Melanie Thorne earned her MA in Creative Writing from UC Davis, where she was awarded the Alva Englund Fellowship and the Maurice Prize in fiction. She was a resident at the Hedgebrook Writers’ Retreat in 2011, and her work has appeared in various journals, including The Greenbelt Review and Global City Review.
Melanie, congratulations on your debut novel, Hand Me Down! As one of your classmates from the Creative Writing program at UC Davis, I am so thrilled to be celebrating this milestone with you. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and watching the main character, Liz, come into her own power and maturity as she works to protect herself and her younger sister from the physical and psychological dangers of growing up in a family plagued by alcoholism and sexual predators. What most excited or surprised you, as your book found its way into the world and into the hands of readers?
Thanks so much, Kate! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
I think beyond the initial shock and excitement of the public actually reading my book, and the even more thrilling news that it was being reviewed so favorably, I’ve been most surprised by how many people have personally connected not only with the emotions in Hand Me Down, but with the specific situation of children losing their home. So many readers have told me their own stories of abuse and family betrayals, of separation from parents and siblings, of being forced to move out at young ages, or bouncing between friends’ couches and guest beds to avoid unsafe households. I’ve even heard from a few mothers who were forced to make a tough decision, and those who made the same choice as Liz’s mom admitted that they’d regretted it for the rest of their lives.
In almost all these stories from readers there is a real sense of freedom in finally expressing their private tragedies. I had hoped that sharing my story would encourage others to speak up, to admit the truths families can bury so deep it takes years to dig them out, but I hadn’t expected to be able to witness that relief and growth. A woman in her late sixties wrote to me and told me she’d been abused as a child and had never told anyone until now. My book had given her the strength to say out loud the unspeakable things she’d experienced. It made me cry. Some part of me expected to have to explain that the kind of trauma Liz and her family experience really does happen behind closed doors every day, and instead I found an outpouring of community and understanding, along with gratitude and appreciation for my courage to disclose the unpleasant reality.
Melanie, you’re very clear that this book is substantially autobiographical and also truly fiction, in that you combined characters, changed details and altered the flow of time (among other changes) with respect to your personal life story. Truth versus fact in written work is a hot topic these days. I wonder if you might share a bit about how people are reacting to your book’s stance toward these two important, and often interconnected, aspects of storytelling? Is your thinking about these aspects different now that the book’s out, versus when you were writing it?
You really nailed the description of what my book is: “substantially autobiographical and also truly fiction,” which is indeed a tricky place to sit in the literary world these days. I aimed for truth rather than fact in this book, and I’ve been vocal about my belief that often fiction speaks truth more clearly than non-fiction, but people are still connecting with the real-life aspects of Hand Me Down. Many of the media reviews have commented on the way I “explore fact through fiction” but they have all been positive in discussing my blended writing, often praising my honesty.
When I was writing, I chose fiction over memoir because I didn’t want to be a slave to “what really happened,” and also because of the belief I mentioned above. But now, I’m also glad I wrote fiction for the protection it provides. I was aware of that little bit of shelter before publication, but now that the book is out I’m so grateful that no one knows exactly which parts are pulled directly from my childhood journals and which parts I made up completely. A few readers and interviewers have asked exactly how much of my book “really happened” and I’ve started using Pam Houston’s line that everything she writes—whether she calls it fiction or non—is about 82% true. Eighty percent true feels about right, and people have accepted that. My guess is that there are people who assume the majority of the book is factual and others who assume very little actually happened, but I don’t think it matters as long as the emotional truth of the story is authentic.
Something that interests me in my own work is how storytelling (whether the story is fictional or nonfictional) requires the writer to cultivate deep empathy with all characters. That empathic stance can become a portal to deeper understanding and, as you share in the forward of your book and in other interviews, ultimately forgiveness. You’ve spoken elsewhere about how you reached a new sense of forgiveness toward your mother through the writing of this novel. Are there other characters in the book who, through your writing of them, offered you new perspectives on your own journey?
I think that’s true for nearly all the characters in Hand Me Down, even Terrance, the sexual predator. I empathized with him the least, for obvious reasons, but I was also aware that the mother must see something not vile in him, that his son loved him despite his flaws. So I tried to add a moment here and there when he seemed loving, sincere, less creepy, most notably in the scene when his son is born. In cultivating those moments for him, I found it actually did temper my hatred of my own ex-stepfather.
In writing all of the characters I had to think about what I knew of each of their real-life roles during this time in our lives, and then place myself in their shoes as much as possible. Considering their motivations and emotional states forced me to dissect my memories of those conversations, our moments together. In many instances, I relived our interactions as a (mostly) impartial observer and tried to understand all angles of the equation. Maybe I misunderstood due to my own emotional state. Maybe their sharp remarks were caused by their pain or the cold shoulders or slights I’d perceived were just that—perceived—and weren’t intended to sting. Writing each character gave me a greater understanding of our whole family play, not just my role within it.
I think Stories on Stage audience members will be interested to know that one of the primary settings for HMD is the Sacramento area. And yet, as I read the book, I found the places of the safe(r) havens–Petaluma, CA and Salt Lake City, UT–drawn in much finer detail. Would you talk a bit about how place functions in your book? Did writing this book change or expand your sense of what “place” is, as a concept in literature and/or in life?
Each place Liz moves into is a new chance for home for her, a fresh opportunity for her to feel like she belongs somewhere. Simultaneously, in each new place she is a stranger in a strange land, an outsider, so everything in her surroundings stands out. She has to discover the new landscape and she describes it for the reader as she explores. Each of the homes she temporarily lives in is such a reflection of its inhabitants, too, that as Liz introduces the new environment, ideally it’s also giving readers further insight into the characters.
Sacramento, in addition to being a less safe space, is also Liz’s home. It’s so familiar to her that she takes the scenery for granted. Plus, while Liz lives in Sacramento, her world consists mainly of school and her home life. Her thoughts have a fairly narrow focus: protecting herself and her sister. When she arrives in Utah, her world opens up and she’s free to take in more of the ambiance.
A major theme in HMD is the idea of a finding a home in the true sense of that word: a safe haven, a place where you are loved and accepted. And I think that although Liz does find a hopeful physical place to settle at the end of the book, one of the lessons she learns is that a roof does not make a home; people who care about you do. Liz also realizes that she can create a shelter within herself as a way to nurture home when her physical location feels like the opposite. Places are so important because they evoke memories and emotions from events that happened there—moments of joy and grief and courage that we carry within ourselves. Places don’t hold memories; people do. Places are just powerful reminders.
I also want to ask a bit about voice/point of view in HMD. The novel is told in first person in Liz’s voice. In the drafting of the novel, when did Liz’s voice start to depart from your own voice, and how did you feel about that? What aspects of Liz’s voice most surprised you?
Liz did originally sound like me, especially in the short stories that migrated into HMD in a few small, heavily revised chunks. I wrote a not-so-subtle story called “Kicked Out,” which was me working out my issues directly through Liz, allowing my own pissed-off teenage voice an outlet. But during the process of writing the novel I ended up fictionalizing events and conversations, exaggerating moments and behaviors and along the way Liz organically evolved into her own character with her own voice. I mean, she still sounds a lot like the teenage me, but she is stronger, fiercer, more mature, and also wiser. Sometimes she’d say something I never had the guts to say out loud and I’d be so proud of her. I was happy to see her grow in a way I missed out on during my teen years.
Underneath Liz’s strength is a deep vulnerability and I think that softness surprised me a bit. She tries to hide it, she skims over her pain with witty remarks and smart-mouth comebacks, but there are moments when her helpless underbelly is exposed and we can see how broken she feels. In those moments, we catch a glimpse of the little girl who still wants to curl into her mother’s arms and believe everything will be all right. Her voice carries that hope whereas my voice was full of much more anger. From that hope comes Liz’s capacity to forgive, to accept, to make the harder choices. Her wisdom surprised me—though perhaps it shouldn’t have, as she got the benefit of my ten years of hindsight—but it also won me over.
In terms of crafting this book, what aspects of that process came most easily to you? What was the most challenging element or process for you? What was the most significant thing you learned as a writer?
I’m a reviser. My brain is analytical and super critical, so it’s hard for me to shut my internal censors up enough to get anything on the page that’s less than perfect. Since first drafts are so rarely perfect, or even good, crafting that first layer of foundation writing is always a challenge for me.
Once I have the scenes written, the fun starts. Fixing, rearranging, tightening, developing—this is where I allow that mouthy inner critic to tell me what to do, when the analytical side of my mind gets to escape the cage I lock her in when I’m drafting. Give me a blank page and each word is like pulling teeth. Give me a scene to chew on, and that’s where my writing chops shine. Not that revising is easy—it’s not—but with a foundation under my feet, there is direction, a vision, even if it’s blurry, and I feel better prepared to tackle the work.
I learned so many things, gazillions, in the process of writing this novel, but maybe the most significant was that size changes everything. It sounds simple and obvious, but I’d never written a novel before. When I wrote short stories, I could manage almost the whole thing in my head. But there is a limit to my analytical capabilities. A twelve to twenty page story: doable. An entire book, upwards of three hundred pages? I don’t think so. I had to change tactics in tackling the longer form. I made plot outlines and timelines for the characters, lists of dates, places, characters’ ages. I wrote mini-summaries of each chapter so I could check for arcs and pacing. It required more planning and monitoring, revision notes and multiple Word docs.
And the craziest thing about the long form? Each time you make one tiny change you have to go through all the pages to make sure everything else still fits. I now fully understand why it takes years to finish a novel.
Have you ever had your writing performed by someone else? What are you looking forward to most about having Hand Me Down featured at Stories on Stage?
In a class in high school called Play Productions we all wrote plays and mine was one of four that the class voted to perform. It was a hideous combination of melodramatic sixteen-year-old writing and even more melodramatic sixteen-year-old acting. This, I imagine, will be much different.
There is also an audiobook of Hand Me Down, but I have only listened to a few minutes of it so far. I have to admit it was strange, but also so interesting! I think a work of art is something that no two people see exactly the same way, so to be able to listen to my work read by people who are not me—to see how their inflections are different from the voice in my head, to see where their pauses intersect with and deviate from what I envisioned, to potentially see my work through another artists’ eyes—I think it will be a fun discovery.
Now that HMD has been out for a few months, can we ask: What might we look forward to next from the pen of Melanie Thorne?
Right now I’m in the early stages of developing the story and fleshing out the characters for my next novel. I’m fascinated by family dynamics and, like HMD, this next book will explore issues families struggle with but don’t like to talk about. People are so interesting, so full of contradictions; there is something about digging into the shadow lives of complicated people that I love. The dysfunctional family I’m brewing in my head should be interesting to live with for the foreseeable future and fun to introduce to the world when I’m ready.
Kate Asche, M.A., is a poet/essayist and creative writing teacher. A graduate of the UC Davis Creative Writing Program, she was a finalist for the 2011 Audio Contest at The Missouri Review and has published poetry in Confrontation, RHINO and elsewhere. Her first published work of creative Nonfiction will be featured in the July 2012 issue of Under the Gum Tree. A trained facilitator in the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) Method, Kate teaches creative writing workshops in Sacramento and offers manuscript coaching to writing groups and individuals. She volunteers regularly for the Sacramento Public Library and the Sacramento Poetry Center and supports 916 INK, a local youth literacy organization inspired by 826 Valencia. Follow her and get the scoop on local writing events at http://www.kateasche.com/katesmiscellany/.