Interview with Melody Mansfield; Essay Contest Runner Up

Sunday, April 08, 2018
WOW! recently announced the winners of our very first Essay Contest and we are proud to announce Melody Mansfield from Lake Balboa, California  as one of the runners up with The Woman Who Wouldn't Die. Before we get into this awesome interview, Melody said the following to me:

I guess it needs to be said (though I’m hoping it is apparent) that 
The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die is autobiographical. 
 And because breast cancer is such an 
ubiquitous disease right now, 
it has become increasing important to me to 
share my story with others and in this way, perhaps,
 convey some hope and comfort.

My story is this: I was originally diagnosed with BC in 1996, 
and subsequently (within a period of three months) saw 
both the publication of my first book and the dissolution 
of my 23 year marriage. Fourteen years later, it returned
—the cancer—
not the marriage. 
 The doctor said that once it metastasized, 
there would be no cure, but his goal was to slow it down 
as long as possible. So I have been on chemo constantly 
(specific drugs keep changing) for nearly eight years now. 
 And since the initial prognosis was 3-18 months, 
I am feeling pretty  lucky, to say the least.

So, let's take a look at Melody's bio and get down to the business of this interview. I feel pretty lucky to have this opportunity of spending time with such a remarkable woman!

About Melody:

Between the publication of Melody Mansfield’s first novel, The Life Stone of Singing Bird, by Faber and Faber in 1996 and her short story collection, A Bug Collection, by Red Hen Press in 2013, her short fiction, essays, and poetry have found homes in a number of print and online journals including Parents Magazine, Inside English, CAIS Journal, and Thought Magazine. In 2014, the opening of her sixth novel was awarded the Sue Alexander Grant, and in 2015, her short story, “Fertilizer” was anthologized for the Write Well Award. A selection of Mansfield’s fiction was recently (September 2017) chosen to be staged by professional actors in North Hollywood for The New Short Fiction Series.

Mansfield holds an MFA in Fiction from Vermont College and is proud to be the Director of Creative Writing at a private Los Angeles high school, where she was honored this past November with the 2017 Jewish Educator Award. She lives with her professor husband, Jerry, in a ridiculously happy little yellow house—cricket-infested and partly hidden by bright bouganvilleas and sweet-memory-sky-flowers. She is currently putting the finishing touches on her passion project: a literary fiction/YA/fantasy hybrid novel—chock full of faeries and magic and “the innermost thumpings of her own bursting heart.”

----------interview by Crystal J. Casavant-Otto

WOW:  Super glad you are here today Melody - thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to sit down and chat! I enjoyed your essay as well as the opportunity to learn more about your personal battle with cancer.

What advice do you have for others who want to attempt an essay about something deeply personal? Is there a good way to approach the project?

Melody: I am probably the least qualified person in the world to answer this question, as I have spent the majority of my writing career avoiding (or disguising) the “deeply personal.” As I mention in the essay, I have written from the point of view of bugs and faeries—anything to avoid giving away too much of myself (which is of course ridiculous, because we are always there in everything we write, yes?) All of which is not to say that I haven’t written about what is most idiosyncratically personal to me —only that I have rarely considered publishing it. For me there is a significant difference between process (write whatever you want/feel) and product (show it to others), and the line between two is a terrifying chasm.

But the metastasis diagnosis, coupled with the miracle of my continued survival—has been a catalyst for change. As I sit here today, on this chilly January morning, my newly bald head covered in the softest sky-blue scarf I could find, I am moving toward a fuller, more compassionate understanding of the importance of sharing our experiences with one other.

One of my most positively received short stories, “Black-out,” is a very thinly veiled autobiographical piece that recounts the excruciating moment when, post-mastectomy in 1996, I finally accepted the inevitability of my divorce. That suffocatingly hot and long-ago August night is so painful for me to relive that re-reading this story feels a bit like being raped, but women have commented on how it helped them “heal.” This is remarkable to me, but speaks, I think, to our need to know that we are not alone in this world, and to the power of revealing ourselves at our most vulnerable. It has compelled me (like the protagonist at the end of my most recent project) to “look away from myself” and toward the needs of others. I have kept the secret of my metastasized breast cancer largely a secret from my students and colleagues for nearly eight years, but the fact that “The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die” was chosen to be performed publicly has been another important step in my “coming out.”

So, to answer your question—my apologies for the long digression—I think my advice to others would be to scrape out everything that needs to be aired and to write it down—every grisly little bit of it. But then consider which parts are purely venting (crucially important, but possibly only to our own understanding) and which parts might be transformed into something that can be held in someone else’s hands long enough to be prodded and mined for connections and comfort—in other words, transformed into Art that can heal. And then be brave enough to put it out there.

WOW:  That's great advice for all of us (especially the bravery part) - thank you!

You are putting the finishing touches on your passion project – when did you start dreaming up this YA/fantasy hybrid novel? What prompted you to move forward with publishing?

Melody: I should clarify first that I have not yet published (nor even sought publication for) this “passion project.” I kind of love it too much to shop it around without representation, so I am currently in the process of seeking out the right agent—someone who loves language and character as much as I do, and who is willing to take a risk on something that does not fall neatly into one clear category.

Regarding its genesis: I have written a number of novels at this point—many that I considered to be “serious and important.” But the cancer metastasis diagnosis in 2010 made me question the wisdom of continuing to carry around the weight of all those pretentious expectations. It nudged me, ironically, back toward my very earliest encounters with books—the wonder of finding new gifts on each page, the enchantment of faery forests and hidden creatures, the magical music of language and the happy discovery that words themselves could transport and transform me. In short, it propelled me toward celebrating the intrinsic joy (and healing powers) of writing itself. “Bring on the faeries!” I wrote in this essay. “Secret and small—the innermost thumpings of [my] own bursting heart. What could be more frivolous and life affirming?”

To be more specific, I dove deeply then into study of the YA market, and wrote one full “faery” novel that I felt would conform to its dictates. I even won a Sue Alexander Award for its opening. But something wasn’t right; I had infused it too much with the “market” ideals and had veered too far away from my own “innermost thumpings.” So then I listened more carefully to the words of Birdie, one of its secondary characters, and she told me that what I really wanted to write about was her story, and about how her childhood in one of the most brutal and backward areas in Scotland led her to faeries and magic and heartbreak and redemption. The novel that emerged, Between the Song and the Sigh, touched something in me that I needed to touch, and which I hope may touch others as well. (This novel has now become the prequel for the first one—which I will revise again now that I know who Birdie is. Or perhaps that first faery novel will become the second, which may lead to a third…?)

WOW:  I'm impressed with your processes and ideas; thank you for your honesty and candor. Tell us more:

Where do you write? What does your space look like?

Melody: Right now I feel unbelievably privileged to have a small room of my own (like our good friend and mentor, Ms. Woolf), complete with comfy chair, printer, bulletin board, and various writing totems. But while my children were growing up (I was working three jobs while earning my BA/MA/MFA), I wrote my first novel in my dented Toyota while waiting to pick up a child from school, or on the metal bleachers while watching a child at swim practice, or on our one-and-only old clunker computer in the living room, right next to the piano and a group of my kids’ friends singing and dancing and knocking over vases for an upcoming production of Hair.

Peace and quiet is an inexplicably wonderful luxury, but the main thing, I think, is to LOVE what you are writing. And if you don’t love it, can’t love it, and/or can’t find time to love it, then read, read, read, until you can love it again. Just keep those words and ideas still flying around in your blood and your brain, waiting for that golden morning when they can once more (hallelujah!) be released. The words will find a way, I think, sooner or later. Just don’t leave them at the curb and drive away.

WOW:  Peace and quiet? I had to look those words up because they're so foreign to me. But seriously, I have to ask about one more thing before we run out of time: 

Your work was chosen to be staged by professional actors? WOW!!! Tell us about that experience?

Melody: The experience of having my words read publicly by professionals was simultaneously exhilarating, flattering, terrifying, and revelatory—the first three for obvious reasons, but revelatory because I learned so much about what it must be like to be a screenplay writer; the plus side is the fun collaboration and camaraderie, but the down side is a loss of control, particularly of the meanings you thought you had invested in the words you’d written. For instance, although I heard the narrative voice in one of my stories as a bit lost (resistant and frightened, but mostly filled with wonder), the actor read this narrator’s words as purely angry—and this changed everything. So that was a learning experience. Still, it was an overwhelmingly emotional and perfect evening for me. Standing room only! And not just my beloved family and friends, but also so many of my wonderful colleagues, as well a lot of surreal surprises—former writing and dance students, and others whose lives had intersected with my own.

WOW: I can't even fathom your excitement over all these great accomplishments. You certainly aren't one to sit back waiting for life to happen. As someone who I would consider a mover and shaker, what’s next for you? What are your writing goals for 2018 and beyond?

Melody: Thanks for asking! It may help me to articulate and list them.

My writing goals for 2018:

(1) Find the right agent for Between the Song and the Sigh

(2) Revise a novel I began some time ago about a nineteenth century female composer. The emergence of the #MeToo movement, and the re-energizing of womens’ power tells me that the time might finally be right for this novel. (I saw an article just this morning about Susanna Malkki, a female conductor who is chipping away at that particular glass ceiling and accepting invitations as guest conductor at LA and NYC Philharmonic Orchestras—Yes!)

(3) Revise the novel that led to Between the Song and the Sigh, now that I have discovered the truest tone, voice, and emotional impetus.

(4) Wave a magic faery wand over some of my more ponderously “serious” pieces to infuse them with bit more sparkle and light and more nods to the miraculous.

(5) Continue to play, play, play with words and to honor the strangeness and particularity of my own truest voice and vision

WOW: Well Melody, it sure was hard to limit this interview to just a few questions. I could sit and chat with you all day. Thank you for your insight and inspiration and congratulations again as one of the runners up for the very first WOW! Women on Writing Essay Contest!

Check out the latest Contests:


Sioux Roslawski said...

Crystal--Thanks for doing this interview.

Melody--I loved your essay--especially the way you ended it--and I agree with you. It's important to love what you're writing. If the passion and the commitment is not there, it'll be obvious to the reader.

Good luck with your future writing projects. And, I hope you continue to win the battle against cancer for a long, long time.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Great interview, ladies!

Melody: This is a brave essay and I applaud you for having the courage to share it. You are a survivor! And we're so honored that you'd choose WOW to publicly "come out." In the past, I, too, have hidden my personal experiences in fiction and even to this day I hesitate to publish my most personal essays. When you said, "re-reading this story feels a bit like being raped," I've totally felt that way before. But I think that the more we write about it the better we feel, especially knowing that our words may help someone else. I found your essay to be so powerful and inspirational.

Good luck with agent hunting and your projects! They sound fascinating. I love what you said in #5 about honoring the strangeness of your own truest voice. Cheers to that! And yes, like Sioux said, I hope you continue to beat cancer forever. xoxo

Unknown said...

Dear Crystal, Sioux, and Angela,

I can't thank you enough for your kind of generous comments. (Sorry for the delay in responding-- this is my try #3 to get it sent correctly --eeks!)

But Crystal, have to thank you again for your sensitivity and organizational skills (esp given the many, many lives you juggle!) Thank you also for your patience with my technophobic issues.

It feels so great to be part of a community of intelligent, talented, (and yes, BRAVE) women with whom to share my thoughts. It also feels so great to be finally "coming out" regarding my own health challenges-- I would welcome questions/comments from anyone in the WOW community who may be facing similar challenges. It helps me so much to imagine I might be helping someone else to heal.

Thank you all for your words. I wish you all great joy and every success.

With love and all best wishes,

Melody Mansfield

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