There are some characters, some voices, that stick with you, even years later. I'll never forget Boris, the unlikable-yet-somehow-affable character in a story by Melissa Yancy, a writer I met in 2015 at Lit Camp, a writing workshop in Calistoga. The story connected the dots between organ donors in a long chain--itself a fascinating premise--and revealed a wry, poignant and fresh voice. It didn't surprise me to see Boris appear a year later in her debut story collection, Dog Years. To say that 2016 was a big year for Melissa would be to diminish her accomplishments: In addition to winning the 2016 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the book was a finalist for the California Book Award and longlisted for The Story Prize. And she won an NEA Fellowship. That--and she had her first son. While working full-time. No big deal.
I truly admire Melissa's work ethic and killer voice--and am grateful she found time to answer my questions about writing and parenthood.
•Name: Melissa Yancy
•How many children do you have? How old are they?
A son who recently turned one.
We also have two pugs, and when those two get going, they can feel like children. (Except I can leave them at home unsupervised all day.)
•How many hats do you wear in your household? I.e. how many gigs do you have?
I have a full-time senior level job as a fundraiser with an unfortunate 2 ½ hour round-trip commute. Then there’s writing, of course, and currently, book promotion, too. When I get home I try to have some playtime with bebé and then do the nighttime routine—dinner, bath, book, etc. with him. We are also a little obsessive in our household about tidiness, and we live in a modern, too-white house, so there is a lot of cleaning. Writers and new mothers are often given the same advice about letting the house go, but I might as well have a Mr. Clean magic eraser on a lanyard around my neck. I have a fantasy we’re going to move to a rustic, worn-in house and that’s going to allow us to be less particular. One hat I’m not wearing much right now is cook. My wife’s been doing the grocery shopping and cooking, so I’m happy about that.
•How long have you been a writer?
Since grade school. I’ve been in workshops and whatnot for 22 years.
•Tell me about your relationship to writing before you had children.
I recently found an old to-do list in the 1999 O’Henry Awards. Like every to-do list I have ever made, it was basically me berating myself to wake up earlier! write more! and exercise more! This list also commanded I “fix the stove,” which I’m guessing is the only thing I accomplished. I’ve always had a difficult relationship with my own (perceived) lack of discipline. I have a beef with myself about not writing enough, even now, when I have virtually no time. But on the other hand, I’ve come to realize how dogged I am, how persistent. I may not be the workhorse I’ve always wanted to be, but I also don’t know to quit. I’m finally coming to a place where I at least respect myself for that.
•How did you expect parenthood to impact your writing? Did it?
I expected it could make me a better writer in the long-term (that remains to be seen!) but I suppose I also had the small fear that being fulfilled creatively in this other way would make me lose interest in writing, even temporarily. I’ve seen a lot of people lose interest in writing when they’ve become more fulfilled in some other aspect of their lives. That hasn’t happened. Perhaps having a lot going on in my writing life during the first year of parenting has made the parenting even more joyful. I miss my son terribly when I’m away, but I may have avoided the terror about loss of self that parenting can bring. I’ve been forced, through travel and interviews, to maintain that old self. One challenge for me lately is that I’ll contemplate another child, but it’s taken me twenty years to get my writing “career” to where it is now, and this is the time I should capitalize on that. There are practical considerations—I have a residency I can use next spring, and I really need that time for this novel. But can I really take a month? That seems insane. Two weeks, maybe. I’m constantly angling for some kind of solution . . . if I consult instead of working full-time, if I teach, if I buy some income property (ha!). My brain never stops imagining some alternate universe where I fit all the pieces together more artfully.
I’m curious to see if being a parent changes my writing about parenthood. There’s a lot about parenting in Dog Years, pre-parent.
•Have you shared your writing with your children? If not, do you plan to someday?
Right now, sharing it with him would mean allowing him to eat the paper. I should be so lucky to have a kid who has any interest in reading anything I write. If I ever get to that point, yippee. I’ll be delighted if he likes to read, period.
•Is there a poem, short story, novel or play that you return to when you are stuck in your writing?
There are so many—here are a few:
Lorrie Moore – “You’re Ugly, Too”
Melanie Rae Thon – “First, Body”
Mary Gordon – “City Life”
Nam Le – “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice”
Rebecca Lee – “Bobcat”
Stuart Dybek – “Paper Lantern”
Marisa Silver – “Pond”
Mary Gaitskill – Don’t Cry and Veronica
Michael Cunningham, The Hours
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
J.D. Salinger, Franny & Zooey
There are also those writers I go to as tuning for different moods: Kazuo Ishiguro, Banana Yoshimoto, Junot Díaz, George Saunders. But I risk bad imitations if I’m not careful.
•How has your approach to the artistic process changed since becoming a parent? (If it has?)
I’d like to think I had already given up being precious about it long before (I can and do write in twenty minutes stretches) but now I have to be even less precious, if that’s possible. One downside of having little time (which pre-dates baby) is that I’ve become focused on efficiency. I don’t like to waste time on projects that won’t work out, and so I don’t give myself permission to fail. It’s especially a challenge for novels. Failure is so important. But failure takes time.
•What piece of culture are you obsessed with right now? (i.e. music, film, book, podcast, etc.)
God, with all this binge-watching now available, my obsessions are so sadly short-lived. (Westworld feels like a lifetime ago). I’m excited for Jon Ronson’s new podcast The Butterfly Effect. I’m obsessed with the way Jon Ronson is obsessed with everything, and his voice is just so . . . funny to me. I’m also eagerly awaiting the Bladerunner sequel. Bladerunner is my favorite movie, so if they screw this up, god help them. One show that’s not that hyped but that I’m finding consistently good is Bosch, based on the Michael Connelly novels. I wish they’d bring The Knick back. I wish Luther hadn’t had so few episodes. I was pretty obsessed with the Leah Remini Scientology show. And I do read books now and again. I read all the Neapolitan novels on maternity leave, and now have Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T., on my nightstand, which is supposed to be a Ferrante influence. I went through a phase where I was looking for “lost hits” or one-hit wonders after I read Julie Hayden’s Lists of the Pasts (which I discovered through Lorrie Moore’s New Yorker podcast reading of “Day-Old Baby Rats.”) I read Chocolates for Breakfast by Pamela Moore then Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles (still in progress, perhaps forever) then A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. I guess that means Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins should be up next.
•Do you have any projects or publications you’d like to tell me about? Or goals for future projects/publications?
My goal is to not self-sabotage the next novel. To try, against all my instincts, to keep it simple.
Thanks for answering my questions, Melissa! Congratulations on being an overall badass.