Interview with Melissa Grunow, Author of "I Don't Belong Here: Essays"

Saturday, September 22, 2018
You may recognize the name Melissa Grunow. She recently taught the "Ashes, Ashes: Writing Personal Narratives About Childhood"course through WOW! and has served as a judge in our quarterly creative nonfiction contest. She joins us today to discuss her latest release, I Don't Belong Here: Essays.

Grunow is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in numerous literary journals and online, so we took advantage of this opportunity to learn all about her background and writing process. She came through beautifully with helpful tips on writing, publishing and submitting creative nonfiction pieces, the writing and publishing process behind both of her books, and a list of her favorite memoirs. A notepad and pen to take notes may come in handy for this interview!

About Melissa Grunow:
Melissa Grunow is the author of I Don't Belong Here: Essays (New Meridian Arts Press, 2018) and Realizing River City: A Memoir (Tumbleweed Books, 2016) which won the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Memoir, the 2017 Silver Medal in Nonfiction-Memoir from Readers' Favorite International Book Contest, and Second Place-Nonfiction in the 2016 Independent Author Network Book of the Year Awards. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, The Nervous Breakdown, Two Hawks Quarterly, New Plains Review, and Blue Lyra Review, among many others. Her essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net and listed in the Best American Essays 2016 notables. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction with distinction from National University. Visit her website at or follow her on Twitter @melgrunow.

What does it mean to belong? In a place? With a person? To a family? Where do our senses of security and survival lie? I Don't Belong Here ruthlessly investigates alienation during moments of transit and dislocation and their impact on women’s identity. These twenty essays—ranging from conventional to lyrical to experimental in form and structure—delve into the root causes of personal uncertainty and the aftershock effects of being a woman in an unsafe world. Provocative, authentic, intimate, and uncompromising, Melissa Grunow casts light on the unspeakable: sexuality, death, mental illness, trauma, estrangement, and disillusionment with precision and fortitude.

----------Interview by Renee Roberson

WOW: Melissa, welcome! Thank you for agreeing to chat with us today about your new book. I Don't Belong Here is a collection of essays that explore the feelings of alienation and how they impact women's lives. I'm curious as to what came first--the idea for the collection or the individual essays themselves?

Melissa: After the publication of my memoir Realizing River City in 2016, I knew my next project would be an essay collection. I had drafted a few essays while writing and promoting the memoir, but I had set them aside because I wasn’t focused on a new project yet. I had chosen the title for I Don’t Belong Here early on in the project because it was exactly how I was feeling about each essay I wrote. What I mean is, I was starting to realize how my writing felt like an immersion in the distant persona. I spend so much time among others inside my head, observing what is happening around me, and pushing the spotlight onto others, rather than living as if I am in the starring role of my own life. So, to answer your question more directly, the idea came first and the majority of the essays in the collection followed.

WOW: Writing creative nonfiction is a very personal and revealing process, and I read in an interview that you are a private person who hesitates to talk about yourself and accomplishments to others. How do you work through this aspect of your personality when writing essays and memoir?

Melissa: I break a rule when I’m writing: I don’t think about audience. If I did, I would never be able to really dig into the darkest depths of what it is that I’m writing about. I just tell myself that I need to write to explore a topic or an issue and that it will probably never get published anyway, so I can be as gritty and honest as necessary without repercussion. Once I have the essay written, I know that the next step is revision and publication, but at that point I can’t compromise the authenticity of the piece by “toning it down,” as it were.

It is true that I don’t like to talk about myself. When I’m having a conversation with someone, I feel far more comfortable asking the questions than answering them. Part of that is my observation persona as I mentioned earlier and part of that is my training as a journalist. When I’m writing, though, nobody is asking questions, nobody is digging into the details except for me. I have total authority over the content and direction of the essay as a conversation with the reader than I ever would have in a conversation with another person, face-to-face.

WOW: Your memoir, Realizing River City, was published in 2016 by Tumbleweed Books. Can you tell us a little about the book and how you decided to ultimately organize it?

Melissa: Realizing River City opens with me floating in a tube down the Rio Grande River in Truth or Consequence, New Mexico, on the last day of a two-week writing residency. I hit a rapid at the bend in the river and am thrown from the tube and trapped underneath it. Alone on the river, I nearly drown but fight to save my life, and I do. The book then flashes back to nearly ten years earlier and navigates a series of failed relationships. The narrative mimics the ebbs and flows of a river in its structure as it explores desire, loss, and ultimately survival. “River City” isn’t a place in the book; it’s a shape-shifting metaphor, so the book is organized into three sections: wading, tributaries, and surfacing. It’s not entirely chronological because it’s less about this happened, then this happened, then this happened, and more about who do I make sense of it all?

Realizing River City went through many structural changes during the writing and revising process because there were so many events happening at the same time that it was difficult to explore them in-depth without getting side-tracked. Using rivers as an organizational structure enabled me to give the book shape and cohesion in a way that a chronological narrative could not.

WOW: Thank you so much for that explanation. It makes sense when you describe it that way. It wasn't until the past few years that I realized the difference between a biography and a memoir, and creative non-fiction opens so many more exploratory opportunities, in my opinion. Writing nonfiction, particularly creative nonfiction, is an art form all its own. How did you first discover your love for it?

Melissa: I took a class in college called The Writer’s Craft. It was taught by the prolific author Robert Root who is a creative nonfiction author. We studied memoir and creative nonfiction essays and then wrote our own. It was the first time that I was given permission to write about my life and find my voice as a writer. While I was taking that class, I was also working as a journalist and writing a lot of feature stories where I was interviewing other people about their own lives. By listening to others, I learned to listen to myself and pen my own truth. It was both terrifying and liberating, as creative nonfiction should be.

WOW: You are also a live storyteller. Can you tell us a little about what this entails and some of the events you've participated in?

In general, live storytelling requires that you get on stage and tell a story extemporaneously within a given time frame. My first experience with live storytelling happened in Detroit when I completed in the Moth StorySlam. I came in second place at that event, and I was hooked. Since then, I’ve competed a few more times, coming in second place again and always in the top five (of ten) competitors. It’s exciting and fun and gives me a chance to test out my stories in front of an audience, which writing simply does not allow.

I participated in the 2016 Metro Detroit Listen to Your Mother show, which I had to audition for and rehearse with other cast members. That was such an incredible experience because we performed at Saint Andrew’s Hall downtown, where Eminem used to compete in rap battles in the basement. I’ve done a handful of events since then, such as open mics and grassroots shows, but Listen to Your Mother was definitely my flagship experience.

WOW: That sounds exciting! And a great way to strengthen your writing. What are some of your favorite memoirs that you've read and studied over the years?

Melissa: Oh there are so many! I’ll keep it at my top fifteen favorite memoirs and essay collections, just so this list doesn’t go on and on forever:

Circadian by Chelsey Clammer (Red Hen Press)
By the Forces of Gravity by Rebecca Fish Ewan (Books by Hippocampus)
Darkroom by Jill Christman (University of Georgia Press)
The Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum (Picador)
Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from the Nervous System by Sonya Huber (University of Nebraska Press)
Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Vintage Books)
The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson (Graywolf Press)
Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz (Future Tense Books)
Between Panic and Desire by Dinty W. Moore (University of Nebraska Press)
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos (Bloomsbury)
My Body is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta (Red Hen Press)
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch (Hawthorn Books)
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (Scribner)
Lying by Lauren Slater (Penguin Books)
Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You by Sue William Silverman (University of Georgia Press)

There are so many more, of course, but this is the list of books that I return to again and again when I want to look at craft and be spellbound by amazing writing.

WOW: Thank you for that list! How can you not be intrigued by those titles? Most of us know how tricky the path to publication can be, and it can be even more so publishing memoir if you aren't a celebrity or someone who already has a huge following. What was the publishing experience like for you with I Don't Belong Here and Realizing River City?

Melissa: For both books, I knew I wanted to work with an independent press, so the process began by researching indie publishers that I could query directly. The mistake I made with Realizing River City is that I started submitting it long before it was ready. I submitted it to a round of publishers, got rejected, revised it, submitted it to another round, got rejected, and revised it.

I knew after that second round that I wanted some professional feedback, so I hired Chelsey Clammer to edit it for me. She gave me so much useful feedback, and I’m forever grateful to her for how she helped me with the manuscript.

I submitted it a third and final time, and I got three contract offers at once. That allowed me to review the terms and conditions of each and choose the publisher that I felt the most comfortable working with. In all, Realizing River City was submitted 34 times. Of those 34, 26 rejected it, I withdrew it from 5, and 3 offered a publishing contract. After it was published by Tumbleweed Books, it went on to win four national and international awards and was a finalist for a fifth.

The process for I Don’t Belong Here was much smoother. I finished the book, revised it until I couldn’t find anything else to change, and then hired Janel Mills to edit it for me. I made final edits and submitted it to 15 indie presses. It was rejected by one and accepted by New Meridian Arts. I had to withdraw it from consideration from the rest.

WOW: Your work has also appeared in a number of literary journals, but some writers are confused as to how to break into that market, especially with creative nonfiction. Do you have any tips for researching and submitting to journals?

Melissa: Submitting work and being selected by a literary journal is a lot like online dating; you just need to find the right match for your work.

Before you submit, make sure your prose is flawless. Some literary journal editors will work with you on minor edits, but most want submissions to be publication-ready.

If you’re writing creative nonfiction, only submit to journals that publish it. There are plenty of journals that will publish creative nonfiction but maybe only one or two pieces per issue because their preference is for fiction or poetry. Don’t submit to those until you’ve built up some publication credits because they are clearly very particular about what they choose.

When it comes to researching literary journals, there are a number of avenues you can use. I subscribe to Duotrope, which allows me to track my submissions and research various publication options. Entropy online also maintains a monthly blog of publication opportunities. If there are writers you admire, go to their websites and see which literary journals have published their work. Make a list and post it somewhere near your writing desk.

Read the journals. Subscribe to them. See what they are publishing. Does their aesthetic match yours?

When you’re reading to submit, read the submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. Submission guidelines are there for a reason, and literary journal editors don’t take kindly to writers who go rogue and don’t follow the directions.

If you’re rejected, move on. Don’t respond to the editor and argue your case. Allow the experience to humble you. If an editor asks to see more work in the future, give it six months and send her something new.

All in all, be tenacious. Keep submitting. Don’t get discouraged. Your work will never get published if you don’t submit, so send it out!

WOW: What's next for you? Is there a dream writing project that you've been thinking about pursuing if you had the time?

Melissa: My focus right now is promoting I Don’t Belong Here, which is quite time-consuming. Scheduling readings, doing interviews, posting announcements on social media, keeping my website updated, all of that takes many hours every week, and I am so appreciative of everyone who has reached out and given me the opportunity to talk about the book and share it with their community.

I’m switching gears for my next writing project. I’m working on a collection of short stories, about half of which have been written. They’re more in the speculative fiction genre: surreal, reality-bending, and maybe even a little weird. I hope to have the draft finished by the end of the year and the manuscript submission-ready by summer 2019. We’ll see what happens, though. When it comes to writing, for me, the work comes along when it’s ready. I very rarely have any control over it.

WOW: Thank you again, Melissa and good luck with the promotion for I Don't Belong Here. We look forward to checking out your next project in the future!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Renee--Thanks for doing this interview.

Melissa--Memoir is my favorite genre to read, so I was fascinated by your interview. I also teach essay-writing to my students, who are middleschoolers. I'm always interested in finding mentor texts for my class. I wonder if your book would be a good one to use? (I work in a Catholic school, so I have to be a bit sensitive about the texts I use.)

Good luck promoting, along with your current WIP, Melissa.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Renee ~ Excellent questions!

Melissa ~ I totally relate to your process, about how you are a private person who would rather interview someone than be interviewed, and also how you have to write as though no one is reading. I also don't tone it down, and often feel it makes people uncomfortable, but oh well. Cheers to that! :)

The live storytelling sounds fascinating, and we share the same memoir tastes. Thank you for also detailing your publishing journey! I can't wait to check out I Don't Belong Here.

Marcia Peterson said...

Great interview ladies! I appreciate having that list of memoirs to check out too.

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