Monthly Archives: April 2013

An Interview with Melissa Scholes-Young

Melissa Scholes-Young was born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain’s beloved boyhood home, and she is an Assistant Professor of English at American University in Washington, D.C., where she teaches composition. She is, as she terms it, a recovering high- school English teacher who also spent a few years teaching in Brazil. She earned an MFA in fiction at Southern Illinois University, where she served as an assistant editor for Crab Orchard Review. Her essays have appeared most recently in Brain, Child and The Huffington Post. Her fiction and poetry have been published in Tampa Review, Word Riot, Cold Mountain Review, New Madrid, Yalobusha Review, Mandala, and other literary journals. She writes regularly for Fiction Writer’s Review, and she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize.

I had the pleasure of meeting Young shortly after she contacted Unbridled Books to request an interview that would appear in Fiction Writer’s Review. We met at Teaism in DC’s Penn quarter on a cold, damp winter’s day and formed a mutual admiration society that began with our love for Mark Twain, the challenges of teaching college English, and our interest in history and historiography.

HUERGO: How would you describe your writing process?

Melissa Scholes-Young

SCHOLES-YOUNG: Urgent is the first word that comes to mind. Because my writing time is limited—whose isn’t?—I dive into the carved out writing spaces frantically. I go in with a goal. I’m a Virgo. I also practice Buddhism, though, so the part I struggle to embrace is that what I learn through the writing process is usually different than what I intended. I was rewriting my first chapter last week and one of my minor characters kept speaking up. My goal was to polish the first chapter. Instead, I’m now layering another point of view character. The work may be better for it, or I may just learn more about the story through the exercise, but I have to embrace it either way.

HUERGO: What would you identify as the most difficult aspect of that process?

SCHOLES-YOUNG: The most difficult part is balancing the essential need for sustained silence with the urgency of wanting feedback. Have you read the latest literary life essay in Poets & Writers called “The Calm Before the Calm” by Daphne Kalotay? When I read it, it was exactly what I needed to hear at the exact moment I needed to hear it. I had just published an essay, “American Born Fear,” that I co-wrote with my partner, Joseph Young, in The Huffington Post

“The more we feed into the fear component of terrorism, the further we get from recovery.
If we call the Boston Marathon bombers’foreigners,
even though they’ve been living among us for a decade, then we feel safe once again.”
from “American Born Fear”

When you write and publish something that public clearly you are seeking feedback. Our goal in the piece was to open a dialogue about the destructive “us vs. them” American response to the Boston Marathon bombers. The idea matters greatly to both of us. The feedback in the comments section was scathing and personal. It was also clear that many of the readers had missed our argument entirely.  Readers who agree with you or simply enjoyed the writing are mostly silent in online spaces. It’s too easy to move on to the next article or cat meme. Some of my friends liked the essay on Facebook. Most of my family completely ignored it.

Kalotay writes about this balancing act, too.  She writes “But just as humility is in a way a true writer’s essence, an indispensable element of the writer’s job is learning to live with the silence of being ignored–and not just because the silence is independent of our talent, of a book’s merit, of the love and effort that went into creating it. No, we must learn to live with the silence because silence is where we go to write.”  So there was my answer. Go back to the silence, back to the writing.

HUERGO: How do you balance your personal life, your professional obligations as a professor, and writing?

SCHOLES-YOUNG: I think compartmentalization is the only way, meaning I have to literally write down on my schedule the moments when I’m writing. I mark them out on the calendar with a Sharpie. Then I fight against myself to maintain that sacred space. I have to resist the urge to throw in another load of laundry or bake muffins for the next day’s breakfast or grade essays. It’s not that I don’t grade or do the laundry or bake muffins—I make mean blueberry muffins, by the way—it’s that I have to respect myself as a writer, too. It’s something I’m learning. I wrestle with the compartmentalization all the time.  It’s important to me that my children see me as a separate person, as a writer, a mother, a partner, and a teacher. My job is to teach them how to do that. As soon as I learn that myself.

HUERGO: Does teaching writing help or hinder your own writing?

Melissa Scholes-Young

SCHOLES-YOUNG: I love teaching. It’s so essential to who I am as a person. The classroom and my students feed me. I learn from their fresh perspectives. Even when I am teaching a book or an essay I think I know well, a student will see something in the text that I’ve overlooked or they’ll consider the argument with a new perspective. I’m never bored when I’m teaching. I absorb—sometimes rob—my students of their energy. Poor things.

HUERGO: What’s your next project?

SCHOLES-YOUNG: I’ve just finished my novel; it’s called Flood. It’s set in my hometown, Hannibal, Missouri.

 

 

An Interview with Virginia Pye

Virginia Pye and I also share an important bond: we’re both lucky enough to have our work published by Unbridled Books. When we met at the Virginia Festival of the Book in March 2013, she kindly agreed to respond to a few questions about her forthcoming work, River of Dust, a beautifully lyrical novel inspired by her grandfather’s journals, written while he was a missionary in China in the early 20th century. This debut novel has already won an important accolade, having been selected as an Indie Next Pick for May 2013. Pye, aside from having taught writing at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, served three terms as president of James River Writers, a literary non-profit in Richmond, Virginia. Her short stories have won awards and appeared in numerous literary magazines, including The North American Review, Tampa Review and The Baltimore Review. There is more information about Virginia Pye at Unbridled Books, as well as her author site.

Virginia Pye

Huergo: How would you describe your writing process?

Pye:  I have written for many years, stopping only when my children were young. River of Dust is my sixth novel, though the first to be published. I tend to ruminate on a story and characters for a while before I begin to write it. I jot down an outline. Nothing strict, but something to follow, heading towards key moments or turning points. I then dive in. I write every day and have for some time, unless I’m distracted by travel or family. When I was working on River of Dust, I was so possessed by telling the story that it woke me before five a.m.. I was at my desk with a cup of coffee before sun up and could write for two hours and then take my son to school. I’d return to it in the daylight and press on. I tend to write a full first draft of a book, then go back and rewrite extensively through many more drafts. The whole process can take years, but luckily, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.

Huergo: What would you identify as the most difficult aspect of that process?

Pye: The most difficult aspect is being able to see the work clearly for what it is, not for what I hope it will be. Like many writers, I have a love/hate relationship with what I write. I can be enamored of something one moment, and then feel chagrined by it the next. What’s hardest is to find that clear-eyed balance where you can see where you have succeeded, but also where you’ve fallen short. Hemingway said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector.” For me, that’s taken years to develop, and I’m still working on it. And, by the way, there’s a danger in sharing work too early. A writer can become hopeful and excited by her intentions and share it. That’s never a good idea, because criticism can be confusing and can throw you off track. It’s better to really polish the work and give it its best shot, and then venture out with it.

Huergo: How do you balance your personal life and your writing?
         
            book cover for River of Dust

Pye: I’m extremely lucky because I have a supportive husband and family, and I live in a community where there’s a sense of space and time in which to write. My life is not overly pressured. I used to teach writing, but not these days. Also, for years, I helped run a literary non-profit. But for now, I can say I just write. I tend to be disciplined about my time and go to my desk daily, which I consider a great privilege.

Huergo: What’s your next project?  

Pye: I’ve written many drafts of a novel about a family in Cambridge, Massachusetts—which happens to be where I grew up—at the time of the student take over of Harvard in 1969. For some reason, I’ve been trying to write that event into a novel for decades. It fascinates me. This novel is about two sisters, one of whom ends up inside the administration building during the take over. The girls’ father is Dean of Students, and his job is to bring the kids out of the building safely. Once again, as in River of Dust, I’m interested in the conflicts within families of the dominant class. In this case, they are not missionaries, but “the establishment.” I’m interested in how the next generation goes to great lengths to define themselves in opposition to their inherited status. In other words, it’s a novel that comes out of the sixties. And, although I wasn’t of that age, I know how it tore apart families and has echoes to this day.

An Interview with Ed Falco

Ed Falco and I share an important bond: we’re both lucky enough to have our work published by Unbridled Books. When we met at the Virginia Festival of the Book in March 2013, he kindly agreed to respond to a few questions about his writing process and his time management strategies, two key matters for most writers. There is a lot more information about Ed Falco and his work at Unbridled Books, which has recently published a Falco Sampler that includes Saint John of the Five Boroughs, Wolf Point, and Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha. His most recent novel, The Family Corleone, is based on some of the screenplays of Mario Puzo. If you like Raymond Carver, you’ll enjoy Ed Falco’s work. 

 Ed Falco

Huergo: How would you describe your writing process?

Falco: For most of my life as a writer, I’ve had to balance family and teaching with writing.  That usually meant that I’d get a couple of hours every morning to write, and then spend the rest of the day getting everything done that needed to get done so that I could have those couple of hours the following morning.  The process turned into a routine: get up, have breakfast and read the paper, then go into my study and write for a couple of hours before rushing off to a class.  (For many years, while raising my daughter, I’d make us both breakfast and then run her off to school before coming home and writing.)  Beginning a couple of years ago, when I decided I wanted to try to write popular fiction—or at least fiction that had a chance of reaching a popular audience—I started putting in eight hour writing days.  I could do this during the summer and on breaks between semesters.  I discovered I could write 1,500 to 2,500 words a day, and I’ve been working that way ever since.  I’m single and my daughter is grown and off living her life—and that makes it easier to devote more time to writing.

Huergo: What would you identify as the most difficult aspect of that process?

Falco: Occasionally I feel like a hermit living in the cave of my study. This is hardly a news flash—but being a serious writer requires spending a awful lot of time alone.  That can be difficult.  I’m lucky to have a girlfriend who drags me out of the house now and them.  It’s a blessing.

Huergo: How do you balance your personal life, your professional obligations as a professor, and writing?

Falco: It’s a juggling act.  One of the great dangers of academia for writers comes from getting so involved with the life of the university that you forget you’re a writer.  I’ve always tried to write a couple of hours a day, every day.  Then I’ve used the rest of the day to prepare for my teaching.  Because of that I’ve always felt like I was working two jobs, rushing from one to the other every day.  Personal life has sometimes suffered—but that would be the case for anyone working two jobs.  Still, I’ve done my best over the years to balance all three aspects of my life.  I’ve done it well at times, at other times, not so much.

Huergo: Does teaching writing help or hinder your own writing?

Falco: Both.  It helps in that I’m around exciting young writers (in our MFA program) and I do a lot of careful reading in preparing for my courses.  It hinders in that I spend so much of my life reading work in very early stages of readiness for publication.  I read thousands of pages of manuscripts every year, with my pen in hand, trying to make them better.  I’m sure I’d be a better writer if I were reading thousands of pages of great literature every year.

Huergo: What’s your next project?                          The Family Corleone book cover

Falco: I just finished the first draft of a new novel, tentatively called Toughs.  It’s set in depression-era New York, and it’s based on historical events in the life of a young Irish gangster, Vincent Coll.