With a recent Christie Award nomination under her belt for her first book,
Tangled Ashes, Michèle Phoenix took a moment to shed some light on our burning questions concerning her newest book, In Broken Places (Tyndale House).
Q: I can tell that you spent quite a lot of time on the characterization of Shelby, who suffered abuse as a child from her father. She is so anxious and fearful that I found myself worrying about her! Was there anyone that inspired her character? Also, did you do any research on the mental health of abused children?
Shelby and I are alike in some ways, so those similarities were easy to write. We share cheesecake cravings, chin obsessions, and a tendency to leave people bewildered. The fragile part of Shelby is one I’ve viscerally known. A survivor of some forms of abuse myself, I lived many years among the walking wounded before finding strength and healing. But there are differences between us too.
I did some research into the mental health issues common to survivors of abuse, but it really did little more than confirm my suspicions. As someone who has worked for years with teenagers and seen the impact of abuse in some of their lives and in my own, Shelby’s adolescent and adult symptoms were easy to pen.
Q: Many parts of the book seem so real. You must have had a lot of firsthand experience about the topics you wrote about: play directing, the toy museum, international teaching, and abusive relationships. How much of the material was based off of firsthand experience?
I worked at the Black Forest Academy, a school for missionaries’ children in Kandern, Germany, for nearly 20 years. Every restaurant and scenic location is part of the landscape of my personal history. One of the first plays I directed at BFA was “Shadowlands,” so it holds a special place in my heart, as do many of the students who appear in small cameos in In Broken Places.
Q: Why did you choose Kandern for the setting? And why the German culture? You could have planted Shelby and Shayla anywhere, so why there in particular?
I like to write about places that are familiar to me, and the foothills of the Black Forest are truly home. My first novel took place on an island off the coast of France that I used to visit as a child, my second in the small town north of Paris where I spent my first 14 years, and this one unfolds in the place where I worked for the majority of my adult life. I like to call my stories “destination novels,” and it made sense to center Shelby and Shayla’s story in a location that was so familiar to me.
Q: You were able to make Shelby's transformation believable, which is something I think most writers struggle with. Shelby's problems are incredibly real for so many people, and I think her evolution is equally as real. How did you manage to make it so believable?
From the outset, I committed to writing an “incomplete story.” I didn’t want to rush
Shelby’s self-discovery and healing, because wholeness is seldom achieved in a handful of months. Without that obligation to reach “happily ever after” by the end of the novel, I was freed up to reveal Shell’s journey from brokenness to almost-wholeness at a leisurely pace, without the pressure to deliver a neatly tied up conclusion by the final page. From personal experience, I know that lasting progress is made in fits and starts, and Shelby’s could be no different if it was to be believable. My goal was to leave the reader hopeful and connected, not fully satisfied but able to believe in transformative healing.
Q: What is your favorite part of the book?
Without a doubt, the Huddle Hut. I love Shelby and Trey together—their banter, their
far-fetched analogies and the shared pain that intimately links them. The Huddle Hut
conversations made me giggle and weep as I “took dictation” from characters that
seemed to breathe and think in spite of me. The Huddle Hut represents the comfort and
protection of abiding and profound kinship—the Muddlehood of Huddlehood.
Q: What do you think readers will walk away with after they finish this book?
More than anything else, I want my readers to feel connected to Shelby, Trey, Scott and
Shayla. If they’ve hurt, laughed and hoped with them, I’ll be pleased and satisfied. And
if they’ve learned something about the ravages of abuse from childhood to adulthood,
I’ll be thrilled. My hope is that Shelby will be a reflection of all women whose various
struggles represent a much greater malaise: dissatisfaction with ourselves, with the
expectations of others and the often maiming vagaries of life. To me, Shelby symbolizes
hope—a woman who has suffered, survived, and grown to thrive.
Q: Will we see Shelby, Shayla and Scott again? I feel like there is a lot more you could
say about those three.
I’ve been wondering about that myself. A story focused more on Trey has been trotting
around my mind…
Q: Shelby and her brother, Trey, have a unique and close relationship. Why was Trey's
character important for the sake of the plot?
I believe Shelby survived because of Trey. He allowed her to externalize a pain that
might otherwise have consumed her. His shared understanding of the “Davishood”
makes him vital to Shell’s processing and eventually to her healing. He also provides a
sobering alternate scenario to Shelby’s, his attempted suicide a vivid example of the fatal
consequences child abuse can engender.
Q: Where do you get your best ideas?
Novels actually tend to just “happen” to me. In the case of In Broken Places, I was
sitting around my apartment one afternoon in late October when Shayla’s little face
popped into my mind, followed closely by a vague idea of Shelby’s heritage and her
journey to Germany. I tried to talk myself into waiting until December to launch into
writing, but the story simply would not rest. After I typed the first line, “In Broken
Places” began to write itself. For the better part of the following nine days, I let myself
be guided by the characters—watching them evolve as they suffered, dreamed, and
Q: What can readers expect from you in the future?
More of the same, I hope! I’m waiting for the next story to hit me and can’t wait to curl
up in my writing chair and watch it unfold.