by Melissa Face
This month I am thrilled to be chatting with Melissa Scholes Young, author of Flood. I read Melissa’s debut novel this spring, and in addition to feeling very connected to her main character, I also loved the novel’s structure and its chapters that alternate the telling of Laura’s present story in Hannibal with Mark Twain’s past.
Like her protagonist, Laura, Melissa hails from Hannibal, Missouri. And if you are a fan of Mark Twain’s work, then you already know Hannibal as the childhood home of Samuel Clemens. For the past decade, Melissa has taught creative writing at American University in Washington, D.C., and she says Maryland is starting to feel a lot like home, too.
Home is a major theme in Melissa’s first novel, and we discuss it below. Fill your favorite mug and join us as we chat about hometown coffee spots, early writing experiences, and whether or not you can ever really go home again.
Me: What is your favorite coffee drink? Is coffee part of your regular writing routine? If Laura (from Flood) were joining us for coffee, what would she likely order?
Melissa: I drink espresso straight. No sugar. No foam. Sometimes a dash of milk. I’m a morning writer so yes, it’s me, two shots of espresso and a piece of crusty toast at my desk early. I take my dogs out for a walk after lunch and usually make another espresso to take back to my desk for the work of revision. Laura would probably order an iced tea. It’s not served sweet in the northern part of Missouri we’re both from, but tea gets sweeter as you head down the Mississippi River to the Arkansas border.
Me: Where is the best place to get coffee in your hometown? What about the D.C. area?
Melissa: In Hannibal, it’s Java Jive. It’s a favorite on Main Street down by the river: Java Jive.Everyone knows everyone and when I’m visiting my family, it might take an hour or more to get out of Java Jive from catching up with folks. My parents live way out in the country, but I’ll drive in town for a few shots of espresso from Java Jive. Also, Java Jive’s WiFi is strong and that’s not an easy thing to come by in my hometown.
In D.C. I’m usually on campus, and we have two amazing student-run coffee shops: The Dav and The Bridge. I like seeing my students out of class and just hope they don’t have questions about their grades before I’m fully caffeinated.
I also spend a lot of time in D.C. at bookstores. The Den at Politics & Prose Bookstore and Café serves a lavender Earl Grey tea that is a religious experience.
Me: Describe your early writing life. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Melissa: I won my first writing contest in third grade. It was a prompt for Mother’s Day about why I had the best mom. I wrote I have the best mom in the world because I have the best dad in the world and the best dads pick the best moms. The end. The prize was a $10 gift certificate to the Ponderosa Steakhouse. I’ve been writing ever since. That someone paid me for my words at such an impressionable age was dangerous fuel indeed.
I continue to write for the same reason students continue to show up in my writing class: we all want to be heard. We all have stories to tell. Our stories are always drafts. They are never done and we are always revising them. Even when I see my book on the shelf at my favorite independent bookstore, I resist the urge to get out my pen and fix a few things. I’m never quite satisfied and that is its own life lesson.
Me: Who are some of your favorite authors?
Melissa: Mark Twain seems obvious. I also love Abigail Thomas, Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro, and Toni Morrison. I return to May Sarton’s journals and Rilke often. One of my literary heroines is Bobby Ann Mason. My favorite contemporary writers are Elizabeth Strout and Jesmyn Ward.
Me: I love the structure of Flood and the alternating chapters about Mark Twain. What was the process of writing Flood like for you? Did you feel like you were revisiting your past? Were you living in D.C. while you were writing it, and if so, did you return to Hannibal throughout the writing process?
Melissa: Thank you for asking about the structure. It took me years of failed attempts to finally succeed at weaving Laura’s present story with Twain’s past and share Hannibal’s history, too. It wasn’t just that I was revisiting the stories I’d been raised on, but I was also learning what was truth vs. myth. I started writing FLOOD when I was studying Creative Writing at the University of Southern Illinois in Carbondale. I finished it when I was in France on a fellowship. I visited Hannibal many times during the drafting and it was important to me to launch the book in my hometown.
Me: What characteristics do you and Laura have in common? In what ways are you different?
Melissa: We both have aunts that adore us and best friends that know our secrets and keep them. We both love Hannibal, even if it’s a complicated relationship. We both have strong mamas and a legacy of tough women. Laura returns to our hometown and wrestles with her past to recalibrate her future. I left home at seventeen and have never lived there again.
Me: Do you think it’s possible to “go home again”?
Melissa: It’s hard to go home again but mostly because you’ve changed. Home tends to stay the same but you’re seeing it through a different lens. When I was writing Flood, I wanted to wrestle with not just ‘can you go home again?’ but ‘what happens if you have to?’ Home has to take you back. Those are just the rules.
Me: In one of the articles on your website, you mentioned that motherhood fueled your creative writing career. Could you speak a little about that? How do you balance the demands of a teaching and writing career with motherhood? (Balance is probably a bad word choice. So, if “juggle” fits better, go with that:)
Melissa: I do one thing at a time and often that means not everything gets done. If I’m with one of my daughters, I’m present. If I’m writing, I’m focused on the page. If I’m in a classroom, my students get my full attention. I do poorly when I spread myself too thin, and it’s my job to show my daughters how to value their own work and prioritize their time. Your family loves you, but they will not hand you blocks of uninterrupted writing time. You have to take it and not apologize. They’ll learn to root for you. They’ll learn to do their own laundry too.
Me: What are some items that you must have in your writing space before you can begin?
Melissa: For the first time in my writing life, I have a desk, but I wrote most of Flood on a laptop desk in bed. I kept it tucked by my bedside and would quietly slip the desk and my computer or journal on it so I could write first thing in the morning before the kids woke up or discovered I’d stirred. Maybe that’s why it took me five years to finish it.
My desk now is a sewing table my grandpa made for my grandma. At five foot two, I have a few inches on Grandma, so my mom screwed wooden dowels to the legs to raise it up for me when she delivered it to my office. I like thinking of the fierce do-it-yourself women who raised me when I write. They taught me to work hard and to finish what I start.
Me: What are things that often distract you when you are writing?
Melissa: Research distracts and fuels me. I can spend an entire day learning about a bee keeping technique called ‘shimmering’ that adds exactly one sentence to my manuscript, but I still think it’s worth it. I studied history in college and I have a lot of questions about everything.
Me: I like that as an instructor, you encourage students to embrace the notion of being undecided in terms of college majors and career paths. Can you talk more about your experience in taking different routes in education and in life, especially in terms of the benefits of life experience?
Melissa: I grew up in a small family business. We’re in the pest control industry. We kill bugs. I am the first in my family to earn a college degree, and I assumed I would study business. I accidentally ended up in a Russian Cultural History class and was stunned by poetry. I didn’t enjoy Accounting and I knew I’d be bored by a desk job. After college, I earned a Master’s in Education because I had tuition benefits with my first job. My first job teaching was in Brazil. Then I moved to Ohio, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. Each move was about earning degrees without debt. My husband and I took turns going to school and we moved wherever the other got a fellowship or assistantship. I was in my mid-thirties with babies when I decided to earn my MFA in creative writing. I think everything I’ve learned about taking risks, figuring things out as I go, and seeking creative solutions I learned from growing up in a small family business. Hard work, adaptability, pluck, and commitment. I encourage my students to get work experience to figure out not just makes them burn but also what doesn’t. I’m a big fan of stumbling onto a path that works.
Me: Writing can often be a lonely practice that is filled with rejection. What do you think writers need to hear or remember to help them keep going?
Melissa: Rejection just means you’re playing the game. I get rejected all the time. I dust myself off and play again. If a story or an essay gets rejected a few times by editors I know and trust, I’ll pull it back for revision. Rejection is useful feedback if you can listen to it. But then, sometimes, I hit a home run and it’s amazing.
Me: Do you have another novel in the works?
Melissa: Yes! My next novel is THE HIVE and it’s due out June 2021. It’s the story of a family pest control business and the four sisters with their apocalyptic prepping mother who have to figure out succession and survival after their father’s sudden death. It’s like Little Women with bed bugs and bees.
Me: Do you have any closing thoughts?
Melissa: I want readers to know I’m grateful. Stories matter. What we have to say matters. I get to tell stories for a living because of readers. It takes courage to put words on the page, and I’m deeply indebted to readers.
Catch up with Melissa at her website, melissascholesyoung, or one of her social media handles below:
***I Love You More Than Coffee is available for preorder. Order your copy here.