Michelle Shocklee has always loved the written word. She is the author of several historical novels, and her work has also been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books and various magazines and blogs. When she’s not writing, editing, or dreaming up new stories, Michelle likes to poke around Civil War battlefields, old forts, and museums for research.
Married to her college sweetheart, and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about.
What started you on your writing journey?
Both of my parents were voracious readers. Our home was filled with books on history and the Christian life, and with fiction. One of my fondest memories is of my mom reading Little Women to my sister and me. The writing bug bit when I was in my late twenties. Although I’d always enjoyed journaling and writing assignments in school, it never dawned on me to pursue it as a career. I tinkered around with several stories for a number of years before I attended my first writers’ conference and truly began to learn the craft. What had only been a hobby quickly turned into a passion. I love sharing stories of hope and God’s goodness with readers now.
Just as all good novels include a plot twist, the Author and Creator of our lives often writes in a twist that ultimately blesses us more than our original plan. Have you ever experienced such a “Divine Detour”?
In 2008, my husband lost his job with a company he’d been with for twenty-three years. He’d worked there since before we were married, and the loss of that job sent us into a tailspin. What was actually happening was God was pruning us, making us ready for a grand new adventure.
In 2012, with both our sons off to college, my husband and I quit our jobs (thankfully, he’d found work in the interim) and accepted a position as estate caretakers on a 400-acre ranch in the Texas hill country. We stayed there for nearly five years before God moved us to the Nashville area to become the caretakers of a gorgeous Tennessee farm. We’ve learned through this experience that God’s master plan is so much better than anything we can imagine. If we hadn’t moved to Nashville, I probably wouldn’t have written Under the Tulip Tree.
Let’s talk about your new book, Under the Tulip Tree (Tyndale House, September 2020). Please tell us about it.
Under the Tulip Tree is a time-slip novel, set in 1936 during the Great Depression as well as the 1800s. It’s the story of a young woman who takes a job with the Federal Writers’ Project interviewing former slaves. The FWP was created through Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and employed thousands of out-of-work writers, teachers, librarians, and others. It had been seventy years since the Civil War ended, bringing freedom to millions of enslaved black people. These former slaves were aging, and their stories would be lost if something wasn’t done to preserve them.
Rena’s world will never be the same after she meets Frankie Washington, a 101-year-old woman whose story of life in bondage captivates and horrifies her. Frankie’s telling of life in slavery represents the thousands of former slaves who willingly shared their stories with FWP writers, who fanned out across the Southern states to record word-for-word narratives that are now archived in the Library of Congress.
What led you to write this particular story?
While I was researching slavery in Texas for my plantation novels, I discovered the slave narratives recorded by the FWP. They left an indelible mark on me, and I often went back to reread them long after I’d finished writing my books. When it came time to write a new novel, I wanted it to involve the Federal Writers’ Project Slave Narratives. The characters of Rena and Frankie began to emerge in my imagination, and that’s when I knew I had to write their story.
Nashville seemed the logical setting since I live here and can easily visit the historical sites described in the book. It was also one of the locations where FWP writers interviewed former slaves. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the ruins of Fort Negley as well as other Battle of Nashville sites. Although the neighborhood Frankie lives in—Hell’s Half Acre—was demolished in the 1950s, I was still able to envision it on the day my husband and I visited the state capitol.
A few fun questions…
When the words aren’t flowing—or when you want to celebrate if they are—what is your favorite comfort food and why?
Warm, fresh-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies. I don’t have a sweet tooth, so it’s a real treat when I take the time to mix up a batch of cookies.
What Bible passage or story best describes your journey of faith?
I refer to John 6 as my “life chapter.” Even though I grew up in a Christian home, going to church every time the doors were open, I didn’t fully understand what it meant to surrender to Christ.
I was an exhausted new mother in May 1992. While my son napped, I lay down too, but sleep wouldn’t come. I reached for my Living Bible (my sweet parents gave it to me when I was a senior in high school) and flipped pages until I landed in John 6 where Jesus is explaining to the disciples that He is the Bread of Life. Verse 37 reads, “But some will come to me—those the Father has given me—and I will never, never reject them.”
Reading those words was like hearing Jesus speaking directly to my heart. He loved me, fully and completely, and would never reject me. I realized that while I had all of Jesus, He didn’t have all of me. I surrendered to Jesus that day in my bedroom, with my baby napping down the hall and my husband at work. And isn’t it just like God to use the Living Bible that was published by Tyndale House to bring me to Him, and then twenty-eight years later allow me to join hands with Tyndale on the publication of the book of my heart!
In the story that is your life, are you the strong, female lead; the girl next door; the mysterious woman behind dark glasses; the super heroine; or the little girl trying to walk in high heels?
A few years ago, I drew a simple sketch of myself walking hand-in-hand with Jesus, headed toward “Life’s Road.” In the drawing, I’m a little knobby-kneed girl, because that’s how I still feel sometimes. So, yes, I definitely identify with the little girl trying to walk in high heels. I can pretend to be the other women in certain circumstances, but the real Michelle needs her Father to hold her hand while journeying through this big ol’ world.
I’m a dog lover. Please tell us about your pets, if any, or your favorite pet as a child.
When my sons were young, we bought a seven-week-old Dachshund and named him Copper. Little did we know that dog would become a champion racer. Weiner dog races were all the rage in the early 2000s. Just for fun, we entered one-year-old Copper in a race in Houston. My brother-in-law’s dog won the race the year before, and he thought it would be fun to have two Shocklee dogs in the race. Well, Copper came in second—first place again went to Simba—but that was the first and last race Copper ever lost. For the next eight years, he won races all over Texas (even beating Simba!) and was dubbed The Fastest Weiner Dog in Texas. The secret to Copper’s success was his love for a squeaky toy. My husband would act as Copper’s handler and stand at the finish line with a brand new squeaky toy. When the gates opened (picture a mini Kentucky Derby race track, gates and all), Copper made a mad dash to get his beloved toy. Copper was featured on the CBS Sunday Morning show as well as local TV news programs and newspapers. He retired at the age of nine and lived to the age of sixteen. That little guy brought our family much joy and we miss him very much!
What a great pet story! Thanks, Michelle. It’s great having you as a guest at Divine Detour.
Thank you for hosting me!
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