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Author Interview: Michelle Athy!

Today I’m excited to interview the awesome Michelle Athy and talk a little bit about her recently self-published Historical Fiction Novella PEARL.

First, gorgeous cover!!

Time to a slave only means endless work, but for Pearl, the last ten years have meant time without her younger brother Julius. He was sold away from Barbados, a little island of sugar cane and slavery, but Pearl is still there, the lady’s maid to Mrs. Keegan.

After Mrs. Keegan dies, rumor has it that Mr. Keegan may return to his native England with his two children, which means Pearl will be sold for sure. Surprising herself, Pearl asks Mr. Keegan if he intends to sell her. To her shock, he says that yes, he’ll return to England—but he’s going to free her first. Pearl asks to be taken to England, too, with vain hopes that she’ll uncover what’s become of Julius—even if it means she’ll remain enslaved.

Freed and employed as the Keegans’ nanny, Pearl does not know how to begin looking for Julius or how to conduct herself as a free person in a new country. Her search leads to an unlikely alliance with Mr. Keegan, friendship with freed blacks, learning to read and write, and the choices to change her life, on her own terms.

When story ideas come to you, do they hit you all at once or develop more slowly over time?
They tend to develop slowly over time. Usually, I’ll get a character in some kind of situation first. Then that situation and that character start developing or other characters will come up. I don’t start writing until I feel I have enough of a plot.

What inspired you to write a story about Pearl?
Well, when it became obvious that I couldn’t make the novel she first appeared in work, I put that story away for awhile. But Pearl’s subplot in that novel had become my favorite parts to write and everyone who read that manuscript was really into her as a character and felt for her plot. She only appeared in the third draft of that novel she was in, as a minor character who grew into a bigger one.

How did you find Pearl’s voice? Did you interview her? Take her out on a coffee date? Or did she just come to you like that?
I interviewed the protagonist of the novel Pearl first came into–did all kinds of character-building stuff for those characters, but not for Pearl. When I decided to keep Pearl in the second half of that story–because the story changes countries a third of the way through–I needed to write a scene explaining why she was going with the family and what her status was. Well, she went into a plantation office, asked her late mistress’ husband a direct question, and then said, “I want to go to England, too. I want to find my brother.”

And I went, “Oh, you do?”

From there, her story, which is what the novella is, only from her point of view and embellished, came pretty organically.

Oh, I love that! So awesome. What was the easiest part of writing this story?
Having had it mostly written beforehand! 🙂 But actually, I think it was knowing that somehow, people–even without reading the entire book–connected to Pearl so strongly. I really had the most fun writing her scenes in the novel.

What was the hardest part?
Umm…well, writing the novella wasn’t hard at all. But writing the novel that the novella was taken from? It was the first time I actually seriously tried to write historical fiction and the research was tough. There aren’t a lot of sources on what happened to slaves who were freed or ran away, for instance, or what would’ve happened had they tried to reunite with family, as Pearl does, because those things weren’t written down in recorded history. I didn’t want the research to overwhelm the story and I didn’t want Pearl’s story to seem overly easy, because what she does really took guts.

Why did you decide to self-publish Pearl’s novella instead of shelving it away as we so often do with our work?
I guess I got tired of shelving things! It felt like time to get something I’d written out there. I decided to self-publish for a few reasons. One, to see if I could do it. Two, because there isn’t a trade market for novellas and I figured, with help from betas and copyeditors, I could manage the editing of a 62-page Word document on my own. Pearl felt like a special story and a special character and I wanted to share her.

I totally understand that! Pearl is awesome. What about this story drew you in so much that you just had to write it?
The way it came to me as I was writing Pearl’s parts in the novel drew me in. I didn’t have to strain for Pearl’s subplot. I knew what she wanted, I knew some of things she’d have to do or learn in order to achieve her goal, and I was going to get her to a satisfying conclusion. It’s the classic way that writing books say characters should be written, but it was the first time that one of my characters came into a story so clearly and so vividly.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about the process of getting your work out there?
I think I’m still learning this, to be honest. I’m only a little over a week after release. I think next time, I’d definitely test out the formatting before I hit publish. And I would publicize the release date a little more. I didn’t this time because I was genuinely not sure if the formatting was good enough or not and didn’t set a specific day for it.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you have in the works?
I’m back to working on a novel I’d put on hold–it’s half contemporary, half Victorian and it’s about two distantly related young women. I also have a plot bunny floating around about how all of New York ends up living in fitting room-sized apartments. I think it might be a dystopian. Plus, I have some vague ideas about maybe dipping back to Georgian times and writing more novellas, but nothing concrete right now!

Those all sound like fun!! Go for it! And I want to extend a big thanks to you for answering all of my questions!!

I absolutely love Pearl’s story. I’ve liked Pearl from the very first time I saw her in an excerpt on Michelle’s blog trying on her new gloves. You’ll understand about the gloves when you read it. 🙂 Pearl and all of the other characters in the story are so real and vivid – I feel like I’m right there in the past with them. This story made me so happy! Nothing is better than when you’re reading a story with a smile on your face. I even had tears in my eyes at one point. Michelle did a great job. It’s well written and well researched, and I had a great time following Pearl on her journey! Such a big fan of Pearl!

You can grab your copy and connect with Michelle at the places below:


  • Lillith

    Oh! I’m so glad to see this interview!

    Krystal, I completely agree with you about this novella. Reading it made me happy, and Pearl has a lot of agency for a character we don’t typically see as having much. Which is really really awesome! People forget that slavery certainly was and is bad, but slaves from the time and former slaves too found ways to build ties and communities despite their circumstances. And by forgetting that we discredit them and the strength it took to live in that world.

        • Lillith

          You did a wonderful job. I’m just giving credit where it is due. So many people really do forget that agency doesn’t have to mean freedom or unrestricted freedom. It can mean actively struggling with a mundane goal like reuniting with a beloved sibbling, which is what Pearl did. She wanted to go to England and find him, so she asked her former master and now employer to take her with him when he went to England. She wanted to know how to write so she could shoulder her share of finding her brother, and she learned to write. She achieved her wish while being locked into a social structure that didn’t give her much power, and did it by working within the system.

          Can you tell that I love, Pearl!

    • Michelle A (@SunflowerRei)

      Sadly, happened a lot back then. There was one anecdote I read about a former slave, a man, who had gone to the British side during the Revolution, because the British promised American slaves freedom if they fought on the Loyalist side. After, they got shipped up to Canada. Then some of them were settled in Sierra Leone. Well, the man went to Sierra Leone, which was near a trade area where slaves from the inland were marched toward the sea, and the man recognized his own mother.

  • Tonja Drecker

    Great interview, and I love that Pearl shoved her way from a part in a bigger novel to have you create a novella all of her own. The topic sounds very intriguing, and Pearl must be a very strong character. Guess I’m going to have to get it and take a peek myself 😉 Congrats!

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