Michel Stone is the author of The Iguana Tree, a fictional account of one Mexican family’s harrowing journey across the Mexican-American border and their attempt to start a new life in a country hostile to their existence. The Iguana Tree, Stone’s debut novel, earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and was selected for many universities’ and colleges’ common read programs.
Border Child, published five years after The Iguana Tree, the narrative begun in The Iguana Tree, though stands alone.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: There’s a great backstory that explains why you decided to revisit the characters from The Iguana Tree by writing Border Child. While touring for Border Child, did you revisit Hermiston, OR? If so, what was it like to be back?
MICHEL STONE: I have not been back to Oregon since my initial visit when the town of Hermiston selected my first novel as its Community Read in 2013. That visit sparked the writing of Border Child when an audience member at a town hall type meeting asked me to write a follow up and I, perhaps too caught up in the moment, agreed to do so, having previously made up my mind not to do so. I do hope to get back to Hermiston, such hospitible - and persuasive - folks there!
MAIN STREET BOOKS: Many writers are told “write what you know.” Your advice, it seems, would be “write what you don’t yet know.” Your fiction is born from curiosity - you wonder and then you research until you have enough information to frame a question or depict an experience. I wonder, how do you know when you’ve researched enough and it’s time to put pen to paper, particularly when dealing with the infinite complexities of human experiences?
MICHEL STONE: My fiction’s always born out of news that haunts me. I’ll discover something happening near or far that elicits my questions, events about which I can’t quit stewing. I’ll wonder what I’d do if I were in that situation. That’s always the seed from which my writing sprouts.
Example: as I type this, my newsfeed tells me a caravan of folks is headed this way from Honduras. That haunts my writer’s mind. For the rest of this day I will be zeroing in on a mother I’ve invented in that caravan. Is she hungry? Why is she leaving Honduras? Are children with her? Is she having to carry a little one? Do her feet hurt? What is she talking about with the people near her? Did a gang in Honduras threaten her family’s business? How does she anticipate the USA to be? Are her parents alive and sad she is leaving? Where are her siblings? Where is she sleeping at night? What are her prayers? I could fill up this page with questions about her, and next thing you know, a piece of fiction begins spinning in my head the way cotton candy takes shape, amorphous, messy.
I write and then research piecemeal as my questions arise. The writing and the research happen simultaneously.
“Next thing you know, a piece of fiction begins spinning in my head the way cotton candy takes shape, amorphous, messy.”
MAIN STREET BOOKS: Did you have to do additional research to write Border Child, or did your research from writing The Iguana Tree carry you through the writing process?
MICHEL STONE: I did plenty of research for Border Child. I’ll always have to do research when I write a novel, otherwise the process gets stale quickly for me. I enjoy learning as I write, as the story takes shape.
For Border Child I studied the flora and fauna of Mexico and learned a lot about indigenous parrots. I reserached the cliff divers of La Quebrada, the history of the city of Matamoros in northeastern Mexico, the tourist industry in Acapulco, the crime there, Mexican orphanages, and so much more.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: Do you speak Spanish? How has your level of fluency affected your ability to complete research for these two books?
MICHEL STONE: I speak some Spanish, though I’m not close to being fluent. I interviewed quite a few undocumented immigrants during the writing of my books, and I’m certain that process would have gone faster had I been able to speak Spanish as well as a native speaker. Still, we managed. I’m working on improving.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: You wrote and published Border Child well before the parent-child border separations enacted under Trump’s Zero-Tolerance Policy earlier this year. Did you notice a change in readership of or discourse about your book while the separations dominated the news cycle?
MICHEL STONE: My working title for this manuscript was Hope is The Thing With Feathers, which comes from a line in an Emily Dickinson poem. Lovely sentiment, terrible title for a novel set in Mexico.
My editor, the iconic Nan Talese, said in our first conversation, “That title’s got to change.” She suggested a title with the word “border” in it and “some other word(s) that indicates babies or children” to better reflect the plot. And Border Child was born.
When anyone reads my book they understand that it’s a story about parental love and sacrifice, not policy. If anything, the recent events at the border have caused a few more folks to give the book a look who might not have done so otherwise, but I don’t think the conversations about the book have shifted all that much.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: As much as you humanize immigration through Hector and Lillia’s narrative, it is still very politicized in national discussions. As you travel to other regions of the country on book tours and for speaking engagements, are people surprised to learn that you are a longtime resident of the largely conservative state of South Carolina?
MICHEL STONE: Yes, people always want to know how I, an Anglo Sandlapper, came to write a novel with Mexican protagonists. When I tell them that my interest and ultimately my novels grew from a casual, organic conversation I had with an undocumented Mexican family on a S.C. farm, they’re often intrigued. When people discover that my writing stems from my questions about the human condition and my belief that people are much more alike than we are different, a light seems to come on in them. Human stories behind the headlines, not the headlines, captivate me.
“People always want to know how I, an Anglo Sandlapper, came to write a novel with Mexican protagonists.”
MAIN STREET BOOKS: If you could communicate with any writer, living or dead, who you haven’t met before, who would they be and why?
MICHEL STONE: Oh, a long list of writers whose work has influenced me is forming in my mind! But having just seen Bradley Cooper’s film A Star is Born, I choose Bradley. Now, yes, I know, I know, he is absolutely easy on the eyes, but, seriously, that movie deeply resonated with me as a writer.
Jack says to Ally something like this (I paraphrase): “There are eight notes in an octAve. Every octave and every note has already been played, but the difference is how YOU choose to play those notes.” To me, that’s the same sentiment as saying every good story has already been told, the difference is how YOU choose to tell that story. Cooper’s remake is the fourth version of A Star is Born, yet he brilliantly put his own stamp on it; how HE told it made an already-told story unique and profound.
Another line in the film that struck me: Jack tells Ally as her music career takes off, “You need to dig deep in your soul in this business, or you’ll lose your legs.” So many writers, musicians, creative types lose their way, become alcoholics, struggle. I get exactly what he meant in that statement to her. While the movie is a love story on one level, to me it is more about art and the creative life and the clash of commercialism and creativity. As a NY Times reviewer put it, it’s a tale of how artists have to protect themselves from what the machine asks of them.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: What are you listening to these days (can be anything - a podcast, album, meditation app…)?
MICHEL STONE: So my teenager daughter came up with an eclectic list of songs that she and I can enjoy together in the car (Trust me, we each have plenty of favorites that the other does not like at all!) Today we rode in the car jamming to Shuggie Otis‘s Strawberry Letter 23, The Scoundrels’ Sexy Weekend, Mt. Joy’s Julia, Looking Glass’s Brandy (You're a Fine Girl), Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing. I love enjoying music with my family!