Faculty Spotlight: Melissa Scholes Young
Melissa Scholes Young’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poets & Writers, Poet Lore, and other literary journals. She teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. and is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Her novel, Flood, is forthcoming from Hachette.
Vince Granata, staff editor at Café Américain, recently interviewed Melissa about her forthcoming novel, Flood, about flash narrative, and about potentially being a professional student.
One question that I want to ask is actually one you raise yourself when talking about using your hometown as the setting for your novel in your piece in Poets & Writers: “How do we writers reveal the soft underbelly of our beloved homes without hurting the people who make up the place we love?” This question seems like an essential one for anyone writing about home, whether in nonfiction or fiction. Can you talk about how you represent and describe your hometown in your novel and what challenges you encountered in this process?
One of the biggest challenges for me was to imagine what it’s like to leave, to develop a separate identity, and then try to return. I haven’t lived in Hannibal since I was seventeen-years-old, but I do know it would be a soft place for me to land if I needed to, unlike the reception Laura Brooks gets in Flood. It’s also challenging to convey what it’s like to be from a place like Hannibal. My roots run deep. The mythology of Mark Twain permeates my work. I’ve always known where I was from. I have a family that would welcome me back, even if they shake their heads while I unpack my bags.
Loving a person or a place doesn’t mean you always agree with them. My family taught me to work hard, to be loyal, and to commit to something worthy. I’m grateful for that. I’ve never felt I couldn’t disagree with them, but I do recognize that it’s my constant questioning of norms that makes family gatherings awkward. Hannibal has changed since I left, but I’ve changed a lot, too. Maybe we have to meet each other halfway, but there are things that can’t be compromised, of course.
People and places are complicated. You can question and embrace them at the same time, I hope. In Flood, there is a young African-American girl who competes to be Becky Thatcher in the annual pageant. It’s fiction, of course. This has never actually happened in our majority (90%) white town. Some of my characters express racist sentiments about her candidacy. Many don’t. Others are silent. It wouldn’t be authentic to write characters that aren’t truthful, but it also wouldn’t be useful to make an unfair, sweeping generalization about an entire town’s population. I indict the barriers, the complacency, and the system. I want readers to question them too, just like Twain suggested in his work, even if they come to different conclusions. My favorite moment (okay—second favorite—the ending is my actual favorite) in the novel is during the Tom and Becky reveal when Laura Brooks looks around the crowd and realizes she has more in common than not. All parents want their kids to be safe and to succeed. All people, regardless of class or race or gender or identity, want their communities to see them, hear them, and value their experiences. Hannibal isn’t any different. Small towns have the luxury of insulation. It protects and provides. But isolation can suppress and oppress, too, if you are too careful with your bubble.
Another bit of that piece really struck me, a Mark Twain quote you reference about returning home: “When a man goes back to look at the house of his childhood, it has always shrunk: There is no instance of such a house being as big as the picture in memory and imagination call for.” For me, this raises a number of questions about the difficulties writer’s encounter when they look at their pasts for material. What I’m wondering about specifically is how you, whether writing in fiction or nonfiction, mine your own experiences for use in your writing. And, a bit more broadly, what impacts your decision to choose fiction or nonfiction when examining past experience?
Questions drive my writing. The answers determine whether I can tell the story as fiction or nonfiction. Writing Flood gave me a lot of room that only a novel would allow. I certainly mined the setting in this book, especially the Mississippi River, but I had to read a lot and listen even more to understand the economic and racial divides still present. I was also interested in how the stories we tell ourselves in memories are influenced by our imaginations. We’re always retelling our stories. What happens when the foundation shifts? That’s what Laura Brooks had to teach me.
Recently, when writing for the Atlantic, I had to make a decision about including my personal experience, as I did when I wrote about being a first-generation college student, versus a reported article about the conflated labels between first-gen and low-income. I needed the distance and research for the article so I decided to stay out of my own way.
In the flash course you taught for MFA students this summer, you talked about the “urgency” and “immediacy” that both micro narrative and flash fiction demands. How have writing (and teaching) flash pieces changed your writing? What do you enjoy most about writing flash?
Flash is much harder than it looks. The short forms require sharper writing tools. You can flex without too much investment. You can try things on that may extend into larger work. But flash is its own form, and it is always challenging to do well. I just published an essay about exactly this over at SmokeLong Quarterly. My students are often surprised by how much they can accomplish in micro and flash forms. They can leave you breathless. The limit necessitates that you boil your work down to what matters and slice the rest. Ouch.
For current MFA students, what did you find most valuable from your own MFA experience and what (if anything), do you wish you took greater advantage of?
I learned so much as an assistant editor in the Crab Orchard Review office. I had great mentors in my MFA program, but I learned the rest about the business of writing by reading submissions, editing the work of others, understanding editorial decisions with the goal of amplifying great writing and necessary work for a larger literary conversation. Poets and editors Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble have such an amazing ethic in their journal. I understood where my talent stood in relation to others and how much hard work was necessary to succeed. Everyone in my program was submitting their work to journals. At Southern Illinois University-Carbondale they didn’t teach us how, they showed us how. We were expected to take risks and to send our work out into the world. They cheered on our successes. To me, it’s important to celebrate each other on this lonely path. How to publish shouldn’t be a dirty secret if publishing is your goal, but writing and publishing are very different things. The writing matters more.
It was also valuable to workshop outside of workshop. If you need the structure and deadline of a class to produce pages, you’ll struggle making a writing life after the MFA. Find the best writer in your program and buddy up. If you want to get better, you have to play in better leagues.
You spoke a good deal during our summer course about the process of working towards publication, and the many challenges therein. Is there any specific advice you think most helpful for an emerging writer trying to place his or her work? Is there anything you wish you had known when you were starting out as a writer that you know now?
I wish I’d realized that all journals are not created equal. I had some easy, early success. It should be more of a struggle. I had to develop filters for where my voice mattered most. That’s not something my teachers could have taught me, though. I learned it through reading literary journals. Nothing takes the place of reading journals.
Emerging writers trying to place their work should aim high. Develop a tier system for where you’d be thrilled to be published. Always start at the top. Don’t put any publication on your list that wouldn’t make you proud to share. Read enough to understand the editor’s taste. Know the editor’s name. Rejection isn’t personal, but a lot of rejection may signal that the work needs revision. But how do you know until you try? I say fail big.
If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you would be doing?
Probably a journalist. I like collecting stories. My Midwestern manners serve me well. I’ve been a teacher for eighteen years. I thought about being a high school principal, but I’ve never wanted to leave the classroom. Can I be a professional student? I suppose teaching and writing is as close as I can get to that.