Interview with Melissa Grunow by Trisha Sugarek
MG: I have a home office set up in my basement with a large desk, reading chair, bookshelves, a bulletin board, and an endless supply of Post-It notes. I have a laptop and an additional computer screen that is a tremendous help, as I often have multiple windows open as I write and revise. The floor is covered with a large colorful rug that brightens up the space, and more often than not, my husky Duke can found stretched out across the middle of it. One of his favorite things to do is to keep me company while I work.
IM: Do you have any special rituals when you sit down to write?
MG: I don’t have any consistent writing rituals. Sometimes I listen to music, sometimes not. Sometimes I have to clean my entire office before I can begin, sometimes I just dive right in despite the mess. Since I’m often working on multiple projects, I usually will reread the piece a few times before I get started, just so I can put myself in the mindset of that specific draft. Oh, and I need to be wearing slippers. I can’t concentrate if my feet are cold.
IM: Could you tell us something about yourself that we might not already know?
MG: I am a die-hard obsessive fan of The Walking Dead. It’s the best television series since M*A*S*H. I love it, because it embodies all of the characteristics of canonical literature. The Walking Dead has awakened in me an obsession with the zombie apocalypse, and has even inspired me to incorporate references into my lectures and develop zombie-themed activities in my classes. My students, for the most part, tolerate my soapbox-like rants, because they are helpful in memorizing literary terms. One of them even bought me a lanyard with The Walking Dead on it that she’d found at Target, to hold my campus ID!
Furthermore, it’s essential we all have some kind of contingency plan for survival. It’s just good common sense. Even the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have detailed information on their website for preparing zombie apocalypse survival kits. This is serious business, folks.
IM: Do you have a set time each day to write, or do you write only when you are feeling creative?
MG: My writing time is inconsistent, though I don’t wait until I’m inspired. I see writing as a lot like going to the gym. If I don’t do it frequently, I feel out of shape—or rusty—when I do. So I often force myself to write, even when I don’t feel like I can put sentences together. Even if I just get a page, or a paragraph, it’s more than I had before I sat down to write. Every new word is a victory.
IM: What’s your best advice to other writers for overcoming procrastination?
MG: Procrastination is usually a result of fear, so ask yourself, “What are you afraid of? What are the nagging thoughts that are holding you back?” Your fear is lying to you. Confront it, tell it off, and start writing.
IM: Where/when do you first discover your characters?
MG: Since I write memoir and personal essays, my characters all come from my life. I never know who or what I’m going to write about, though, until it actually happens.
IM: What inspired you to write a memoir?
MG: I always knew I would write a book titled Brick Walls. In fact, I wrote the first two-thirds of a heavily autobiographical novel when I was a teenager. I never finished it, though, because I didn’t know how to end it. To this day, endings are my kryptonite. It’s a terribly-written book, and it will probably always stay hidden on my hard drive, but I can’t bring myself to delete it.
Writing Realizing River City has a kind of unknown origin. I had the impulse to write about relationships, but it didn’t start out as a memoir. I just kept drafting and drafting and revising and drafting, until it finally started to take shape as a book about learning to love oneself in the aftermath of apparent failure when it comes to loving others.
IM: Do you ‘get lost’ in your writing?
MG: I’m more likely to get lost in other people’s writing. I can tune out the whole world when I read a good book, but writing requires a tremendous amount of concentration. Even the smallest distraction can derail me.
IM: Who or what is your “muse” at the moment?
MG: Anything that triggers a vivid memory. It can be a spoken phrase, a distinctive scent, a song, anything!
IM: When did you begin to write seriously?
MG: I started writing seriously in college, but my writing didn’t really go anywhere. I amassed a hefty stack of rejection letters. I wrote fiction exclusively then, which was part of the issue. My fiction-writing skills are mediocre, in my opinion. Although I’ve had a few short stories published, I haven’t generated any new fiction that wasn’t heavily autobiographical in probably fifteen years.
IM: How long after that were you published?
MG: Although I wrote seriously in college and graduate school, I took a ten-year break from writing in 2001. I finished my first new piece in 2012, and it was published a few months later. Since then, I’ve been widely published in journals and anthologies. Though I didn’t physically produce new work for a long time, I honestly think I needed those ten years to live. Once I started writing again, I had no shortage of material.
IM: What makes a writer great?
MG: A great writer produces great writing, and great writing starts with clear, strong diction and well-written sentences. It’s easy to find beauty in the beautiful, but much more interesting to find beauty in the mundane. So many beginning writers desire to write a book, but they ignore the basics of good paragraphing, because they’re so focused on a surprising plot. It’s rare that I remember (or care) what actually happens in a story. What I care about is how the characters respond to their circumstances. Start with short pieces to focus on fascinating characters. Don’t let dialogue do all your work for you. Spend a day on a single sentence until it flies off the page and smacks the reader in the face because it’s so good. Killer openings are essential, and there needs to be some shift in the piece from the beginning to the end. Don’t be compelled to answer every question the piece raises. Let the piece end, but never let it be over. Otherwise, what will your readers talk about?
IM: What does the process of going from “no book” to “finished book” look like for you?
MG: I just started writing personal essays. If there was a relationship that I learned something from, or I grew somehow, or was I defeated in some way, I wrote about it. Originally, Realizing River City was going to be a collection of essays titled Epilogues, in which I explored how I started over after my divorce when I was twenty-five. However, it felt inauthentic, because being single at twenty-five made far more sense in my life than being married. I wasn’t sure where to take it, so I just kept writing essays, trying to find a thread and a purpose. Much like the maudlin novel I wrote as a teenager, I got seventy-five percent finished with the book and couldn’t continue, so I thought it was done. The very next day, I had an experience on the river, where I was thrown from my tube, which eventually became the prologue of the book.
I went to a writing conference and had a group session with an agent who read my book proposal and told me to scrap the ‘memoir-in-essays’ structure, find a connective tissue, and reshape it as a memoir. I felt both overwhelmed and energized by the idea.
Around that time, I was coming up on my second and final year of my MFA, and the newly-shaped memoir became my thesis project. I owe so much to Amina Cain, my thesis advisor at National University, because she was so incisive in articulating what the book was actually doing and the potential that it had, in a way that I couldn’t get a handle on.
After I graduated, I shopped the book around, was systematically rejected by small presses and lost a handful of book competitions. A publisher offered to share the reviewer’s feedback with me, and that feedback—while harsh—put me back in the chair for another heavy round of revisions. I clipped the stray narrative threads, worked to make the narrative voice more appealing, and cut the scenes that were irrelevant and weighing down the text. I sent it out again, and within months, I was offered three book contracts. As a friend of mine says, Realizing River City was an overnight success three years in the making.
IM: How have your life experiences influenced your writing/stories?
MG: As a memoirist, my life experiences are my stories. Everything is potential material for a new piece.
IM: Have you, or do you want to write in another genre?
MG: I’ve written (and published) fiction and poetry. I would consider writing a novel, if I could come up with a sustainable premise for one. Poetry is a bit of a struggle for me. Ironically, I don’t think I’m a very creative person, and fiction and poetry require far more imagination than I have.
IM: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
MG: I appreciate every reader who gives his or her time to my writing. Authors are nothing without their readers, so thank you.
IM: Thank you.
Follow up with Melissa at: http://www.melissagrunow.com/