I’d like to welcome Melissa Grunow to Infinite Pathways today to chat about her new book Realizing River City and other authorly interests.
Melissa’s writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, New Plains Review, Blue Lyra Review, Temenos, and Yemassee, among many others.
She holds a Bachelor of Science in English-creative writing and journalism from Central Michigan University, a Master of Arts in English from New Mexico State University, and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing with distinction from National University.
Melissa lives and writes in Detroit, Michigan. Realizing River City is her first book.
Thanks for coming!
Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here to talk about my work!
Can you describe for us the moment that launched you on your writing journey?
I’ve been a writer as long as I can remember. When I was an angsty pre-teen, I used to craft cliché-ridden rhyming poems for the school literary magazine and scribble all my adolescent woes in a diary with a shoddy lock. I even wrote more than a hundred pages of a very bad novel during my summer break in high school. As I got older, I knew I wanted to do something with writing, so I studied literature and journalism in college and continued writing in graduate school. I wrote short stories then, but I was always compelled to base them on something in my life: an experience, a character, an old apartment. There’s something true in all of my fiction.
After college, I took a ten-year break from writing. It wasn’t planned or intentional. I just didn’t have the compulsion to craft anything new. Honestly, I think I needed those ten years to live. Then, in 2012, I started to feel pulled by writing again, but this time, I was moved toward personal essays. I started to feel a tug at the back of my skull to write a book about relationships, but I ignored it. It was actually a sudden break-up that got me back in the writer’s chair. While in a relationship-ending argument, I told the guy his communications degree was useless because he clearly had no idea how to communicate. His response was, “Oh yeah, how’s that book going?” He knew I hadn’t written a word, and the question stung. But it also got me motivated to write again. I signed up for some courses and then enrolled in an MFA program. All the while, I was writing again, and some of the pieces I worked on eventually came together as the memoir, Realizing River City, my first book.
How has your ‘day job’ influenced your writing? What are the main influences to your writing?
I teach college-level writing courses such as freshman composition, literature, speech, and creative writing, so I’m talking about and critiquing writing all the time. While I’m always thinking about craft, it’s often for the benefit of my students, not myself. Often times, teaching is actually a distraction from my own writing, rather than a way to augment it.
The main influences for my writing, in general, are my life. Since I write personal essays and memoir almost exclusively these days, I pull from memory and experience and go from there. While Realizing River City is about relationships with men, I do write about other experiences as well.
What were the most challenging aspects of bringing your book to life?
The most difficult aspect of bringing this book to life was trying to determine its shape. Initially, I wrote it as a memoir-in-essays, but the structure was distracting, the pieces were inconsistent, and I felt like each essay was yet another story about a relationship that didn’t work out. I attended a conference and had a session with an agent who advised me to revise it as a memoir with a progressive narrative arc. I felt defeated, but I also knew she was right.
The other challenge for me was the ending. The prologue of the book describes an event that happened two days after I thought I had finished writing the first draft. The last three chapters occurred after I thought I had finished the second draft. That’s the trouble with memoir: you’re writing about your life, but your life doesn’t stop while you’re writing, so it’s all fair game for additional content. It wasn’t until I wrote the actual ending that I knew for certain the book would end that way. It just kind of happened, and I had to let go enough to let it.
Who is your favourite character? Describe an interesting moment in the development of this character.
Since it’s a memoir, it’s hard to separate favourite characters from favourite people in my life. I enjoyed writing the character of the waiter who approached me on the street in Mexico, that’s in the first chapter. He was quite a character in real life, so it was easy to capture his hustling and friendly persona in the book, too. I often wonder what became of him and the little girl who poked the leftover food on my plate. She would be a young adult now, probably around college-age. That’s crazy to think about.
What was the most difficult scene for you to write? Try to describe your efforts without revealing too much or ‘spoiling’ the moment for future readers.
The most challenging scene to write was the chapter I wrote about learning to shoot a gun. I wrote it years after that experience happened, and I didn’t know any of the terminology, the types of guns we were shooting, or that there is a different between bullets and ammunition. I was also writing about some heavy personal stuff about my friend Glen, and I was afraid of impeding on his privacy. We met up at a restaurant so he could help me fact check the piece. He helped me with the gun details, but then told me something I probably didn’t want to hear: the chapter was boring. We talked some more, and he basically gave me permission to reveal the things I was afraid to reveal. He trusted me enough to be truthful and gave me the creative license I needed to write that part with brutal honesty.
What insight can you give regarding the publishing industry and the route you chose for publication (traditional publishing vs. self-publishing)?
I knew for absolute certain that I didn’t want to self-publish. I wanted my book to be respected in literary circles, and—frankly—self-published books simply are not regarded with any esteem. I know there are plenty of authors out there who are perfectly happy with self-publishing and have even done well for themselves, but I knew it was not for me. For me, self-publishing would feel like selling out.
I also knew that I wanted to work directly with an independent press rather than go through an agent to a large publishing house. Having had no publication experience beyond literary journals, the whole process intimated me, and as a result, I didn’t trust it for my first book. I also have heard that the process can take forever. I have a friend who has spent two years finding an agent for his memoir, and the agent has been shopping the book for even longer. I didn’t want to wait that long!
I started to query small presses and submitted the manuscript to a few competitions. I received contract offers from three publishers, and ultimately decided to go with Tumbleweed Books because there was an instant rapport established with the publisher, Douglas Owen. He was really great about communicating the status of my submission even before I was offered a contract. I knew that if he was that conscientious before even taking on the project that he would be really easy to work with. And I was right. I truly had the best publishing experience, even better than I would have imagined. I felt respected, listened to, and that my book was given a fair amount of attention. Not all authors can say that.
What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of publicizing yourself and your work?
Ironically, even though I write memoir, I’m a really private person. I don’t like to be asked personal questions, and I generally don’t like talking about myself. Initially, I was shy and hesitant to even say that I had a book coming out because I felt like I was bragging or something. I didn’t want to come off as arrogant and self-absorbed, but that’s how it felt every time I would share book news with anyone, even friends and family. Thankfully, though, I already had a small following and was part of a community of writers because of my previous work published in journals and from attending conferences. Many of those individuals became instant supporters and promoters, and that helped to keep me focused on the book. After all, it’s the book that I’m promoting, not myself, and I believe in my project. I found that once I got over my own personal insecurities, promoting the book wasn’t too challenging. Now the only challenge is keeping up with the time commitment; I put in anywhere from one to three hours a day, sometimes more, on outreach and promotion.
What drew you to this genre? What are your favourite scenes to write?
It’s funny to admit, but I don’t think I’m a very creative person. Inventing characters and scenes as is done in fiction has never come easily, and poetry just doesn’t interest me. I’ve always written about the world from my perspective, and creative nonfiction is the most appropriate genre for that. It all started when I took a course in college called The Writer’s Craft with Robert Root. Creative nonfiction wasn’t really a recognized genre then (this was in 2001), so the class was on the fringes of the program. It really set me on the path to writing memoir, and I can credit Professor Root for that. As it turns out, we reconnected at a conference a few years ago, and I was lucky that he agreed to blurb the book for me. It was a tremendous honour for which I am quite grateful.
You mentioned being hesitant to share personal information in the book. How do you negotiate truth and privacy in writing memoir?
I think every memoirist has struggled with issues of truth in their writing. While I have revealed personal information about other people in my book and in my writing, the book is about me, not them, and I’ve revealed far more details about myself. I think as long as the focus is on telling the truth, no one can ever object to what I write, and so far, no one ever has. In fact, the only time I ever had anyone say anything about something I wrote was when I got a factual detail incorrect in an essay about my grandmother dying. Aside from correcting that detail, though, the response was positive.
When I have tried to hold back and protect people, the quality of the work suffers. I have asked certain people for permission, and most have said, “Write whatever you want,” and it’s comforting to know the trust is there. But, like I said, these are stories about me first and foremost, and the people in my life seem to understand that. As Anne Lamott said, “You own everything that happened to you.”
Does that mean you use people’s real names?
The short answer is yes, I do. Always. However, I’ve made two exceptions. The first is I changed the name of someone in the book who specifically asked me not to use his real name. He agreed to talk with me about some personal stuff if I agreed to give him a pseudonym. I honoured his wishes, but I wrote the scene into the book so the reader would know it was an alias. The only other time is in a piece that I’m working on now about a childhood friend of mine who was sexually abused by her cousin when we were kids. I refuse to reveal the names of assault victims simply because that’s a journalist’s code of ethics. Otherwise, I use real names, including my own. I have a reputation for unfettered honesty, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What projects are you currently working on and can you reveal or give any juicy hints?
Right now, I’m putting a lot of time into reading really good books. It’s so important for writers to read, and I don’t read nearly as many books in a year as I would like. I set a goal for 2016 to read 20 books, and I’m well on my way to exceeding that goal.
As for writing, I’m working on a collection of essays. It’s a very different project from Realizing River City as they will be more experimental in form and purpose, and more lyrical in their use of language. I’ve drafted about a hundred pages so far, so I hope to have the manuscript ready by the end of the year. Fingers crossed!
It’s been a pleasure chatting with you today. Thank you again for stopping by and sharing your experiences and stories with us.
Thank you so much, and thanks to all the readers out there. Writers are nothing without our readers!
Be sure to connect with Melissa:
Realizing River City
It’s a story about loss, love, compassion, and finally redemption.
At times, life can feel like a challenging feat of survival. Whether it’s living through abusive relationships or figuring out the complexities of what it means to be a woman searching for love, Realizing River City is a memoir that proves how despite the troubles we may face, there is hope in the way we continually risk ourselves in search for the life we want to live. In her poetic exploration of past relationships, Melissa Grunow’s honest words do not falter in the face of so much loss. Taking the rage we all feel about grief and pain, and funneling it into truth, beauty, and ultimately redemption on each page, Realizing River City is about discovering how the most important relationship is the one we have with ourselves.
Realizing River City
Just the right balance of vulnerability and strength.