Interview by Donna Talarico
While a student in the Stonecoast MFA program, Melanie Brooks set out to write a memoir—a story that, once pen was put to paper, stirred up emotions, emotions she hadn’t realized would still be so painful. For help getting through the writing process while reliving these memories, she turned to memoirs about trauma—and then, later, to asking those writers how they made make it through their own writing process. What was meant to be an MFA paper turned into Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memorists Who Shaped Art from Trauma.
I spoke with Melanie via Skype about her process, her book, and survival. Portions of our conversation have been edited or condensed for space and clarity.
HM: How did you select the writers—were they people you’ve read in the past—how did it come about?
MB: I was reading a lot of memoirists for my (MFA) program… the original idea for this was not an idea for a book, it was just, “I really wish I could talk to these people.” The writers I initially contacted were writers whose books I had just finished reading… I really wanted to talk to those writers.
[Melanie then explains how this was part of a third semester critical analysis paper/project, that she imagined could turn into an article. But she was getting so much material.]
MB: The writers were so generous with their time; Marianne Leone invited me to her home, and I had lunch with her. I walked dogs with Mark Doty, so it was just – I felt like I couldn’t limit those experiences to a little soundbite. So I started writing profiles for the project, and my mentor kept saying to me this was a book. At that point I was still working my MFA thesis.
[Melanie then explains that when she graduated, she had two near-completed projects: her MFA thesis and this other project. At the time, she had to decide which one to move forward with initially. Many faculty members and writing friends encouraged her that this concept—the profiles of those who wrote hard stories—was one that could sell. And it did. She graduated in January, wrote the proposal by March, and had sold the book by June. At that point she had interviewed about 10 writers, and she and her editor decided she needed more—and more diverse—writers to add into the mix.]
MB: I started to read more memoirs by writers of color and memoirs from people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. But I didn’t want to add a writer just because it was a well-known author; I wanted to read and love that writer’s book and for the book to have spoken to me and to my own experience of trauma in some way. I was grateful for the opportunity to interview eight more amazing memoirists once the book was under contract.
HM: You already answered one of my other questions in the meantime. I was going to ask when you knew you had a book—so it was during your MFA program, and with the encouragement of your mentor. You were like, “Wow, I have a lot of this material.”
MB: Yeah, this third-semester project was supposed to be a 30-page paper—a critical analysis paper—and I started writing these profiles, and each one was about 10 to 12 pages, and I just kept writing and thought, ‘these are chapters.’
HM: That’s funny. When I got to my MFA program, at an opening dinner we all had to stand up and say why we wanted to pursue an MFA. I explained how, during undergrad, while studying communications, I always went over word count on stories, papers, whatever. So I joked that since I can’t adhere to a word count, instead of writing feature stories, I should be writing books.[laughter]
MB: I was really fortunate to have a mentor [Suzanne Strempek Shea], who instead of getting bogged down by the number of pages, she was just really excited about them. She was the champion of this project—from the very beginning.
…I just kept writing and thought, ‘these are chapters.’
HM: Aw, that’s great. So, as you were doing this, both through the time while you were in the MFA program and then during the additional interviews, what kinds of things did you ask them about?
MB: I detail this in the introduction of the book—and it’s really as much a narrative journey of my doing this as it is talking to these writers. When I started writing my own memoir, my creative thesis, I was really caught off guard by the psychological toll—I did not think that revisiting these memories that were 20 years old, that I’ve lived with and carried with me would feel as terrifying and painful—and [that I’d be] reliving the experience. I was really caught off guard with that. And nobody was talking about that. Nobody was talking to anybody about that.
How did Mark Doty write about the death of a spouse? How did Marianne Leone write about her dead son? How was she able to do these things? I started reading interviews [with these writers], but nobody was asking them those questions. They were asking about craft and writer’s-process-type questions. Nobody was asking the questions I really wanted to know. My biggest question was, “How did you survive this process?” and “How will I survive it?” So all of the questions I asked were very focused on the emotional toll, the coping process, what did it feel like at this stage, what did it feel like at the end, and, selfishly, to have as many people as I could tell me that I would feel better by having done this.
HM: That’s great. A lot of these people you were maybe meeting for the first time, and you were asking tough questions. And maybe why they weren’t asked these types of questions before is because it seemed too invasive. So, what did you do to build rapport to get those people to open up to you? Because there really is a difference in interviewing people: some people just ask the surface questions, but you dug deep. What happened during your process to get ready for that?
MB: I first sent a query email, and I very much personalized them and I made sure I didn’t approach them until I had read their book. In my email, I was very honest about where I was in my process—I just kind of laid it all out there, like ‘I’m a disaster…
…I’m having a really hard time, and here’s what reading your book has done for me and what I’d like to talk to you about.’
I thought maybe one or two of the writers would write back to me, but every single one of them wrote back saying they’d love to talk to me and thank you for approaching me and talking to me about what my book meant to you. And so that initial query set up that this wasn’t just going to be a surface conversation. I was very intentional in asking such specific questions about their story.
What was so interesting is that there was a moment in probably every interview where one of the writers said to me, ‘you know, I never thought of that before.’ Or, no one has ever asked me that question before. And I think for them, in a sense, there was something to be able to talk about that part of their story that they hadn’t talked about before that was sort of refreshing for them. I felt that by the end of each one of them, I felt I had gotten incredibly close to these writers—they’d shared such intimate details about their process and their stories.
HM: What a great, rewarding experience for your own writing and also to share with other people –but also personally, for you, to have this.
MB: I should add that they knew I was coming to them hoping to leave with something for myself and my own process. I felt very taken care of by them as well in the interviews, that they were just as interested in my story and how I was doing.
HM: What surprised during this process? Did anything unexpected happen in any of the interviews—or within yourself?
MB: I think I was surprised by just how much information the writers shared with me. I was surprised by how detailed their answers to my questions were. I was surprised by the fact that I had expected to sit with them for an hour, hour-and-a-half, but ended up having three-hour afternoons with people. I was surprised by their generosity—looking back I shouldn’t be because I think they were so generous to us with their books. But, you know, you never know. I was surprised by how encouraging it was to really hear from them. Every one of them was like, ‘you CAN do this.’ We will be supporting you. I was surprised that we did get to some very intimate moments and conversations where there were tears or moments of silence.
HM: I think silence is so important. Sometimes we’re just so – talking back and forth – but to just sit back and reflect. What a great moment to share.
MB: Yeah, I was saying how I walked dogs with Mark Doty—my interview with him is excerpted the [winter 2017] issue of Creative Nonfiction. There was a moment where we were talking and I couldn’t speak, and he was kind of off in his mind, looking—and it was just a beautiful setting in a dog park—so there were just some really lovely moments.
[Melanie continued with other examples of how she was surprised by the intimacy of her interviews, such as when she had lunch with Marianne Leone and her husband Chris Cooper—and the tender moments they shared while discussing the details of their teenage son’s death. In her afterword, she discussed how these authors all held out a cup of kindness and companionship.]
MB: They gave me a sense of mooring; they steadied me in my process. And that’s exactly what I needed, which is exactly why I felt like I couldn’t keep it all to myself.
HM: Yeah! Well, I’m glad you didn’t. This is going to be helpful to so many people, and it has been. I read a few of the other reviews that have been out – and they say your book has such impact.
MB: I hope so. If somebody else can start their process a little less terrified than I was because of this book, then that will make me feel great.
They gave me a sense of mooring; they steadied me in my process. And that’s exactly what I needed, which is exactly why I felt like I couldn’t keep it all to myself.
HM: Going along with that, who do you hope reads this book. I mean, I know it could be for anybody who writes creative nonfiction, but who is your target?
MB: I do hope that emerging writers will read it. And writers who have stories to tell but feel like they can’t tell them in some way or who have had some kind of obstacle—I hope they’ll read it. I hope that established writers who still have those kinds of stories to tell would benefit from the wisdom of other peers in the process. I also really think that people who are just struggling will benefit from reading about other people’s journeys. I definitely wrote this for writers, but I hope that people who aren’t writers, who feel like they need to know they’re not alone in their struggles, would read this and find some companionship.
HM: Writing through trauma isn’t necessarily something that I think is talked about a lot, and I know there’s going to be a panel on it at AWP and we have one coming up at HippoCamp 2017 that Laurie Jean Cannady is doing. Are there any other resources out there that you turned to? Obviously, there weren’t very many because that’s how this book came about…
MB: The very first seed of an idea for me was when I attended my first AWP, in Boston in 2013; I sat in on a panel called “Writing Past the End.” Kim Stafford was the moderator, and [all the panelists] had written books about a sibling who had either killed themselves or died in some kind of traumatic way, and they were really talking about that kind of emotional journey of writing about that kind of grief. Kim had written a book about his brother Brett, and he had also written an essay after he wrote the book about when he got the galley, and it was called “How a Book Can Set You Free.” So the theme of that panel… I mention this in my introduction—I had asked Kim a question at that panel and totally blew it, and so I wanted a redo—but he talked about giving shape to our traumas, giving shape to our grief. So, for me, it was listening to people talking about that and looking around and realizing that so many of us are needing that.
But [it was] also feeling that tension in the memoir world of people being very careful to designate their memoir as a literary memoir because they don’t want to be clumped into this group of just everybody writing for therapy. And I really try to challenge that notion, that writing is a therapeutic thing—and that there’s nothing wrong with it being that, and that we shouldn’t be afraid of that. I think there needs to be more resources for writers who are writing about really difficult topics.
I do think that we in the writing community need to talk more about trauma writing and how to care of writers as they write through that trauma. I went to a really excellent workshop last year at PEN New England—about writing about trauma. They had psychologists there, they had writing instructors there, they had people who teach writing in high-risk communities. It was a really interesting setting to be a part of. There is a need for this. People want this.
HM: So, your story—your memoir, your creative thesis—is still a hard story, even though you’ve been through all this and have all this new-found knowledge. Do you feel that it’s easier to now?
MB: I feel a lot more equipped to tell it. In the process of writing Writing Hard Stories I finished my MFA—and my creative thesis is about three-quarters of my memoir. It feels close to the end. I was not anywhere near that when I began interviewing these writers. Just sitting with them—with someone who has written this really heartbreaking story and seeing that they were still breathing…. That, for me, was such an encouragement… I never thought I’d get to a place where I’d have my story contained in some way that felt right.
HM: That’s reassuring. You had a difficult story to tell. You went through this process. But now someone can pick up your book and go through the same journey with you…
MB: That’s really important to me. [She explains that there was some debate, early on, about whether she should be a character in the book.] That was a non-negotiable for me. As much as the book is about these writers and their stories, it really was about my narrative of talking to them to, and I really didn’t want to lose that.
HM: One thing another review of your book mentioned was how you wrote that sharing stories can help each other survive. And I see that two ways. One, with your book, you can help people writing about trauma survive their own writing process. But then, ultimately, when those writers’ own stories, perhaps, come out, they’re helping their own readers survive. So it’s almost like this Russian-nesting-doll of survival.
MB: It is, it is. I was thinking to myself as this book was taking shape: These writers, their stories gave me something… and there was some comfort in that connection and understanding. And then when I talked with them, there was a connection. Then I realized that as I started to talk about this book with other people, that there’s a connection for them [with learning about the processes behind the memoirs they’ve read], and then there’s a connection with my journey…
HM: It’s all reinforcing that, ‘hey, we’re gonna be OK.’
MB: There’s that quote about why we endeavor to write a poem, or write a book, or write a symphony… It’s because we want there to be some kind of shared interaction with other people.
Interacting with people—that’s the idea behind this Melanie’s book. Writers sharing the stories behind their stories with one writer, who then shares those stories, and her own, with others. Conversations that can heal and inspire, a conversation that’s perhaps just getting started.
What’s next for Melanie? In our interview, she told me that over the next six months she hopes to finish the proposal for her memoir—and finish the memoir itself. To learn more about Melanie Brooks, including finding out about upcoming events, visit her website.
Editor’s Note: Melanie Brooks will be signing copies of Writing Hard Stories at Hippocampus Magazine’s table at AWP 2017 (Friday, 1 p.m.), and she’ll also join us at HippoCamp 2017 as part of our debut author’s panel.