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Bold & Strong: Coffee Chat with Author Mary Helen Sheriff

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Have you packed your bags?

This month we are chatting with Mary Helen Sheriff about her debut novel, Boop and Eve’s Road Trip. Available at your favorite retailer on October 6, the novel has already been gaining momentum with reviewers. Boop and Eve’s Road Trip was recently named to Buzzfeed’s 12 Most Anticipated Books of Fall list and it received a 2020 American Fiction Award in the Coming of Age category! So exciting!

Pour some coffee in your to-go cup, and let’s chat with Mary about her inspiration for the novel, writing advice, and the importance of seeking treatment for mental illness. Maybe Boop will put in her two cents on occasion, also!

Me: Can you tell us what your novel is about?

Mary: Eve Prince is done with college, with her mom, with guys, and with her dream of fashion design.  But when her best friend goes MIA, Eve must gather the broken threads of her life to search for her.

Desperate to visit her sister, Boop, a retiree dripping with Southern charm, hijacks her granddaughter Eve’s road trip.

Along the way, Boop hopes to alleviate Eve’s growing depression—which, she knows from experience, will require more than flirting lessons and a Garlic Festival makeover. Nevertheless, she is frustrated when her feeble efforts yield the same failures that the sulfur-laced sip from the Fountain of Youth wrought on her age.

The one thing that might help is a secret that’s haunted Boop for sixty year. But in revealing it, Boop would risk losing her family and her own hard-won happiness.

Their journey through the heart of Dixie is an unforgettable love story between a grandmother and her granddaughter.

 

Me: Is there a coffee stop on Boop & Eve’s Road Trip? What might they order?

Mary: They have coffee twice in the book. 

Boop: I drink my coffee the way nature intended, black. Eve, though, bless her heart, drinks hers with milk and enough sugar to fill a Pixy Stick.

 

Me: Describe your coffee habit.

Mary: I have one or two cups a day with a splash of milk. When I go to coffee shops, I like to splurge on fancy flavored concoctions.

 

Me: Can you give us additional hints about the novel’s setting? Any fun pit stops?

Boop:  We hit the road from Eve’s college on the Gulf coast of Florida. Then we swing through St. Augustine, FL, Savannah, GA, Sunset Beach, NC, and end up in Richmond, VA. We take a few pitstops along the way.

 

Me: What was your inspiration for the novel?

Mary: My grandma Hootie passed away when I was pregnant with my first child. She lived a difficult life and made some significant mistakes, but the lady I knew was this amazing, loving grandma. I couldn’t help wishing she were still around when I was sitting in a dark place, and then I thought maybe she can be there for Eve.  Enter the character of Boop.

After having babies, I struggled with postpartum depression. Part of my healing process was writing this book and attempting to capture what it feels like to sit in a dark place and to feel like you hadn’t earned the right to sit there. I think as a society we are empathetic when depression meets grief but bewildered by depression that we can’t explain.  Eve was born from my journey from depression to recovery.

Like Eve and Boop in the novel, Hootie and I shared a daydream about renting an RV when I turned sixteen years old and taking a road trip together across the country. For many reasons this road trip never happened in real life—in large part because neither of us was capable of safely driving an RV across the country. Writing Boop and Eve’s Road Trip was a way for me to imagine the road trip that never was.

 

Me: What do you and Eve have in common?

Mary: We’re both creative types that don’t deal well when we lose our creative outlet. Also, Eve’s tendency to beat herself up, is a reflection of my own dark side. That irrational and negative voice is real in so many people’s minds, but it certainly isn’t something most of us want to admit to. It’s hard to silence a voice that we pretend doesn’t exist.

 

Me: What are three objects that are significant to your novel? 

Boop: birdhouses

Eve: Heathcliff

Mary: a mailbox

 

Me: What is it that Boop wants more than anything? What about Eve?

Boop: To come to terms with my past.

Eve:  To find the courage to follow my own path.

 

Me: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Mary: Even as a kid I played with creative writing. Serious aspirations came along 21 years ago when I was in graduate school for teaching. In my Teaching Middle School Social Studies class, the professor suggested a geography project for our students and asked us to complete the project so we’d have a sample to show our students when we assigned it.  Somehow my sample became a novella.  The professor loved it and suggested I get it published and a dream was born.  Twenty one years…it’s been a long road.

 

Me: Do you have a regular writing routine? 

Mary: It depends.  When my life has regularity, I do create patterns that maximize it. They adapt to my family’s rhythms. The pandemic threw regularity out the window since now the entire family is working and schooling from home. Now I do what I can when I can.  

 

Me: What is the most useful piece of writing advice you have ever received?

Mary: We use different parts of our brain when we type and when we write by hand.  I usually begin writing a scene by hand and then move to the computer once I’ve gotten going. Then I move back to paper if I get stuck. Going back and forth between the two helps grease my creativity wheels.

Me: What would you like readers to know about depression? About mental health in general?

Mary: One in six people will experience depression at some point in their lives, but as a society we don’t act like it’s that pervasive. Depression isn’t a character weakness, it’s a chemical imbalance. In most cases, doctors have effective treatments that can greatly improve quality of life for those suffering from depression.  Hiding it is an ineffective treatment that hurts the people who love you and can have long term consequences. Please see a doctor if you think you might be suffering depression.  

BoopThis world we live in ain’t real sympathetic ’bout mental illnesses….Seems to me we’d all be a little less nuts if we spent our energy dealing with our crazy instead of hiding it.

 

Buy a copy of Boop & Eve here, and sign up for Mary’s newsletter at her website. Connect with Mary at the links below!

 

https://maryhelensheriff.com

Facebook @maryhelensheriff

Instagram @maryhelensheriff

Twitter @maryhsheriff

Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/maryhelensheriff/

LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/maryhelensheriff/

 

 

***Purchase your copy of I Love You More Than Coffee.

Bold & Strong: Coffee Chat with Evan Face

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For this bonus coffee chat, I’m talking with my firstborn, Evan. He is the kid who made me a mom and gave me tons of writing inspiration. He also gave me the need for excessive amounts of coffee in those early years because he wasn’t the best sleeper. He was sick a lot as an infant with many ear infections, bronchitis, and those really fun viral infections that never had a name or a cure – other than time. 

My memories of those first years of motherhood are rather hazy, probably due to a combination of pregnancy hormones and sleep deprivation. Fortunately, writing has served me well where my memory has failed. Because I wrote a lot about my experiences when I couldn’t sleep, I have some pretty cool and detailed stories of Evan’s infancy and toddlerhood.

Evan was born with a strong moral compass, curious mind, and sense of maturity and compassion that many adults haven’t developed. It is a privilege to be his mom, and I am so grateful to have spent all of this quarantine time with him. 

Fill your mug, prop up your feet, and read about what it’s like to be the focus of many essays and now a book, all in the words of nine-year-old Evan.

Me: Do you like coffee?

Evan: I’m not that big of a coffee drinker, but I do like mocha frappuccino.

 

Me: How do you feel about being the subject of many essays and now an actual book?

Evan: I think it’s really cool. I like to be in the book, and I like knowing I’m in something that people might read.

 

Me: Is there anything that you would prefer I not write about in the future? Anything you might find embarrassing?

Evan: Not really for me. But there are some parts about Delaney’s trouble making that are embarrassing!

 

Me: Do you enjoy writing? What do you write?

Evan: I already have ideas. I like writing about my life. I wrote Frog Dog a few years ago. It’s a comic about a creature who is bullied for the way he looks. Then he becomes a superhero. I read it for people at the library.

 

Me: What is it like to have a mom who writes?

Evan: It’s really awesome. I’m the son of an author, and I think that’s so cool.

 

Me: What is your favorite essay I have written?

Evan: “Baby Evan”, definitely. I like that it reminds me of when I was a toddler. It’s about when I was little and I couldn’t say my real name without “baby” in front of it.

 

Me: How have you helped with this project?

Evan: Well, I was there at the big reveal when you opened the box of books! I also passed out bookmarks at your signing and at the library.

 

Me: What do you think people should know about I Love You More Than Coffee?

Evan: People who are planning to be mothers or fathers should read it. It’s goofy and silly and they will know what parenting will be like.

 

As Evan gets older, I am increasingly careful about what I divulge in my writing and what I keep to myself. I know that sharing stories is a great way to reach others and make people feel less alone, but I never want to do that to my child’s detriment. My new policy is that I read essays to him before I hit submit. So far, he has given me the green light on everything!

 

To read more stories about Evan, purchase your copy of I Love You More Than Coffee here.

 

 

 

Bold & Strong: Coffee Chat with Delaney Face – The Girl Behind the Title

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If it weren’t for both of my kids, I wouldn’t have an essay collection. And if it weren’t for Delaney, it probably wouldn’t be titled I Love You More Than Coffee. When she was about three and a half, Delaney climbed in my lap and asked me if I liked her more than cookies, then candy, and finally, coffee. When she got to the last item, my absolute favorite beverage, I pretended to not be sure. Then we both had a good laugh. I knew at that moment that she had given me an essay title and a way to package my entire parenting collection.

Since then, Delaney has been gifting me with humor, sarcasm, and writing material on a daily basis. And since she is instrumental to this collection and to my writing life in general, it only makes sense that I interview her for one of this month’s bonus coffee chats! So here you go, friends! Fill your mugs; sit back, and enjoy a little Q & A with six-year-old Delaney Face and me!

Me: During the pandemic, you had your first coffee experience with a frappuccino. Can you tell us what you thought about it?

Delaney: Fraps taste really good. I like them. I don’t like them as much as I like you. They’re good.

 

Me: Why did you ask me if I liked you more than coffee?

Delaney: That’s a hard one. I was just seeing if you care about me more than you like coffee. Recently, it’s like you do.

 

Me: How do you feel about being in a book and having your picture on the back of it?

Delaney: Can I explain standing up? Okay, I want to feel more famous. I want people to know me more, like me more, and know who I am.

 

Me: I’m going to read an excerpt from one of my essays about you. Then I want you to tell me what you think.

Delaney: Okay

Me: “…Delaney told me she had to go to the bathroom. She has been working on her independence in this area as well, so she goes in alone, and I check on her as necessary. After the sink had run for about five minutes, I knew it was time to check. I opened the door, and Delaney jumped. ‘You scared me!’ she said. I told her it wouldn’t be scary if she weren’t doing something wrong. Delaney had her Doc McStuffins doll under the faucet, face upright. I wondered if she had been learning about water torture in preschool…”

Delaney: (laughing hysterically) How old was I then?

Me: You were three. Do you remember that day?

Delaney: I don’t remember going upstairs and getting my doll. I remember everything else, though.

 

Me: What do you think I should write about in the future?

Delaney: I think you should write about me doing homework and Evan playing Minecraft. Wait. No. I think you should write a gummy bear book and say do you love me more than gummy bears.

 

Me: In the past, you’ve had a few problems with candy, like sneaking it, hiding it, and eating too much of it. So, I think it’s only fair if I ask you if you like me more than candy. Do you?

Delaney: Yes. I do. I love you more than candy because you’re my mom. You’re my favorite. More than candy.

 

Me: What do you want to do when you grow up?

Delaney: I want to be a famous person like JoJo Siwa. I don’t want to copy her. I don’t want her to think I am better than her. I also really like crafting. I like to make stuff and give it to people. It makes my life more happier. I want to make money so I can eat.

As an English teacher, it pains me greatly to not correct Delaney’s double comparison in her final response. But as a mom, I treasure her grammatical errors, malapropisms, and made up words. She often still calls a blanket a “banquet”. She uses the word “comparently” for apparently, and the tangles I comb out of her hair are “pringles”. 

I’m not correcting her sayings because I know they won’t last long. All of the phases of childhood pass so quickly, and I don’t want to lose anything, including those little baby teeth, before I have to. I want to hold onto all of the cuteness as long as I can. That is a big part of why I write. 

For more Delaney sayings and stories, order your copy of I Love You More Than Coffee.

Bold & Strong: Coffee Chat with Motherscope Founder Jackie Leonard

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Jackie Leonard is a mother, wife, teacher, and writer. She is also the founder and editor of Motherscope magazine, a California based literary magazine written by and for mothers. Each issue of Motherscope has a theme, and the first issue, quite fittingly, is dedicated to birth stories (read some here). 

I met Jackie virtually when an essay of mine was accepted for Motherscope’s second issue on the topic of choice in motherhood. I have contributed pieces to many anthologies and magazines throughout the years, but I have never devoured one as quickly and thoroughly as I did my issue of Motherscope when it arrived, wrapped in a beautiful bundle. 

Speaking of bundles…Jackie, a coffee and tea lover, is limiting herself to one cup of coffee per day during pregnancy. Sometimes she even skips days, but not today!

Fill your mug with your favorite beverage and join Jackie and me as we sip our drinks and chat about the importance of sharing stories, why she is a great mom, and her relationship with motherhood and writing. 

Me: In the Dec. 2019 Issue of Motherscope, you mention that the magazine began because of a Facebook message. Could you talk a little about that?

Jackie: Sure! Early in my first pregnancy, I felt an impulse to return to writing, to find a deeper purpose beyond the routine of my life — I was working as a paralegal again, after realizing that teaching high school wasn’t my path, and had recently attended the 2017 Women’s March in Los Angeles. I wanted more, but wasn’t sure what. My pregnancy amped that urgency because I was so fearful that motherhood would change me in ways I didn’t like, that I’d lose even more of myself for the sake of my child.

When I learned that a couple women I knew were also early into their first pregnancies, I decided to reach out to them via Facebook messages. At the time, they were acquaintances, women I’d known from previous circles, but had lost touch with. I attribute this decision, and the relationships that blossomed between myself and these women individually, with the eventual formation of Motherscope.

Throughout our pregnancies, and into motherhood, I’ve corresponded with and gotten very close to both these women. We have a bond that didn’t exist before because we connected so deeply by sharing our own experiences with one another. There were things we related to and were experiencing alongside one another, but there were also differences that we each benefited from learning about and supporting each other. This experience helped me hold onto myself through motherhood, and continue to nurture my own needs. My motherhood experience felt so different than what I expected, and what I’d seen on television, in movies, read about, witnessed. Having other women to share with showed me that motherhood looks so different from person to person, and there are so many stories and voices that go unheard.

I know not every woman has those opportunities for personal connections with other mothers, or may struggle to find their community. The magazine became a way to help women find themselves and share their stories of motherhood with others, to give women the opportunity to read and listen to stories they may relate to, or learn from those they don’t. 

Me: Describe how you felt when Motherscope’s first issue was published.

Jackie: I definitely felt the overwhelming wave of pride when I finally allowed myself to sit down and take in the variety of stories I’d gathered from all across the world. I remember having this moment where I asked myself how I even managed to get these. It had taken me nearly a year of asking people I knew, sending out calls for submissions, reaching out to listservs to share the opportunity with the mailing lists, and for a long time, there was silence, and very little traction.

Once I started putting the issue together, it took me a long time still to feel like it was finished. I was so worried about having a major typo that I missed that I wouldn’t find until after ordering the large print run. I ended up ordering two separate proofs and continued to find things to tweak and correct. I finally had to make the call that it was done and order a 50 book run, only to receive poorly printed covers! 

Eventually, everything got squared away and corrected. We had a wonderful launch party for the first issue, and I got to celebrate then. By that time, it had been over a year of searching, editing, production and waiting. To have that final product at the end of all that was very fulfilling — but I was also ready to move onto the next issue by that point too! The cycle continued, but I noticed the second time around, things went much more smoothly, and I felt even more satisfaction and accomplishment. I think in the back of my head, I was worried I’d only really be able to create one issue. The second one affirmed what I’d created was resonating and growing.

Me: Did you always want to be a mother? 

Jackie: As a child, I think I always assumed I’d be a mother one day. It was the sort of thing I didn’t really question, and as a teen, I thought I’d have kids by my early twenties. In early adulthood, my perspective and world expanded, and I think that led to years of not really seeing myself becoming a mother to eventually not thinking I wanted to be one. As I shared earlier, I held onto this fear and belief that becoming a mother meant losing a part of myself. I didn’t think motherhood was worth sacrificing my ambitions and dreams. I didn’t want to resent my child for holding me back. And, I also didn’t know that I’d meet someone that I wanted and trusted enough to have children with.

Early into dating my husband, I scared myself a bit realizing that I could see myself having children with him, something I’d never felt before. For a while still, neither of us were sure we truly wanted children. To be honest, there was a lot of uncertainty still even after we eventually decided that we wanted to start a family. But we took the chance and it has completely transformed everything for us in such beautiful ways.

Motherhood has enhanced my life, it’s been so healing, filled my days with depth, joy, love. It is such a gift to be my son’s mother. Being a mom lit me on fire and has challenged me greater than anything else I’ve ever experienced. It’s made me fight harder and work harder for myself, for my child, for my family. I’ve learned so much about myself and the world along the way.

Me: How do you balance writing and motherhood?

Jackie: I’m not sure there’s a balance between writing and motherhood. I will say that motherhood reconnected me with writing, which really feels like reconnecting with myself. I find that being a mother, spending so much of my mental and physical energy caring for a little human, makes me yearn for the outlet to write so much more. I know writing makes me feel better, it helps me connect with myself when I feel like all I’ve done all day is feed, clean, and talk to a toddler. It allows me to feel creative, embrace inspiration, and document the fleeting moments I get to witness through the eyes of my child and from my vantage point. I can’t call it balanced because it isn’t consistent, and I don’t have a regime that has stuck for too long, especially when I am also teaching, leading and editing through most of my “free” time. But I can say that I’m writing much more since becoming a mom than I ever had in the previous ten years. 

One thing that has helped make it more accessible for me is setting reasonable expectations and making it a priority. If I’m having a tough day, I’ll make a point to sit down and write as soon as my son goes down for a nap or bed, even if I have other things I need or want to do. I’ll set a timer for five minutes. I tell the women in my workshop all the time, we all have five minutes a day that we can commit to some writing time if we want it. Usually, I end up writing for much longer, but the freedom in being able to be okay with, and feel accomplished by, just those five minutes of writing makes a big difference.

Me: What are some essential workspace items that you must have in order to write?

Jackie: Honestly, the only “essential” item for me is a tool to record my thoughts. I think the Notes app on your phone is such an asset especially for moms. In fact, one of the stories featured in Motherscope’s second issue was written by a mom entirely from her Notes app during a late night breastfeeding session. That’s really all you need. If you get inspired and you can’t write, I go so far as to say, record it with a voice memo. You can always transcribe later, but it is not likely guaranteed that you’ll remember what you wanted to say if you wait for a paper and pencil.

That said, I definitely have a “writer’s toolkit” and routine that I like to utilize whenever I have the capacity to do so. I think setting the scene, making sure I’m relaxed and have taken care of certain things beforehand, are essential to a really fulfilling writing session. That can mean taking a bath, drinking some tea, going to a place in my home that I feel most comfortable, writing in a special journal, bringing in essential oils (a spray or diffuser). I really like to make it this therapeutic, ritual experience, especially if I’m trying to process something that’s upsetting or confusing, or document a moment. It makes writing feel like a treat, this real act of self care when I can make the time for it in this way.

Me: What makes you feel like you are doing a great job as a mom?

Jackie: When I feel like both his needs and my needs are being met. It doesn’t imply that there is balance on any given day, or even week, but that there is this ebb and flow that allows me to spend more time on myself and know he will be okay, and sometimes giving him more because he needs it and knowing that I can take care of what I want to do at a later time. I haven’t figured out the formula for this, but I know what it feels like when I’m there. 

This feels a little weird to say, but honestly, I feel like I’m doing a great job as a mom all the time. I think that is because I know that alongside parenting and caring for my son, being his mom, I’m also actively working on myself, making sure that I am the best version of myself that I can be. Because of this, I feel confident saying that on any given day, I’m doing the best I can, and I can tell my son is happy and cared for.

Me: Why is it important for women to share their birth stories? Stories about motherhood in general?

Jackie: A woman’s birth experience holds so much power. Think about what birth means to the woman who cannot have children, who has miscarried, who adopted, who was a surrogate, who had an abortion, who has experienced trauma… there are so many layers and versions of what a birth story can be and look like. 

For the most part, all we see about birth is a woman’s water breaking and rushing to the hospital, the sweating and pushing and cursing, and then a baby arrives. Other times, there’s a major emergency that involves rushing to surgery. Sure, some birth looks this way, but it is so overwhelmingly represented this way its no wonder there’s so much fear associated with it. 

I think birth is such a small moment in our motherhood experience, but it is also such a defining moment. It wasn’t that long ago that women were medically “knocked out” in hospitals, alone, and woke up to a new baby. Birth stories weren’t really a thing a couple generations ago in America, during the silent generation.

I’ve talked to lots of women who say they never really thought much about their birth experiences, or just have a few bullet points to say about it. I think that’s because we’ve never really celebrated the women in the birth experience. It’s all about the baby, and since the baby doesn’t really make an appearance until the end, everything that leads up to it, and even after, sort of doesn’t matter. But for any woman who has given birth, or witnessed a birth, or wanted that experience for herself, I think we can all attest to everything that led up to that moment, regardless of whether it was a vaginal birth, c-section, hospital or home birth. 

There’s research that suggests sharing birth stories with other women reduces fear about giving birth, less fear leads to better birth outcomes for mom and baby. Postpartum depression and anxiety disorders are correlated to difficult, traumatic birth experiences for mothers. There are physical, emotional, and mental benefits to sharing birth stories. I think this is why it is so so so important to create space and opportunities for women to write out and document their birth experiences, if only for themselves. And, if they feel open to it, to share them with others. 

I think a lot of the above applies to stories of motherhood in general as well. I’ve already said how varied motherhood is. It’s such an intersectional experience that isn’t documented enough. My mission with Motherscope is to continue to find ways to shine a light on the stories we don’t often hear. For women who naturally are drawn to writing (like me), I don’t worry about my story getting lost. But, I think of the women (like so many I know personally), who would never think to write or share their stories, no matter how fascinating, inspiring, brave they are. To share your stories of motherhood is to preserve yourself, to leave your imprint on this world, if for no one else but for your children, and those who will wish they asked and listened more when you are no longer here. 

Purchase an issue of Motherscope here.

I Love You More Than Coffee is now available!

 

Bold & Strong: Coffee Chat with Author Melissa Scholes Young

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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:

Twitter: @mscholesyoung

Insta: @melissascholesyoung

FB:  @melissascholesyoung

 

***I Love You More Than Coffee is available for preorder. Order your copy here.