Today I warmly welcome Michelle Wright to Behind the Pen, chatting about her debut novel, Small Acts of Defiance.
Michelle Wright is an award-winning writer who brings to life a remarkable range of characters, winning many awards, including The Age short story competition. Her collection of short stories, Fine, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and published in 2016.
Michelle’s debut novel, Small Acts of Defiance, is the fruit of her deep love for Paris – her home for 12 years – as well as her decades of passion for French language, culture and history.
In 2017, Michelle was awarded a six-month Australia Council for the Arts residency at the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris to carry out the extensive research needed to create her vivid portrayal of life in occupied France.
How far has your writing career evolved from when you first began to write to what it is today? Is this in line with your initial expectations?
Although I’d been scribbling little bits of stories for decades, the first time I actually finished anything and showed it to anyone was only ten years ago – in 2011. I submitted an entry to The Age Short Story Award and was shortlisted. That was a huge thrill gave me the confidence to try again the following year, and I was lucky enough to win. From there, I really started exploring the short story form and had more success in awards over the next couple of years.
Eventually I had enough stories for a collection, Fine, which was published by Allen and Unwin in 2016. Until then, I’d seen myself exclusively as a short story writer, but with encouragement from my agent and publisher, I decided to make the leap across to novels. I was very fortunate to be awarded an Australia Council for the Arts residency in Paris and spent six months doing intensive research there and getting a start on the first draft of Small Acts of Defiance. When I finally finished it, I was incredibly nervous about submitting it to my publisher, as I still had enormous doubts about my ability to write a novel. So when they said they loved it, I was very relieved. And now that it’s finished and out in the world, I’m finally starting to feel comfortable about calling myself a novelist.
Are you balancing a different career with your writing? How do you go about making time for your writing within limited hours?
At the moment, I’m taking a bit of time off work to be a full-time writer, which is a huge luxury. Until last year, though, I had to fit my writing around full-time work. Even so, I made sure I dedicated time to writing every day – and Monday to Friday, that meant spending my lunch break sitting in my ‘mobile writing studio’ – aka – my car. Nowadays I get to write whenever I feel inspired – over breakfast, in the middle of the day, in the evening, and more and more often – in the middle of the night. I love those ideas that come to me at 2am. I just turn on the light and scribble them in my notebook, and that gives me a starting point for the next morning. So, I make sure I do something to contribute to my writing every day. That doesn’t always mean adding words to a manuscript though. Often it’s editing, planning, doing research or just some serious thinking about what I’m working on.
What inspired Small Acts of Defiance?
I lived in Paris for 12 years, married a Frenchman, studied at the Sorbonne, taught and had two French-Australian kids. And during those very formative years of my life, I developed a deep love for and knowledge of French language, culture and history. The Second World War was a period that particularly interested me.
One day in the late 1980s, I came across an old lease document from 1941. It was for an apartment belonging to a Jewish family. It was clear from the document that the family had been deported, probably after being denounced. All their belongings had been removed and the apartment had then been allocated to an “Aryan” French family. This was the starting point for my idea for the novel. I wanted to explore how Parisians had reacted to what they saw happening around them during this period. I realised that while there had been a lot written about the Resistance, there was much less about the collaboration that a part of the population had engaged in. But I also knew there were many Parisians who had gone about their daily lives in difficult circumstances, choosing every day how they would react to the terrible events they saw around them and what actions, if any, they would take. In the novel, I wanted to examine what would happen if an ordinary person, a young French-Australian woman who sees herself as an outsider, was forced to live through this period in history. What choices would she make? How would her values be shaped and challenged? How far would she go to stand up to injustice and oppression?
How would you describe Small Acts of Defiance if you could only use 5 words?
Women defying Nazis in Paris.
How much research did you do in order to write this novel? How did you balance the demands of getting the facts right with telling a good story?
I started seriously researching the book during my six-month Australia Council for the Arts residency in 2017/18. My apartment was next door to the National Holocaust Memorial and I spent countless hours there, as well as at the Drancy internment camp memorial, examining historical documents, images and objects, as well as listening to the stories of survivors of the Holocaust. Being bilingual, I was also able to access numerous French archival collections, publications and websites, and speak to historians, artists and ordinary French citizens about their knowledge, experiences and memories of the period.
It was extremely important to me that I treat the facts of this period with respect and care, and bear witness in a truthful way, without glorification, sensationalism, or exaggeration. That is why I chose to focus on ordinary people and their small actions, with their flaws and uncertainties, rather than making them into larger than life heroes.
I hope that by reading this novel, readers will be encouraged to ask themselves what actions they would have taken in occupied Paris, and what actions they’d be willing to take today if they were faced with similar injustices.
How much planning did you do? Did you plan/plot the entire story from beginning to end, or let it evolve naturally as the writing progressed? In terms of characters, were they already a firm shape in your mind before you started writing or did they develop a personality of their own as the story progressed?
I did try to plan the whole story out before I began writing, but I found it changing quite a bit as I did more research and discovered interesting historical facts that I felt would add to the story. I made a lot of changes to the plot as I progressed and even more in the editing process.
In terms of characters, I always knew that my protagonist would be a young woman and that there would also be other significant female characters. But Lucie’s friend, Aline, was actually a male character in an early draft. I felt, though, that the romantic relationship between them wasn’t working and was also taking focus away from what I felt was more important – Lucie’s growing sense of self-identity and responsibility. I think Lucie’s relationship with Aline allows me to explore a more interesting contrast and evolution.
Where do you normally write? Is it in the same place every day or are you an all over the place writer?
I’m a roving writer – I set myself up with my notebook or laptop wherever the spirit moves me. At home, that often means following the sun – from my bed, to the couch, to the front porch. Or when we’re not in lockdown here in Melbourne, I’ll spend time writing in cafes. I find being surrounded by people stimulating – watching them eat, talk, get on with their lives. There’s also an element of accountability – if I’m being a ‘writer’ in public, I have to look like the real deal – furiously scribbling away like Hemingway in La Closerie des Lilas in Paris.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
My spare time is spent on very simple, basic pursuits. I walk my dog, Harvey, for an hour every day along the Yarra River in Warrandyte. I read (but not as much as I should), I listen to podcasts and I let my curiosity lead me down rabbit holes to explore subjects such as neuroscience, evolution, linguistics and sanitation. I’m much too easily distracted, but my curiosity has provided me with many, many ideas for stories.
What authors and types of books do you love the most?
I love both short stories and novels that explore what it is to be human, in all our complexity and messiness and vulnerability. I particularly love books that focus on unusual protagonists, unlikely encounters, and unexpected perspectives on life and relationships. A few examples that come to mind are Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Extinctions by Josephine Wilson and A Burning by Megha Majumdar.
What book is currently on your bedside table?
Ooh … this is embarrassing. As a consequence of being easily distracted, I have a terrible habit of starting one book, hearing about another, getting it and not being able to wait to give it a go. This means that there is a perpetual pile of many, many started, but not-yet-finished books on my bedside table. But the one I’ll be reading tonight is Beloved by Toni Morrison.
Small Acts of Defiance
May, 1940: After a bitter tragedy, young Australian woman Lucie and her French mother Yvonne are forced to leave home and seek help from the only family they have left-Lucie’s uncle, Gerard.
As the Second World War engulfs Europe, the two women find themselves trapped in German-occupied Paris, sharing a cramped apartment with the authoritarian Gerard and his extremist views.
Drawing upon her artistic talents, Lucie risks her own safety to engage in small acts of defiance against the occupying forces and the collaborationist French regime, where the authorities reward French citizens for denouncing so-called ‘traitors’ in their community.
Faced with the escalating brutality of anti-Jewish measures, and the indifference of so many of her fellow Parisians, Lucie must decide how far she will go to defend the rights of others.
Published by Allen & Unwin
Released June 2021