Interview with Melanie Crowder

I’m here today with my fellow League of Extraordinary Cheese Sandwiches classmate (VCFA July ’11) Melanie Crowder.

Melanie is the author of five books: ParchedAudacityA Nearer Moon, Three Pennies and An Uninterrupted View of the Sky. Her next two books, a duolology entitled Lighthouse Between the Worlds are due out in the fall of 2018 and 2019. You may visit Melanie’s website at: Melanie Crowder – Books for young readers.

 I could list Melanie’s many starred reviews and awards, but that would be a post in and of itself. Let me summarize Melanie’s talent with a quote from RTReviews: “There are writers and then there is Melanie Crowder, who advances the art form to such a degree that when you reach the last page you can only hope that she will bless you with another literary masterpiece.” I think that says it all.

Melanie is visiting Tollbooth today to talk about her two newest books Three Pennies (Atheneum) and An Uninterrupted View of the Sky (Philomel).

 

Meg: Writers get their ideas from all different places. Their processes for writing and creating are as varied as their stories. Once you had the ideas for your stories, what came next—character, voice, situation, plot—for both Three Pennies and An Uninterrupted View of the Sky?

Melanie: I suppose that’s the interesting part of my process—it’s those elements of story that produce the idea. For example, Three Pennies began with Marin. I visited my sister in Montana while she was busy planning my niece’s birthday party. Now, when I was a kid, birthday parties were simple things. A cake, A few friends, and a free afternoon to play. Well, that is no longer the way things go down. My sister, bless her, had this amazing idea to do a scavenger hunt on bikes for the kids that would lead them ultimately to this sweet little ice cream shop. Perfect! The kind of party a kid would remember forever, right?

Except the kids were five and some were ready for the BMX course while others were still rocking the strider bike. So the party was a little bit of a logistical challenge, to say the least. At some point, when faced with too many decisions piling on top of each other, my sister said: “Enough! Let’s ask the I Ching what we should do.”

Me: “The what?”

Her: “The I Ching. Duh.”

Okay, so I needed an education. My sister explained that the I Ching is an ancient Chinese divination text that has been used for centuries to guide people through life. She explained that you can ask questions about everyday kinds of things or you can ask the BIG questions. So my sister is telling me all about how the I Ching works and—no kidding—I have an honest-to-goodness physical reaction. Something between goose bumps and that feeling you get in the middle of a thunderstorm when there’s a little too much electricity in the air.

Well, we writers are not normal people. Rather than running away from the lightning strike, we head straight towards it. I knew at that moment that someday I was going to write a book about a girl who used the I Ching to figure out her life’s problems. I had nothing approaching a plot or setting, but that was the moment Three Pennies was born.

On the other hand, for An Uninterrupted View of the Sky, I knew the situation and setting years before the characters revealed themselves to me.

Meg: You’ve used different narrative styles in all of your books. How did theme inform the narrative style and principal characters these two stories?

Melanie: I really do believe that voice and POV hold the power to reveal theme and illuminate character. In An Uninterrupted View of the Sky, I needed readers to feel Francisco’s disillusionment with life, so that meant reaching for first person. I had to keep reeling my authorial self in—No, Melanie, let him say this inelegantly. Let him be crass. Let the phrase be ugly. That’s where he was in his journey, so of course the prose should mirror those things.

With Three Pennies on the other hand, there were so many moving pieces that I needed an all-knowing narrator. Rather than mirroring my main character’s worldview, this time the narrative choice pushed against it, challenging her self-protective individualism.

Meg: Speaking of an all-knowing narrator, I loved Owl. I loved all your characters, but Owl in particular—his wisdom, kindness, and vulnerability—and the fact that you made an owl a scholar of Eastern philosophy! Well, that was brilliant. Why an owl? Why have him at all?

Melanie: I love Owl, too! And there was more than a little kismet in Owl finding me and binding himself to this story that occurred on that same trip to Montana.

But why was it the right choice? On a surface level, owls are wise. My main character, Marin, was weathering a turbulent storm of emotions, and for very good reasons, didn’t trust the adults around her. I felt like readers would welcome a wise presence to watch over her.

On a deeper level, Owl’s journey and Marin’s are the same. They both have lost someone important to them. Both of them have a choice to make. And I think they need one another to find their way.

Meg: Sky is a tough story. Set in horrible, real conditions. I know all too well about writing tough stories. It’s really difficult to get up every morning and “go” to the dark places our stories insist we inhabit. How did you break up the months of research and writing Sky?

Melanie: Well, I had to break it up because of virtually simultaneous deadlines between these two projects. The books were so different, it had to be a full stop; a complete break from one novel before I could reenter the other. So, in a sense, time constraints helped.

But you’re right, the prison and the oppressive weight of daily, inescapable injustice takes a toll on a writer. It invaded my dreams and it infused my days. I tried to combat it by listening to the most upbeat pop music I could find to artificially inflate my mood. I watched sugar-sweet movies and read light, happy books. And my wife helped a lot. She makes me laugh every day. I needed that during the writing of this book maybe more than at any other time.

Another truth is that the weight of this situation has been with me since I traveled home from my time in Bolivia over fifteen years ago. It was a strange, lasting kind of culture shock to have been given a glimpse of how U.S. influence in other countries can go terribly wrong. I had become informed of a glaring problem in the way my government interacts with others, but was, year after year, confronted with the fact that my fellow U.S. citizens had no idea what was being done thousands of miles away in their name.

The law, the prison conditions, the human cost of our intervention—these are all things I couldn’t fix, and as an outsider would probably only make worse if I tried, no matter how good my intentions. The one thing I could do was to share this story. So I have.

Meg: Poetry plays an important part in An Uninterrupted View of the Sky. How did you come to make this choice?

Melanie: One element of the novel I knew very early on was Papá’s character. I knew he was a gentle soul; a taxi-driving poet. I didn’t know that his poems would appear in the text, but I was delighted when I discovered that poetry would become a way for the story’s hot-headed, thinks-with-his-fists teenager to draw near to his father and to become the kind of man Papá would be proud of.

Meg: 2017 has been a big year for you! You have two new books released within a month of each other! Three Pennies in May and An Uninterrupted View of the Sky in June. How the heck did you write two books—two extremely different books—at the same time?

Melanie: Well, publishing timetables are unpredictable to say the least! The YA was supposed to release in the winter and the middle grade was supposed to release the following fall. The deadlines and the launches were supposed to be spaced out by a couple of seasons. But, things happen. So they weren’t.

This is where I would have loved for Owl to come watch over me for awhile. I’m sure he would’ve had some sage advice about releasing control and embracing gratitude. And he would have been right. With my fourth and fifth books out in the world this year, I am very fortunate indeed.

I’m taking Owl’s advice and am embracing gratitude for your excellent writing and stories. Thank you, Melanie, for visiting us at Tollbooth.