Arts and Culture / DU Alumni / Magazine Feature

Author says he was an ‘ambitious but bad’ writer before DU

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DU alum Michael White released his newest book, Beautiful Assassin this year.

Michael White’s latest novel idea came to him while he was watching a show on the History Channel.

While watching a special, White (PhD creative writing ’88) became captivated by Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Soviet sniper who killed 309 Germans during World War II and is regarded as the most successful female sniper in history. After being injured in combat, Pavlichencko was sent to the United States for a publicity visit and became the first Soviet citizen to be received by a U.S. president. Later, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to tour the country and talk about her experiences.

“I was struck by her and her story,” White says. “I knew this would be an interesting and relevant topic.”

So White used Pavlichenko as the inspiration for Tat’yana Levehenko, the protagonist of his sixth novel, Beautiful Assassin (William Morrow, 2010). He took the idea and “fictualized the American part of it,” he explains. “It’s a war story, a love story and a story about espionage.”

It’s not the first time that history has influenced White; in fact it’s quite a common occurrence for the writer. His last novel, Soul Catcher (William Morrow, 2007) centered on American slavery. Another of his novels, The Garden of Martyrs, (St. Martin’s Press, 2004) recounts actual events of religious intolerance in early New England.

“I go where my interests lead me,” he says. In Beautiful Assassin, his primary interest was getting inside the character’s head. “Here’s a woman who came from this oppressive place. I felt very close to her. I was in her head; I felt her through each motion — she’s a wife, a lover and a warrior.”

He says understanding the character is often the hardest part of writing. In fact, the most important lesson he ever learned, he says, was about working on building a character —“not just through dialogue, but through action.” That lesson — among others — was learned during his time in DU’s prestigious creative writing program.

Most of all, though, he says: “DU taught me I was an ambitious writer, but also a pretty bad one.”

His first attempt at writing a book came before he enrolled at DU. When he got to the University, he showed his work to John Williams, the only National Book Award-winning author in Colorado’s history and one of the founders of the PhD program.

“He basically took my story apart,” White admits. “I quickly realized how much I had to learn.”

He likens great storytelling to a diamond. “You can get a huge diamond, but until you cut it, polish it and fix it up, it’s not going to be very good,” he says. After learning the rules of writing and applying them to his own work, he now has a new use for them. He founded Fairfield University’s master’s program of creative writing in December 2008.

“I love it,” White says. “They have different ranges of interest. There’s nurses, doctors, businessmen — people from 23- to 70-year-olds.”

It’s a low-residency program, meaning that students only come for two weeks twice a year, for two years. The experience, he says, makes him think about his own writing — all while encouraging his students to have their work published.

But as much as he enjoys it, “I consider myself a writer first and a teacher and a director second,” he says. He’s currently working on his ninth book, about a woman who loses her child and travels cross-country in a spiritual journey.

Ask him what his favorite book he’s written and he’ll reply: “I have two children. It’s like asking me which one I love more.”

Two of his books in particular, though, have recently received more attention. A screenplay is in motion for A Dream of Wolves (Perennial, 2000), a novel about a man choosing between his past and his future, a woman he once loved and the woman he now loves.

Additionally, The Garden of Martyrs is being turned into an opera.

“I love classical music but I admittedly know nothing about opera,” White says. “But I would love to be there on opening night.”

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