Melanie Mah is the author of the 2017 Trillium Award–winning novel The Sweetest One. She also contributed to Brick’s one hundredth issue with the thoughtful and charged “Grave, Prince Albert” and is currently at work on an intergenerational memoir. For our series on the writing process, Chelsea Rozansky had the delight of interviewing Mah about her craft.
Brick: I’m curious about the narrator’s voice in “Grave, Prince Albert,” which appeared in Brick 100. It is written in the second person and comes across both like an internal monologue and, at the same time, a recollection from a perhaps wiser vantage. For instance, you write, “Your father will tell you to slow down, even though you weren’t going that fast.” Why did you choose this perspective?
Melanie Mah: I used second person in this and some other essays in my upcoming memoir for a few reasons. First, I often find there’s something stodgy and less exciting about a lot of the first-person memoirs I’ve read. There’s something I dislike about the “I” construction at times, especially in memoir. Plus, baring painful truths I’ve rarely articulated to anyone outside my tiny inner circle in first person would have been too hard. It hasn’t read right in early drafts. Second person is a kind of barrier, a mind game I can play to feel protected enough to write the fullest truths I can about really scary stuff concerning myself and people I love. I also find second person stylistically exciting, much more alive in general but especially for this project.
It’s like I’m addressing myself as “you,” but for this to be true, there must also be a “me” doing the addressing. (It’s complicated, I know…) But then if there is a “me,” that’s great because then the space between “me” and “you” becomes a place where I, the writer, can talk. Realizing certain things about my life and the lives of my family members has been a real process for me. Our understandings of ourselves and the people we love can change, as can our relationships and conceptions of these relationships. This is something I’ve had to think about a fair bit while writing this book of “current” takes on things that happened in my own and my family’s past.
Brick: Is there a different process between writing fiction and writing non-fiction? I find myself working more comfortably in non-fiction, because I can mould my memories to the structure of a memoir or an essay—although that could be an act of fictionalizing. With fiction, plot overwhelms me. Do you start a work of fiction knowing where it’s going to end (which, let’s say, is the case with narrative non-fiction), or does it unravel as you work?
Mah: I would say I don’t usually know in advance where any of my stories will end. With memoir, I know what some of the facts will be, but often I begin not knowing much at all. The story in memoir for me is not just what happened; it’s also how I feel about what happened. And how I tell the story—with what kind of voice and style and which metaphors—and in what order I place which bits to make which stories and resonances. (This is doubly true, given that so many of the facts I’d like to have are lost to time or for various other reasons.) Being about a third of the way into this project, I’m coming to see that writing this memoir is actually way more exciting and creative than I thought it would be. And sure, parts of writing memoir feel like going on autopilot—like you learn x fact and then suddenly the story has a certain place it wants to go—but this is something it has in common with fiction. Like, I’ll be writing a piece of fiction, and then out of the blue I’ll have a strong image in my head that I’ll write down and that might change the whole direction of the piece. One might say that in fiction you have the latitude to change or omit things, and that’s true, but some details really want to stay in, and these details can give you tentative, or even more permanent, structure.
One thing that’s different between the two genres, obviously, is the level or kind of responsibility you have. In fiction, I try so hard to make everything just so. In non-fiction, too, but there there’s an added pressure to get all your facts right, and more pressure thinking about whom you might hurt with your truth and how you might avoid doing that. I don’t think fiction, even fiction inspired by real life, can hurt people as much as memoir.
Brick: I recently had a conversation about whether you can hear your own voice in your writing. I like when I read the work of a friend and I can tell, because I know how they talk, that what I’m reading came from them. There are similarities between the family in The Sweetest One and your own family. But beyond those autobiographical details, do you read yourself in your fiction? Can you hear your voice?
Mah: Given that part of my editing process involves my reading the piece over and over for how it sounds, I must. But do we always know what the sound of our own voice is? What I love about writing is that sometimes it gives me the chance or power to say something I never would in real life, or only to a select few. Often my narrators sound like me but more anxious or brasher or braver or more self-assured or in some other way different.
Brick: Do you have a writing routine?
Mah: Yes: Avoid writing at all costs. Clean the house, meet a friend, exercise, clip your nails, buy groceries, cook. When you’ve run out of everything else, you will be forced to start writing. Just kidding, sort of.
I try to write every day, often in a university library, usually in the early afternoon and into the evening. (I like it here because it’s clean and quiet, because there are lots of books around, because there’s somewhere to grab food if I’ve missed packing a lunch.) The best writing day is one when I have nothing happening at night—no family, friends, or boyfriend to see, no events to go to, etc. On those nights, my mind can stretch out like a long road or wide field. Having too much time can be hard on the writing, too, so I’m glad I only have one long night of writing per week. With one long night per week, I feel the need to make it count. Having a time limit can also help me churn out work.
I have a document that states the various contest and special issue deadlines (as well as residency and grant deadlines, etc.) I want to apply to. Some days, I start by looking at this list and seeing if anything that would work for a deadline is ready or close to ready. If so, I try to look at those pieces first.
If things are going well, I take fewer breaks. If the piece or its subject matter is too intense or scary, I might take more breaks. Another reason I write in the library is that I imagine the other people there are watching me and judging me if I check social media too much, even though I’ve seen people watching sports or music videos on their devices. (Do I judge them? I’m not at liberty to say.) Some people write without any kind of block. To the rest of us, I say play whatever mind games you can with yourself to churn out pages, within reason.