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Author Q&A: Melissa Duclos

Melissa Duclos’s fiction has appeared in Bodega Magazine, WIPs: Works (of Fiction) in Progress, Pound of Flash, Blue Skirt Productions, and Scéal. She has also published nonfiction works in SalonThe OffingElectric Literature, BustleMommyishFiction AdvocateCleaver MagazineFull Grown PeopleBookTrib, and English Kills Review. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and a BA in English/Creative Writing from the University of Pennsylvania. Duclos has taught at various universities and is now living in Portland, Oregon with her family.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Melissa Duclos

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?

It’s difficult to identify an exact point when my writing career “began.” If you define a career as work that pays the bills, then my writing career still hasn’t begun, as it is not my main source of income. I long ago separated the idea, though, of being a writer from the question of earning money, as have most writers I know, because it is so rare to earn a living solely through writing (especially fiction).

I always loved to write and decided at a very young age that I wanted to pursue a career writing fiction, but at that point I had no idea what that meant. I majored in creative writing in college, and after taking a few years off from school, pursued a Master’s degree. I suppose getting my MFA was a point in my life at which I began to take the idea of writing professionally more seriously, and I began thinking more about the process of finding a literary agent and eventually a publisher for the novel I was working on. Looking back over this period, I don’t think there’s one event or impulse that made me see myself as a writer, but more the persistence with which I’ve pursued my craft over the years.

You’ve published several works– what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? How has that shifted over time?

I’ve published short fiction, essays, author interviews, and book reviews over the years, and the publication experience is always different depending on the outlet. I’ve had regular writing gigs where I knew the editors well and could quickly pitch ideas before writing anything. Those projects got done and published online relatively quickly. I’ve also written essays that have taken me more than a year to publish. That process involves a lot of research, locating the websites, magazines, and editors who would potentially be interested in the piece; a lot of waiting and a lot of rejection. My strategy when I am placing a piece that is already finished is to send it to one outlet and then immediately find the second place I’ll send it if the first outlet passes. I’ve found that having another editor on hand to submit to right away helps with the sting of rejection.

I learned a lot about the process of pitching work through an online class I took through The Thinking Writer about the submission process. I’ve also found the connections I’ve made—through that class and graduate school, and through my interactions with various writing communities—to be very helpful. Writers all know how hard it is to get your work into the world, and they are generally eager to help their friends and acquaintances by passing on editors’ email addresses or suggesting outlets that might be a good fit. Largely through these connections, I would say my approach to publishing has changed over the past few years because I have become more savvy about the various outlets looking for new work, and the ones that would be a good fit for my work. Writing is subjective, and finding a home for your work is very much about matchmaking, identifying the editors who will fall in love with your writing based on what else they are putting out into the world.

Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?

I write—very broadly speaking—about anxiety: the things that keep me up at night, the questions I need to answer. This is true, I think, of all my work, though the themes I have dealt with over the years have varied, because the things I worry about have changed. All of my work, though, is interested in relationships and how people make connections, or fail to, as that is one of the most interesting and problematic topics for me.

My first novel, which is now complete, examines how the relationships we form as emerging adults shape us, for better or worse, and how identities at that age are tried on and cast off. My current novel, which is in progress, is centered on a kidnapping, and is about the anxieties of parenting and the challenges of marriage. The essays I have written in between these two books have delved into my experiences as an isolated mother of two young children, a writer struggling with the process of moving on from an unpublished novel, and a teacher grappling with the horror of school shootings. Writing for me is a way to process the world, and I am driven to better understand myself and my relationships through my work.

What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?

Many writers, I know, have long lists of writers whom they read as children or young adults, and who inspired in them a love of writing. I don’t really have those kinds of influences; growing up I was a glutton for the Babysitter’s Club books and, later, Mary Higgins Clark novels. The writers who have influenced me over the years have done so through my personal interactions with me. Paul Hendrickson, a reporter and non-fiction writer, made me believe in college that I had what it took to pursue a career in writing. In graduate school, Jaime Manrique challenged me more than any other professor to really think not only about what I was writing, but also why I was making the choices I was for my narrative, and how those choices impacted my characters. Lidia Yuknavitch, whose work I read and admired, and whom I then hired to critique my first novel, taught me to write bravely—about lesbian sex or toxic mother-in-laws or anything else I wanted to without caring (Lidia might say, without giving a fuck) what anyone else thought. Tracy Manaster, who is a brilliant novelist and the first reader of anything I write, has taught me—through both her writing and her critiques—how to develop my characters into full and complex people. (Her tip: you have to be mean to them!)

What would you say is the most important element for crafting a poem, short story, or for discovering a new mode of creativity?

A good writing desk. That maybe sounds flip, but I don’t intend it to be. I’m very impacted by my surroundings. If the place where I am trying to write is cluttered or carries negative emotional energy for me, I won’t get anything done.

In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when approaching different presses? I know you are looking for representation for your first novel, is there something specific you’re looking for in a publishing house? I wonder what factors play into choosing and developing relationships with publishers.

What I’ve learned over the years is that agents, editors, and publishers are generally passionate people. It’s easy for writers to see them as the enemy—the “gatekeepers” standing in the way of an unknown writer’s success. But really they are people who love books, and who are looking for stories they know they can fight for. Because publishing is often a fight. Some of this I’ve learned over the years of submitting my own work to literary agents and indie presses, but mostly I’ve learned this by meeting and talking to editors. Laura Stanfill at Forest Avenue Press, or Rhonda Hughes at Hawthorne Press, are great examples of publishers who have taught me a little bit about the work of putting a book out into the world. They, like all other publishers, are looking for writing that makes that hard work worthwhile. I’m looking for an editor and publishing house who believes in my work enough to fight for it.

What can you tell us about your experiences as a creative writing professor?

I should start by clarifying that I am not a professor. I have been an adjunct instructor at a number of different universities over the years, sometimes teaching creative writing but mainly teaching academic writing. What I’ve learned from the experience is that many people are terrified of writing.

Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?

Finding a supportive writing community in Portland, Oregon has changed my writing life. This community includes writers I exchange drafts with, writers whose work I celebrate when it is published, writers I run into at readings or chat with over drinks, and those who’ve joined the Main Street Writers Movement, founded by Laura Stanfill. I’m not sure if this has opened up “opportunity” in the way the question intends that word, but ultimately I think it’s up to any writer to make their own opportunities. The community of writers I am immersed in motivates me to constantly seek new opportunities.

What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?

Build community. Go to readings and talks, join writing groups, and engage online with other writers. Educate yourself on the business of writing—not just what you can do to improve your craft, but what you need to do to support yourself as you pursue your goals and how the economics of being a writer works. If you have more experienced writers in your life willing to talk to you, ask questions—not just about the best time of day to write, but about what you can write off on your taxes and what kinds of grants you might pursue. Writers often get caught up in the artistry of their work, and of course that is important, but it’s also critical to really understand as you are just starting out and determining how to shape your life the various ways that writers make their livings.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

I want to finish the novel I’m working on, and hopefully find an agent and a publisher. Finishing the book will require mastering my omniscient narrator, which is a craft challenge for me and something I enjoy working on very much. After that, I have an idea for a collection of essays that will require me to stretch myself as a writer, both in conducting research and delving into more personal stories.

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