Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Memories of High School You - Michelle Ray

As a young adult writer, the foundation for most of my writing starts with my own teenage experience.  Times, fashion and music have changed but that overall quest-for-self is still the same.  So in that spirt, I share these bi-monthly interviews:  Memories of High School You.  

I'm so pleased to introduce Michelle Ray, author of FALLING FOR HAMLET. I love Shakespeare retellings and hers is a fun one, putting Ophelia in the spotlight as a modern girl, not the dependent-woe-is-me Ophelia of Shakespeare's original. I'm two-thirds of the way through and can't wait to get home to finish it up! I've also recommended it to our senior English teachers, as they cover Shakespeare and are always looking for ways for modern kids to connect. One teacher even told me how hard a time her girls have with Ophelia - they'll love this version!

High School Michelle 
Tell us about your high school, public or private, size, demographic, location?
I went to an all girls’ junior high and high school in Los Angeles, which was called Westlake School for Girls. (It went co-ed just after I left and is now Harvard-Westlake.) My graduating class had about 100 girls in it, and many of us had been in school together for six years. People assume that everyone must have been snobby and mean, but that’s not at all what I recall about it. Teens can be cruel and thoughtless and stupid, so there was all of that, but that’s because we were in high school, not because we were all girls. What I loved was that the day wasn’t about boys or who wore what (having uniforms helped). It was an incredible, feminist, hard-core academic environment. School was about learning, and girls were in charge of everything, so we didn’t have a lot of issues I hear about, like girls playing dumb or being afraid to speak up when boys are around. The day was about academic prowess and talent. 
It very much informs my writing. Many of my characters attend private school because it’s what I knew at the age of my characters. I’ve taught almost all my years in public school, so this is ironic.
(I went to an all girl's private school K-9th and finally had enough - I wonder sometimes if I'd stuck around those last three years if things might have been different - sounds like you had a great experience)

Were there cliques at your high school?  What were they?  Who did you hang with?
I remember seeing movies like The Breakfast Club and being baffled by the idea of cliques broken down by activities and style. The social groups at my school didn’t seem so separate, the divisions not so sharply drawn. I hung out with different people. I had friends from the plays I worked on, and kids from class. Most of the boys I knew did theater and were from the local boys’ school.

Did you have a memorable teacher?  Good or bad?  How did they influence you?
I was lucky to have many incredible teachers, some of whom have ended up in my books. For example, in Falling for Hamlet, Ophelia’s art and art history teachers are named for and modeled after my own high school art and art history teachers, Ms. Hall and Mr. Nordquist. Ophelia’s love of those subjects comes from my enjoyment of those classes, which, my senior year, were integrated, so we learned about a period in art history, then tried our hand at the style, and went to a museum every month to see the real works. Incredible! (Wow, what I would give to have museums to take my students to. We have cows.)
Other teachers, like Mrs. Littenberg, influenced my love of Shakespeare with her enthusiasm and by having kids act out the parts. She also influenced my sense of self by listening to what I had to say in written form and when I wanted to come to her office to talk. Now I make time for students the way she made time for me. Also, my high school had Women’s Studies, and when I write my protagonists, I wonder what Ms. Parker would have to say about their behavior. 

Did you have an inkling as a teenager that you would become a writer?
Not at all. Apparently, I wanted to be an English teacher (though I forgot that. My high school teacher reminded me of that fact after I got back from college). In college, I trained to be a theater director because I love story telling and the immediate feedback you get from live performance, but I never considered myself a writer. I had friends who were far better writers (fiction and journalists – we had an award-winning newspaper). I had no idea what I would end up doing this.

What book had the biggest impact on you as a high school student?  How?
Well, I’ll stretch this to middle school and talk about reading The Outsiders in 8th grade. The characters were so vividly drawn and the relationships were so strong. It was the first book that made me feel like I was being spoken to as a teenager. I wanted to be part of that group of boys. In fact, in my mind (I never wrote my stories down since I wasn’t a “writer”), I imagined what would happen if they had a female in their circle. I was always a fan of retellings, it seems.  (Oh PLEASE write that book!)

What band could you not get enough of in high school?  Were you an album or a CD kid?  Cover art you remember?
I was a full on theater girl, so pop and rock music wasn’t really my thing. Want an example of how lame I was? I know you do! The first time I heard “Dream On” and “Stairway to Heaven” (old songs by that point, but classics that any music literate people knew) was at a high school dance concert. A-yep. Lame. 
I listened to tons of musicals. My friends were the same, so it didn’t seem weird.
I came of age during the transition from tape to CD, but when I was young, I had records like Grease, Charlie Brown, Air Supply (haha). My first tape was Thriller. And my first CD? Uh, I can’t remember, but I was a hold out. I hate technology and change, so I waited until college even though everyone else had had CD collections for years. 

What was the fashion rage - the one article of clothing you either got, or didn’t get that rocked your world?
Shiny blazers. I loved satin, shiny blazers, which were all the rage when I was in 9th grade or so. Shiiiiny. Additionally, I had scrunchies for my hair. Many of those. 
I remember not being allowed to get Guess jeans because they were expensive (and I wasn’t stick thin, so they wouldn’t even have looked good). But the girls who wore them were so cool and I wanted them. Oh well. I lived.

What hobbies, activities, sports were you involved in that influence your writing today?
Theater is the number one activity that I did, and the one that most heavily influences my writing. It gave me a sense of story and acting. I keenly studied human behavior and interactions, what people say, what they don’t, how they react. I don’t mind acting out scene either when I’m writing, though I hope no one walks in when I do. (I see so many references to the connection between theatre and storytelling and it's amazing to me how many of my interviewees were theatre kids.)

Good kid or wild child or a little of both?  Details? (Mwaahaa)
I was soooo good. I just never understood kids who did things that were dangerous or foolish. I mean, I literally did not understand their thought process. And I never had that invincibility thing going on. I knew I could die or get in trouble and I didn’t want to. I also had such a strong sense of what I was comfortable doing and not doing, and I was not afraid to be different. I lost friendships over it, but I was willing to pay that price. 
So what’s the most opposite of “wild”? Domestic? “Domestic child” doesn’t have a ring to it, but that was me! (How about "confidently self-aware"?)

Did you have a favorite phrase or slang word?
I used “like” a lot. This was not a national phenomenon at the time. Kind of LA specific, if I recall correctly. Drove our teachers nuts.

If you could say one thing to your high school you, what would you say?
Lighten up. It’s gonna turn out fine. You will find someone nice to marry. You will find a direction. You will live past twenty. It really doesn’t matter what you think you’re going to do with yourself or what you want. None of it will happen. But that’s okay. It will be different, but great in unimaginable ways. And those girls who are making you feel bad about yourself? Ignore them. You will never see any of them after graduation, so who cares? The journey is the important part in life, so stop being goal driven and enjoy the ride. (I, uh, think my old self needs this reminder.)

Thinking of the characters you’ve written, is there one who embodies more of your high school self than others? What attributes do you have in common? Differences?
The relationship Ophelia has with Horatio is the most similar to my high school experience. My best friend at the end of high school was a guy, and it was platonic for years. I find myself writing about platonic male/female relationships in nearly every book because it’s an unusual dynamic and people don’t think it can be done. I also write about when the relationship shifts from platonic to romantic because that’s terrifying, but can be rewarding and thrilling, too. 
The character most like the high school me is probably the Beatriz I wrote for a Much Ado adaptation (a project I’ve put aside for now). She’s very concerned with rule following and getting perfect grades, and struggles to balance growing up and being independent with parental expectations.

How do we find you now? 
Facebook: “Michelle Ray writer”

Thanks for the interview, Michelle!


  1. What a fun sounding book. That cover is awesome, too.

  2. Yeah, girls today would have trouble with Ophelia. I had trouble with Jane Eyre! The book sounds wonderful and an awesome way to teach Shakespeare.

  3. Boy, Michelle, your high school self seems so much more together than my adult self. :) Sounds like you had some great teaching role models; how cool that you get to pass along their legacy.

  4. You had a really interesting high school experience! My mom still talks about her all-girls school experience (college) and how much it influenced her. I always kind of wonder what that would have been like.

    (and JRo "We have cows" I am laughing way too hard! Ahh, same here. Well, tomatoes and cows. Yay!)

  5. I love the idea of kids having a modern connection for Shakespeare!

    Thanks for sharing your high school experience. It's so interesting to see how much people change and how much they stay the same as their teenage selves.

  6. This book sounds so cool. I need to check it out.


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