Getting an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts is a little bit like going to school in a nebula. All around you, new stories are flaring to life. In workshops, at student and faculty readings, and especially at the readings given by graduating students, snippets of early drafts blind you with their brilliance, and you know those stories will have half the planets in the galaxy begging to orbit them in a few years’ time.
One of the brightest stars in my VCFA nebula was a little novella called WATER, which my friend Melanie Crowder began during our third semester of grad school. We shared an advisor that semester, so we talked occasionally about what we were up to. I was banging my head against my critical thesis and wrestling with a draft of my recalcitrant YA novel, which turned out to be more of a black hole than a star. Melanie, on the other hand, was working on a poetic and spare, almost fable-like story of children and dogs struggling to survive during a devastating drought. “That sounds cool,” I probably said to Melanie. (I was in a thesis-induced haze and cannot actually remember anything that happened in those six months.)
I first heard Melanie read from WATER right before our graduation in 2011. By then, of course, we all knew that WATER was something special—it had won a very competitive scholarship and earned a first look from the editors at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. But hearing Melanie read the book aloud sent chills down my spine. The opening chapter is narrated by a dog, Nandi, and if you’d told me two years ago that I would fall in love with a dog’s narrative voice, I would certainly not have believed you. But this dog is different. She speaks in bursts of poetry, and I couldn’t get her voice out of my head.
When Melanie asked me to read the manuscript a few months later as she prepared to send it to agents, I said yes right away. I was still dying to find out what happened to Nandi; to Sarel, Nandi’s human; and to Musa, the boy they meet on their search for water. Within one page, I was sure the book would sell. Within five pages, I was sure I would not be able to recognize Melanie after the book was published because she would be buried under a Melanie-shaped pile of medals and trophies. I admire Melanie’s language precisely because I will never be able to write like she does; the attention she pays to each word and sound is so intense and focused that most writers would crack under the strain. She describes herself as a “thin writer,” and even though the draft I read was significantly longer than its first incarnation had been, it was still barely 100 pages. I am most definitely a “fat writer,” and my style is very different from Melanie’s, so to me, WATER seemed almost like a new species of book—the sort of book I could never write, but the sort of book I could fall deeply in love with.
When WATER quickly found a great agency home and sold to HMH, I may have done a little bit of dancing around in my living room. (Sorry, neighbors.) Now, almost two years later, WATER has become PARCHED. It was published at the beginning of June. (Naturally, I danced around again, but my neighbors have moved out, so it’s ok.) I’m sitting here on the same sofa where I read that early draft, and PARCHED is right next to me—a real book! It’s got a beautifully illustrated cover, pages that feel soft to the touch, and the perfectly chosen font. Melanie and her editor have done a lot of work in the past two years; the story is still itself, only more beautiful.
I have loved watching my own book turn from a VCFA manuscript into an almost-published novel, but there’s something even more satisfying about watching a friend’s story go through the same process. (This probably has something to do with the fact that I didn’t have to work on any of Melanie’s edits.) I feel extraordinarily lucky to have known PARCHED since it was a bright young manuscript with a cowlick in its hair and a grand destiny, and I can’t wait to see what it does next. As for me, I already know what I’ll be doing next—curling up on this sofa and reading PARCHED again from cover to cover.