Monday, January 28, 2013

An Interview with Melissa Studdard

Q: When did you decide to become a writer?

A: It happened in stages. I've always been writing in my head. I can remember making up dialogue while standing in front of the mirror blow drying my hair when I was a kid. I didn't really know what I was doing or why, but it was part of what fed into my writing later, and it was the earliest stage.

I started actually writing in my early twenties, and that was the second stage. I enjoyed it but wasn't serious about it, so I stopped for a long time as I focused on other things. It never felt right to not be writing, but I wasn't very self-aware yet, and I wasn't sure what was missing.

I began again when I was in my thirties, and that's when I got serious about it. In the past I had always grappled with whether or not I was spending my time wisely by sitting around making things up. I just felt like there were better contributions I could make. Writing seemed frivolous and like a type of self-indulgence. In my thirties, however, I began to view writing differently and to really understand the kinds of contributions literature has made and can continue to make to our world. It was then that I finally allowed myself to become immersed in what I should have been doing all along. Now I absolutely cannot imagine my life without writing. It has become an integral part of who I am.

Moral of the story: Trust what you are drawn to. It would have saved me a lot of time!

Q: Who has been the biggest influence in your life, so far?

A: Unquestionably, my parents. I’ve done a lot of dumb things over the years, and they never gave up on me, never stopped loving me, never lost faith in me. Sure, they got frustrated, and even mad, when I made poor decisions, but they always gave me unconditional love—that greatest of all gifts. And largely because of their faith in me and support of me, I have thrived despite odds that would have otherwise seemed overwhelming.

Q: Where did the idea for Six Weeks to Yehidah come from?

A: I was in a wonderful critique and writing group in which we took turns assigning prompts each month. One woman asked us to read The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales and write our own short tale. It turned out that I was so compelled by the voice and characters I’d created that I kept writing and writing until I realized I was no longer working on a short story. I was writing a novel.

Q: Tell us about your inspiration for Six Weeks to Yehidah.

A: Would you believe I dreamed much of it? Not all of it, but a goodly portion. For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by the unconscious mind, and in the years before I wrote Six Weeks to Yehidah I’d done an intensive study of dreams, meditation, visualization, and so forth. I kept a dream journal and meditated regularly. I listened to guided meditations, which are rich with imagery.

In the end, it was a combination of dreaming and waking imagination that birthed the scenes in this book. It was also a combination of the made-up and the observed, and by observed, I mean both in the physical world and in books and art. When I sat down to write, it all just flowed very naturally.

I hear that most writers find it easier to compose realism. For me, it’s easier to produce the fantastical - making things up is fun, exciting, natural to me, whereas trying to accurately record reality is a great challenge. My imagination is much stronger than my memory!

Q: You write fiction and poetry, and non-fiction. Which is your favorite, and why?

A: I absolutely love all of it, but I have to say, poetry is the source for me. My prose style has been described as poetic, but I don’t put a lot of narrative in my poetry. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the power of stories as much as I believe in the importance of poetry—all you have to do is look at the holy text of almost any religion to see the importance of storytelling for illuminating fundamental human truths—but poetry is about being able to convey ideas and emotions in language so vital that it is of the very rhythms of our blood and our breath and the heart and the cycles of nature and life. Now, I ask you, how could language like that not make any story or essay better?

Q: What do you hear from your readers?

A: I get some amazing letters. People say the funniest things. One guy wrote that after checking out Six Weeks to Yehidah from the library, he was giving up cigarettes to save the money to buy the book for his daughter. Now that is a positive impact I never expected the book to have—to get someone to quit smoking. But I’m glad! I also heard from a wonderful woman whose husband had cancer. She was using Six Weeks to Yehidah to talk to her daughter about death. I can’t tell you what an honor it is to know the book played such an important role in their lives. I hear too from people who like the humor and imagery and want to know if it’s going to be made into a movie. Because the description is highly visual, there are a lot of people asking for a movie

Q: What do you like to read?

A: Oh, what don’t I like to read! I’m drawn to words wherever I see them. I read the shampoo bottle when I’m showering, the billboards on the side of the road, the cereal box—everything. I read in all genres—fiction, poetry, non-fiction; at all levels—children’s, teen adult; in translation and in the original language; books from the library, books on kindle, paperbacks, hardbacks. My daughter loves to read too, and our home is filled with books. I usually read more than one book at a time too. Right now I’m reading a novel called Pym, a collection of poems by Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca, and a non-fiction book about seashells.

Q: Do you have a favorite poem?

A: Great question, but for me that’s a bit like asking a mother to name her favorite child—impossible to answer. There are so many I adore, but here’s short one that I think is perfect. It’s by Li-Young Lee, one of my favorite poets, and it’s from his collection called Book of My Nights, a collection I would encourage everyone to read.

One Heart

Look at the birds. Even flying
is born

out of nothing. The first sky
is inside you, open

at either end of day.
The work of wings

was always freedom, fastening
one heart to every falling thing.

Q: If you had to grab three things (and ONLY three things) from your house to evacuate due to a zombie invasion, what would they be?

A: Ha! I can narrow that down to one: my purse, a big, monstrous, Santa’s bag of a thing that has almost everything I own in it, including, oftentimes, my phone and my computer. If my phone and computer weren’t in it, I’d grab those too. I have to tell you, though, you’re talking to a woman who can go to Europe for a whole month with one carryon suitcase and a purse. I don’t need much. Not even to fight zombies. Most of what I need is in my head.

Q: What advice do you offer to someone who wants to write a book?

A: First, always remember that you’re the only person who can speak your truths, and you are worthy of being heard. Nail this reminder over your desk. Tattoo it to the top of your hand. Make it your screensaver. Do whatever you have to do to remember it every time you write.

Second, become a great and regular reader. It’s unlikely that you will ever become a great writer without being a great reader.

Third, set a schedule that works for you. Be realistic so you don’t give up. If you schedule writing twice a week for two hours a pop, so be it. The writing will accumulate over time. If it’s eight hours a day, five days a week, even better. The important thing is to thoroughly incorporate writing into your lifestyle as fully as you would anything else that really mattered to you. Don’t think of it as optional. If you had monthly appointments to take your child to a pediatrician, and you missed one, you would re-schedule it. Do the same with your writing. Try to never miss the appointments, and if you do, re-schedule them. The first time you tell someone you can’t get together because you have a writing appointment, you’ll realize how powerful this is. Soon you’ll be scheduling doctor’s appointments and other important events around your writing time. If you treat writing like a hobby, it will most likely only ever be a hobby. Instead treat it like what you want it to be.

Fourth, be patient and keep after it and write without ridiculous expectations. Sometimes your writing won’t be good, but you have to write through that to get to the good stuff. Quitting writing won’t fix anything. Don’t be wary of writing the bad stuff. Just laugh at it, think of it as practice, don’t show it to anyone if you don’t feel like it, and keep writing until the good stuff starts flowing again. All writers produce bad writing at times. The ones that will become successful keep writing anyway.

So, most importantly: Do not stop writing. Do not stop writing. Do not, for any reason, ever, stop writing.

Wow, great advice! 
Thank you so much for your time, Melissa! We look forward to seeing you at the festival!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this interview! I'm looking forward to the festival!