Elena Mikalsen’s Debut Novel: WRAPPED IN THE STARS

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Writing a novel is a challenge, no matter how you slice it—but when English isn’t your first language (and it’s the language you choose to write in), that takes things to a whole new level. Debut author Elena Mikalsen grew up in the Ukraine and came to the U.S. as a refugee. She became a pediatric psychologist specializing in anxiety and PTSD—no small achievement—and then overcame her own fears to write a novel. WRAPPED IN THE STARS is a dual-timeline romance set in Edinburgh, Paris, Bern, and New York. Here, Elena shares how her book came to be.

I’m always so fascinated by how people find their way to writing novels. You’re a clinical psychologist with a focus on anxiety and PTSD, correct? What led you to become a novelist, and does your day job inform the way you write fiction?

I have always written short stories as a child and teenager as I was growing up in the Ukraine. But then I came as a refugee to the United States and had to learn English. For many years, I was fearful of writing in English as I didn’t think my imagination could be expressed in a foreign language. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I finally let go of my fear and tried writing fiction again. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. And then, to my great relief, I learned that there are copyeditors to help writers like me, who struggle with English grammar a bit.

My job very much influences how and what I write about. I love the topic of anxiety and PTSD and WRAPPED IN THE STARS has a character (Maya) struggling with PTSD in the beginning of the novel. Also, the main character, Maya, is a medical resident, struggling to complete her residency. I have been working with medical residents for about 15 years now and I have tremendous compassion for what they go through to become physicians. 

You’ve been known to say that you write “book club fiction about smart women placed in extraordinary circumstances.” Tell us a little bit about Maya Radelis, the heroine of your debut novel, WRAPPED IN THE STARS, and the extraordinary circumstances that shape her.

Maya Radelis is an aspiring physician who believes she caused a patient to die and is now questioning whether she was truly meant to be a physician. She volunteers in Guatemala for a while, but then finds herself still questioning her future and, on the way home, impulsively takes a flight to Scotland. One evening, she gets lost in the labyrinth of old streets of Edinburgh and finds herself in front of an antique store. A century-old moonstone engagement ring catches her attention and she has just enough money to buy it. What she doesn’t know is that the ring has memories of another woman’s life trapped in it. And this woman was a physician during WWI. Maya decides to follow the memories and find out why she happened to be in Edinburgh and find this ring. Was it meant to be? What I love about Maya is that she is very strong inside, but it takes some time for her to recover from her PTSD and show her strength. If you stick with her story, you will see her strength and you will root for her all the way and feel proud of her.

As soon as you told me that WRAPPED IN THE STARS featured a dual-timeline romance, I felt an immediate kinship with you! My second book, THE DREAM KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, is set partially in modern-day Charleston and 1816 Barbados, so I’ve experienced the joys and challenges of writing this type of novel first-hand. What inspired you to write this particular story, and why use the dual-timeline approach?

I have always loved dual-timeline stories. I am a huge fan of Susanna Kearsley’s novels and have read them all about a dozen times. I got the idea for this particular novel when I was in Edinburgh with my family about 4 years ago. I stood in front of an antique shop on the Royal Mile and noticed the display held beautiful rings. I absolutely love antique shopping and thought a ring would be a great item to have. And then I shuddered as a thought occurred to me. What if I buy an antique jewelry item and it has memories of its owner attached to it? This idea of memories transferring from people to objects wouldn’t leave me alone.

Then I started looking for a great story of a woman to go with a ring that would be found in an antique shop. The story came to me quickly but in a sad way. My grandmother, Zoya, passed away and left me a diary filled with pages of family history. One of the pages discussed the early life of my great-grandfather, Mark. As a Jew, he was denied entry to Ukrainian universities and had to travel to Switzerland in order to study in medical school. He spent years studying in Switzerland and then returned during the Russian Revolution. I thought—what if Mark met a woman in Switzerland and she was the greatest love of his life?

And there you go! But of course, my imagination went a bit out of control after that!

WRAPPED IN THE STARS is set in Edinburgh, Paris, Bern and New York, correct? Did you get to visit any of these places over the course of your research for the book—and how did you handle the historical research? Did anything you learned in the course of your research surprise you?

I used to live in New York, so this part was easy. I have visited Paris multiple times and it’s one of my favorite places to visit. I visited Edinburgh with my family 4 years ago.

I have never actually been to Bern. But we have the magic of the internet that allowed me to travel through the streets of Bern and watch travel videos and find old maps of Bern. I also found that the Swiss keep great archival records that are easy to access online.

I studied many biographies written by women and men who studied medicine in Swiss universities at the time Rebecca studied medicine. I also read biographies by first women physicians to learn of the struggles they had in medicine and what kind of work they chose to do. I read about WWI and Swiss history. I read Lenin’s biography as written by his wife. I read books about Ukraine during WWI, even though I grew up in the country and knew quite a bit.

My greatest disappointment was that I wasn’t able to find my great-grandfather’s name in the admissions’ archival records. I searched through thousands of names but never saw his.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to read? And what are you working on next?

Right now I am working on a women’s fiction/suspense novel, temporarily titled BE BRAVE. I am about halfway through the manuscript. It’s a modern version of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, but with the woman as the main character. So, a revenge story. I love writing it. I also started writing a contemporary romance novel while on vacation to Rome last summer and this novel is just a really fun story for me to write, but I haven’t had much time to get into it.

Because I am writing about suspense, I have been reading a great deal of suspense novels to put me in the mood. I am about to read THE WIFE BETWEEN US and I am finishing THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW.

Bio

I am a Women’s Fiction author. I write stories about smart women in extraordinary circumstances. My first novel, WRAPPED IN THE STARS, was short-listed for the Del Sol First Novel Prize in 2017. I am somewhat obsessive about travel, but when I am at home, in San Antonio, I can be found browsing through bookstores or antique shops with my husband and two children. I love to read and my two rescue dogs are usually found at my feet in my reading room.

When not writing stories, I am a Pediatric Psychologist helping children with chronic medical illness. I blog on issues of mental health for teens and adults. I enjoy working with the media due to my expertise in managing anxiety, stress, and parenting issues. My nonfiction writing can be found at https://www.drelenamikalsen.com

Writing a novel is a challenge, no matter how you slice it—but when English isn’t your first language (and it’s the language you choose to write in), that takes things to a whole new level. Debut author Elena Mikalsen grew up in the Ukraine and came to the U.S. as a refugee. She became a pediatric psychologist specializing in anxiety and PTSD—no small achievement—and then overcame her own fears to write a novel. WRAPPED IN THE STARS is a dual-timeline romance set in Edinburgh, Paris, Bern, and New York. Here, Elena shares how her book came to be.

I’m always so fascinated by how people find their way to writing novels. You’re a clinical psychologist with a focus on anxiety and PTSD, correct? What led you to become a novelist, and does your day job inform the way you write fiction?

I have always written short stories as a child and teenager as I was growing up in the Ukraine. But then I came as a refugee to the United States and had to learn English. For many years, I was fearful of writing in English as I didn’t think my imagination could be expressed in a foreign language. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I finally let go of my fear and tried writing fiction again. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. And then, to my great relief, I learned that there are copyeditors to help writers like me, who struggle with English grammar a bit.

My job very much influences how and what I write about. I love the topic of anxiety and PTSD and WRAPPED IN THE STARS has a character (Maya) struggling with PTSD in the beginning of the novel. Also, the main character, Maya, is a medical resident, struggling to complete her residency. I have been working with medical residents for about 15 years now and I have tremendous compassion for what they go through to become physicians. 

You’ve been known to say that you write “book club fiction about smart women placed in extraordinary circumstances.” Tell us a little bit about Maya Radelis, the heroine of your debut novel, WRAPPED IN THE STARS, and the extraordinary circumstances that shape her.

Maya Radelis is an aspiring physician who believes she caused a patient to die and is now questioning whether she was truly meant to be a physician. She volunteers in Guatemala for a while, but then finds herself still questioning her future and, on the way home, impulsively takes a flight to Scotland. One evening, she gets lost in the labyrinth of old streets of Edinburgh and finds herself in front of an antique store. A century-old moonstone engagement ring catches her attention and she has just enough money to buy it. What she doesn’t know is that the ring has memories of another woman’s life trapped in it. And this woman was a physician during WWI. Maya decides to follow the memories and find out why she happened to be in Edinburgh and find this ring. Was it meant to be? What I love about Maya is that she is very strong inside, but it takes some time for her to recover from her PTSD and show her strength. If you stick with her story, you will see her strength and you will root for her all the way and feel proud of her.

As soon as you told me that WRAPPED IN THE STARS featured a dual-timeline romance, I felt an immediate kinship with you! My second book, THE DREAM KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, is set partially in modern-day Charleston and 1816 Barbados, so I’ve experienced the joys and challenges of writing this type of novel first-hand. What inspired you to write this particular story, and why use the dual-timeline approach?

I have always loved dual-timeline stories. I am a huge fan of Susanna Kearsley’s novels and have read them all about a dozen times. I got the idea for this particular novel when I was in Edinburgh with my family about 4 years ago. I stood in front of an antique shop on the Royal Mile and noticed the display held beautiful rings. I absolutely love antique shopping and thought a ring would be a great item to have. And then I shuddered as a thought occurred to me. What if I buy an antique jewelry item and it has memories of its owner attached to it? This idea of memories transferring from people to objects wouldn’t leave me alone.

Then I started looking for a great story of a woman to go with a ring that would be found in an antique shop. The story came to me quickly but in a sad way. My grandmother, Zoya, passed away and left me a diary filled with pages of family history. One of the pages discussed the early life of my great-grandfather, Mark. As a Jew, he was denied entry to Ukrainian universities and had to travel to Switzerland in order to study in medical school. He spent years studying in Switzerland and then returned during the Russian Revolution. I thought—what if Mark met a woman in Switzerland and she was the greatest love of his life?

And there you go! But of course, my imagination went a bit out of control after that!

WRAPPED IN THE STARS is set in Edinburgh, Paris, Bern and New York, correct? Did you get to visit any of these places over the course of your research for the book—and how did you handle the historical research? Did anything you learned in the course of your research surprise you?

I used to live in New York, so this part was easy. I have visited Paris multiple times and it’s one of my favorite places to visit. I visited Edinburgh with my family 4 years ago.

I have never actually been to Bern. But we have the magic of the internet that allowed me to travel through the streets of Bern and watch travel videos and find old maps of Bern. I also found that the Swiss keep great archival records that are easy to access online.

I studied many biographies written by women and men who studied medicine in Swiss universities at the time Rebecca studied medicine. I also read biographies by first women physicians to learn of the struggles they had in medicine and what kind of work they chose to do. I read about WWI and Swiss history. I read Lenin’s biography as written by his wife. I read books about Ukraine during WWI, even though I grew up in the country and knew quite a bit.

My greatest disappointment was that I wasn’t able to find my great-grandfather’s name in the admissions’ archival records. I searched through thousands of names but never saw his.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to read? And what are you working on next?

Right now I am working on a women’s fiction/suspense novel, temporarily titled BE BRAVE. I am about halfway through the manuscript. It’s a modern version of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, but with the woman as the main character. So, a revenge story. I love writing it. I also started writing a contemporary romance novel while on vacation to Rome last summer and this novel is just a really fun story for me to write, but I haven’t had much time to get into it.

Because I am writing about suspense, I have been reading a great deal of suspense novels to put me in the mood. I am about to read THE WIFE BETWEEN US and I am finishing THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW.

Bio

I am a Women’s Fiction author. I write stories about smart women in extraordinary circumstances. My first novel, WRAPPED IN THE STARS, was short-listed for the Del Sol First Novel Prize in 2017. I am somewhat obsessive about travel, but when I am at home, in San Antonio, I can be found browsing through bookstores or antique shops with my husband and two children. I love to read and my two rescue dogs are usually found at my feet in my reading room.

When not writing stories, I am a Pediatric Psychologist helping children with chronic medical illness. I blog on issues of mental health for teens and adults. I enjoy working with the media due to my expertise in managing anxiety, stress, and parenting issues. My nonfiction writing can be found at https://www.drelenamikalsen.com

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