Our final author-to-author interview for the year comes from two debut writers who have penned stories with remarkable similarities. Both THE ART OF CRASH LANDING and ALL THE DIFFERENCE are about young women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant. Both are desperately trying to find the right path for their lives. And both face decisions that will change everything. So on this last day of November maybe order these two novels online from your favorite bookstore? It is Cyber Monday after all!
Leah: Melissa, I absolutely loved THE ART OF CRASH LANDING. This novel is so expertly crafted, I couldn’t believe that this was your debut. Can you tell us how your writing before this influenced your work on the book? Is there any method or experience you brought to this story that specifically helped make it stand out from anything else you’ve written?
Melissa: I’ve been writing off and on for many years, and like most writers I’ve got several short stories and a couple of early novels living in a drawer. I don’t look at them as wasted efforts however, because I do think that like every other skill writing improves with practice. Plus they taught me an important lesson in persistence. See, with those early stories and books I had the same pattern: I’d write a draft, clean it up a little and call it done. Then at some point I’d take an objective look at the resulting work and discover that it sucked. (AKA fell far short of what I’d been trying to write.) So I would sulk a little and then put that story or novel away and start something else. With THE ART OF CRASH LANDING, however, after I finished that first draft, I didn’t give up on it. I spent three years taking the novel apart and putting it back together, trashing scenes, writing new scenes, and then trashing some of those. It took time to find the heart of this story, but it was worth it. If I were to give one piece of advice to other writers it would be: don’t get in a hurry. If you believe in your story, you need to be willing to be diligent and ruthless in your editing so that you can find the story you were trying to tell all along.
Leah: You excelled at making Mattie—a troubled, damaged, directionless young woman—almost instantly likeable, which is really difficult, I think, to pull off without making the reader feel sorry for her first. I didn’t feel sorry for Mattie: I respected her frankness, her sense of humor, and her absolute love for her family members, even if she was terrible at showing it. Was it difficult to develop her this way? How did you manage to make your readers root for her before you really showed us the sad story behind her actions?
Melissa: I had such a great time living in Mattie’s head. She was willing to say and do all the obnoxious things I might fantasize about but would never actually do. I think readers with a mischievous streak, who appreciate a little sarcasm and occasional dark humor will enjoy hanging out with Mattie throughout her misadventures. But let’s be honest—she’s no angel and she does some things that aren’t nice. I probably took a bit of a risk making Mattie so rough around the edges, but I’d rather read a book with a complicated and sometimes difficult main character than one with a sweet, perfect protagonist. Perfect is boring.
Leah: As in my own debut, ALL THE DIFFERENCE, your main character is unexpectantly pregnant, with a slightly different outcome. Mattie has a very tough road ahead of her, baby or no baby: why was it important to have Mattie face potential motherhood, too? What did this mean for you in terms of character development, and what it says about Mattie’s growth through the story?
Melissa: There was something I loved about the symmetry of an unhappily pregnant main character in a story about a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. The pregnancy also does a nice job of increasing the pressure on Mattie, giving her a deadline, a time by which she needs to have some decisions made. Like Vladimir Nabokov advised, “The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.” For Mattie, a pregnancy was a meaningful rock to throw.
Leah: Your sense of humor on the page is immediate—your writing voice is distinctive and intelligent, which just makes the frank humor even more standout. I was laughing out loud during much of my reading (much to the chagrin to my fellow passengers on a recent cross-country flight!), from Mattie’s narrative to Tawny’s, um, colorful name-calling. It’s such a deep, soul-searching story to begin with, but the sense of humor you weave throughout it kicks this book into a whole other level of cleverness. Tell me, are you like this in real life? Are you sarcastic and smart-alecky and super colorful with your language (ha!), or were your characters’ voices plucked solely from your imagination?
Melissa: That’s a f***ing good question. Ha! Sorry. Okay, I can be sarcastic, and I am pretty goofy so I can’t deny that there’s a little Mattie in me. In fact, on more than one occasion when I told someone that my book had my main character who was a pain in the ass, that person immediately quipped, “So it’s autobiographical.” Hardy har har. But that being said, I promise I am nowhere near Mattie’s level when it comes to obnoxiousness or colorfulness of language.
Leah: In Chapter 39, Mr. Hambly tells Luke, “I knew that as much as I loved Gene, until I let go of him, I’d never be able to grab ahold of anything else.” What made you want to write a story about the need for letting go?
Melissa: I think most of us have our dark moments when we look at things we did in the past, or things that were done to us, and wish for a way to go back and make things better. But I’ve come to understand that every minute we spend looking back is a minute of our lives we’re giving away, and those minutes add up. As the great philosopher Lily Tomlin once said, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” We can spend our time looking in the rearview mirror or we can put our foot on the gas pedal and live our lives. We each make that choice every day.
Leah: I noticed so many little tidbits in your book that popped up toward the end—it was obvious that you carefully crafted the story so that the symbolism was consistent and echoed throughout (for instance, drowning and swimming references, the lemons and lemonade, the images of open doors). Did you outline the story very heavily before you began writing, or are you simply a very careful editor?
Melissa: Oh, that’s an easy question. Editing. Absolutely. I know me and if I planned symbolism at the outset I’d end up using too heavy a hand. It wasn’t until I neared the end of my first draft that I noticed all the references to birds and the ocean and swimming (or sinking) and that’s when something clicked. This allowed me to be intentional with it in later drafts. It sounds a little odd, but I’m not sure I really know what a book is about until after I’ve written it. I mean, I do generally know the shape of the story and where it’s going. But it’s not until I have a beginning, a middle and an end that I can look underneath the surface and understand what I’ve been trying to say. I’m starting to wonder if my writing isn’t all about telling myself what I need to hear at that point in my life.
Mattie Wallace has really screwed up this time. Broke and knocked up, she’s got all her worldly possessions crammed into six giant trash bags, and nowhere to go. Try as she might, Mattie can no longer deny that she really is turning into her mother, a broken alcoholic who never met a bad choice she didn’t make.
When Mattie gets news of a possible inheritance left by a grandmother she’s never met, she jumps at this one last chance to turn things around. Leaving the Florida Panhandle, she drives eight hundred miles to her mother’s birthplace—the tiny town of Gandy, Oklahoma. There, she soon learns that her mother remains a local mystery—a happy, talented teenager who inexplicably skipped town thirty-five years ago with nothing but the clothes on her back. But the girl they describe bears little resemblance to the damaged woman Mattie knew, and before long it becomes clear that something terrible happened to her mother, and it happened here. The harder Mattie digs for answers, the more obstacles she encounters. Giving up, however, isn’t an option. Uncovering what started her mother’s downward spiral might be the only way to stop her own.
Hilarious, gripping, and unexpectedly wise, The Art of Crash Landing is a poignant novel from an assured new voice.