Meet Michelle: 10 Questions
1. What was your first editorial gig?
During my final days of undergrad, I did what most jobless English majors do: I signed up for the Peace Corps. But before I could pack my dental floss, I was hired as an editor for a now-defunct mag called Single-Parent Family in Colorado. Once that day job was done, I drove my Celica clunker to a Sears parking lot so I could begin my evening side hustle—as a shoe saleswoman with a writing dream.
2. How’d you get a job with Oprah?
After ringing up dozens of peep-toe wedges, I’d saved enough cash to attend the Radcliffe Publishing Course (now called the Columbia Publishing Course), a boot camp for wannabe book and magazine editors. At the course, an Essence editor discovered me and moved me to Manhattan. Two years and a few promotions later, I spotted a New York Times piece about how Oprah was launching a magazine. I knew I had to find my way onto that project. And I did: Ten days later, I was sharing a cosmo with Oprah. A week after that, I joined Oprah’s inaugural team. Talk about a defining experience—the martini that changed everything.
3. Later, after you broke into books, what memoirs did you work on?
First things first: I partnered with Emmy, Tony and Oscar-winning screen legend Cicely Tyson on her #1 NYT bestselling memoir, Just As I Am. The New York Times called it “a balm for the afflicted,” while Publishers Weekly wrote, “This show-stopping tale hits the mark.” Another book that landed atop the NYT list: the memoir of Michelle Knight, one of the three girls kidnapped and tortured by Ariel Castro until her heart-pounding escape in May 2013. Michelle recounts her story in Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, A Life Reclaimed, which spent five weeks on the NYT list and also made it onto Amazon’s “The Best Books of 2014” list.
In other news: I’ve written memoirs for a couple of superstar gymnasts (Simone Biles in 2016—also a #1 NYT best seller—and Gabby Douglas in 2012); two Grammy Award-winning singers (Alicia Keys and Toni Braxton); legend actress Cicely Tyson; a heroic snowboard champion who—on prosthetic legs—waltzed her way into Americans’ hearts on season 18 of Dancing With the Stars (Amy Purdy); an Orange Is the New Black actress who, at the age of 14, came home to discover that her parents had been taken away from her (Diane Guerrero); a Dallas police chief who, after retiring in 2016, became an ABC News contributor (David O. Brown); and the master table maker and renowned furniture artisan on Chip and Joanna Gaines’s smash hit HGTV series Fixer Upper (Clint Harp who, along with his wife, Kelly, a brilliant home goods designer, co-founded Harp Design Co. on a shoestring budget and a prayer. Clint and his family—based in Waco, Texas—are now the stars of Wood Work on the DIY Network).
How quickly did I write these books? I’m known for delivering major memoirs on nearly impossible timelines, so in some cases, I got the job done in as little as four to six weeks. In other instances, I had the luxury of three to six months or longer to gather great material through in-person meetings and phone conversations (I travel all over the planet to meet with my co-authors, and I make it a priority to accommodate their demanding schedules); construct a rock-solid story structure (while at work on a manuscript, I stay in close touch with my client’s literary agent and team to be sure we’re all on the same editorial page); and create a powerful narrative.
4. Why are you so passionate about book collaboration?
Because I love crafting an unputdownable story as much as I love reading one. Also, co-writing a book gives me the chance to do what I’ve always done instinctively: ask thoughtful questions. I’m intrigued by how others make sense of their lives. How they refine their ideas. How they lift themselves out of unthinkable circumstances and carry on. That’s what Michelle Knight did after she’d been held hostage in Cleveland for more than a decade—and I respect anyone with that much courage.
Each time I sit down with a new co-author, I know exactly why I’m there—to serve as a compassionate guide. It can be quite challenging to sort through the raw material of one’s story and pull out the experiences that should end up on the page. My intention is to make that process as comfortable as possible for my co-author. Asking the right questions—and then listening for the answers that could become part of a mesmerizing narrative—is one of the things I most love doing.
5. During your media career, have you gotten much academic prep?
For sure. I first studied English and journalism at Biola University in Los Angeles, followed by that stint at the Columbia Publishing Course. Later, I returned to dorm life to complete a master’s degree in educational psychology at Harvard University.
I’ve also squeezed in other useful coursework—a summer continuing education course in religion/philosophy at Oxford University; Arabic lessons in Marrakech; and amid an irresponsible amount of crème fraîche, a French continuing education course at the Sorbonne in Paris.
6. In between making editors’ lives easier, how do you spend your time?
I wear out my passport. International assignments—and an insatiable curiosity about our world—have taken me to 35 countries on six continents.
Where on earth have I been? I’ve lived with a Moroccan family; dined on an Israeli kibbutz; interviewed the presidents of Taiwan and Uganda; marveled at Moscow from a hot-air balloon; explored the alleyways of Lisbon with a group of raucous locals; waded in Iceland’s Blue Lagoon; meandered through Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar; danced the samba in Rio de Janeiro; gazed up at the skyscrapers in Dubai; dozed on a sleeper train from Shanghai to Beijing; and hitchhiked my way through Greece while writing a travel guidebook.
And what did spending so much time in all of those faraway lands teach me? That even after my purse has been snatched, I can navigate my way—penniless at midnight—through the Tokyo subway system (yup, it happened); that I can yap with anyone from a mopper to a muckety-muck; and that it usually requires guts and ingenuity to get a great story. E-mail me so we can get to work on yours.
7. Have you met any cool people?
Absolutely. For a decade during my time at Oprah’s magazine, I worked on “The O Interview,” a section that features celebs and leaders. After Oprah conducted the conversation, I edited the intro and Q&A. In so doing, I hobnobbed with legends like Nelson Mandela (around his lunch table in Qunu, South Africa); Julia Roberts (over margaritas at her New Mexico ranch); Michelle Obama (during her first month in the White House—skip to that story here); Elie Wiesel (who talked about surviving the Holocaust); Barbra Streisand (as she completed her Malibu farmhouse); the Dalai Lama (who offered a mini-guide to meditation); and Madonna (who riffed on motherhood and setting aside her “Material Girl” ways).
Planning your next celebrity book or cover story? Ring me up. I’m comfy enough with celebs to get the job done without gawking—yet I’m still in touch with my inner fan.
8. Tell three random facts about yourself.
First, I love to sing. I’m not great at it, but that hasn’t stopped me from taking a spot in the alto section of a small chorus. We sing everything from madrigals and operettas to folk tunes and pop. It’s an interesting way for me to practice my craft—a great song contains all the elements of a well-told story.
Second random fact: About a year after I moved to New York, I crashed with eight pals in an uptown brownstone. Our plan was to make some changes on our block in Harlem, but as it turned out, it wasn’t our neighbors who most needed an upgrade. Check out our full story.
And lastly, I grew up near a fruit and vegetable farm that my parents operated as a side business. While clutching a rake at sunup, I learned the one lesson that has carried me through countless all-nighters: The secret to getting something done is to stop talking and actually do it.
9. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Captivate readers from the first sentence. “When someone begins reading your story,” a journalism prof once told me, “he or she is thinking, What’s in this for me? Will it be worth my time?” Readers’ cell phones are ringing off the hook, their children are fighting in the backseat of a Chevy, their next paycheck is uncertain. That means that I, the writer, have 2.5 seconds to show them how I’ll inspire them, entertain them, persuade them—and maybe even change them. With every book or article I write, that’s my goal.
10. Why should I hire you?
I deliver stories that rivet readers. I’ve proven that I can put together a best seller. And I really do care about engaging your audience. I get it that folks want accurate info and perspective on what’s happening on our planet. Yet I’m also clear about an even more primal urge: Like me, readers simply want to have a fab time.
Need a great story on a tight deadline? E-mail me at Michelle@MichelleBurford.com