A conversation with Jonathan Haupt and Michel Stone

Michel StoneJonathan: Border Child introduces readers to Héctor and Lilia Santos, gambling on their dream of a better life by undertaking a harrowing undocumented immigration from southern Mexico to the South Carolina lowcountry. For you as author, those characters owe their origins to conversations you’ve had with Mexican and Central American immigrants in your native lowcountry. Tell us about the spark that lit the fuse for your novel. 

Michel: I grew up on Johns Island and saw migrant workers throughout my childhood. Often times when I was a girl I’d see children in the tomato fields with their parents, and I suspected those children had traveled and seen far more than I ever would. They intrigued me and I wanted to know their stories. I wrote a fictional short story after I befriended a young Mexican family on Edisto Island who confided that they were undocumented. Their story, particularly their border crossing with a baby, haunted me, and I spent the next few years meeting and interviewing immigrants, learning about their experiences. My fiction is informed by real stories.

Jonathan: Has it been flattering, daunting, or a bit of both to have your writing favorably compared to that of John Steinbeck? What parallels do you see between your subjects and styles? 

Border ChildMichel: Steinbeck wrote of displaced people. I, too, am drawn to writing about the push and pull of people from place to place, their motivations, their struggles. I hope my fiction illuminates the everyday conditions of fictional characters who, at first glance, may live lives very different than my readers, but with whom, ultimately, my readers will empathize. I look to find the connectedness among human beings. We all experience birth, mortality, hope, fear and the gamut of human emotion, regardless of our backgrounds, skin color, or nationality. My job as a novelist is to examine the human condition, and I suspect Steinbeck felt the same. And yes, the comparisons flattered and delighted me. The Grapes of Wrath is one of my favorite books.

Jonathan: A great strength of your novels is that they transcend politics to go deeply into the heart of the personal experiences of your characters. What novels have done this for you as a reader? And did any of those influence your own writing? 

Michel: Oh, so many! Certainly John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and Tim O'Brien’s The Things They Carried. So many books have influenced my writing: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Suttree; Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow; Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter; Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See; Sonia Nazario's Enrique’s Journey; Kent Haruf’s Plainsong; Adam Johnson’s Orphan Master’s Son, Robert Ruark’s The Old Man and the Boy. I’m struck by their insight into the human condition, their artful use of language, and their storytelling. Oh, and I must include my childhood favorite: Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Jonathan: How will you follow Border Child? What’s taking shape for your next novel?  

Michel: I’m working on a novel set between downtown Charleston and a gang-infested town in Honduras. It’s a work-in-progress so I won’t say much else just yet except that I am having fun with the research. Writing energizes me, particularly when I’m learning as I go.