Michelle Hansen is the self-published author of the amazing fantasy novel, Painted Blind, which is far from your typical fantasy. It mixes Greek mythology in with the modern world in an unexpected and I had no idea it was self-published until she told me; it was really that good. She agreed to an interview via email and here is the result. Warning: there are a few minor spoilers. So go on and read about Michelle Hansen’s incredible road to being published, writerly advice and how she came up with the idea for Painted Blind.
Where did you get the idea for Painted Blind?
I was walking through Barnes and Noble in February 2002, and I saw a beautiful picture book version of the myth of Cupid & Psyche. I was in the middle of teaching The Odyssey to my freshman classes, so I bought this book to read aloud to them on Valentine’s Day. Whenever I read it, I wondered how the story would translate into our day. There were so many things the Greeks accepted—like gods who could make themselves invisible and fly—that we as a society do not accept. I was particularly intrigued by the idea of a girl who was too beautiful to find real love in her own society, a girl who was lonely while being admired by everyone around her. Eventually, these musings became Painted Blind.
I was repeatedly told by agents and editors that girls would never relate to a character whose “biggest problem was her beauty,” but I couldn’t change Psyche. Her beauty was such an essential part of her character, and it had to be problematic for her. I knew readers were astute enough to understand Psyche. How would you feel if people were ALWAYS staring at you? I would start asking myself, “What is wrong with me? What’s on my teeth? Is something hanging from my nose?” Compound that over the span of her entire adolescence, Psyche becomes a character that knows she is beautiful because she’s been told she is, but feels self-conscious and exposed. I loved that dichotomy. I also loved the idea of a girl who has been judged by her looks her entire life facing a decision of loving someone blindly.
Your world-building is fantastic. How did you go about creating Erik’s world?
I wanted a place that was timeless and peaceful. I wanted it to be reminiscent of an ancient civilization, but idyllic in culture and beauty. And I wanted it to be warm. I wrote Painted Blind while living in Montana, and I was pining for warmer weather. When I woke up to 24 degrees and a foot of snow on Easter Sunday, I would have done anything to cross a portal into Erik’s world.
One thing that was really important to me was to have the immortals be as human as possible. They cannot control the weather or the tides or make time stand still. They cannot make flowers bloom any more than you or I can. They can veil, and they have ambrosia. Other than that, they are just like us.
Why did you decide to write fantasy of all things?
The truth is, I didn’t. I consider myself a romantic-suspense writer. The fantastical elements of Painted Blind were part of the original story, so they are a part of the novel. People have said to me, “I liked the book, but I don’t usually read this genre.” It makes me laugh, because I don’t usually write this genre. I enjoy thrillers, but I loved this story, and it came to life for me.
Will there be a sequel?
I rarely read a sequel that I like as much as the original novel. For that reason I am uncomfortable writing a sequel. I am fond of stand-alone novels. I love reading the last page of a really good ending. Painted Blind is long—111,000 words. It’s almost two YA novels under one cover.
I considered leaving the ending open for a sequel, but giving Theron what he deserved was so much more satisfying. Much as I love Aeas and Titus, I don’t have a complete plot for either of them. I do have other stories about them, which I may write in the future and post for free.
Who is your favorite character and why?
Much as love Erik, Titus is my favorite character from Painted Blind because he dropped onto my keyboard like dew from heaven. I was writing the scene of Psyche at the airport with Aeas, where he hands her a bag and tells her, “Titus will fill you in on the plane.” I planned for him to be one of Erik’s men that she’d seen in the orchard. Then I described Titus stepping into the doorway of the plane and Psyche recognizing him. I literally screamed aloud, “OH! I know who he is!” Just like that, his entire back story dropped into my lap. I couldn’t write fast enough. In my opinion, he saved the end of the novel, and he felt like a gift from God to me.
What was the road to being published like for you?
It was long and discouraging. When I resigned from teaching high school, a fellow teacher gave me The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published as a going-away gift. I read it cover to cover. It was the first time I considered publishing. I started writing queries and collecting rejection letters. I would query out a manuscript, get rejected, shelve that novel and start another one. Eventually, I had four shelved manuscripts. The fourth got several nibbles and no bites on query, so I attended an SCBWI Conference and had an agent/editor critique. I sat down at the table with just one question, “Why you wouldn’t buy this book?” I listened to what the editor said. The revision she suggested was huge. I needed some time away from the story, so I decided to start fresh.
The fifth manuscript became Painted Blind. I queried it out, but this time I decided I wouldn’t stop fixing the story until it was published. Every time a rejection came, I vowed to write a better book. I rewrote the beginning twice and the ending three times. Still, I couldn’t get an agent or editor interested in the novel. Last summer, after collecting a decade worth of rejection letters on various novels, I attended the PNWA Conference in Seattle. During this conference, New York Times best-selling author Bob Meyer spoke about the publishing revolution and the power of self-publishing. He said, “Write this down. I will do whatever it takes to be a successful author, just don’t ask me to (blank). Now fill in the blank.” I wrote “self-publish” on my notebook. Bob Meyer said, “Look at what you’ve written. That is the thing that is keeping you from success as an author.” I didn’t believe him. I had three successful pitches that weekend. One agent referred me to her friend who she thought would take this kind of YA. The another agent and an editor requested chapters. I went home optimistic that finally, I would find a home for Painted Blind.
The agent I was referred to never replied to my query. The other two requests were flat-out rejected, and one obviously hadn’t read any of it because she thought the book was about the modeling industry. I was so frustrated I decided I would shelve the manuscript and start over.
My husband convinced me to release it on Kindle. He’d read several articles about authors who found success self-publishing with Kindle, and he convinced me I had nothing to lose. A few months later, I pursued a print edition with CreateSpace.
The hardest thing for me was getting past the stigma of self-publishing. Most people barely notice who publishes a book, but I wanted an agent/editor stamp of approval. I didn’t get it, but now I realize I don’t need it. I care what readers think. I was unwilling to wait another ten years for someone in New York to say I was good enough to put a book into a reader’s hands. My book has been well received with readers. That is what matters most.
What advice would you give to all hopeful writers out there?
Learn the craft. There is a difference between good writing and good story-telling. Good writing is how you describe things and how you develop voice. (It’s the stuff they teach you in high school.) Good story-telling is about tension and conflict (which is what they don’t teach you). A successful novel needs both good writing and good story-telling. I bought several books on the craft of the novel and studied them. I paid for critiques at conferences. You have to be willing to learn and change. And, of course, you have to keep writing. You get better over time. My fifth novel is ten times better than my first.
The writing process is thrilling to me. I love stealing away to be alone with my characters. It gets frustrating, but I love doing it even on frustrating days. If I didn’t, I would have quit long ago.
My favorite books on writing are: How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James Fray, Writing the Break-out Novel by Donald Maass, The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman and Write it Forward by Bob Meyer. I think every aspiring writer should read them. I reread them about once a year.
Who or what are your biggest writing influences?
Of course, as an English teacher, I have been influenced by the classics. I love Hamlet, The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice. I love William Blake, Robert Frost and several other poets. However, there are several current writers that I admire. I’d love to create characters like Sarah Dessen. I love Harlan Coben’s plot twists and voice. Dean Koontz always impresses me with his attention to setting details and how he builds tension through a novel. The last book I read was by James Patterson. His portrayal of the villain was so genuine, I found myself liking him even though he was despicable. I aspire to write like the great writers of our day.
For this novel in particular, I tried to be as true as possible to the original myth while adapting it into a modern setting. All of the major plot points are still there.
Can you give us a hint as to your next project?
My next book is a contemporary YA thriller.
When a bomb goes off in his locker, Rebecca Hale’s best friend Ryan is labeled a terrorist. She vows to clear him before the FBI, ATF and the real bomber find where he’s hiding. However, when Rebecca discovers the crime has little to do with Ryan and everything to do with her, proving his innocence may mean losing a life-long friend and her heart along with him.