Tessa Mellas for the Columbus Alive (the local arts paper). We talked about her new book, Lungs Full of Noise, which is a gorgeous and grotesque collection of magical realist short stories. While we were chatting, I was struck by her insightful comments on process, the female characters who dominate her stories, and her thoughts on silence, snow, skating, and surprises in writing.
The profile is a short one (you can read it here), but there were so many great thoughts she shared during our conversation. Here are some that didn’t make it in the piece!
NOTE: Read Tessa’s stories, “So Much Rain,” (click here) and “Mariposa Girls” (click here) online.
[The title of the book] is from a line in the story “Beanstalk,” where the main character is remembering how a beanstalk grew outside her window....she imagines birds circling her, their “lungs full of noise.” I’ve got a lot of imagery of birds and winged things throughout the collection, which, for me, is a metaphor for women who are fragile, but also strong. They can support themselves. But like birds with their hollow bones, they can be knocked around.
“Quiet Camp” is about a group of noisy girls who are sent to a camp to be silenced. And this represents a huge struggle of women....the girls in school who are obedient and quiet get rewarded, and are seen as good and feminine. And the girls who are noisy, and speak without thinking and are opinionated get criticized and attacked. I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on girls to be quiet and silent, and yet there’s all this noise going on inside of them.
I started figure skating around 1st grade...throughout my figure skating career, I always regretted that I didn’t start earlier. Skating continues to be the love of my life. It fits in with the book....skating is like flying. You can go so fast. It’s not like running where you have to propel yourself forward. Once you get yourself going, you can just glide. Spinning is just amazing. They say you have to find the sweet spot on the blade, and once you hit that spot, you just fly. It’s a blur.
[Writing] doesn’t give me exactly the same feeling that comes from skating. Skating’s so physical. On the ice, there’s just a feeling of floating. The feeling of nailing a jump, I think that’s similar to writing....ending a story or even a paragraph. It’s that same feeling of success.
It takes me at least two years to write a story. “Dye Job” took the longest to write...probably eight years. Each year I did a pretty huge revision of the story.
I write magical realism, so I come up with a premise first. Like with “Mariposa Girls,” I just thought, “Let’s have these girls screw their skate blades into their feet!” Usually I write about a page or so, with the excitement of the premise in mind. And then I almost always just hit a wall...the premise is fun, but I don’t know who the characters are yet. Most of my story ideas sit in my head for years while I come to the right set of characters and circumstances.
The last story of the collection is about a woman who steals the severed arm of her dead ex-husband who has been in a car accident. In that one, I hit a wall because I didn’t know who that ex-husband was...I needed to figure out, well, why did they get divorced?....I almost always steal character details from friends or relatives. I had a friend in college who drove really slow on the highway, like 40 miles and hour, and he told me once he’d rear-ended a woman....their conversation ended up in that story as how the husband and wife had met.
I would never tell anyone to replicate my process. I am really obsessive about my prose, and I read out loud when I write....it’s a pretty excruciating process, and very detail-oriented, so I need to spend a lot of time figuring out the story before I write. I scrap a little less than people who just get in the groove and write through a whole first draft. If it’s going in the wrong direction, I don’t write forward, because I feel that it ruins stories, for me.
I think Aimee Bender said this. She was a visiting writing at Bowling Green who said she knows the story is done when she can read through it without cringing. So I’ve got a really sensitive cringe-meter....it used to really bug me. When that cringe-meter sounded, I’d freak out, and think, “It’s not working! It’s not working! It’s still bad!” Now, when the cringe-alarm goes off, I’m calmer, and I say, “It’s only two sentences into the story, let’s get the iron out and smooth it down.” Often I write the first two pages of the story, and then when I go back to it...I just start it all over, and often scratch the first attempt at the story. Part of figuring that out is always the voice or style.
Right now, I’m working on a novel, which has been a very slow process. And it’s very strange...I’m used to focusing on shorter works. I’m spending a lot of time just figuring out the arc of the novel...I think I’ve bit off a big challenge for myself, because it’s a speculative novel, so I feel like I need to be doing more research.
And it’s based in a Midwestern city that’s unnamed, but it’s supposed to take aspects of Detroit, and Toledo, and Cincinnati, and Columbus, and Cleveland, and kind of blend them all together. I’ve only got one chapter, and I keep revising that one chapter.
I have to have time away from projects. I’m working on some environmental essays, so sometimes I switch between projects. The magic for me, right now, is in the voice of the novel....
For me, the excitement of writing comes from the surprises in the prose. The story does go to different places, plot-wise, than I expected....If you know the big plot elements that are going to happen, there’s still so much surprise in the details and dialogue. There’s always so much to invent