“No man is an island,” wrote John Donne, the 16th Century English poet and cleric. In politics, this metaphor seems especially relevant. It is convenient, especially with social media, to be insular and self-protecting of our cherished political beliefs. We often hang out with people who feel and believe as we do. What is not easy—what takes courage—is to open our minds and listen to other points of view on climate change, immigration, women’s reproductive rights, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict…you name it. Anyone unswervingly committed to one position needs to engage in civil discourse with someone equally committed to another position. This is choosing debate over polarization. It’s building a bridge, not a wall. It’s allowing our political institutions to breathe again, and be effective before they break down and break our country apart. In my new novel, The Beginner’s Guide to Winning an Election, I was pleased to be interviewed on a podcast by a smart, savvy sixteen year old student activist. I gave him my thoughts about my 18-year-old heroine, Brit, who learns the necessity of speaking up about politics —dispassionately, diplomatically, and using research and history as her guide. History teaches us that being “islands”—going it alone without interacting, helping, or learning from others—is to capitulate to cynicism, apathy and stagnation. The lesson every generation should learn, starting in middle school and high school, is not to shy from politics but to embrace them.
I'm not adept at writing series and sequels that stick with one major character. All of my novels differ from one another. I like focusing on people, themes and situations as varied as the memories that pop into my head: artists in crisis, race relations, crime and violence, horse racing, sports, and smart people who still require luck to survive.
My new novel (my seventh young adult book) centers on American politics. The year is 2025 and Washington D.C—shaped by lobbyists and hypocritical politicians who have been creating chaos for fifty years, are the target of public rage, including from high school students tired of their leaders’ ineffective polarization. The "guide" in
The Beginner's Guide to Winning an Election is nothing less than history itself--or perhaps it's Mr. Wilson, who exposes his AP class in an Indiana high school to the intricate patterns of history. Those who run for student office, like my heroine, Brit Kitridge, may lack an outgoing personality and charisma, but their knowledge of the past leads them to understand where the future is going. Novice and “science brain” Brit takes on a popular incumbent, a boy whom everyone loves but no one really knows well. His secrets, she eventually learns, are tied to the agenda of a mysterious lawyer with his own agenda for public education. Brit knows her chances of winning rest on sorting through the shadows of her117 year old school, the hidden life of her opponent, and developing a strategy to withstand the lies of his team of supporters.
I hope readers of the novel can relate to [the characters'] struggles and impulsive judgments, even when we react by thinking, “no, please don’t do that!” Their lives twist and turn like ours, and realistically not everything ends up tied in ribbons. But life lessons are real.
I try to challenge myself as a novelist by communicating what I understand the world to be. I like reading other writers who storytell a different vision than mine, as their narrative is as unique to them as mine is to me. Everything is about a point of view, realized through three-dimensional characters embedded, hopefully, in a compelling and memorable plot.
In Once Upon a Lie, a story of the Eighties, my two principal characters seem as different as the Americas they live in—one in a white and privileged enclave in Los Angeles, the other a Texas town with walls to climb if you’re poor and black and have the ambition and talent to escape. Their paths cross and a relationship as complex as their differences begins to bloom. Jaleel and Alexandra (“Alex”) deal with societal problem as well as the personal ones they make for themselves. I hope readers of the novel can relate to their struggles and impulsive judgments, even when we react by thinking, “no, please don’t do that!” Their lives twist and turn like ours, and realistically not everything ends up tied in ribbons. But life lessons are real. Jaleel and Alex even have their own Facebook pages, their interweaving stories continuing in the present, picking up where the book leaves off.
Michael R. French
Michael French is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University. He is a businessman and author who divides his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.