An Intimate Conversation with Judith Michael

When Judith Barnard and Michael Fain began writing their first novel, Deceptions, in 1982, they sat at desks three feet apart in the second bedroom of a tiny apartment and wove words into fantasies. Now, fifteen years and eight bestsellers later, the couple who writes as Judith Michael (one name is easier for readers to remember), works in separate offices in elegant homes, one in Aspen and one in Chicago, and lives out its own fantasy.

1. In ACTS OF LOVE, you have an insider's view of the theater. How did you go about doing your research? Do either of you have theatrical backgrounds?

We've always loved the theater and have been fascinated by the way a group of people, often strangers, come together to create a whole world on stage: a strong story with real people who can move an audience to laughter or tears. Judith worked backstage at one time, on lighting and set design (which she found fun and exciting), but neither of us has ever acted or directed, so we needed a lot of research. With the research for every book, we begin in bookstores, bringing home stacks of books that lead us to other books (on the Acknowledgments page of Acts of Love we list those that were most helpful); then we talk to people in whatever field we're studying. For Acts of Love, we interviewed actors, directors, producers, theater managers, and promoters (thanking the most helpful on the Acknowledgments page) in Chicago, New York, and Sydney, where much of the story takes place, and we were given a private tour of the Wharf and Drama Theaters in Sydney. And of course we went to as many plays as possible, studying them to see what made them work . . . or not, and reading the critics to see what we'd missed . . . or what we thought they had. All that gave us insight into the tiny details that only people deeply involved in the theater could know. By the time we began writing, we felt we'd grown up in the theater as much as our hero and heroine had!

2. Does writing together get even better with time? More difficult?

If you're lucky in your marriage, almost everything gets easier with time (except being apart). In our case, we've had to make our marriage and our professional partnership grow stronger and more creative over the years and we discovered a long time ago that we'd fail miserably at both of them if we let ourselves get lazy. Most people consciously work at getting along with people in the companies and offices where they spend their days; why shouldn't we work as hard at home, protecting each other's feelings, building each other up instead of from carelessness or anger at something tearing down? Once we learned to do this, and kept at it, we were able to listen to each other's ideas more tolerantly, accept each other's editing more easily, and solve problems more smoothly (usually). Also, we've been together so long that a lot of the time we find ourselves thinking the same thing at the same time . . . eerie, but also exciting. Writing is never easy, but writing together gets easier. We still have stormy times it still isn't a piece of cake but it's not a tumultuous stew, either.

3. You've been writing together for over fifteen year show have you had to change your writing style to adapt to the nineties?

Our mail has always shown us that readers are more sophisticated than many people give them credit for, and we like to think part of our success is due to our use of thinking, motivation, and character development, instead of pure action. Certainly our readers write regularly that they like our use of them ("It's nice to have an author treat me seriously," one woman wrote) and count on finding them in our books, especially people who resemble people in their lives ("When I'm lonely I return to your books, to Laura and Katherine and Sabrina, to my friends," one man wrote.) If anything, readers (at least, our readers) are even more knowledgeable and coolly expectant than they were fifteen years ago. A complicated world, the battering ram of images and spillage of words on television, and a growing cynicism toward anything organized (politics, business, big sports, etc.) contribute to this: it's harder than ever to get away with coincidence as a plot device, to depend on stereotypes, to rely on sex and/or violence as the raison d'etre of a book. We find it more interesting and fun to be challenged in this way: as our readers demand more realism and psychological relevance, we feel more freedom to write in the way that pleases us most.

4. Your novels are known for mixing glamour with the details of everyday living. What is the structure of your own lives, and with your great successes, how do you keep in touch with everyday realities?

Ever since Deceptions, our first book, we've lived a kind of fairy tale that leaves us amazed and grateful. When we created Judith Michael, we had about $2000 in the bank and hoped we could earn a modest living by writing books together. We've done far better than that: millions of wonderful readers have made it possible for us to live a magical life far beyond anything we ever dreamed of. In spring and fall we live in a Victorian apartment in Chicago (with a fireplace, side-by-side offices, and modern kitchen) overlooking Lake Michigan and Lincoln Park, where, when we're not at the opera, theater, or museums, we take long walks while plotting new books or working out the twists and turns of the current one. In summer and winter, we're in our sprawling wood-and-stone mountain house in Colorado facing a broad sweep of meadow (featuring deer, elk, coyotes, and owls) and beyond the meadow a skyline of towering peaks. It's a breathtaking place and we spend our time hiking, biking, downhill and cross-country skiing when we're not in our twin offices working on another book. All this is, indeed, magical, but there's still a mortgage to pay, the garbage to be taken out, the garden to be weeded, a dinner party to prepare for, cars to be washed and vacuumed of city or mountain dust. And more serious things: Judith has had breast cancer; both of us have lost our parents. We don't forget sadness or pain or our roots, because they're still with us; after all, even a fairyland sits on solid earth.

5. Most of your books mention cooking or baking, and even include a brief list of ingredients. How has your love of cooking and Michael's love of photography influenced your writing?

Judith loves to cook and bake (almost all of our bread comes from Judith Michael's kitchen, without the use of a bread machine); Michael is wonderful at eating and passing critical judgments on new recipes. Michael is a brilliant photographer and Judith critiques the way he crops and dodges photos in his darkroom. Probably, because of our hobbies, we've honed our critical abilities and at the same time become gentler in our criticisms. Anyone who understands that our marriage and our partnership both depend on criticism intelligently given and amiably taken knows that "gentler" is the key word here, and that, without it, Judith Michael wouldn't have gotten past her first book.

Behind the Scenes with Judith Michael