Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Q&A with author Melissa Hart

I’m pleased to share a Q&A today with Melissa Hart, author of Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood. Melissa teaches journalism at the University of Oregon and memoir writing for U.C. Berkeley’s online extension program. She’s also a contributing editor at The Writer Magazine. Melissa’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Advocate, Fourth Genre, and numerous other publications.

Melissa, Gringa is a delightful read. It is heartwarming, illuminating, and downright humorous. As an author, when did you realize you were funny?

Thanks so much, Lori—I’m glad you enjoyed Gringa. You know, I didn’t think that much about being a humor writer until I started making a living at it about ten year ago as a writer of short humorous commentary which is my favorite way to explore serious social issues. But last summer, I was helping my mother clean out her garage and she unearthed a little book I’d written in the second or third grade. Titled “Little Rabbit Meets a Snake,” it has a terrycloth cover and hand-drawn pictures with text that impresses me for its humorous irony and wordplay. (It’s much better than some of the pieces I’m writing now.) I’ve always loved humor—can’t help it with a family background in vaudeville and the circus—and I’d forgotten that I used wit in my writing 30 years ago!

Humor is often a great tool to counter the more tender and touchy subjects within a memoir. What words of wisdom can you offer an emerging memoirist who maybe doesn’t consider him/herself ‘funny’?

I know that I far prefer to read memoir that’s got sparkling moments of humor to a woe-is-me type of story, but . . . I’d advise emerging memoirists not to try to be funny. Then, disaster strikes and the writing often feels forced. Instead, tell the stories that make you and your family and friends laugh, and trust that the humor is there in the details. If you’re worried about whether or not a story is funny—or you just want to practice telling it for an audience—gather together a group of friends over dinner or drinks and tell your most amusing anecdotes. I find that this helps my pacing and delivery when it comes time to write a rough draft.

I love the narrative arc of Gringa. Each chapter flows well into the next, painting the big picture. Yet, each chapter also works well as a stand-alone tale worthy of excerpt. Life is anything but linear-what challenges did you face in balancing what was important to include and what was necessary to leave out?

The original Gringa manuscript contained five chapters after “Citizens of the World.” My editor decided to leave them out because she wanted the book to have a coming-of-age trajectory, and the last five chapters explored my life as a thirtysomething. In the end, I think she made a good choice and I’m using much of the material in my new book (tentatively titled Learning to Triangulate: A Romance, An Adoption, and a Baby Barred Owl).

It was really difficult to leave out the details of my father’s abuse—especially as they served as motivating factors for the rest of the family’s actions—but my mother asked me not to put it into print. There’s still such a stigma about battered wives who stay with abusive husbands, and I could have run into some legal trouble had I told as much as I would have liked to. I am proud, of course, that in the chapter titled “Chimichangas” I was able to point out my dad’s fantastic ability to curse in alphabetical order.

The memoir market is growing—and increasingly accessible—for emerging authors. What would you say are some of the common pitfalls new authors have when approaching this genre? What are some misconceptions about writing memoir?

I’m so glad the memoir market continues to grow, and that emerging authors find is accessible! Some of the pitfalls I see when I teach workshops on the subject involve writers who feel that they have to tell their whole story from the moment of conception until now, and their crippling self-editing due to concerns that friends and family will feel insulted.

Choose an era or theme from your life that’s unusual, and write a memoir about this. For instance, a decade ago the writer Martha Beck told the story of nine months in which she conceived and decided to keep a baby with Down syndrome in spite of Harvard professors cautioning her against this choice. Another author, Robin Cody, just published a selection of memoiristic essays about his experiences navigating Northwest rivers on a boat. He’s interspersed stories about being a baseball umpire and a school bus driver for developmentally disabled and at-risk youth, but these occurred at the same time he was journeying on rivers and so the book feels tightly focused around several years of his life.

As far as writing about family and friends, really marvelous things can come out of being brave enough to tell your own stories. My family, historically not open to discussing much about my mother losing custody of us in the 1970s, talked a lot more about this after Gringa came out. Friends and I have had frank dialogues about the perils of homophobia, especially as it affected us growing up. Write your truth, but if you’re really worried about repercussions, you can either write under a pen name or wait until the key characters have passed on. I want to point out that Sue William Silverman has a wonderful book about this subject, titled Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. You can read an interview I did with her on my blog, here.

What can you tell us about the sessions you’re presenting at the upcoming Pacific Northwest Writers’ Conference? Where can readers find more information?

You can find a link to the conference and the fabulous workshops scheduled here.

I’ll be teaching a course on how to write short and longer memoir; we’ll discuss structure and theme, as well as ethical considerations and how to approach editors and agents.

I’ll also be teaching a course on how to write essays for fun and profit. Don’t let the word “essay” scare you—we’re talking social and political commentary, family anecdotes, environmental pieces for magazines, newspapers, and radio programs. It’s an exciting and lucrative genre, perfect for building or adding to your platform.

Be sure to check out Melissa’s social media links:
Twitter: MelissaMHart
And… see the book trailer!

No comments :

Post a Comment