In November of 2013, Michelle Geltner published her fast-paced young adult novel the panther/girl, an intricate tale of trust, love and survival. Geltner, a recent English and marketing graduate from Bradley University, has been working toward publication for her book for nine years when it, originally a short story, won third place at the Naperville Women’s Club Short Story and Poetry Contest in the mid-2000s. She has also had many publications through the Bradley Scout, and one through the Naperville Sun-Times, in the past couple of years.
I started the story, originally just Panther/Girl, when I was a sophomore in high school. There was an announcement in one of the local newspapers about a short story contest for high school kids, and my parents challenged me to write something for it. I tried really, really hard. I’ve never been much of a short story writer though, and most of the feedback I got from judges said they felt like they were reading a chapter out of a novel and they’d really like to know how it ends. Somehow I won third place, and part of that “short story” is now one of the first chapters of the panther/girl. That being said, it took until my junior and senior years of college before I was able to finish it as a novel-length story.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this novel?
A lot of the writing advice I’ve gotten is “write what you know.” That usually works pretty well, but… the main character of the panther/girl, Kira, isn’t human. I don’t know what it’s like to not be a human, so I really had to sit down and think about it. She grew up essentially in the middle of nowhere in her village without any (or so she thinks) contact with the outside world. She doesn’t understand human technology and human society. What kinds of things will she encounter, and how will she react?
It took a while to figure all of this out and make sure I was remaining consistent in my writing, but it also added a great opportunity to throw some humor in otherwise daunting situations. Kira’s responses to electricity and Life cereal were two of my favorite parts to write.
What authors are your biggest influences?
Hands down, Tamora Pierce. I have read and reread her books so many times since I was in middle school that I lost count years ago. She always writes relatable, strong female protagonists that always inspire me when I feel like mine are getting too mopey or are turning into followers instead of leaders.
I also recently read Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician Trilogy, and although it isn’t a young adult series, the characterization was really inspiring. When a character’s actions make you, as a reader, feel something, the author is doing something right. That’s what I want to do.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?
I’ve gotten a lot of advice throughout the years, and I can’t really say there has been any “best” advice. What’s always been better than advice, however, is people encouraging me to finish. Writing a novel is hard. Writer’s block is awful. I had a professor in college who helped me finish the panther/girl. She read the entire story, line by line, and critiqued everything. At the end of her critiques, she always wrote about how she couldn’t wait to read the next chapter and how I just had to keep going. It’s nice to know someone out there wants to read what’s coming next, even if I use way too many commas sometimes.
When writer’s block hits, where do you turn for inspiration?
When I get writer’s block, I read. The generally accepted advice during writer’s block is to write anyway, and sometimes I do, but usually I’ll reread a book or scour Amazon for some free Kindle books. I can’t say I recommend what I do though. It’s not exactly productive, and usually reading one good book will segue into reading several more books by the same author or in the same genre.
Who plays Kira in the movie version of the panther/girl?
I thought about this question for a while, and I can’t think of an answer. I think it would have to be an undiscovered actress. Someone who is kind of a bitch, but knows when to tone it down. Intuitive. Inquisitive.
What events in your life have shaped you the most?
When I was a freshman in high school, I got injured playing on my school’s softball team. I dislocated my shoulder and tore up some ligaments and cartilage. I dislocated my shoulder many, many times during the following year until I finally had a total shoulder reconstruction surgery the spring of my sophomore year. I was miserable for months afterwards, and constantly in excruciating pain. I missed close to a month of school. I couldn’t participate in sports for six months. I couldn’t even sleep. The only thing that could get me to sleep, for a while, was Vicodin. The Vicodin also made me really sick though, so I could only take it right before bed.
One night, I had a crazy Vicodin-induced dream. I woke up at three in the morning and essentially fell out of bed because the images in my head were so vivid. I scooted on downstairs to our family computer, pulled up MS Word, and started writing. I wrote for hours. I’d never written like that before. The stuff I started that morning turned into my first novel, which I finished a few months before starting the original version of the panther/girl.
I’ve had another shoulder surgery since then, but I think having something to write helped keep me sane during the sickness, the pain, and the immobility. Now I love to do it whenever I can.
What’s the last memorable dream you had?
I have really crazy dreams. My boyfriend used to ask me if I smoke crack before bed because my dreams are so nuts (and no, I do not).
A few nights ago I had a dream that I was cheating on Legolas with Loki (the red-headed, mostly apathetic Norse god, not the Tom Hiddleston movie-verse version). I don’t know why that happened, but it did.
Which famous person, living or dead, would you like to meet, and why?
Okay, I have to go with a stereotypical English major answer and say Shakespeare. I’ve read a lot of his poetry and his plays (highly recommend Twelfth Night!) and took a class solely about him in college. I’d have a lot of questions for him. He did a lot for the culture of his time… but not until after he died. I wonder what his intent was? Did he want to change the way people thought as much as he did? Many people think he plagiarized. Is that true?
I would like to be a typical English major and talk to Shakespeare about philosophy and literature over a cup of mint tea.
What are you working on next?
I have an outline (and a title) for a the panther/girl sequel. I haven’t really started writing it yet as I’m working on something else, but it’s there and it’s waiting for me when I’m ready.
I’ve been working on writing a new, unnamed story that is still young adult, but has many more fantasy elements. I have so many ideas for it that I’ve kind of stalled out a bit, but I know it’s going somewhere. I just couldn’t really tell you where, or when it will get there. Such is the life of a writer with a full-time job on the side.