Saturday, June 16, 2018

The History of Jane Doe: An Interview with Author Michael Belanger [Contributor: Megan Mann]

First love can be equal parts incredible and heartbreaking, all in the extremes. Extreme highs and even great lows. What can complicate things is that person being gone to you forever. Then, the sorrow is all the more difficult to navigate.

This is the fate that has befallen history nerd Ray. He thought life in his small town was okay, but only the history truly excited him. That is, until Jane came blowing into town and changed his life. The mysterious new girl took a shine to Ray for his witty commentary and the two quickly formed a relationship where Ray found himself enamored by Jane.

... Which makes what happens later even harder on Ray. Told between the before and after, Ray narrates the story of first love, first loss, and all that happens in between. He realizes that maybe history isn't as cut and dry as he thought it was, and that the parts of us that we don't share as our personal history are what really make us.

I was lucky enough to get in touch with Michael Belanger and ask him just a few questions about what it's like to release his debut novel, as well as how history has many facets to it.

Congratulations on your debut! How does it feel to finally have the book hit the shelves?

Thanks! It feels exciting, scary, awesome, and surreal — which should really be a whole new emotion, although I imagine the corresponding emoji would be somewhat frightening.

To be honest, I’ve already gone to my local bookstore a few times just to see it on the shelves. I’m really not that great at social media, so I’m thinking about making that my main marketing strategy — go to every bookstore I can and casually tell people how great the book is. And if someone notices my resemblance to the picture on the jacket sleeve, I’ll just claim to be the author’s evil twin brother.

What made you decide to write this story? What was the catalyst?

The book began with Ray’s voice. I wrote a chapter from the perspective of Ray describing Burgerville and after that I couldn’t stop. Gradually, everything started to come together. As I continued to write weird stories about Burgerville, the other characters naturally became part of the landscape: Jane Doe from the other Williamsburg, fan of folk music and conspiracy theories. Simon Blackburn, obsessed with vampire fiction and milk. Their stories were an integral part of the strange world of Burgerville, they just needed someone to transcribe them — a historian, so to speak.

As a high school teacher, I’m well-versed in the issues teenagers face each and every day. Their struggles gave me the sense of urgency to write this book. Not to mention, I used to be a teenager myself. I think somewhere, deep down inside, there’s still part of me trying to come to terms with my high school life — the pain, the confusion, the unwavering devotion to nineties alternative music (that part never left). I wish I could give that kid a hug. Or, because high school Mike wasn’t good with physical contact, a nice old-fashioned high five.

You’re a history teacher by day. Is that why you made your main character a history buff?

Definitely! It was a long and winding path to becoming a writer, and I’m grateful for all of the different life experiences that have shaped how I see the world, and in turn, shaped my characters. Writing isn’t only about putting words, sentences, and paragraphs together in a way that sounds good — you also need to have something to say. Coming from a background in history and teaching high school for almost a decade has had a profound impact on my writing. I’m a big proponent of writing what you know, and even though the world of Burgerville doesn’t exist, my background in history gave me a deep well to draw from — or a big cut of steak, if you will.

What I find interesting is that Ray believes knowing history gives us all of the answers, but that there are always details that are left out — that some people are ashamed to admit. Were you conscious of the idea that as humans, our histories are much more complex than a presentation of facts?

I’m so happy that those concepts and ideas came through! We all interpret our lives according to our own worldview, and I loved the idea of applying a historian’s lens to a person. I’ve been really influenced by revisionist historians who’ve challenged traditional narratives of American history. But could this approach work on a person? How can we challenge the stories we tell ourselves? 

As Ray delves into Jane’s history, he begins to realize the limits of the historical approach. Sadly, life can’t always be explained by cause-and-effect patterns. Not every event has a clear why. Sometimes it’s on us to make our own meaning, to ignore logic and embrace the unknown — which sounds way more New Age-y than I meant. Though to be clear, I have no problem with the New Age community, so please, no angry tweets. I guess what I’m trying to say is that life can’t always be lived according to certainty. Sometimes you have to find solace in the uncertainty.

The History of Jane Doe is a coming-of-age story. It’s a concept that has gotten more attention recently with movies like Lady Bird and books like Turtles All the Way Down dominating in their markets and having crossover appeal. What do you think draws readers of every age to the idea over and over again?

First off, I love Lady Bird and Turtles All the Way Down! I think we’re all still coming-of-age in our own ways, and the journey of a teenager is filled with so many rites of passage that it strikes a chord in everyone. One that probably never stops reverberating.

For teenagers, it’s cathartic to see themselves reflected in books and movies. It creates an archetype for teenagers to follow. Take Turtles All the Way Down, for example. I wish I could’ve had that book in high school to help me make sense of my anxiety and OCD. We read books to escape reality, but they can also help us escape in a more literal sense; a good book can offer us a path out of our troubles.

One of the most common themes in reviews thus far has been your wit and comedic timing. Is heartache and loss easier to deal with through humor?

It’s great to hear that people are responding to the humor. I love books, movies and TV shows that mesh humor and drama. I think it’s more reflective of our everyday lives. Even during the darkest times of my life, I’ve been lucky enough to find some light. And one of the things therapy has taught me is to focus on that light. Let it grow brighter. Humor can help with that. Laughing during times of great sadness is a very human thing to do.

I’ve also always been drawn to writers like Kurt Vonnegut who find a way to be both funny and serious. There’s a blurb on the back of one of Vonnegut’s books from the Los Angeles Times Book Review that says, “[Vonnegut] is either the funniest serious writer around or the most serious funny writer.” Not only does that quote perfectly describe Vonnegut, it’s also a pretty great description of humans. We’re either the funniest serious species around, or the most serious funny species. And because we’re talking Vonnegut, I’ll extend that to include aliens too.

Mental health is finally starting to slightly push away its stigma. Do you think that a story involving it makes it easier for the work to resonate with audiences?

I think it’s really important for everyone to see mental health portrayed honestly in pop culture. People have to stop punishing themselves for having anxiety and depression. That only adds another degree of difficulty onto getting better. There’s something so liberating about seeing mental illness as exactly that — an illness, something you can manage and recover from.

I remember feeling so ashamed of my depression and anxiety in high school. I wouldn’t talk about it with anyone. It made me feel weak, weird, strange. But by having characters in books openly confronting their mental health conditions through therapy, medication, and talking to friends and family, I’m hoping teenagers will more readily speak about their own struggles.

A lot of our readers are aspiring writers. What’s your writing process like?

I try to write an hour before work and another hour when I get home. The whole full-time job thing tends to get in the way of my process. And when class starts, I can’t exactly tell my students to just sit quietly while I finish a scene. As a teacher, a Lord of the Flies-type scenario is always just one bad lesson away.

With that being said, it’s important for me to stay excited about writing too, so I don’t sweat it if I need to take a day off, whether because I have a lot of grading to do, my cats are demanding attention — and if you have cats, you know when I say demand, I’m not exaggerating — or I just want to watch a show on Netflix. Like life, writing should be filled with joy. Don’t make it a drag!

How do you deal with writer’s block? Or, like Neil Gaiman, do you not suffer from it?

My philosophy is to always write even if I feel like my writing really sucks. I just want to get words on the page so I can feel accomplished. Before: a blank page. After: words assembled together in a mildly coherent way. Success!

For me, writing has always been a game of volume. I need to write a lot of words so the world will believe I’m a writer. The funny thing is, when you go back and revisit your pages, you’ll often realize they’re not that bad, or maybe there’s one amazing idea or paragraph. And that’s enough to demolish the wall of writer’s block, which you’ll find never really existed in the first place. Just the idea of writer’s block. Uh oh, I’m sounding New Age-y again.

As someone who just released their debut, what advice do you have for aspiring writers when it comes to putting their work out there?

Find a community of writers whose feedback you can trust. Understanding your strengths as a writer — and working on your weaknesses — will give you the confidence you need to get your work out there. After that, it’s just a game of numbers, which as a history person, I was never really all that comfortable with. But the message is simple enough, even for someone who failed math senior year (I technically withdrew, but whatever Mom!):

submissions = ­ responses

time + experience = better responses

time + experience + x = getting published

In this equation, x = your unique voice as a writer, that indefinable something that’s impossible to describe, like trying to explain the glory that is pizza. It just is. You’re just you.

Finally, what would you like readers to know about The History of Jane Doe?

The History of Jane Doe is a deeply personal story in a lot of ways, but its themes are universal. Ray talks about alternative dimensions throughout the book, and depression can make you feel like you’re living in your own alternative dimension, a world where nothing ever seems to work out so why even bother? But it’s important to remember that the good dimension is always one little step away, just like Rich, Ray’s therapist, is always saying.

There are plenty of people who can help you take those steps: friends, family, teachers, school nurses, guidance counselors, librarians, and mental health professionals, just to name a few. If you don’t know who to turn to, you can also call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s National Helpline (1-800-662-4357) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). Don’t be afraid to reach out.

And if someone reaches out to you, do your best to reach back, or at least point them in the direction of someone who can.

You can purchase The History of Jane Doe today.


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