Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is pleased to interview Michele VanOrt Cozzens, who is here to talk about her new novel Irish Twins.
She is a former journalist and newspaper columnist, and is the author of I’m Living Your Dream Life: The Story of a Northwoods Resort Owner, The Things I Wish I’d Said, A Line Between Friends, and It’s Not Your Mother’s Bridge Club. Irish Twins is her third novel. Along with her husband and two daughters, Michele is the owner/operator of Sandy Point Resort and Disc Golf Ranch in northern Wisconsin, where they spend their summers. The remaining nine months are spent in Tucson, Arizona, where their daughters attend school. She is the co-founder of the non-profit organization HerBeware, which is dedicated to educating the public about the potential dangers of unregulated herbs found in dietary supplements. Profits from book sales have gone to this cause and to Breast Cancer Research.
BY: Michele VanOrt Cozzens
McKenna Publishing Group (2010)
Tyler: Welcome, Michele. I’m glad you could join me today. Before we get started talking about the twins specifically, what made you decide to make them Irish?
Michele: Hi, Tyler. Thank you. Your question makes me smile because I didn’t have the idea to write about twins, nor had I any real motivation to “make them Irish.” My initial intention was to write about sisters, and I wanted to base them on my sister and myself. It just so happens we are Irish Twins, and this term has been used to refer to us since we were little. You see, Irish Twins is a slang term for two children who are born to the same mother in a period of time less than twelve months. (We are eleven and-a-half months apart). When researching the origin of the term, I learned that it was decidedly derogatory, stemming back to the anti-Irish sentiment in cities like New York and Boston during the 1840s Potato Famine, when a million Irish immigrants flooded the shores of the United States. “Irish Twins” mocks the fertility of the Irish and their disdain for birth control methods. It also suggests the Irish didn’t know the true medical definition of twins, or two children conceived and born together. And while my sister and I are indeed of Irish heritage, my understanding is that this term is now widely accepted as a description of two children born to the same family who are less than a year apart, regardless of their ethnic heritage.
Tyler: I understand the novel is really about two sets of Irish twins, Anne and Molly, and Anne’s daughters, Jennifer and Catherine. What made you interested in a story about two sets of twins?
Michele: As you may have surmised from my previous answer, Jennifer and Catherine, or Jenny and Caylie, are based on my sister and me. I think we’ve had a great relationship and have always been quite close. Throughout our adult lives, we have often called one another to tap a memory—or fill in a blank. Things like: “What was the name of that girl I pushed down because she was teasing you?” Or “Where were we when you got your pinkie finger slammed in the car door?” We were certain we’d “had the same life.” That said, as our lives progressed and we ended up choosing and following very different paths, I got to thinking about how two people, who for most of their years “had the same life,” could end up in such different places. The answer is that it was about making choices. Irish Twins explores the choices made by each sister, and how these crucial life-changing choices end up defining each sister as an individual.
As far as the older generation of Irish twins, Jenny and Caylie’s mother, Anne, and her sister, Molly, many of the choices Jenny and Caylie made in their lives came about because of how they were raised. And the key figure in their life, of course, was their mother. This is why Anne is the key figure in this story. She is the narrator and the true heart and soul of Irish Twins. I liked the idea of making her an Irish Twin as well, and that is why I created Molly.
Tyler: Will you tell us briefly a little bit about both sets of Irish twins, including how they are alike and different?
Michele: In each case, the elder twins, Molly and Jenny, are the more outspoken, confident siblings. The younger twins, Anne and Caylie, admire and envy their sisters’ sense of self. Neither realizes, however, that their elder sisters admire and envy them as well—for different reasons. As family secrets are revealed and both sets of sisters learn to become honest with one another, closer and more meaningful relationships follow. There are parallels between the two sets of twins, especially where their marriages or choices in mates are concerned, and the reader may find herself wondering from time to time, if history will repeat itself.
Tyler: What do you think makes the Irish twins appealing to readers?
Michele: This is as much a story about raising children as it is about being raised. Not every reader has children; however, I think it’s fair to say that every reader has been raised. As Anne looks back on her life and the lives of her children, she experiences varying degrees of nostalgia, sadness and joy. I’m certain this story will trigger a host of childhood memories for every reader.
Tyler: Michele, just a minute ago you referred to the potential reader as “herself.” Is that an indication of whom you think is your target reading audience?
Michele: No, it was simply grammatically correct. I could have just as easily said, “readers may find themselves wondering from time to time…” I’m sure there are some men who might believe this is women’s fiction or even chick-lit, and therefore, write it off or not be interested; however, I don’t think either genre is exclusive of male readers in general, and I certainly believe this story will have meaning for both men and women.
Tyler: Beyond this being a book about Irish twins, it is a step into the afterlife with Anne when she dies. What made you decide to write the book depicting Anne’s life after death?
Michele: Two summers ago, my seventy-year-old cousin was involved in a terrible motorcycle accident. She suffered a brain injury and spent several months in a coma before she ultimately died. Throughout the summer, her son stayed in close touch with me, keeping me aware of her progress or lack thereof. I was very fond of this cousin for many reasons, but particularly because she was my mother’s favorite niece. My cousin often talked about how the first thing she learned about my mom (when my mom, who like Anne came from Boston to Chicago after the War) was that she liked her tea hot! As I grieved for my cousin, I tried to get through it by imagining my mother waiting for her in heaven with a piping hot cup of tea. This lovely idea comforted me, but the familiar feeling of the grief I experienced when losing my mother some ten years earlier made it a very difficult time. Ultimately, by creating Anne and telling the story through her—and essentially what I imagined to be my mother’s voice—it was a way of keeping my mother alive or with me. Plus, there was so much I didn’t know about my mom. So, by really spending time with her and piecing together the small things I did know, I used my imagination to fill in the blanks and create an image of her in the character Anne.
Tyler: What difficulties did you find in trying to depict the afterlife? For example, how much did you rely on sources and how much did you fictionalize?
Michele: Depicting the afterlife wasn’t difficult because I really didn’t impose any rules upon myself. Once I had the idea for the tea, the story took shape around the symbolism of each teacup. As for relying on sources, I suppose it’s fair to say my Christian upbringing and a whole lot of Catechism and Catholic school curriculum guided my thought. I considered the idea of Purgatory—and how Catholics believe you must pray for souls to release them from Purgatory and to the right hand of the Father. My version of Purgatory, or an in-between place, was a place called Ohr. Ohr is the Hebrew word for “light,” and I liked the idea of this being a place of 360° light, which enabled Anne to shine a spotlight on her life. Each time her surviving husband or one of her children prayed, she saw them through the tea. So, their prayers, in effect, helped move her through her judgment.
Tyler: Did you consider other ways to tell Anne’s back-story, such as through a diary, discovered letters, or an old friend showing up, or was the afterlife the only way you considered? Do you think the afterlife more beneficial than one of those other means to bring in the past narrative, and if so, why? Did it enhance the potential viewpoint for example?
Michele: Considering my original idea was to write only about the living Irish Twins, Jenny and Caylie, the entire concept of Anne, her death and her back-story were of secondary thought. When my cousin died and I had the idea of the tea, however, and when I tied it to the true story of my own mother’s rather extraordinary death, I followed a path that enabled me to tell a much broader tale than I had originally planned. My mother didn’t keep a diary, nor did she have a collection of letters from her distant past. So, I didn’t have any documentation to guide me. She did leave behind several photographs and a few stories on which I could base the character of Anne. I used what little I knew and made up the rest. That’s what makes the story “fiction.” Meanwhile, using the afterlife, as you call it, was a truly effective way of dealing with my grief, and I think it’s fair to say, it was what got me through the process. Even though my mom has been gone for many years, the pain of missing her can still be quite acute on any given day. Holding her so close in thought—dreaming about her, wondering about what she would have said or done, etc.—was a way of not only getting to know her better, but also keeping her with me.
Tyler: Would you say writing about someone in the afterlife, a dead person, was restrictive in any way, or did you find it freeing?
Michele: Anne’s opening line is: “I have a little God in me.” She was/is a true omniscient narrator, and I didn’t find it restrictive in any manner.
Tyler: In our reviewer Olivera Baumgartner-Jackson’s review of “Irish Twins,” she says she kept asking herself what it was that set your book apart from others to make it so fascinating for her. What do you yourself feel sets it apart?
Michele: Irish Twins isn’t the first book to have a dead narrator. In fact, when I described it to one person, I remember her response was something like, “It sounds like “The Lovely Bones” from the mom’s perspective. I think what makes this story unique is that it’s about a family—a family unique unto itself, but not so unusual that people can’t find them relatable. What’s truly special about this story is Anne. It’s hard not to fall in love with her in the first chapter when you learn how she dies (water-skiing at age eighty is simply a very cool thing). I believe the reader can’t help but want to stay by her side to see what she sees as she journeys into the afterlife.
Tyler: What is the reaction or understanding you hope readers will have after reading Irish Twins?
Michele: I’d like to quote Anne, because I think she sums it up very well:
“I understood that all of our lives did not necessarily go according to the plans we may have hoped for or expected. And our parents couldn’t always be the people we expected or felt we needed them to be. Life offered a constant series of unpredictable events: economic downturns, wars, deaths, murders, miscarriages, stillbirths, accidents, alcohol abuse and, of course, abandonment. It’s so easy to make mistakes. But God does forgive us. And so do our children.”
Tyler: What kinds of responses have you received from readers so far?
Michele: I have to admit I was a little nervous putting this one out there. I wondered if readers would “get it.” So far, and much to my delight, I’ve received several really lovely reviews. It seems Anne is as loveable as I’d hoped. I should note that in the early stages of writing Irish Twins, Anne’s perspective didn’t carry on throughout the story. In other words, as I developed the characters, I tried out various narrators, namely the other Irish Twins, Molly, Jenny and Caylie. When work-shopping the material, however, I received a multitude of comments asking for “MORE ANNE!” So, it just goes to show you, when you listen to the intelligent critics—and sometimes that means putting your ego aside—you can improve your work. By the way, I highly recommend workshops for all aspiring writers/novelists. Writing can be very lonely work—and it can also make you a little nuts when you have characters living in your head and taking you in directions you hadn’t planned. Work-shopping takes you out of the vacuum.
Tyler: Michele, will you tell us a little about your previous two novels, and do you see “Irish Twins” as a departure for you or in keeping with your past writing?
Michele: My first novel, A Line Between Friends, poses the question as to whether or not a man and a woman can maintain a platonic relationship after they’ve each married someone else. I wrote the story from two perspectives, from both a man named Joel and a woman named Noelle. It was based on something that happened to me. I didn’t know or understand the reason why one of my college friends sent me an abrupt letter asking me to end all contact. So, I made up two characters and gave them the storyline. I let them explain it to me. A Line Between Friends won first place in the McKenna Publishing Group’s fiction contest, which, I believe, gave me the confidence to write more fiction.
It’s Not Your Mother’s Bridge Club, my second novel, is more of a stylized comedy with eight strong, female characters. I had the idea to write about them after being part of a bunko group for a number of years. Bunko, a dice game, is played by millions of suburban American women as a means of escape or girls’ night out. The women in my group were hilarious—highly entertaining. I could only aspire to write characters as funny as them. “Bridge Club” does have a serious side as it addresses more poignant issues faced by many women, including alcoholism, caring for an elderly parent, financial struggles, and raising children.
There is no question that Irish Twins also comes from my life experiences. Writing this story, however, was a far more introspective and cathartic experience than anything I’ve ever written before. And I have to say, finishing the book was unexpectedly bittersweet. I was relieved to type the words “the end”; however, I felt like I had to say goodbye to my mother all over again. I’d had Anne’s voice—who, of course, had my mother’s tone and her delightful Boston accent—in my head for many, many months. It was difficult to let her go. Again.
Tyler: Do you have plans for any future books?
Michele: Yes. At my publisher’s request, I’m planning to write another book about the life of an innkeeper. (I’m Living Your Dream Life: The Story of a Northwoods Resort Owner continues to be a good seller for McKenna Publishing Group.) I’d also like to write another novel, and I’m toying with the idea of a story about youth soccer. Because I am a soccer mom—and currently both my daughters are involved with club teams—I spend a LOT of time scheduling family life around soccer. Youth sports, in general, is packed full of drama both on and off the field, and I think I can come up with a story filled with colorful characters and palpable conflict.
Meanwhile, I have a blog, (michelecozzens.blogspot.com) where I post as often as I can about my daily life—which is that of an author, resort owner, mother of teenagers and great, big “beyotch.” Blogging is like exercise. It’s simply part of my routine and keeps my writing skills honed.
Tyler: Do you prefer writing fiction over non-fiction since you seem to be adept at both?
Michele: I enjoy both, but what I find really fun about writing fiction—especially after many years as a working journalist—is the incredible sense of freedom just to make things up! For example, in my first novel “A Line Between Friends,” the main reason for writing it was because when I received this strange letter from my good friend, I couldn’t get an answer to any journalist’s key question: “Why?” So, I made up the answer! I have no clue whether or not the friend who inspired the story has read the book; however, if he has, I’ll bet he wishes he told me why.
Tyler: You mentioned blogging as helping to keep your writing skills honed. What is your writing schedule or writing process like, and does it interfere with running your resort or vice-versa?
Michele: I don’t get a lot of writing accomplished at Sandy Point Resort. Running a resort on season is a 24/7 job and any time I spend in front of the computer is spent bookkeeping. But these days, since we winter in Tucson, I’m only in Wisconsin for three months. In Tucson, where I am right now, it’s a different story. After getting my teenage daughters out the door, the first thing I do is workout. (At this point in my life, if I don’t get in a good sweaty cardio workout, I’m edgy for the rest of the day!) Then I’m free to write until the time I have to get to the gym to coach the junior high volleyball team. If I happen to be in the middle of something—a book, for example, my husband is very generous in affording me the time I need to finish a thought or a chapter. He does all the grocery shopping and cooking and keeps the kids out of my hair if necessary. I’m quite sure I married the perfect man. He even sits and listens to my material as I read it aloud. He’s my first audience, my first critic, and he has helped make me a better writer.
Tyler: Thank you for the opportunity to interview you today, Michele. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information may be found there about Irish Twins?
Michele: It was my pleasure, Tyler. As for my website, I’m pleased to report that it has just been completely revamped. Michelecozzens.com not only provides details about my books, including book club questions for the novels, but also information about the resort we have owned and operated for the past eighteen years, and my jewelry business, Dream Life Designs. I’m also on Facebook and truly enjoy keeping up with friends on this phenomenal social network. I always enjoy hearing from readers. Thanks again for your interest in my work.