. The sacrifices and risks he would take were not for himself, but for his child, his wife, his family. For the reader to appreciate what Hector is willing to do is to see what a father would do for the love of family. For that to be appreciated I think there has to be some trial, some risk, some struggle, some questionable scenarios there, with a character willing to run the gauntlet, to take those risks.

Q: How was working with Nan Talese on editing Border Child versus working locally with Hub City Press on edits?

A: Well, on a basic level, I live two miles away, so the first publisher was much closer. I have walked to this bookstore before, so in terms of that, my publisher here was extremely accessible — I could walk right in the door and plop right down or shoot an email and they’d get back to me within half an hour. People warned me working with a big publisher in New York — and Random House is huge with all its many, many imprints, that I can’t even keep straight — that it wouldn’t be the same.
And no, it’s certainly not the same, but working with Nan Talese is incredible. Her emails are written as letters. They always start off “Dear Michel” and she always signs them, “Love, Nan” And she is so lovely, personable, and professional and still immersed in her workat 80-something years old. To be one of the first women hired at Random House and still working as hard as she is and to not be burned out, but to be as kind and thoughtful and good at what she does is incredible. [pullquote]She’s the one who told me I needed to have the word “border” in the title of my book.[/pullquote] My original title was based on a line in an Emily Dickinson poem, “Hope is the thing with feathers” And I thought it was so poetic because the novel has to do with hope and feathers and birds, but Nan said, “Nah, that title’s got to go, and I suggest you have the word ‘border’ in it.” That bothered me for about a day and then I realized she’s right. One thinks of New England and Emily Dickinson with my original title and that’s not what this books about. If nothing else, people will give it a glance because of the new and much improved title!

Q: What do you want your take away to be for readers of Border Child?

A: I hope Border Child’s readers are entertained and engrossed and that they see something of themselves in my characters. I hope they will continue to think about the story long after they read the last sentence. If I can achieve that, I’ll feel like this novel was a success.

Q: Are we ever going to see these characters again?

A: Had you asked me that two weeks ago it would have been “Oh, no no no no no.” And truly, the book I’m writing right now that’s set in Honduras, I’m enjoying the process of writing it. I will definitely see that book through fruition because I’m excited about this story. I will not say no, but I realize there is potential for that. It might be fun to revisit the Santos family in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years.
Read more about Clemson alumni authors who have recently published.