Ask the Author: Michael Belanger
What would you like readers to know about you?
I’m a high school history teacher and I grew up dreaming of becoming a famous rock drummer. I didn’t begin writing until I was already in my twenties. I started with poetry, tried my hand at screenplays and short stories, and then finally tackled novels. Although The History of Jane Doe is my debut, I wrote two books before—a long learning curve that I’ve really enjoyed riding. I didn’t plan to write a YA novel, but I think teaching high school made that all but inevitable. I’m the embodiment of the advice “write what you know”—or at least write for the people you know.
What is The History of Jane Doe about for those who haven’t read it?
The History of Jane Doe is about high schooler Raymond Green, a self-proclaimed history buff. Ray’s always loved exploring the history of his hometown, a place the locals call Burgerville. Even though Ray and his best friend, Simon, are mostly ignored at school, that’s okay: he’s got history and Simon’s got milk and vampire fiction. But when the mysterious new girl, Jane Doe, shows up, suddenly it’s the now that’s interesting. As a historian, Ray has been taught to look for patterns, to connect the dots of the past in a way that makes sense. But as his relationship with Jane becomes more and more complicated, he’s forced to acknowledge that sometimes history can only tell us so much.
What has been your inspiration for writing The History of Jane Doe?
I was inspired by my own experiences with mental illness and the hardships I’ve seen my students go through. Growing up, I remember the impact my grandmother’s depression had on my family. I definitely drew on that as I explored Ray and Jane’s relationship—in particular, the unknown world that exists in someone else’s head. Sure, we have common words we use to describe our feelings—sad, anxious, happy—yet what those words mean can differ quite a lot between two people. It’s that unknowable gulf—the inability to understand what makes a person depressed—that partly inspired Ray’s journey to try and understand Jane.
What was your favorite scene or part of The History of Jane Doe to write?
I loved writing every scene with Ray, Jane, and Simon. Their chemistry required me to do very little work. I’d just come up with a premise and they’d take the reins. The first scene when they’re all together—playing “Never Have I Ever” in Ray’s bedroom—holds a special place for me because it was the first time I got to experience that chemistry. Simon admits to cow tipping and wetting the bed, Jane proves herself to be the experienced one, and Ray can’t quite believe that the cool new girl actually seems to like him. And then Jane says it: “Never have I ever kissed a girl.” Even though Ray and Simon are forced to admit the truth, the revelations only bring them closer.
What books or authors inspired you to become a writer?
I’ll never forget picking up Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut as a sophomore in high school. That book showed me the possibilities of literature—that books could be funny and ridiculous yet still really mean something. After that I read every Vonnegut book I could get my hands on: Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast for Champions, Galapagos. Other inspirations include J.K. Rowling (duh)and John Irving (A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of my all-time favorite novels).
A different source of inspiration for me has been my day job. My background as a teacher has given me a unique perspective on writing and for that I’m thankful. My students continually inspire me and of course keep me up to date on the latest lingo; I was undoubtedly the first one of my friends to know what YOLO meant.
In many ways, I’m glad I took a more circuitous route to becoming a writer. It was only during my last semester of graduate school that I worked up the courage to write a novel. I was already teaching, and I thought it’d be a good way to fulfill my thesis requirements and quiet that nagging voice in my head telling me that I wasn’t writing enough. Although I didn’t win the Pulitzer—the novel remains on my computer—the experience taught me that I could be a teacher and a writer, and that maybe the two even complemented one another. After I finished, I’ll never forget how it felt when my mentor looked me in the eye and said the four most magical words in the English language: “You are a writer.” I’ve been trying to live up to that title ever since.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors who want to write a book?
I believe in jumping right into it—like right now! Just start writing and see where your words take you. That’s always been my process, but at the same time, I recognize that every writer needs to find their own way of doing things. Maybe you’d like to start with a premise and see where that takes you. Maybe it’s a character’s voice that fuels your story. Or maybe it’s a setting that you’d like to explore—I mean, I couldn’t have written The History of Jane Doe without first discovering Burgerville. The point is, the more you show up to write, the more you’ll begin to find yourself as a writer.