Coming full circle from their first learning experience as Converse students, the senior class will welcome alumna Michel Stone ’99 MEd as their commencement speaker on Saturday, May 14. The class read the author’s award-winning novel, The Iguana Tree, during the summer before their freshman year began. Arriving on campus armed with thoughts, questions, and ideas about the book, their freshman orientation included a reading, talk and book signing with Stone.
“This graduating class is special to me because they began their Converse journey reading my novel.”
“This graduating class is special to me because they began their Converse journey reading my novel,” said Stone. “I’ll always remember that September day we gathered to discuss my book. Their insights, sincerity, and close reading of my work made a lasting impression on me. Their invitation to speak at Commencement delights me because I get one more opportunity to be with these incredible women I met four years ago.”
This will be Stone’s first experience delivering a commencement address. “I love an interesting challenge and that is what this feels like: I’m charged with giving my two cents’ worth in under 20 minutes on how these impressive, talented graduates should proceed into this vast world. I’m taking that task seriously and will speak from the heart,” she said.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Michel Smoak Stone grew up on Johns Island at the end of a dirt road that split soybean fields. She loved words and stories from her earliest days. Her mother, who painted beautiful landscape paintings, and her father, who carved stunning birds from blocks of wood, nurtured her creativity and sense of wonder. The first book Michel recalls writing was titled Planet Boom Boom. She was in the 4th grade and that story was her first and last attempt at writing science fiction.
“I’m charged with giving my two cents’ worth in under 20 minutes on how these impressive, talented graduates should proceed into this vast world.”
She completed her undergraduate degree in English and earned her teaching certificate from Clemson University, and while there she and two other students initiated the Festival of African American Literature and the Arts. That festival ran annually for nearly two decades. While working on her master’s degree at Converse, her interest in creative writing exploded, and she experienced her first publication in Concept literary magazine.
Stone continued writing and teaching as she started her family in Spartanburg. All the while, she kept in contact with her Converse creative writing instructor, Rosa Shand, who had retired but continued to encourage Michel to write, assuring her she had a gift, even when self-doubt left Michel wondering. Finally in 2004 Stone wrote a short story that won two awards and was published. A mentor encouraged her to expand that story into a novel, which she did, and in 2012 her debut novel, The Iguana Tree, was published. She told herself if the book sold three copies she would be elated.
The Iguana Tree, which Kirkus Reviews says “recalls the work of John Steinbeck,” received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and an IPPY Award as one of the top novels published in 2012 by an independent press. The book was named a finalist for Foreword Reviews’ Multicultural Book of the Year. The New York Journal of Books called the book “a triumph.” It was selected by Hermiston Oregon for their One Book, One Community Read and was also selected by Upstate (SC) International for their Community Read.
Stone’s writing has been lauded for addressing a controversial issue without seeming heavy-handed or political and without passing judgment on her characters or shying away from hard truths. Her novel was selected by several colleges for their Freshman Read Programs, among them Clemson University, Catawba Valley Community College, and Spartanburg Community College in addition to Converse.
“Their people are currently talking to my people. I have always wanted to say that and mean it.”
After The Iguana Tree’s publication, Stone traveled the country speaking to over 100 audiences that first year alone. She signed on with well-known New York literary agent Marly Rusoff, who was Pat Conroy’s longtime agent. Rusoff showed Stone’s new novel manuscript to Random House editor Nan Talese, who offered to publish it. This second novel, Border Child, is forthcoming in early 2017 from Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House. Stone is already at work on her third novel.
Two film producers have contacted Stone about optioning Border Child. One is interested in making a full-length movie; the other is interested in making it into a television series. “Their people are currently talking to my people. I have always wanted to say that and mean it,” Stone said.
An alumna of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Michel Stone has published numerous stories and essays, and is a 2011 recipient of the South Carolina Fiction Award from the SC Arts Commission. She has lived in Spartanburg for over 20 years, where she and her husband, Eliot, are raising their three children. She currently serves on The Spartanburg Regional Foundation Cancer Board and as the Board Chair of the Hub City Writers Project, and she is an Aspen Institute Liberty Fellow.