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Interivew: Michael Boccacino, author of Charlotte Markham, talks writing, wine and high school angst

Monday, September 10, 2012

In high school, my friend Michael Boccacino emailed me a short story he wrote. It was a science fiction horror story, which has never really been my thing. But I read it anyway to give it a chance and be a good friend. It was about cloning and horror movie sets and murders and I don't want to give too much away in case he ever wants to resurrect it, but you guys, it was so good and asjfk&(CGWUBNCW@(*DBC@(E9! I was hooked.

And Michael was just like...

The same year, I was spending my time writing essays for Faulkner week in English class, casting myself as the central character in a scenario in which I brazenly took the big stall moments before Benjy from the Sound and the Fury came into the bathroom escorted by Caddy, and then Caddy started talking about what a B I was for taking the big stall when there were people who really needed it. No, really. I turned that in. For credit. And I was just like...

It is no surprise that Michael got published first.

His book, Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling, came out recently from William Morrow. It's a Victorian gothic ghost story, chilling and dark and enticing, and it has twisted woods and dead nannies and mystery and all sorts of goodness.

Mike has been the kind recipient of several Facebook messages from me throughout the various book endeavors, subtle notes to the tune of "TELL ME HOW TO FEEL." He has always been gracious and mentally stable with good, solid advice. I decided it was a smart idea to chat publicly with Mike about his novel and the business of book publishing, which we all know is second only to cartwheeling down a tightrope that has been lit on fire.

So, uh... without further adieu, Mike will tell us all how to feel! 

I remember you always writing. Did you always know you wanted to be a published author, and did life ever interfere with that plan?
First off, I'm so very, very sorry that you had to endure the angst-ridden short stories from my teen years. I was angry and weird. But I knew I wanted to write by the time I was in high school. I had a fantastic 9th grade English teacher by the name of Kathleen Granning, and she helped me figure out that it was something I loved doing. When I got to college I had written a handful of short stories, half a screenplay, and 50 some odd pages of a novel, but I lacked the discipline (or maybe maturity?) to actually follow through on larger projects. It wasn't until I was 25 or so and finally finished with grad school that I went through a bit of a quarter life crisis and decided to focus on really finishing something substantial. 

What was the spark for Charlotte Markham?
Charlotte Markham began life, quite literally, as a dream: an English governess stood on the side of a dirt road with her two young orphaned charges as they consulted a homemade map. They were debating whether or not to enter a forest up ahead and I knew, as dreamers often do, that something terrible awaited them in the woods. I remember waking up and being fascinated with where they were going. I felt the most lovely combination of dread and excitement, because I knew that their journey would be extraordinary, terrible, and wonderful, even if I remained uncertain about their final destination. The dream stayed with me, but didn't really crystallize until my mother died of cancer at the age of 44. I dreamt of her nearly every night afterwards, and though we both acknowledged in the dream that she was still dead, we continued to have a relationship. The idea fascinated me, and I quickly realized that the children from my previous dream were looking for a way to reconnect with their dead mother. 

How long did it take you to find an agent and get a publisher? I think people think once they get an agent, it's all immediate fame and fortune from there.

It took me about a year to find an agent. I did three rounds of querying to about twelve different agents each time. Even after I got my agent, we had to spend some time editing, and then it took about 9 months after that to get a publisher. Then more editing. And then even after its out, you need to allow time for people to actually hear about your book. So it's definitely a process! 

Did you ever feel like you should switch genres to fit what was popular in publishing at the moment?
I mean, it occurred to me that I could easily turn it into an urban fantasy novel, or perhaps inject some vampires or zombies into the mix to make it more marketable, but my whole rationale for wanting to be a writer is to write the kinds of books that I like to read. I just happen to like weird, slightly literary-skewing genre mash-ups along the lines of Neil Gaiman, China MiĆ©ville, and Susannah Clarke. 

What did you do to get through the times of doubt and writerly self-loathing?
I drink a lot of white wine. Also, I just keep writing. That's all you. can do, really! But at least you know that you're in good company. 

How did you celebrate when you got your book deal?
My agent called me while I was at work and told me about the deal with HarperCollins. It was extremely surreal, and I remember that I could NOT stop smiling for the whole week. Later that day, a friend at my office bought a couple bottles of champagne, and we celebrated toward the end of the day. They made me give a little speech, which was slightly horrifying, but very sweet. It really didn't officially sink in until I got the first galley copy many, many months later.

What's your next project?
I've written a TV pilot with a wonderful actor/writer by the name of Michael Arden. It's about the south bank of London in the 17th century, and we're in the midst of shopping it around to producers at the moment. I'm also working on my second novel, which is inspired by the works of Lewis Carroll, C. S. Lewis, and J. M. Barrie. It's a book about children placed into fantastic situations, but written for adults, but it's probably 6 months away from being readable.

What books are on your nightstand right now?
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

Whatever became of that horror story about the cloned movie murder victims? That was so good. Seriously.
The Neverborn! I still have it, but I seem to recall there being an influx of clone-related sci-fi a few years back, so I shelved it. Maybe I'll expand it one day, or polish it up enough to actually show it to people again. Good ideas never die, they just percolate until they're ready!

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