I am happy to welcome Michelle Dobbs, author of the historical fiction novel The Rock Island Line to CLP today! Check out a Q&A with Michelle below, and be sure to enter the giveaway to win your copy!
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: I wrote it because I thought it was an important and alternate story to those that are currently told. It was important to me, and becomes more so every day, to preserve the story of people like my own family, who have a nontraditional approach to life, and family. It seems like the more a standard story gets told, the more it is accepted as a universal truth, and that is not always the case.
Q: How did you become interested in this topic? The trains, the people, the setting…
A: It started in a conversation with my grandmother. She said, “I wonder what ever happened to Aunt Maggie…” When I asked her who Aunt Maggie was, I was shocked to learn that she’d worked as a maid for the family and assistant in the little business my family ran when my grandmother was a child. So we started talking about the fact that we had a maid, and why my grandmother cared for her so intensely, and then we were off and running. We talked about that story every day for an entire summer. I was fascinated.
I’ve always had a thing for trains. That could be because my family really does come from Rock Island, and we really did sing that song coming up. When the actual Rock Island Line was about to shut down in the seventies, we rushed to take one last ride on that railroad line. I still collect Rock Island Line memorabilia, and listen to the Blues, although both may be out of style.
Q: What did you hope to accomplish by writing this book?
A: I hoped to educate and entertain readers with a story that strays a little from the norm, but also let them know that stories based on real people can be as engaging as stories that are completely imaginary. Many people, at first read, are amazed when they learn that these characters were built around real people. The world has long been multicultural, and has long been challenged by changing times. People have also always found ways to adapt, and thrive despite the obstacles that confront them. I want readers to be reminded of that by this book, and I hope they relate to it in a personal way.
Q: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
A: I was in fourth grade when it first occurred to me. I wrote what I thought was a brilliant essay, and got an F because I used the word “morn” instead of “morning” against my teachers’ advice. He told me that if I used that kind of language, it wasn’t really a story. Looking that paper over I thought, “I’ll show you. I have the right to use the words I want, in the way I want. I get to have a story, too.”
Later, I studied Journalism, because I wanted to write and get paid, but the who, what, where, when, why of newspaper reporting sort of made me feel claustrophobic. I was in Public Relations for a bit, worked in Marketing for a local nonprofit, and then found National and Community Service, the first work I felt passionately about. Years later, I remembered that I wanted to write, and so I did.
Q: How did you research the book?
A: I talked to people. I talked constantly with my grandmother, who is the model for the character of Lilly. I made sure that Lilly talked like they do in Rock Island by listening to my grandmother’s speech patterns and favorite phrases. I’ve been to Rock Island dozens of times, so I thought carefully about the way that things there look and smell and the way life is shaped by the train. Of course, I visited the Rock Island County Historical Society to see what people were wearing during different eras that are covered in the book… but mostly, the information kind of seeped into me from talking and imagining what things might’ve been like with her. It came from the long conversations with Grandma.
Q: What surprised you about the process of writing a book?
A: I was most surprised by how much I was able to relate to the story myself. I thought that I might be serving simply as a translator for someone else’s story, but while I was writing it, I became really attached. My grandmother and I are a couple of generations apart, and grew up in totally opposite manners. But I came to understand that, at our foundation, we are far more alike than we are different. At the beginning of the process, we were kin, but by the time we finished, we were really good friends. Those long conversations sealed our relationship with so much understanding and warmth, that I felt our bond, which was already a close one became very much deeper.
I was also surprised by how much my grandmother had to say about things. It made me a better listener to just ask one question and let her really go for it with her reply. Sometimes, I wouldn’t say anything after she’d told me a very long story because I was imagining it, and that silence would prompt her into telling me another doozy. It was awesome.
Q: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
A: I most like to read. I’ll read anything that someone puts in front of me. The trouble with that can be that reading is a solitary pursuit, so sometimes I force myself to come up for air with the books and such, and join the real world. Fortunately, my family always is ready to welcome me back.
Q: Are you working on another novel?
A: My next novel is about a man who decides when he reaches retirement, to join the bone marrow registry. He’s already an organ donor, and wants to make a living gift. Then he learns that he is a descendant of Louis the Fifteenth of France when his match is made in Europe.
A descendant of The Rock Island Line, Michelle Dobbs’ professional experience spans working as an educator, consultant, nonprofit executive, and entrepreneur. She adds author to that list with the publication of her first novel, The Rock Island Line, Conversations Over Chicken and Dumplings.
Michelle is a veteran of Public Allies, Inc., whose mission is to advance new leadership to strengthen communities, nonprofits and civic participation where she served as Vice President of Leadership Practice. At Public Allies, she designed leadership training curriculum that was later adopted nation-wide; recruited and coached teams of AmeriCorps members annually; and built a network of more than 100 public and private sector leaders to support development training for the next generation of non-profit leaders.
As a training and education consultant, she worked with clients to close performance gaps between managers and the teams they supervise, and assess and deliver organizational development initiatives.
As entrepreneur, she is managing partner of The Big Idea Group, which works with nonprofits nation-wide to deliver and implement learning interventions.
She has a degree in journalism from Howard University. She has studied in France and has taught French at Pre-College Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has been guest lecturer at Carroll University and provided translation services.
She was winner of a seat at the Hurston Wright Foundation Writer’s Week and semifinalist in Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards and Regional Winner of Cover Girl Women at their Best Awards.
One winner will receive a print copy of The Rock Island Line. Please fill out the form below to be entered, and note this is open for US/Canada residents only. A winner will be chosen Friday, November 30. Thank you to Michelle Dobbs for sponsoring this giveaway!
**The winner is Chuck Supple!**