Interview by Lara Lillibridge
Melanie Brooks is the author of Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma (Beacon Press; 2017). Her second book, A Hard Silence: One Daughter Remaps Family, Grief, and Faith When HIV/AIDS Changes It All is a memoir project 20+ years in the making—and it releases this month from Vine Leaves Press.
Melanie teaches professional writing at Northeastern University and creative nonfiction in Bay Path University’s MFA program. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast writing program. Her work has appeared in Psychology Today, HuffPost, Yankee Magazine, The Washington Post, Ms. Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, Hippocampus Magazine, and other notable publications.
I met Melanie at HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers in 2017, when her first book came out and she was part of the Night of Nonfiction debut author panel—and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of her memoir ever since.
Lara Lillibridge: Okay, I wanted to start with your first book, Writing Hard Stories, which I think you did at the end of your MFA. Is that right?
Melanie Brooks: There’re five semesters to the MFA. And it was my third semester project—it started as that, and then it just kind of blew up. And then when I graduated, I had the thesis project, which was the memoir, and I had Writing Hard Stories, which, at that point, I had 11 of the 18 interviews already done. And so it was a question of which one do I pursue? And I went with that one.
LL: Who was it with? I recall that it was with a pretty big house.
MB: It was with Beacon Press.
LL: It was a while ago that that book came out—
LL: So you’ve been writing this memoir kind of forever?
MB: It sure feels like it. From the time I started it to publication, it’s exactly 10 years, with Writing Hard Stories in the middle of that, which certainly disrupted it. So I wouldn’t say I’ve been writing it for 10 years, but it’s been a 10-year project.
LL: That sounds like a good way to phrase it. Tell me about your experience with Vine Leaves Press compared to the first go around?
MB: I did a workshop not long ago, with the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance about publishing with an agent and without, because I’ve done both, and I spent some time talking about the pros and cons of larger presses and smaller presses. When you’re with a larger press, you get a larger advance, you get a little more on the publicity, and a little more help with submission to reviewers. And I was assigned to a publicist, which then gets you in a little bit more easily to places for speaking. But the amount of attention that I’ve gotten from Vine Leaves, in terms of the editing process, the preparation for promotion and publicity has been leaps and bounds beyond my expectations.
I think most people would tell you that even when you do publish with a larger press, you end up doing so much of the legwork anyway—
LL: That was my experience, yeah.
MB: So I don’t feel like I’m missing the help of a publicist, probably because I learned from the experience of having one. Alexis Paige was my developmental editor. And the attention and care and time she put into this manuscript—I couldn’t have dreamed of anything better. It was beautiful. It made me feel so taken care of in the process. This book means so much to me, that that’s what I want—somebody who cares about it as much as I do—to be helping bring it into the world. So I felt that care deeply from her.
LL: And I think that when we’re writing these hard stories to steal the title of your first book, it’s important to feel nurtured through the process.
MB: Absolutely. I didn’t know the difference when I published Writing Hard Stories. I didn’t get a lot of developmental editing, it was just kind of back and forth a little bit, and we were done. But to experience it this time around with this book, it just makes you realize what you want when you’re putting a book like this out in the world. We talk about this so much, right? These books are more than just stories. They’re pieces of ourselves that we’re putting out there. And you know, you want those pieces to be taken care of.
LL: I think that’s one thing for writers pursuing publication for the first time it’s easy to get sort of starstruck with the idea of big agents and big names and stuff. But when we are writing our hearts and souls to really feel taken care of, I think is so much more important. I would not trade that for anything.
MB:. Exactly. I have zero regrets in terms of the choice of publishers.
LL: How did you wind up at Vine Leaves Press?
MB: This was not an easy book to sell. And I think it’s because HIV/AIDS is a story that some people see as kind of passe, in some ways. Like, I think it seems like it’s not as culturally relevant, which I disagree with, because I think, post-COVID-pandemic, there are a lot of echoes of both pandemics in that story. But it was a difficult sell.
My agent tried to sell it on proposal, and we had no success, so that’s when he and I parted ways. And that’s when I decided to finish the manuscript. I spent two years finishing the manuscript and then there was a decision: Do I want to pursue another agent? Do I want to go on my own with submissions? And so that’s when I started submitting to the smaller independent presses.
I had reached out to Alexis Paige because she had published with Vine Leaves, and she also did some editing work with them, so I reached out to her and asked about the press. She said, ‘Would you like me to contact the editor or the publisher?’ I felt very hesitant at that point. I didn’t want anybody recommending this book, unless they’d read it, because I wanted to make sure they felt good about it before bringing it to anyone. Alexis is somebody who does not sugarcoat anything. If she didn’t like it, she would tell me. So I sent it to her. She had a busy schedule, and it took her some time. And during that time, Vine Leaves hired her as their acquisitions editor for creative nonfiction. And after she read my book, she loved it, and she said, ‘I would love this to be my first acquisition that I recommend for them.’ So that’s how it panned out.
LL: That’s great. What happenstance.
MB: It’s really wonderful. And it felt so meaningful, coming from somebody who I knew was not a bullshitter, you know?
LL: Right. Because she wasn’t going to just be like, ‘Oh, it’s nice’ if she didn’t really like it, which is important.
MB: It’s so important.
LL: With my children, I’m the one who always says everything is great and wonderful. And, you know, that kind of means nothing to my kids.
MB: Oh, like, ‘Mom’s always gonna say that.’
LL: Right. Yeah. So I know exactly what you mean.
I read your book slowly. It’s funny, and, please, it’s okay to think badly of me, but I hope you don’t. When I knew that you had written this whole book on writing hard stories, and that your story was about losing your father, I thought, well, that’s not hard. It’s not like sex abuse, or like, you know, all of these physical traumas that other people write about. And then I lost my father. And your book was a hard story for me to read. And so I needed breaks when reading it.
And I also lost people in the AIDS epidemic. So it was also like two different wounds in me, that I related to, and I think it is a very important story to tell for all of us. I mean, it’s the AIDS epidemic, whether you knew anyone or not, and people did and didn’t even know it. It affected our generation, you know, and it’s still with us people, even though some people act like it’s over. It’s not entirely over.
MB: I mean, if you go to Sub Saharan Africa, it’s still a crisis there.
LL: Yeah, exactly.
MB: At the time that my father was infected, it was a certain death sentence. So it was a different kind of story then than it is now. And I think because of that, maybe that’s where the mindset comes from that it’s not such a big deal anymore, because people aren’t dying in droves from this disease right in front of us.
LL: One thing that surprised me as someone who grew up in the United States, as opposed to Canada was that Canada’s health system was really scary—this idea that they could just show up at your door and ask you questions. In the United States, nobody knew unless you told them. So with your story, I learned that it was not just because of your father’s profession as a physician, but just anyone with HIV was hiding from the government, in some ways.
MB: In many ways, because the government was trying to decide how to handle it. We experienced quarantines, and identification with the Covid-19 pandemic, but that was a different. It was everybody. It wasn’t impacting just one small handful of people. And so it was terrifying when the government was talking about those things back in the 1980s and early ’90s. And I mean, the US government was talking about those things, too. But they might not have had as strict public health laws as Canada did at that time.
LL: it would make the consequences of telling your secrets so much larger. I mean, the social reputation repercussions, huge. But there was also this other side I was unaware of.
MB: There were specific risks. Like if my dad had been identified, my brothers and I might not have been able to go to public school, it would have been hard for us to sell our house, those kinds of things. So the risk was very present at the time, so it’s very understandable to me, the reasons behind the silence, and behind the secrecy. But it was the silence and secrecy that made it the very hard story.
LL: Yeah. I mean, growing up with lesbian parents, I know what it’s like, as a kid to carry a giant secret about your parents. And it’s very damaging. And as an adult, when my stepmother cries about how awful it was, I’m like, I don’t know what else they could have done at the time. Right?
MB: Well, exactly. I’ve had those conversations with my mom with the book coming out, and I think she carries a sense that somehow she failed me or that she didn’t do what she was supposed to do. And I’ve tried to reassure her that this book is not about that at all. It’s not about pointing fingers and laying blame. I think anybody can understand that my parents were doing the best they could in impossible circumstances, and there’s no roadmap for how to navigate those things. And certainly things that might have been helpful are going to get dropped along the way. I think it’s all part of the story.
LL: You talked about your role in the family as being the cheerful one. My role was the easy child—the one who doesn’t make waves. I felt like the way that you love your parents is to protect them from your pain.
MB: I had a very innate sense of that—this is a really hard thing that they’re going through, I don’t want to make it harder. That wasn’t anything that they put on me. It was just my own sense of like, what can I do? Well, I can pretend everything’s okay. You know?
LL: Exactly. Now, a really unusual aspect of your story that I did not know until I read your book was that your parents—your father, with your mother’s input—wrote their own story about this a long time ago. I wonder if that had an impact on you as you were writing your own story?
MB: In some ways it did. First of all, I do feel like it’s important that I say that I don’t know that I would have written this book if the story had never been made public. You know, if my dad had died with his HIV infection a secret. I don’t know that I would have decided to create this big exposé.
I’m not writing to expose that secret. That part of the story was already known. I wasn’t opening a whole new Pandora’s box of information. But I think what impacted me the most was recognizing the lens through which my parents were telling their own story, and that narrative lens, it impacted me in the sense of recognizing that the view from where I stood was not a big part of their story. It caused me to interrogate that—why is it that they didn’t see the struggle that I (or my brothers, too) was having or that it wasn’t something that was on their radar to write about?
It made me really think about how I had navigated this experience, and what public face I was putting on it, versus the private feelings that I was keeping inside. I don’t think I would have, if they had asked me to tell how I was feeling, I don’t think I would have even been able to articulate it.
I wrote this book almost 20 years after my father’s death. So I had the insight in hindsight to be able to look at myself and understand what I was experiencing back then. But I don’t know that I would have had that same understanding at the time. When you’re in the middle of something, you go through it, and you’re not really consciously thinking about how you’re going through it. It’s only in looking back that the recognition comes.
LL: And that leads into my next question, which was about the structure. You wrote a lot about processing this in therapy. And a lot of your book takes place in the therapist’s office, and I’ve not seen that before. And I was just curious how that came to be.
MB: One reason I do put us in the therapist’s office is that there’s often stigma attached to therapy, despite the fact that mental health has become a much more conversational topic. I think that there’s still that stigma—people talk about going to therapy, but I don’t think we always see it and understand what that process looks like. And because it was such an important part of my process—I was in therapy, fully parallel to the writing—I did one at the same time as the other. I felt like I couldn’t write the story without showing some of that process.
But structure was a big struggle for me, throughout the entire writing process. With initial drafts, I was still doing a lot of shuffling. I could never take a linear approach to the story, because there were so many threads, and it was all kind of tangled up. It’s more of a mosaic—it didn’t have that linear shape. But the one thing that did have a consistent narrative thread was my time in therapy. And I realized, I have these moments that I can use as kind of a moving forward chronology. And those moments became the anchoring points for the structure.
It’s funny, because I had an MFA mentor early on, when I wrote one therapy scene, who wrote in his response, ‘this will be interesting. They say that this is something you shouldn’t talk about.’ I held on to that comment for a really long time, thinking oh, okay, that’s taboo. You don’t write about that.
But I had another mentor for my thesis semester, and when we were spitballing ideas for structure, I said, ‘Well, I had this idea, but I know you’re not supposed to do that.’ And she said, ‘have you read my book? It starts in therapy. Who says you’re not supposed to do that?’
It freed me up to say my time in therapy is part of the story that I have to tell and it feels important.
LL: I thought it to be very good way of anchoring the time— you go back and forth between a lot of different times, but I never got lost.
MB: The moments in therapy were also where I could put a little humor into the story. Because the way I think in therapy, I find funny sometimes.
LL: Yes, for sure.
MB: I know it sounds strange to think that the therapy scenes are the ones that have some humor in them, but they do.
LL: Right, like the line,
I tamped down on my urge to interrupt myself and ask Dr. B where I ranked on the Scale of Crazy compared to the other clients he saw. The likelihood of him telling me was minimal.
MB: It allows a little bit of my thinking and my personality at this stage in life to come through. And that felt important, too.
LL: You wrote so beautifully about your relationship with your husband, which I thought was really nice to see. I feel like we don’t see so many happy marriage stories in memoir. And I know that your kids are older now.
MB: 23 and 20.
LL: I just wondered about how you dealt with the book in terms of conversations with them or did you open it up for guidelines?
MB: With my immediate family, my husband and kids, the stuff that I wrote about them, I did ask if it was okay for it to be in there, and I let them see it. And I mean, my husband comes across pretty glowing. So I don’t think he has a lot of issues with that. But, for the kids, there are moments in their adolescence, that show some of their vulnerabilities, and so it did feel important to at least get a sense of their take on it, and they were fine.
And what’s been really nice—the fact that this book has taken this amount of time to come out—allowed me to have both of my kids read it as adults, and to have conversations with them about it through that adult lens. After my son finished it, we FaceTimed for two hours, and he had written notes and had questions and wanted to talk to me about things, and it was just such a beautiful conversation, because I could really see him trying to figure out family dynamics that he had experienced and seen, but really wanted to understand.
There was something really lovely for both of my kids, like, when my daughter was reading it, I would come into the room, and she’d be crying on the couch. And I’d say, ‘I’m so sorry it’s making you sad.’ And she’d respond, ‘No, it just makes me think about what it would be like if Dad died, and really know what you went through.’
LL: It sounds like it really brought your immediate family closer together.
MB: It did. My husband read it all the way through the process—he was my sounding board for most of it, but when we were on vacation last week, he brought a copy of the book and read it from start to finish, just to get a sense of how it reads now, not piecemeal. And so that was neat to see him holding it and reading it.
LL: That’s great. Now your release date is September 12. Do you have events planned?
MB: I have a full tour schedule that I have gotten together. What’s been really helpful is that the relationships I had with people and places from my tour for Writing Hard Stories have allowed me to set up some nice events. Also, many of the writers from the first book have been incredibly generous to me throughout this whole process, and many of them have agreed to do In Conversation events with me, so I have a good solid tour set up from September 12 through the beginning of November.
LL: So if you’ve been working on this for 10 years, is there like a little bit of sadness that the project is sort of over? Or is it all just happiness?
MB: I feel really good. Somebody was asking me recently whether the timing matters. When Beacon Press said no to it for various reasons in 2017, that felt so disappointing. But I feel like the book that’s coming out in September 2023 needed those years in between to become this book. And I think I needed that time to be ready to bring this book into the world. Because it is a very vulnerable story. There’re a lot of things to navigate with it. I don’t know that I would have been ready at any other point.
So I feel very ready, I’m poised to take this book and do something with it.
LL: That’s wonderful.
MB: It is. Obviously, there’s trepidation, right? There’s always the fear of what people might say or do, but I think I recognize that I am not putting this book out into the world with the hopes of this glowing literary life as much as I want to go and use this book to help other people in some way. And if conversations emerge as a result of that, and opportunities emerge for teaching and helping other people find their voices, which I love to do, that’s what’s important to me.
LL: And I think that it is, obviously a different world because of the COVID pandemic. I know that for me, I talked to my kids a lot about the AIDS epidemic during COVID, and about what worked then. I talked about people in the gay community in Rochester, where I lived, just assumed that everyone else had HIV and planned their own actions based on that. So to me, that makes your book so much more relevant than 2017 would have been.
MB: Exactly. You’ve read the book, so, you know the ending point of the story is 2015, but then I do a little bit of a flash forward. One of the things I say is that I could never have imagined that a global pandemic would make this story feel so resonant in this moment. I think people will read this story with a different mindset than they might have had pre-pandemic.
LL: For sure. There were so many stories, particularly early in the pandemic, of people being ostracized for being COVID positive, or having a family member die—nobody would talk to them because they didn’t want to catch any germs.
MB: The thing that really resonated for me was that people were grieving in such isolation, and that was so much a part of our story, because even though we had a community of support when my father died, people hadn’t been through the experience, so that ongoing grief that we felt—the grief we felt before he died—that was all very isolated. I felt heartbroken for those families who were experiencing grief and couldn’t have people surround them because of the pandemic. That period has so many echoes of my own story.
LL: Your book is definitely relevant on so many levels. One thing that I can really see is, particularly in talking to you, is how it benefited from the amount of time it took. I’m someone that’s always in a rush, and I’m learning that rushing It’s not always the best thing for my writing or publishing.
Sometimes giving something the time and the space for either my relationships that I’m writing about to have resolution or for me personally to have a new perspective, or for my kids to get a little bit older can really be beneficial.
MB: I think so—that’s what I’m feeling at this stage. I think that some of my emotions needed time to simmer. There would have been different viewpoints and perspectives if it had come out earlier. It feels like the right time.
LL: I think that’s the perfect place to end.