Michelle Cameron is the author of Jewish historical fiction, including Babylon: A Novel of Jewish Captivity, the award-winning Beyond the Ghetto Gates and The Fruit of Her Hands: the story of Shira of Ashkenaz. She has also published a verse novel, In the Shadow of the Globe. Napoleon’s Mirage, the sequel to Beyond the Ghetto Gates, is forthcoming in August 2024.
Michelle is a director of The Writers Circle, a NJ-based creative writing program serving children, teens, and adults. She lives in Chatham, NJ, with her husband and has two grown sons of whom she is inordinately proud.
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Welcome to my blog, Michelle. How do you come up with book titles?
I’m not good at it and in fact have often been cast into what my fellow writers call “title hell.” My first novel, The Fruit of Her Hands: the story of Shira of Ashkenaz, went through several painful iterations. My agent liked what eventually became the subtitle. My editor challenged me to come up with a Biblical phrase, which sent me to Proverbs 31, best known for the line “a woman of valor.” While that could have easily been used as the novel’s title, I knew it was overused. So I employed the ending lines: “Give her the fruit of her hands. / Let her deeds be her praise at the gates.”
It was only after the book was published that I discovered “the fruit of her hands” was a catch phrase for women who felt they should be subservient to their husbands in all things. If they pick up my novel, they’re in for a shock!
With Babylon, I had previously thought of the title “By the Waters” – but this again was already being used. (I knew enough this time around to search for other books with this title.) It was my editor who liked the starkness of Babylon and I have to say that the artistic treatment of the book cover showed what a wise choice that was.
Why do you write?
I remember being asked this question at an early book fair I attended, and my answer “because I can’t not” still holds true today. I am happiest when I am writing or revising. When I’m not, there’s a feeling of emptiness inside me and a longing to get back to the process.
How much time do you spend writing each day?
Once upon a time, I could have answered that question much more definitively. It was after I’d written a third of the novel that would become The Fruit of Her Hands that I attended a workshop called, “Finishing Your Novel.” The workshop facilitator asked us all what was stopping us from finishing our first drafts and I responded that I was working full time, raising a family, and helping my husband earn an advanced degree. The facilitator, thank goodness, was not deterred. “How early can you get up?” she asked me – and I went home and set my alarm for 4:30 AM.
So for about five years, I diligently rose at that hour and wrote for two hours before having to rouse my household and get everyone ready for work and school. It was a time before social media, so there was nothing to distract me – no children begging me to attend to them, no outside online conversations to beguile me away from my work.
But once I found a day job that supported the “writing life” – being a director of The Writers Circle – I felt I no longer needed to get up that early. I sometimes regret having lost that discipline, as my writing practice ebbs and flows with the demands of co-owning a business. Some days I can spend an entire day at my desk writing, while others I barely get in a few minutes.
I do strongly believe, however, that it is critical to at least work on your writing for those few minutes because, otherwise, the project will take a back seat to everything else. So I do try and do that, at the very least.
What is the hardest part of writing or publishing?
For me, it’s summoning up the required amount of patience. I’m a fast writer, so I have to school myself to go back and revise – and then revise again – and then put the work aside so I can stop my initial (and foolish) assumption that it’s perfect in every way, just as I first wrote it.
Even more patience is required when it comes to publishing. I value the long process of a publishing house, moving from editing to cover design to meta data to every other aspect of creating a professional book that ends up on a bookstore shelf. But it doesn’t mean I don’t often wish the entire procedure could be speeded up. When Simon & Schuster asked me to supply a motto for their early social media efforts, I submitted a favorite line of mine from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1: “Fie upon this quiet life! I want work.” And that line still plays in my head whenever I have to wait for the next step in the publishing process.
Who or what is your muse?
I dedicated my second historical novel, Beyond the Ghetto Gates, to my muse – my youngest son, Alex Cameron. I realize that most people would consider him an unusual choice. However, it was he who inspired me to return to writing when I had given up.
I had written a young adult novel about William Shakespeare that I failed to publish. At that point, it was my third novel and I felt I had tried and failed to be a serious writer. (Today I am delighted that none of the three ever saw the light of day – they were simply not good enough.) As noted above, I had a full-time job while raising two young boys, and figured it was time to give up on the dream.
But then my young son started writing at around the age of five. He wrote for the pure joy of it, composing poetry, stories, games, puzzles, and more. And I looked at him and thought – why did I ever give this up?
Alex inspired me to write for the sheer happiness of creation – and for several
years, that’s all I did. It wasn’t until a writing mentor of mine, Sondra Gash – a poet whom Babylon is dedicated to – encouraged me to start submitting my poetry, that she rekindled my dream of becoming a published author.
Moreover, Alex’s role in Beyond the Ghetto Gates was instrumental – he could always be counted on to talk plot, read many, many revisions, and even helped me find an unexpected but right ending for the novel. These days, as a young married man with a career of his own in publishing, he’s a lot less available. But he will, forever and always, be my muse.
Do you travel to research your book(s)?
I have – but I certainly wish I could do more of it. My husband and I spent time in London and Stratford-upon-Avon while I was writing In the Shadow of the Globe and I found it incredibly useful. I remember standing on the street where my apprentices lived – Horseshoe Alley – and feeling like my head was going to explode.
But when I was writing The Fruit of Her Hands, we couldn’t afford to travel, so I never got to Rothenberg-au-Tauber. I was fortunate that the city is, even today, preserved as a medieval tourist destination, so I had dozens of beautiful photos posted online that gave me a sense of the place and which were accurate to the time period I was writing about.
The same was true for Ancona, Italy, while I wrote Beyond the Ghetto Gates. My boys were in college and we didn’t have the luxury of being able to travel. While I hope to get there one day, I was incredibly gratified by the handful of readers who had been; they commented that they felt they were walking the streets once more.
Having lived for many years in Israel, I was able to imagine what conditions must have been like during the period of the Babylonian Exile. Of course, traveling to modern-day Iraq was always out of the question. When my family visited Israel, I dragged my husband and sons to all of the cities where Napoleon had been, which was great help while writing Napoleon’s Mirage – the novel that will be out in August 2024.
Are you fluent in any other languages? If so, do you find that knowledge has any effect on your writing? Is it important for people to learn other languages? Why?
I am fluent in Hebrew, having lived in Israel for more than a decade – and I have used that language in my Jewish historical fiction. Because my novels take place in so many locations, I also sprinkle phrases in many other languages – Italian, French, Coptic, Arabic and more – as flavor in my novels. I don’t know these languages and have had to depend on digital translators and native speakers to make sure I’m not misusing any of these phrases. (I’m sure I’ll be told I’m wrong in some cases, but I hope they’ll be few and far between.)
I do wish I knew more languages, but I’m not good at learning them. My husband, on the other hand, is able to make himself understood in any country with Latin roots. I feel our American schools would do well to teach kids languages when they’re young enough to master them. Knowing even one other language has made me realize that there’s a different mental map when you speak in another language – I think differently in Hebrew than English. So yes, if you have the ability to learn other languages, it should be done.
We’ve all heard the advice that authors should “write what they know.” But fiction emerges from imagination and creation of new worlds. Do you feel a tension between what you’ve experienced and what lives only in your mind?
Honestly, I don’t struggle with this, perhaps because of the research that historical fiction requires. I could never “know” what happened during the times I’m writing about, but I learn enough about the events of the time, the clothing, the food, the way of life, in order to be able to enter those worlds in my imagination. A favorite quote of mine comes from Guy Vanderhaeghe: “History tells us what people do; historical fiction helps us imagine how they felt.” I can certainly put myself into the head of historical characters – both real and imagined – and use my own experience to understand how they must have felt as events happen around them.
Do you belong to any writing groups or communities, either online or offline?
There truly is nothing like getting together with other writers because they’re the only ones who fully understand what it means to be a writer. It was when I joined the Historical Novelist Society and particularly, when I attended my first convention, that I truly met my “tribe.” The group has been so incredibly supportive of my writing and I’ve made life-long friends among them. A number of us meet monthly online to share the challenges and successes of our writing careers and it’s a meeting I look forward to all month long.
In addition, I’ve helped create a writing community here in New Jersey – that of The Writers Circle. I’ve taught groups of aspiring writers – both adults and young people – and been proud of what they’ve accomplished. Until the pandemic, TWC was purely an in-person group, sitting around a table (or on the floor with the kids). We had to pivot quickly online with COVID, and today we teach our classes via Zoom as well as in person, which means we have extended our membership worldwide. I’ve been particularly gratified by seeing our teens, many of whom only join us in the summers, keep in touch with one another throughout the year. And I personally have made amazing friends from among our instructors and students.