When she was 11, planning to go shopping at Cloverleaf Mall with her mom, Young-Stone was suddenly knocked unconscious in her Chester driveway. “It wasn't raining or anything, but all of a sudden I was on the ground. I was holding onto my dad's truck, which probably saved my life. The metal acts as a conduit for the lightning,” she says of the incident 28 years ago. “It's usually the return charge that kills people. We think the lightning went through me and exited my dad's truck. It's very freaky.”
Young-Stone's dad liked to joke that she was a weirdo as a teenager because she'd been struck by lightning, but then she started doing the research for her book. “It's like falling into nothing,” she says. “Everything turned white, and simultaneously you hear the loudest noise you can imagine. And it does change you. You've been changed by electricity. I have insomnia and anxiety and I'm the first one off the beach if there's thunder.”
Young-Stone earned her bachelor's degree in English from Virginia Commonwealth University, but it was during her work as a receptionist for a chiropractor that she met Oprah Book Club darling and Virginia novelist Sheri Reynolds. “I had never gotten a short story published,” Young-Stone says. “I'm the girl with thousands of rejections. But Sheri said, ‘If I can do it, anyone can do it.'”
After a slew of jobs and degrees — including cashier at Movie Time, high-school English teacher with a masters degree in teaching secondary English and a master's of fine arts degree in fiction — Young-Stone salvaged her favorite characters from a rejected short story and transformed them into the protagonists for “The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors,” published this month by Shaye Areheart Books under the umbrella of Random House.
Becca Burke, a composite of numerous people including Young-Stone, spends her life trying to reconcile her less than ideal childhood with the multiple effects of having been struck twice by lightning. “This is why fiction is so much better than reality,” Young-Stone says. “Becca tries to paint it. I used how I feel about writing and merged it into oil paint.” Studying the art from Theresienstadt ghetto, where the Nazis sent artists and children, Young-Stone also enlisted the help of “the most driven, disciplined painter I've ever met,” Richmond artist Thomas Van Auken.
She also studied the NASA Web site, online accounts about strikes and books about lightning and electricity — all for the cautionary tales, tips and personal stories that begin each chapter. “Why do some people get struck over and over again?” she asks. “They claim it's geography, but I think there's something more to it.”
Readers from around the country already are reaching out to Young-Stone. “I'm so glad you're a lightning-strike survivor, too,” is a common refrain.
“This book was so much about salvation through art so I researched the art that endured,” Young-Stone says. “Thematically it made the book more universal. It saved Becca, but it can also save people on a larger scale.” S
Michele Young-Stone will read at the Library of Virginia on May 20 at 5:30 p.m. For information, call 692-3500.