Michelle Chouinard writes crime fiction (including suspense, procedurals, and cozies), and women’s fiction under the name M.M. Chouinard. She is the USA Today, Publishers Weekly, and Amazon Charts bestselling author behind the Detective Jo Fournier series, featuring The Dancing Girls, Taken to the Grave, Her Daughter’s Cry, and The Other Mothers. Her first fiction story was published in her local paper when she was eight, and she fell in love with Agatha Christie novels not long after. While pursuing a PhD in psychology and helping to found the first U.S. research university of the new millennium, the stories kept rattling around inside her skull, demanding to come out. For sanity’s sake, she released them.
1) When did you know that writing is what you were called to do? What is it about being a writer that you love the most?
I’ve always loved writing–when I was eight I entered a contest in my local newspaper for children. The real prize was getting my story published, but I also won a do-it-yourself stained glass kit that I adored! But in terms of my calling to write for a living, that happened about eight years ago; I realized that time was passing and I wasn’t getting any younger, and if I wanted to pursue that particular dream, I needed to just jump in and do it. So I did.
2) Can you tell us a little about your book(s) and where our readers can find out more about them and you?
I write the Jo Fournier series, which are police procedurals that blend in psychological-thriller components. They take place in Western Massachusetts, where my family’s from, and my detective’s superpower is connection and empathy–she ‘sees’ people and understands them in a way that helps her to solve her crimes. You can find out more about them and me on my website, www.mmchouinard.com.
3) What projects are you currently working on?
The fourth Jo Fournier is currently in the copyediting stage, so I’m excited about that. I also have a novel about a treasure hunt in San Francisco that turns deadly, and am about to start a stand-alone psychological thriller about a family whose daughter is kidnapped while on vacation.
4) What has been your most significant achievement as a writer thus far? Where do you see yourself within your career in the next five years?
Hitting the Publisher’s Weekly and USA Today bestsellers lists has been amazing–but nothing will ever top holding a physical copy of my book in my hands for the first time. In five years, I hope to be lucky enough to still do what I’m doing–writing novels I love and hope that others love, too.
5) How have you dealt with rejection within your writing career?
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given as a writer is that trying to get published is like dating–both parties involved can be amazing, but still not right for each other. So just because that zine or that agent or that publisher doesn’t snap up your piece, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a good writer or that your work isn’t good. Maybe they just took on another author that week who writes thrillers, and your very excellent novel would compete with that. Maybe they’ve read ten serial killer manuscripts in the last two weeks and can’t stand the thought of reading another one right now, no matter how good it is. Of course you should always be looking to improve your skills generally and your piece specifically, and you should always evaluate any feedback you’re lucky enough to get very carefully. But often times the fit just isn’t right, plain and simple, and there’s nothing to be done about it. So I take a few hours to binge watch a favorite show or go for a walk, then I consider feedback, make changes if needed, and get right back to sending out more submissions/queries.
6) Do you have a schedule for when you write? Do you outline your novels? How long does it generally take you to finish a novel?
I do have a schedule, although parts of it are flexible. During the day I schedule writing in around other adulting I have to do, so I write every day, but not always at exactly the same time. But at night…I’m a night owl, so without fail you’ll find me putting in several hours each evening.
I do outline my novels, but not as extensively as many writers do. Before I begin I usually have 10-20 plot points I know will form the skeleton of the novel, and I know who my characters are, what my setting is, and I’ve done my basic research. After I start writing, other plot points fall out of that naturally, and I’ll often realize there are additional topics I need to research as that happens.
How long it takes me to finish a novel varies on the novel, and on what you consider ‘finished’. I can finish a first draft in about two months, but it’s not something I’d ever let anybody read (not even my husband). Usually at least 2-3 rounds of revision follow that.
7) Do you believe that there is ever a point in life where it’s too late for an aspiring writer to become successful in this industry? Do you feel a late start would hinder their chances?
Absolutely not! In fact, I think the more you’ve seen of people and life, the richer your writing will be. Writers have to understand a variety of people and motivations, and that knowledge base only gets more extensive as you get older. Some of my favorite writers were in their late forties and fifties when they got their first books published.
8) What’s the first book you ever read that really touched you emotionally and moved you? Who is your favorite author? What book are you currently reading?
As strange as this sounds, the first book that moved me was a book called Rupert the Rhinoceros, a children’s book I read for the first time when I was very little (probably around 4). It’s about a rhinoceros who charges at people and frightens them, and because they think he’s mean and dangerous, they’re going to have to lock him away. Then a smart doctor realizes he’s not a mean rhinoceros–he just scared because he can’t see well! All he sees are moving blobs and that terrifies him, so he charges at them to protect himself. The doctor makes him a pair of glasses, and once Rupert can see, he becomes everyone’s beloved friend. My mother got it for me because everyone in my family needs glasses at a pretty young age, and she wanted to prepare me for that (ironically, I never did need them). But what stuck with me was how we shouldn’t judge someone until we understand them, because their behavior might be hiding fear and pain, and our compassion might make all the difference. The story still makes me tear up when I think about it.
As for favorite authors, I have so many! I read just about every genre there is, and have so many favorites within each. For the crime-fiction genre, a few of my favorites are Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, Gillian Flynn, Tara French, Megan Abbott and Dan Brown (with shout out to Janet Evanovich). I’ve also recently fallen in love with Rachel Howzell Hall. In other genres I’d have to say Douglas Adams, Christoper Moore, Neil Gaiman, Isaac Asimov, Ken Follett, Suzanne Collins, Stephen King…and I’ll stop there before we run out of space!
I usually read several books at a time. Right now I’m reading My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, The Chain by Adrian McKinty, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins, and Midnight Sun by Stephanie Meyer.
9) So many writers say that they hate reading their own work? Do you ever just sit down and curl up with your own book?
No no no no no! If I’m reading it, it’s because I’m editing it. I always see a hundred things I want to change, so I’d just drive myself crazy.
10) What are your thoughts about how the publishing industry is drastically changing?
That’s such a complicated question that would take so much space to answer! The short answer is, every advance has pluses and minuses, but I’m in favor of anything that empowers authors to produce their art.
11) I feel like writing is a remarkable tool to help people not only express themselves, but also to cope emotionally and mentally. I know for me I write to be and feel more authentic. What unique quality is there about you, about your art, that you feel represents your authenticity? How does writing help you to be more empowered in your purpose?
I agree that writing helps us cope emotionally and mentally, both because it allows us to work through complicated topics and because it gives us a place we can escape to in our art.
I think for me, I believe it’s too easy to hide behind what we believe in, and not push ourselves outside our comfort zone. I think for real understanding and progress to happen, especially when talking about society and ethics, you have to be willing to play devil’s advocate, to see things from multiple perspectives. Killing is bad, we can all agree on that (except maybe psychopaths!), but most people would agree that killing in self defense is justified. So where does the line really reside? If someone has been beaten their entire life and finally snaps and kills their abuser as they sleep, is that self defense? What about emotional abuse from a bully that has destroyed your life over social media? Most people would say no to that last example, but the first is harder to make a decision on. What if the victim were your child, how would that shift the line for you? What if the abuser was your child? On the other side, if you knew person X was likely going to kill person Y, what is your degree of responsibility if they do it? If they told you exactly what they were planning and you did nothing, most people would argue you have some degree of culpability. But what if you only suspected it might happen? What if you watched it go down, but didn’t intervene? I find these moral issues really interesting and fundamental to our society, and try to explore those themes in my writing.