On a desert island with author, Michelle Douglas

It all started with a koala…

Making up stories of her own has always been one of Michelle’s passions. She received her first rejection letter at the age of ten for Keri the Koala Baby, and has been writing ever since. A love of literature led her to major in English at the University of Newcastle, where she completed a PhD (with a focus on romance and feminism) in 2019. Her first book for Harlequin Mills & Boon was published in 2007.

Her books have been nominated for numerous awards including the RITA, the Australian RUBY, the Booksellers Best Award (which she won in 2013), the National Readers Choice Awards, and many others.

Welcome to my desert island, Michelle, where the temperature is always “just right”, there are fruits, coconuts and berries for grazing – and fish if you’re able to make yourself a rod or net, a pool with a waterfall and plenty of vines and banana leaves for a woman to make herself a hammock.

Your desert island sounds absolutely idyllic, Liz, and I can’t tell you how happy I am to be here. I’m just going to sit with my feet dangling in the pool over here, munching berries and pineapple while listening to the birdsong…and the sound of the surf. Because there has to be a beach or three nearby, right?

Before we go any further, Michelle, I want Keri the Koala Baby for my nine year old granddaughter who adores koalas. Her favourite book is The Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill – a recommendation from fellow Australian author, Janet Gover — and she has decided that she’s going to live in Australia when she’s grown up, to look after them.

Blinky Bill is a firm favourite in the Douglas household too! Your granddaughter definitely needs to come and visit. Two-minutes from my house is Blackbutt Reserve (182 hectares of native bushland), which has a koala house. She’d love it.  P.S. My mother still has a copy of Keri the Koala Baby, but I’m afraid it doesn’t quite live up to Blinky Bill standards. 😉

Dr Douglas…

I remember you taking time out for your PhD, focusing on romance and feminism. That clearly took a huge chunk out of your writing time. What drove you to take that on?

Back in 2011 when I finished my Masters, I’d been told that there was no way romance would ever be considered an appropriate topic for a PhD. Seriously? I mean what kind of woman could resist a challenge like that? Answer: not me. So when an academic in the department who loved romance urged me to enrol in a PhD in romance I was seriously tempted. Then I was offered a scholarship, which made it financially viable, and I figured it was fate.

One of the delightful things about having those lovely letters after my name is that all of those people who pooh-pooh romance and who try to dismiss me as a silly little romance writer are taken aback when I pull out my PhD hat and set them straight. Happy sighs. So satisfying.

Go, Dr Douglas! So, we’re here to talk about the books that you’d take with you to a desert island. How, as it says in the theme from Love Story, do you begin? And what makes it a book that would keep you engaged in your solitude?

I have an old hardcover in my bookcase (inherited from my mother-in-law): The Complete Works of Jane Austen. The print is terribly small, but to have access to all six Austen novels in one glorious package would make it worth it. However, if that’s cheating then I’ll be terribly unoriginal and choose Pride and Prejudice. Lizzy Bennet is my favourite heroine. And the story is just divine. [NB: while Darcy is a dream hero I actually think Henry Tilney and I were soul mates in another life]

I’m  nowhere near as strict as the radio programme, Michelle so I’m letting you have the complete works. (Nothing at all to do with the fact that I love Henry Tilney!

You live in Newcastle. Obviously we have a city with that name here in the UK, but the east coast of Australia is very different from the north east coast of England. Not in beauty, the north east coast is spectacular and has Dracula and jet (Whitby is on my bucket list) but in temperature!

Michelle’s Beach Monday pictures

Oh, the beaches here! They’re to die for. Plus our weather is a little warmer than Newcastle Upon Tyne’s too, LOL. Newcastle is the second largest city in NSW (after Sydney), so there are lots of bars and cafes and a thriving arts scene, but at heart it’s just a big old country town. Which makes it an unbelievably pleasant place to live.

It sounds wonderful and I love your Monday beach pictures, Michelle. So, you’ve found a wonderful beach, settled in a shady spot, what are you reading?

Two Weeks With the Queen by Morris Gleitzman. This is a kid’s book, but it’s Every Good Thing. It deals with serious issues like AIDS and childhood cancer and yet it manages to be both heart warming and very funny. Twelve-year-old Colin is ridiculously resourceful…which should provide me with plenty of inspiration when I’m wrestling with how to catch fish on your desert island, Liz.

I haven’t come across that, but I do love a good kid’s book. Definitely one to check out but tell me about the first book your wrote for Mills and Boon. And what drew you to the romance genre.

Not just reading, but writing…

I grew up with Mills & Boon novels, all the women in my family read them, and so it just seemed like a natural progression to want to write one. I mean who doesn’t want to write about love and joy and happy-ever-afters? I credit one of your books Eloping With Emmy (I love that book so hard and had to buy a digital copy as my paper copy is falling apart) with my determination to write for the True Love/Romance/Forever line.

That’s so different from my own journey. I was in my 30s before I read a Mills and Boon romance, and inspired by a newspaper article about Charlotte Lamb and Anne Hampson to write my own. But oh, wow, Michelle!, that is such a huge compliment. I  have to confess that Emmy is one of my favourite heroines. Such determination, such passion, and Tom… Happy sigh. And how lucky for the rest of us that it inspired you to write your own wonderful romances. Time for a coconut filled with a rum punch, I think, while you tell me about your third book choice.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik. I love so much about this book. It has a rollicking plot, characters I adore, and at its heart lies a romance so beautifully and delicately rendered it made my heart sing. It’s also gloriously feminist in all the best ways, highlighting how traditionally feminine traits of cooperation, community and compassion are utterly essential. I can’t say enough good things about this book.

Sold! I’m rushing to one-click right now to add it to my (metaphorically) tottering tbr pile. I don’t have room for the all the books I read – and the font adjustment on the Kindle is so kind to my eyes!

And chocolate…

I notice that your heroines all have a secret stash of chocolate. Tell me about that!

I love to live vicariously through my heroines, and when times get tough, sometimes you need to reach for a family block of chocolate. It’s a source of solace in the hard times. We writers have a tendency to put our characters through the wringer, so in my mind I give my heroines a secret stash of chocolate so they can reach for it when they need to (it helps to allay my writerly guilt).

I hear you, Michelle, although I might have over-indulged slightly during lock-down. Sadly I don’t have a fabulous beach to walk on, so thank goodness the swimming pool has re-opened. So far, there’s been quite a lot of romance in your choices. What comes next?

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson. The voice of narrator Ruby dragged me into the story from the moment I read the first sentence. I was riveted as she told the story of The Family, and had to keep reading as I had to know what happens. It’s an extraordinary book from an extraordinary author.

Clearly, like me, you love character driven stories. My daughter recently read this book and was equally blown away. I don’t understand why it’s slipped under my radar. An omission to be remedied.

Michelle, you’ve won and been  shortlisted for many awards for your writing,. Are you going to stick with the very challenging genre romance, or have you a book of the heart ticking away in a bottom drawer?

I love writing romance and can’t imagine not writing it, but earlier in the year, I dusted off the book I’d originally written for my Masters. It was a mammoth 136,000 words and I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it. This was back in 2007 when I was picked up by Mills & Boon, so I put it away always promising to pull it out again one day. Well, one day finally happened in April this year and once I started reading it I couldn’t put it down.

It’s women’s fiction, set in Newcastle (Australia) and is about the chaos caused when two women turn up on my heroine’s doorstep claiming they’re her sisters.  I mean the manuscript is a mess and it needs lots of work, but it’s so exciting to be working on it in my spare time too.

The length is challenging in the present publishing climate – whatever happened to those huge doorstep books we used to devour?  James A Michener’s Hawaii, anyone? But  your book sounds hugely exciting and I love the premise. It’s hard to fit in other projects when you have a publishing contract, but I hope your spare time is infinitely stretchable because I can’t wait to read it! But now it’s time for your fifth book choice, which I see is a Very Big Book!

A very big book…

Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. If Lizzy Bennet is my favourite heroine, then Aragorn is my all-time favourite hero. He’s so honourable and brave (and hot in the movie version). I used to read the trilogy every summer and have never tired of it. There’s such a wealth of detail in the world building, and such a variety of characters. It will keep me occupied for hours.

I totally agree with everything you’ve said. It’s a wonderful story filled with the most amazing characters. Clearly re-reading it so avidly, absorbing the world building, the great heroes, and the heroes who overcome all kinds of difficulties both physical and mental, taught you so much when you came to writing your own books. Reading is, after all, the training ground for writers. Talking of which, tell us about your latest book, Billionaire’s Road Trip to Forever.

This story came into being due to the Trope Game. I have three boxes—one contains Plot Tropes, another Heroine Tropes, and the final Hero Tropes. As a creativity exercise, I sometimes pull out a trope from each box and brainstorm how I could make a story from that particular offering work. On this particular day I pulled out Jilted Groom, Road Trip, and Rapunzel. Before I knew it, I had the basis for Billionaire’s Road Trip to Forever. It was a joy of a book to write too. We were in the midst of the Covid lockdown and unable to go anywhere, so I set off on vicarious adventure with my hero and heroine.

That sounds like such a fun way to brainstorm a story and one I am definitely going to borrow. And I love a road trip story – back to Eloping With Emmy! – and I loved Bree and Noah’s journey to their happy ever after.

It’s time for your last book, Michelle. What’s it to be

Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Ain’t She Sweet by SEP. I can’t get enough of Sugar Beth—the heroine I ought to hate but love, love, love. Her grit and humour and determination win me over every time. I rooted for her HEA with everything I had.

Oh my. I love SEP, but when I started this book I put it down after the first chapter because I knew that Sugar was in for the worst time and I couldn’t bear it. It did that twice and then finally pulled up my big reader pants and got stuck in. It is such a wonderful story, romance, redemption, female friendship and Colin… Just perfect.

So, you have your stack of books, but how  are you going to survive on this island, Michelle? Are you a natural hunter/gatherer, happy in your own company, or would you be building signal fires from the moment you arrived?

I used to fish a lot with my Dad when I was young, so I’d like to think I could still manage to hook a fish on the line. But I confess that while I love retreating from the world every now and again, eventually I’d miss my creature comforts too much. I’d want to be found eventually…just not too quickly.

And what, who, will you miss?

Obviously I’ll miss Mr Douglas, but if I really went missing he’d be scouring the seven seas until he found me. So he’s bound to arrive any moment, and I really hope he comes well stocked with cheese and crackers and maybe even a bottle of red. I’d also miss coffee with the girls, and I’d be itching to find out who won The Great British Sewing Bee (my current craze).

Oh, Michelle, it’s the final of the latest series this week in the UK. I am so torn! But on to your luxury.  As mad as you like, but nothing practical (not a boat building kit, for instance!)

Oh, then I want a music system—obviously it’ll have to be solar powered—so I can play my ABBA albums for as long and as loudly as I want!

Yes! You’ve got it.

Thanks so much for sharing your book choices with us, Michelle and telling us a little about your writing life. It’s been a joy.

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Michelle’s new book, Billionaires Road Trip to Forever is available now – here’s the blurb and the buy links are below.

Running from a wedding…
… to a whole new future!
Bree Allenby’s first stop on her road trip across Australia is to attend the society wedding of her brother’s best friend. When Noah Fitzgerald is dramatically jilted, he needs a quick getaway—so Bree suggests he come with her! Spending her days with a billionaire is not what she was expecting… Not only is their spark of attraction completely new, but it has them both rethinking where they’re going in life!

Amazon, US

Apple Books

Barnes & Noble

Harlequin