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Novelist follows successful debut with tale of generations of winged women

Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015

When her editor told her the novel she had labored over for years wasn’t working, and, in fact, needed a complete rewrite, Michele Young-Stone was devastated. She had poured herself into developing and crafting the complex, layered story, which ran several hundred pages and spanned centuries and continents, and now she was told she needed to start over with a dishearteningly blank page. All of that hard work and emotional investment amounted only to a test run that would need to be repeated.

Young-Stone, whose first novel, “The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors,” was named one of the best debut novels of 2010 by Publishers Weekly, felt deflated and wondered if she should just quit writing altogether. After a heart-to-heart talk with her agent, she opted to take an extended break instead, stepping away from the story that had consumed her. She decided she would neither give up nor would she dive back into the novel immediately to attempt a wholesale rewrite. Instead, for a time — and against her workaholic nature — she’d shift her focus and her energies elsewhere.

She painted. She collaged. She knitted. She spent time with friends and her husband and son at their year-round home in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. However, she was never quite able to set the novel aside completely. In fact, she often pondered the specifics of her editor’s critique at quiet moments, and, in a good sign the story wasn’t going to let go, her artwork gravitated toward the book and its characters, giving her an outlet to portray and consider the story in new ways. She honored the break and didn’t type a word, but the story was always close at hand.

Then, after two months of this compulsory contemplation, she checked into a Ramada and unloosed her stored-up energy and ideas, as though it was as simple as turning the handle on a spigot. She typed 100 pages in a feverish two days of writing.

“I knew I had it then,” Young-Stone said. “I knew it was working.”

"Above Us Only Sky"

The transformed story would ultimately be hammered into “Above Us Only Sky,” Young-Stone’s second novel, which was published in March. The book tells the story of a lineage of girls and women who have been born with wings, tracing their stories through history with settings as diverse as the 1863 Lithuanian uprising against Russian rule and a hangdog beach community in Florida in the 1970s. Earlier this year, Book Riot named the novel one of the best books of the first half of 2015, with Alison Peters saying, “There are many excellent books that came out this year so far, but ‘Above Us Only Sky’ made the most lasting impression on my reading heart.”

Young-Stone is a three-time alumna of Virginia Commonwealth University, with a bachelor’s degree in English, a master’s degree in teaching secondary English (she taught for several years in the school systems in Virginia’s Nottoway and Henrico counties) and an MFA in creative writing. Young-Stone’s persistence with the novel through the dark days when her confidence and resolve faltered — if only briefly — does not surprise Tom De Haven, an English professor and Young-Stone’s thesis adviser at VCU. He remembers Young-Stone as a student who responded to tough critiques with more pages — always more pages — and who never allowed setbacks or obstacles to prevent her from committing to her work. After all, this is someone who was rejected the first time she applied for the MFA program, only to return to take night classes, impressing then-professor Bill Tester enough that he helped her on her second attempt for admittance. Neither was she slowed when she entered her final year of graduate school pregnant, nor when she gave birth in the spring semester. When she graduated, her 2-month-old son, Christopher Robin, was in attendance, snuggled into a Baby Bjorn.

Young-Stone said she is simply determined to do whatever is necessary to succeed as a novelist. She does not suffer from procrastination and does not believe writer’s block is real. For her, writing, as much as anything, is about “putting your butt in the chair and putting in the work,” as Tester once told her.

“My dream since I was in second grade was to be a published novelist,” she said. “I was always willing to do whatever it took to make that happen.”

De Haven said Young-Stone’s inventive storytelling and strong belief in her characters led to lively, entertaining writing during her student days, even when her talent still seemed raw and unrefined. Young-Stone recalls De Haven returning her manuscripts covered in so much red ink that it drove her to tears, but the flaws in those days never meant that she was not producing something compelling.

“Her stuff had fizz,” De Haven said. “It was always interesting. The characters were fun and real. She had that gift where characters would just pop to life on the page. She had a talent for storytelling from the very beginning. She just had to harness it all.”

As an artist, you have to be able to take criticism in order to grow.

Young-Stone was not the kind of writer to resist or shrink from criticism, even when she found it initially upsetting. The feedback she received from De Haven, Tester and her other professors helped her find a more polished, focused way to tell her stories. “As an artist, you have to be able to take criticism in order to grow,” she said, a lesson she would take to heart when “Above Us Only Sky” hit its roadblock.

The prompt for “Above Us Only Sky” was a simple, powerful scene, one that Young-Stone found herself imagining without knowing why. She saw a teenage girl climbing onto a school bus with cardboard wings on her back. However, the girl was not simply playing dress up. She’d once had real wings, which had been surgically removed, and she was seeking solace in drab, lifeless cardboard replacements.

Young-Stone felt the girl’s pain at a missing part of her, and she knew a story was there. Ultimately, the novel would begin to take on an impressive scope of characters and settings, often informed by Young-Stone’s interests — just as the first novel had reflected, in part, her own interests and experiences (she survived being struck by lightning when she was a child). For instance, Prudence Eleanor Vilkas, the novel’s chief protagonist, is an ornithologist, and birds are a major presence in the book — and even feature on the cover. Young-Stone is a longtime bird lover who has more than once attended to injured birds, either nursing them back to health or rushing them to a vet.

 For me, magical realism is really how you perceive the world.

The book also is guided by her interest in Lithuanian history, which was borne out of a friendship from her youth with a curmudgeonly, elderly — and beloved — neighbor in the Hyde Park area of Chester, Virginia. The man, who was a native of Lithuania, would tell her stories about his homeland, often with an attitude tinged with regret and resentment for his forced exit at the boot of the Soviet Union amid the mass killing of landowners in order to turn their property into collective farms. 

 

Michele Young-Stone
Michele Young-Stone

Young-Stone researched the topic more closely for the novel and found herself fascinated with Lithuania’s history as a place subdued by two powerful entities in the region — Russia and Germany — often stuck in the middle of their lumbering, marauding ambitions. “Above Us Only Sky” particularly details Lithuania’s station in the World War II era, when control of Lithuania changed from the Soviet Union to Nazi Germany and back to the Soviet Union in a period of about five years.

A book populated with a line of winged humans suggests “Above Us Only Sky” fits into the genre of magical realism, but Young-Stone does not believe “magical” is necessary.

“All of my novels contain magical realism but I don’t think of them that way,” she said. “I think it’s about the way you look at life. If you choose to see things that are miraculous, then you will. If you choose not to, then you won’t. For me, magical realism is really how you perceive the world. If you see things that other people don’t see, then I don’t know if it’s magical realism or if it’s just perspective.”

Young-Stone said she learned a great deal about writing and about her own strengths as a writer through the composition of “Above Us Only Sky.” She learned to recognize when she was rushing scenes, how to better juggle multiple generations of characters without losing the reader, and when she wasn’t being herself as a writer, among other things. She even overcame her suspicion of first-person narrators — “I thought of it as cheating before” — when she shifted “Above Us Only Sky” from a third-person narration into first-person at the suggestion of her editor. She is grateful for her editor’s direction and enforced restart, knowing the result is a far superior book to the one she had first written.

It is not difficult to find parallels between Young-Stone’s jagged experience writing the book and the themes she explores. The characters in “Above Us Only Sky” endure hardships, but they keep moving forward.

“I guess ultimately I want people to walk away understanding what it means to be a survivor,” Young-Stone said.

 

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