People often want to know where ideas come from and what is my process.
The world is full of emotion and experiences, and sometimes a slat of sun, a gray day, a shoe in the street, a strain of melody will cause a disembodied voice to start poking the back of my brain, “This is me, this is my story — you need to tell it”. I do not come up with a plot, or figure out what people want to read, or do anything else so categorically conscious. It is rarely, if ever, a controlled choice, but rather either a sense, an emotion, or something of a “what if” that spurs the words. It comes unexpectedly, unbidden, like hearing your name whispered in the quiet darkness.
How I write is without a plan or an outline — just the voice telling me where to go, and I need to simply open myself and listen. Sometimes it comes in order, but more often it comes in snippets — random events and conversations and I often do not know how or even if they fit together. I just listen and write it down with a strong ear toward the music of language. It is composition as in music, looking for tone, feel, ebb and flow.
Literary fiction was my foray into the writing world with my debut novel, “Delilah of Sunhats and Swans”, followed quickly by a collection of Raymond Carver-esque short-shorts “Still, Life: a collection of echoes”. Both are about people either confronting or avoiding the truth of things, searching for connection whether aware of it or not. In Delilah it is via a young woman who appears in a small New England town with an enigmatic charm that belies her youth, and hides a dark truth. In the shorts, it is a collection of disconnected stories woven together by a invisible narrator.
But what is literary fiction? What does that mean? It means the story is told through more than the plot and the characters. Just as much time and care is spent in the crafting of just the right word — for it’s sound, its lilt — along with the composing of sentences for their rhythm and cadence, these things being just as critical to creating the emotion and feel of the story. Words have synonyms, all with basically the same meaning. But only one has the right sound, timber, or length and also says exactly what I mean. I choose carefully, and strive to string those carefully chosen words into strings of sentences that have a rise and fall, a shift in length that allows for rapid, free flow or a jolting halt, resulting in the same sense as music…carrying the reader along on its current. That is literary fiction. That, along with a determination to never just skim the surface of something, but to put my big girl pants on and dive down to the dark, silty, slimy depths and get at the truth of things. The stuff we don’t want to look at or acknowledge — because that is where we find what’s real and what matters.
Those first two books were it for a while as family entered the picture, including a son. From the beginning we guided him to be true to who he felt he was, regardless of signals from the world and society to conform, to follow. From the beginning he was reflective, sensitive, insightful and very much an old soul, and while my focus shifted and energy went elsewhere, eventually — as I watched our curious, imaginative boy learn to embrace his innate weirdness and make it a point of pride — the itch returned. In spite of it being completely out of my wheelhouse and utterly daunting, I launched into creating a middle-grade fantasy adventure novel, “The Thirteenth Moon: a Moya Fairwell Adventure”. World building, mythology creation, are not at all my thing and it was a struggle. But I wanted a girl to have a chance to be, for lack of a better description, the Harry Potter character and save the world (along with a strange boy frm the neighborhood). But I also wanted to put down the idea that being different isn’t bad — it is, in fact, what makes you special. I wanted all the outside-the-box kids to see the hero within themselves, and to thumb their noses at a world that told them they didn’t fit in.
To this day, I’m not sure of my technical success, but I know kids who read it, loved it — so that’s success enough for me. It led to a sequel, “The A’chiad”, and after that a YA surreal paranormal book, “Anabelle Lost”, about a seventeen-year-old girl who wakes one morning to find that no one knows who she is, while she remembers everything and everyone. She must work to find out if it is she or the world that has fallen out of sync.
Oddly, that endeavor along with being a parent to a precocious, curious, bright kid turned my writing down an unexpected path. As he grew into pre-teen (and now teen) hood, and I watched him deal with things like anxiety, becoming confident in himself and the ways he is different from ‘average’ or ‘traditional’; as I listened and became friends with the extraordinary and amazing teens that are his tribe, I realized how much I loved connecting with them and how deeply engaged they are in the world, including very real struggles with identity, being true to themselves, the pressures and hatred in the world, and how beautifully articulate they can be about it.
Then I read “I Crawl Through it” by A.S. King and it rocked my world. I thought, “THIS. This is what I want to write.” It is YA, but it is literary and rich and brave and demanding. No pining, self-involved teens, but aware, struggling, exploring, sad, happy, confused young people. But with strange, surreal and impossible twists.
So the novella, “HIDDEN: an impossible story” came out of my desire to destigmatize anxiety and high sensitivity and shine a light on those experiences through a teenage boy who is often so overwhelmed he wishes he could disappear. And one day, he wishes a little too hard.
It clicked for me — YA with magical realism and/or surrealism as literary fiction. It doesn’t demean teen readers. It meets them where they are. It challenges them. It is rich, emotional, complex — and they eat it up. It brought them to me to say thank you, to say it made them laugh, cry, understand and most importantly — feel seen. Heard. Understood.
After that came another novella, “A Life Undone” which was intended as straight lit fiction, but easily crosses into YA lit with a main character who, at twenty-one, publishes an acclaimed collection of poetry — and then disappears. The story explores what leads up to that.
“Apocalypse Alice” followed as a fun experiment of taking a classic story (Alice in Wonderland) and putting it in a totally different environment – in this case, with Alice as a rather kick-ass girl in an environmental post-apocalyptic world. Not sure there is a ton of literatur there, but it’s a fun read for teens and adults. Again, it served to challenge my boundaries as a writer and see if I could write something I know I’d have fun reading, but that is not in my comfort zone. I think that’s important sometimes, to try and stretch yourself. Don’t ask me to write horror, though. Can’t do it and happy to admit that.
Most recently I came back to wanting to explore the very real and hard issues a lot of teens face today as they work to find their place in the world. I imagined a boy — bullied, harassed, hiding a secret, who is seeing chunks fall out of the world. He retreats into his artwork, only to discover one day one of his drawings hanging like mist in his room — and he can walk into it.
Inside it, he finds a girl his age trapped in her own struggle, retreating into her empty, barren dreams. They begin to meet — between his art and her dreams — finding a bond that might help each of them find their way back to the world. Unless the wounds are too deep. That became, “How the Light gets In”. I loved utilizing a surreal, magical concept to explore and reveal their very real, very relevant struggles. It looks at hard issues of depression, bullying, harassment, identity, friendship and family. I’m very proud of this one and the way it seems to be resonating. It proves that YA readers are looking for real, complicated, honest, difficult and real stories. They want to see themselves in the pages and when they do, it is transcendent.
In the end, whether adult lit fiction, or contemporary YA, I tend toward the outsider, the oddball, the strange, complicated, enigmatic character stumbling lost through a beautiful, hateful world. My goal is to explore this world, to kick over stones, to dive deep, to stir the dirt and shine some light. It’s what allows us to see how we are alike, what we don’t need to fear, and what really matters.
At least I hope it does.
Learn more about this author at www.melissavolker.com