Sunday, February 13, 2011

Author Insides - Melissa Chadburn

After studying law Melissa Chadburn obtained an MFA from Antioch University. She is a lover and a fighter, a union rep, a social arsonist, a writer, a lesbian, of color, smart, edgy and fun. Her work has been published in 5923 Quarterly, 52/250, Thunderclap Press, The Bohemian, People's Weekly World, Political Affairs, Shelf Life, and Splinter Generation. She blogs at

Melissa's short story, "Communion," appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of The Battered Suitcase.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

When I looked around me and didn’t like where I was or what everyone around me was doing and immediately wanted to write my way out of it.

Why do you write?

To survive. I’m not sure which came first my fake book reports or my runaway letters but they were both lies. When I was a kid I was allowed to read whatever I wanted. So I got started on Jackie Collins’ The Bitch really early, about age 9. Unfortunately I had to turn in book reports in class for the books I was reading at that time as well. So I would make up the story and the book report. I would think up titles my teacher would approve of like Suzy Wins the Big Race I made up an author’s, name, and wrote a synopsis of the book and everything. Even then I already knew I was sick of those American stories of small triumph they were trying to sell to us kids. I also used to write notes stating I was running away to my mother. They would be long detailed confessions of everything I had done wrong because I did not know how to win her acceptance otherwise. She was consistently inconsistent and bat shit crazy and I just thought this tradition of confessing all of my sins would somehow shock her into the tragic reality that I held onto so deeply as a teenager. So I would write the letter, place it on the table, listen for the dreaded sound of her high heels clicking toward the door and then start out the house. Immediately mocking a look of defeat when she saw me.

Is being a writer/poet anything like you imagined it would be?

There’s a lot less cigarette smoking involved. Especially since I quit smoking.

What do you think makes a good story?

One that rips you open and tears out your insides and makes everyone feel closer.

What's your favorite genre to read?

Fiction and fiction

Who is your favorite author or poet?

Whoever I read last. There’s too many to pick... Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, Don DeLillo, Janet Fitch, Sapphire

What books or stories have most influenced you the most as a writer?

White Oleander, PUSH, Slaughterhouse 5, The People Made of Paper, geesh this is hard. Someone, I think it was Stephen Elliott, said people read for two reasons 1) to get closer to people or 2) to escape. I am one of those that reads to get closer... but I also try to practice reading like a writer, a sniper actually, looking to steal words or style or information getting in and out fast enough to move on with my existence as a writer. It has taken me a long time to get to this point. I used to remain a hostage in novels I didn’t like. I thought it had something to do with loyalty. Once I began a novel I did not think it would be okay to put it down. I think I have some remnants of Catholic guilt like there’s some book monitor out there watching me. I used to think I engaged in a silent agreement with the author once I cracked it open.

What books or stories have most influenced you as a person?

Well I hate to admit it but TIME Magazine probably influenced me the most just because when I was four years old I was stuck waiting in the doctor’s office on an army base somewhere in the world. I was walking on all the chairs and getting restless because waiting wasn’t my thing and people told me to sit down. My brother pulled a magazine from the pile, TIME and sat me down. He had me find and circle all the words that began with “th”. That’s when I learned how to read. By the time the doctor called me I was did not want to go. Not only did I learn how to read but I knew learning was my favorite thing at that moment.

Also there was a point in my life where I could have graduated from foster care and the american child welfare system into the juvenile justice system pretty quickly. I was an angry teenager and felt victimized and criminalized at the same time. Luckily for me a woman befriended me who was active in politics and got all my anger and passion fired up toward social justice and class issues. I learned then the shortest route from feeling hopeless to hopeful was through righteous indignation. Anger, but the useful kind, the kind that makes me want to change shit. I helped draft and lobby for a public works jobs bill that created jobs in building public schools and roads and took the money away from the military budget. For this reason I would have to say Leontiev’s Political Economy influenced me a great deal.

Lastly, there’s this one narrative that I can never get sick of. I guess it is the old stories they were trying to sell me as a child, stories of struggle and triumph. Again, I read to get closer to people not to escape. The people I seem to feel closest with are the people that are familiar with a certain brand of pain but don’t just wallow in it. The people that are works in progress. My people died of drug and alcohol abuse and I loved them dearly. I loved them to the point that it hurt us both very much. So for reasons that might be obvious and those that are less obvious.. another book that changed my life was Bill Wilson’s book of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Where/how do you find the most inspiration?

Suffering. I’m more of a dodgy grungy city kind’a writer than a cabin writer. Dare me and tell me I can’t and that will help me most. When I was a kid and lived in a temporary shelter there was a light’s out rule. We had to have all the light’s off by 8 pm. The home was forty minutes away from my school. They were not allowed to drive me anywhere or give me any money. For these reasons I was told not to go to school. I was in the 9th grade, which was a pivotal time for me because at that point I would be graduating from junior high school and going into a four year high school. I was accepted into a special program in high school for disadvantaged youth. I thought this was my ticket out. The group home suggested I quit school. I don’t know what type of student I was before this but the type of student I became was remarkable. I studied with a flashlight in the dark. I saved half of my dinners to bring to school the next day for lunch. Nothing inspires me more than being told no. What does your family think of your writing?

My chosen family supports me and loves me. My chosen family is comprised of a loving girlfriend, a dog, and a cat.

What is your work schedule like when you're writing? My work schedule is always ridiculous. I wish I could tell you I woke up at 4 am and wrote in the silence or that I went to sleep at 2 am and wrote in the evenings while everyone was asleep but my writing is really sporadic because I have a day job that is more like a career that sucks up most of my time. I’m a union rep and I like to think that everything I do is related to my craft. That as a union organizer I am constantly pulling material from the people around me. But mostly I am doing busy work and am on conference calls and reporting random numbers to people. When I write I do like to read for an hour, write for an hour, read for an hour, edit/revise then submit for an hour. So I guess you could say I’m a binge and purger where I won’t write for a week and then I will spend twelve hours writing on any given day.

Do you have any writing quirks or rituals? I used to prepare myself to write by lighting a candle and saying a prayer, essentially letting my spirit travel to whatever grave place it needed to and then I would signify the end of my writing by blowing the candle out. This let me return to the place where my feet were. Today I can’t do most of that because I prefer to write outside of my house since I have a dog and a cat and their needs will whisper to me constantly if I’m home.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

Yes the middle part. I always have a beginning and an end but it’s that middle. There’s usually some sort of mental break down and questioning of my worth around page 100.

What are your current projects? I am working on a manuscript, A Tiny Upward Shove which well this is how I describe it in a query:

There is a point in everyone’s life that marks the separation of before and after that moment. For Marina, she experienced a series of these moments and A Tiny Upward Shove depicts them all.

Despite her capacity to rip the reader open at their seams with her honest depiction of feeling dejected and unloveable Marina has a preserved sense whimsy. Throughout the novel Marina is confronted with various forms of physical and sexual abuse all delivered by brands of authority in and out of foster care. We watch and learn as her expectations transcend to a keen sense of survival and yet delivers a consistent political awareness. She is a social arsonist touching the minds and hearts of her reader. She is a lover and a fighter with a distinctive voice that captures tragedy with humor and grace.

A Tiny Upward Shove passionate voice and edgy grit will appeal to a wide range of fans spanning from Sapphire and Janet Fitch to Junot Diaz and Kurt Vonnegut.

What are you planning for future projects?

One at a time. Although I get desperate to see my name in print now and again and often submit excerpts from my manuscript as short stories.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Per a colleague, Sugar, who writes a love advice column for the Rumpus: “Write like a motherfucker!”

Where else can we find your work?

My work has been published in 52/50, 5923 Quarterly, Battered Suitcase, Khimaril Ink, Little Episodes, Penn State Literary Review, Fine Line Magazine, Thunderclap Press, Dynamic Magazine, The Bohemian, The Examiner, People's Weekly World, Political Affairs, Shelf Life, and Splinter Generation.

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