Going Down Swinging is going global. Once a month we’ll be swapping articles and interviews with Canadian literary magazine, PRISM international, to share our writers with a wider international audience.
A quarterly magazine out of Vancouver, British Columbia, PRISM international is the oldest literary magazine in western Canada, publishing the best in contemporary writing from Canada and around the world. Though best known for its fiction and poetry, PRISM also regularly publishes creative non-fiction, drama and translation.
First up, Jennifer Lori’s inspiring interview with début award-winning writer Tessa Mellas. Mellas’ 2013 short story collection Lungs Full of Noise (University of Iowa Press) won the Iowa Short Fiction Award and stories from the collection have been published in PRISM International, Harper Perennial, Crazyhorse and Word Riot.
Your stories draw from the well of magical realism and dip into the realms of fairy tales and fable. What draws you to this genre and these types of stories?
A friend introduced me to magical realism around the time that I graduated from college, and I devoured the two books that she lent me, Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Julia Slavin’s The Woman Who Cut off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club and Other Stories. I found the magic to be intoxicating, beautiful, and horrifying, and I fell in love with the possibilities that magical realism allowed for in fiction.
I love that magical realism presents an immediately familiar world and troubles that readers can identify with, but at the same time the possibilities of that world are infinite; as readers and writers, we aren’t limited to what has and can happen. Anything can happen, and the things that happen are miraculous, terrifying, and engrossing. When those qualities are crossed with lyrical musical language, it’s difficult as a reader to pull yourself away from the page. That the strangeness of these fictions helps us see our own reality and social systems and their absurdities more clearly is a bonus.
For me, fairy tales are appealing for the same reasons, and because they are playful and meant for children, it seems subversive to engage with them as an adult. Reclaiming fairy tales, which in their oldest forms endorsed a patriarchal Christian worldview, to empower the populations that they originally sought to control also feels hugely gratifying, and I think we all appreciate that Angela Carter showed us brilliantly how this could be done.
Can you talk about the themes you were looking to explore in Lungs Full of Noise? What inspired them?
I didn’t start out writing toward any particular themes. When I started the MFA, I wrote whatever plot came into my head. When I shifted to writing magical realism, my aim was to write a story with a clever imaginative premise. For a long time, premise and plot came first and were of primarily importance to me. In carrying out these strange premises, certain themes rose to the surface. I imagine they emerged from my own anxieties. I found myself writing about girls and women who feel caged and judged, who struggle inhabiting a female body, who don’t know how to handle that body, how to perform or display it. That frustration ultimately leads my characters to misbehave in interesting and revealing ways, and to me, that misbehaviour feels exultant.
While the consequences of acting out will likely lead to even greater problems for my characters, I feel like such actions signal an important turning point for them, a moment in which they are taking control of their own fates, making themselves noticed, and instigating change.
Once I started seeing thematic patterns, other patterns became clear. I saw that a lot of winged creatures popped into my stories, and I realised that women have historically been described as bird-like, of eating like birds and when they are most feminine, achieving the diminutive stature of birds. While, being bird-like in these ways is obviously problematic, I wanted to also draw attention to the power of birds, of any winged creature that can suspend its own body weight in the air, a terribly fabulous power.
What writers and books have influenced your work?
In addition to Aimee Bender, Julia Slavin, and Angela Carter, who I mentioned previously, I would add Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, Kelly Link, Judy Budnitz, Kevin Brockmeier, Kevin Wilson, Jeanette Winterson, Kate Bernheimer, and Tina May Hall as direct influences on my non-realist style. Specific books that have had a lasting effect are Jamaica Kincaid’s At the Bottom of the River, Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Arandhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby. Other writers who I hugely admire are Virginia Woolf, Jhumpa Lahiri, J.D. Salinger, and Lorrie Moore.
Some of our readers are writers who are working on their first novels and short story collections. What advice you can give to aspiring authors? What did you learn from writing your first collection?
The most helpful things I have learned about writing have come out of my own struggles. The more I learned about writing in the MFA and PhD program and the more I invested time in my writing, the harder it became to write.
During my PhD, I struggled with writer’s block and did research on what writer’s block was and how other writers worked to overcome it. One of the most helpful things I learned was that writer’s block happens to writers who are hugely capable and motivated, who want very badly to write well, but for whatever reason can’t. The reasons tend to be because writers are focusing on the results of the writing (publication, praise) rather than on the writing itself or that they are doing the wrong steps in the wrong order or in the wrong proportion.
For me, I often edit prose way too early in the writing process, trying to make every sentence beautiful before I even have a story down on the page. I would tell writers to study their own process. I did this by recording an oral narration of my writing process. I didn’t even need to listen to the tape to realise what my problems were. I kept telling the tape recorder, “I don’t like that sentence. I can’t move on until I like this sentence.” Of course, that harsh criticism is going to lead to a block. I think it was Victoria Nelson who talked about writer’s block as a defence mechanism that your brain uses to prevent self-abusive behaviour. If you always are demeaning yourself as you write, of course, you’re going to eventually start avoiding writing because it doesn’t feel good to be in that space. I found that realisation useful toward helping me treat my writing self more kindly and patiently.
During my PhD, I also had the chance to take several courses in composition theory. I think that composition gets a bad rap in creative writing programs, but I find composition scholarship to be hugely useful in giving all writers a huge tool kit of different writing strategies to pull from. When I get stuck, I try to shift to a different strategy, a different process. I have found listing helpful. If I’m struggling to write sentences, it’s easier to just write words. I can also trick myself into productivity by telling myself I am not writing prose; I am just taking notes.
When I write on paper instead of at the computer, I find the stakes seem lowered. The writing seems like note taking, like something no one else will ever see, and that makes it somehow easier. Sometimes looking at or drawing pictures or maps is helpful, when it is not distracting. Getting away from technology is always helpful. Whenever you can make the writing process more physical, it is helpful. Sometimes I write standing at the kitchen counter. I always read out loud. When I am bored with what I am working on, sometimes it helps to perform the writing dramatically to make it more interesting. Sometimes I cut the story’s parts into pieces and move them around like a puzzle, trying different configurations out.
My biggest advice to writers is to always being thinking about your process, about how to make it new, interesting, and fun, or at the very least bearable. When writing is going badly, don’t let that negative feeling build; analyse it. Figure out why it feels bad. And then problem solve as you would problem solve if it was your student having the problem.
Also, I hate when visiting writers tell students that to be a serious writer, you must sit down and write X hours every day. Of course, writing daily is optimal and will no doubt lead to great productivity, but I also know writes who write daily who are dreadfully boring writers. And I think that as writers, we tend to hold ourselves to the standard of the most productive writer we know, and this isn’t always the best strategy for every writer.
A lot of my writing epiphanies come when I’ve given myself permission to take a respite from a story, promising myself that I will try to figure a way around the story’s problems while I’m not in its presence. I find that immensely helpful. Coming up with plans for stories while I’m not sitting in front of the text. That way when I sit down to write, I have a game plan and am not so easily distracted by my own self-criticism. Phew. I can talk on and on about that one. I’ll leave this question with one more piece of advice from a former professor, Lawrence Coates, who once told me, “Write what pleases you.”
Can you share a bit of your writing process with us? How do you approach the nuts and bolts of writing and revision?
I tend to think of a premise for a story first. Often now, that premise is based on thematic considerations. Or something I have read suggests a different premise. When I’m reading metamorphosis stories, I often think of metamorphosis premises. When I’m excited about a new premise, I usually write a page or two eagerly and then I get stuck because I don’t have a clear idea about the characters or setting of the story yet. So usually, the story gets tucked away for awhile. And when I encounter something in the world that fits with that premise – it could be a personality trait, a place, a profession, or even a writing style – I start fitting the pieces together.
Once I find one piece of the puzzle, I start brainstorming the other pieces. I often problem solve on long car trips when I have ample time to think and plan in my head. When I am my best writing self – which is not often – I plan out the writing process so that each writing session has manageable goals, such as writing through one plot point or a few descriptive passages.
My writing process can be extremely time consuming. One story in my collection took about eight years to write. I didn’t work on the story constantly for eight years. I did a big revision on the story once every year and also spent a lot of time tightening up the prose. I heard a writer once say that she knows that a story is done when she can read it through out loud without cringing. And this is also my barometer.
The last step of my process is the agonising process of reading and rereading the story with your cringe meter turned up high and tinkering with each sentence that the cringe meter is alarmed by until the cringe meter stops going off. Of course, eventually my cringe meter goes numb and I need to get another set of eyes on the work because I have only blind spots and my brain has memorised the way some sentences sound, and those sentences sound right, whether they are or not.
What are you working on now?
Is it terrible to say I’m not sure? I have a lot of projects started and I keep bouncing around between them. I’ve started a speculative novel, much in the tradition of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but I’m frustrated at how much world building I need to do before I can write actual sentences. I am working on a set of environmental essays and also trying to catch up on the creative non-fiction canon. And I’m trying to finish some older stories that I still have affection for that didn’t get done in time for the first collection.
I also am very interesting in creative writing pedagogy and would like to do more research and writing about collaborative writing, about writing programs, and about writer’s blocks. I am interested in eco-criticism and the intersection between ecological concerns and fabulism in books like Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby. I would love to do some analytical work on eco-fabulism and how it very subtly works toward environmental change.
This year, I transitioned from vegetarianism to veganism, and understanding food and our relationship with food seems like an infinite project. I also love to garden and compost. And I am always trying to be a less materialistic person who reads more and spends less time online. Being my ideal person is also an infinite project.
Is there anything else you would like to share with your readers?
I do think aspiring writers should know that an MFA is an amazing experience and is worthwhile even if you don’t end up making writing your profession. If you decide to get an MFA, do it for yourself, not necessarily for your own career. And know that academia isn’t the only career available to writers, even while it can be a wonderful career for writers. Don’t let your version of success be dictated by academia’s guidebook for success. Find a way to have language and literature be a part of your life in the way that makes you the happiest. And find the people who feed your love for literature in positive ways. That seems an awfully sentimental way to end this interview, but I’ll stop there. Thanks so much for your interest and thoughtful questions.
Read the original post at PRISM here.