I am thrilled to welcome Melissa Studdard, a fellow All Things That Matter author, mother, editor and cat lover. In 2011 her YA novel Six Weeks to Yehidah became a bestseller. Since then it has won several awards. In spite of her success, she has remained most kind and supportive of other people's talent. Today she opens up about her live beyond her sensational bestseller.
MJN: Several years ago you wrote a bestselling novel, Six Weeks to Yehidah. I had the privilege of reading and reviewing it before it became a smashing hit. It started as a series of short stories and then evolved into an episodic novel. At what point did you decide to tie the stories into one novel-length piece?
MS: What a great honor to have you among my early readers and reviewers, MJ! Yes—it’s true that I intended for Six Weeks to Yehidah to be a short story when I began, but by about page 10, I realized I was writing a first chapter rather than a story—so the process was actually the reverse of what you may have thought: I made a conscious decision at that point to make the novel episodic. I’d learned to write in 7-15 page bursts from writing short stories, so I knew episodic chapters would be a great transition to writing longer works. Also, I wanted the novel to be full of adventure, so creating new worlds every few chapters turned out to be the perfect format.
MJN: One of your jobs is teaching at a college. Are you candid with your students about the challenges and rewards of being in the literary field? How many of them expect to follow in the footsteps of Professor Studdard and write award-winning bestsellers?
MS: I’m candid with my students in general. We have a great time in class, and I tell them the truth about writing, the literary field, and what I know of life. I’m not sure how often I think to mention that my book was a bestseller or that I’ve won awards, so I’m not sure if they hope to follow in my footsteps, but I do get the sense that many of them are Googling me and reading my works online. They seem to know a lot about me. Much more than I tell them.
But, back to the other part of your question, because it’s important: Writing is a passionate endeavor, a love-hate relationship with the mind and heart and soul, as you know. In this sense, the real reward is writing itself. You remind me that I need to make sure my students know this and are prepared for the fact that the business aspects of writing can be demoralizing and even leave the creative spirit feeling a bit depleted. Thank you.
MJN: Your recently had a collection of poems I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast released via Saint Julian Press. Currently what is the market for poetry? I heard that it's really hard to market an anthology, and that you are more likely to receive proper attention by being published in various literary journals.
MS: The really cool thing about poetry is that you can publish individual poems in journals and magazines and anthologies and then collect them together as a book. The same poems that are in I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast are published in many other places, as well. When people see a poem they like in a magazine or anthology, they look for the collection that contains it because they want more work by that poet—and that sells books. I never thought I would make money off a poetry collection or concerned myself with the market, so the fact that people are finding the book this way makes me really happy. I mean, we write and publish because we want to share, so I’m glad my work is finding readers.
MJN: I know how much pride you take in your daughter, who is a very motivated and talented young lady. You find that you two have a lot in common? Do you wish that her fate unfolds similarly to yours?
MS: My daughter has been an incredible blessing, and we are both deeply in love with literature. That was not by my design, either. Her father and I divorced when she was two, and taking care of her and supporting her financially became all-consuming for me. I quit writing and threw myself into motherhood and teaching. It was only when she got older, and it became clear to me that she loved reading and writing as much as I did, that I began to write again. I realized literature was something we could share, not something that would take me away from her. Now I feel fairly certain that she will also become a writer and professor. She is the editor-in-chief of her high school’s literary magazine, and she excels in creative writing and journalism. I’m so proud of her!
MJN: As a mother, do you find that certain trends in pop culture are toxic to the psychology of a young woman? Being a woman in the 21st century comes with certain unprecedented opportunities as well as drawbacks. When you open a magazine targeted a young adults, you get many conflicting messages. On one page you get tips on how to lose 20 lbs in a week, and on the next page you find a long sanctimonious article on how you should "accept yourself the way you are." As an extremely accomplished single mother, how do you coach your daughter to navigate this minefield of young adulthood?
MS: Fortunately, my daughter is not interested in such magazines. She would find the “accept yourself the way you are” article to be hokey and inauthentic, and she would not give a damn about losing 20 lbs. in a week. She is a powerful feminist and activist and the president of her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. She is all about breaking down gender stereotypes and fighting media and corporate indoctrination. I wish I could take credit for all of this, but it’s just who she is. I got lucky.
I think the point you’re making is excellent, though. Conflicting societal messages are designed to encourage us to crave products that will make us feel accepted and good about ourselves. Teaching children critical thinking skills at a young age is a good way to help them see that these advertisements pretending to be articles really have little to offer. As well, showing our children that we love them exactly as they are is a good way to encourage them to develop the inner resources for self-affirmation rather than needing an excessive amount of external affirmation from articles and peers.