Tuesday, April 1, 2014

First Fiction: Tessa Mellas & David James Poissant

The authors of acclaimed debut collections LUNGS FULL OF NOISE and THE HEAVEN OF ANIMALS discuss their paths to publication, the responsibilities of author (self-)promotion, and how it feels to have their first books out in the world.  ♦ 
In one sitting with Tessa Mellas and David James Poissant, the conversation shifts from their brand-new debut collections of stories to why reading fiction is better than Facebook, the not-so-idle waiting game of publishing, and how it feels to have their books finally on those coveted bookshelves. Mellas’s Lungs Full of Noise, winner of the 2014 Iowa Short Fiction Award, is made up of 12 stories which explore femininity and which are, as Mellas describes, “magical, raw, and grotesque"; Poissant's The Heaven of Animals, published in March 2014 by Simon & Schuster, is comprised of more realist stories revolving around the “tenuous bonds of family.” Though both are now professors of fiction, Mellas and Poissant are also graduates of the Ph.D. program in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati, and in early March they visited nearby Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in support of their books, reading to a packed house of students and faculty. Before the reading, they opened up their writer brains to talk about all the lessons learned along the way.

Q: Has the experience of seeing your first books into the world been what you expected?

Mellas: It was really exciting. Up until the day I got the phone call that I won the award, I was thinking, I wonder if I ever will publish a book? It kind of changes your life overnight, even though a lot doesn't change. I had a great experience with the University of Iowa Press, and they let me choose my cover photo, which was really cool.

Poissant: It in no way feels like an overnight success, because I worked on that book for almost nine full years, so I wouldn't say getting it published felt inevitable. But when it came, it was more relief than excitement. I was ready to give it to anyone. It was at the point of, Who wants to copy it on their home computer and staple it? It was a thrill.

Q: What was your journey to getting the book published? What challenges did you face? 

Mellas: I had been thinking about my stories as a collection for quite some time, so I had some themes in mind and was writing towards those themes and stories that would fit together cohesively. When I sent it out to the Iowa contest, I didn't think it was done. I thought maybe I’ll be a finalist and I can put that on my resume to use to get a job. But then it won; it was a dream. I’m really thankful that it got chosen, before it was even a full book.

Poissant: Most of the stories had already been published in magazines. I had an agent who knew short story collections were a hard sell, but she sent it to a few trusted editors. So she sent it to them and they both said the same thing, which is, This is great, but without a novel, we can’t do anything with it. So I knew if I was ever going to do it, now was the time.

Q: Are story collections a particularly hard sell?

Mellas: I feel like right now there’s a renewed interest. It’s a literary audience. It’s not a collection that my family will read and understand, but you have to know that it’s not necessarily going to appeal to everybody. But hopefully you can make a difference with the people you do appeal to.

Poissant: It seems to come and go in waves. In the early 2000s, a few short story collections came out[Melissa Banks'] The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishingthat got people excited about collections. In the last two years, there’s been a lot of interest in collections, and I hope that doesn't backfire. And I hope houses keep taking chances on them

Q: What was your writing and editing process like? How long did it take to complete your collection?

Mellas: For a while, I just wrote whatever I thought of as an interesting premise for a story, and I gradually just started noticing patterns. It’s not surprising that most of my characters are women and girls, but I started taking on issues of femininity and issues of troubled girls and troubled women and what was oppressing them. I had a lot of younger women, but not a lot of older women, so I thought of premises to fill that arc of womanhood.

Poissant: At first, my agent and I worked together to pick the safest, most marketable collection, which were all stories about uniform length, all of my realist style. Eventually, we ended up swapping some of those out for other stories that we knew were the best, but they were really short or really long or weird. It didn't matter though. It just became a book of my best. That was a relief because I didn’t really know you could do that. I’m glad I got to have that diversity in my collection to show off my versatility.

Q: It's a given that an author is expected to take an active part in the marketing of his or her book, whether thinking about "author platform," self-promotion, book tours or virtual book tours, what-have-you. What is your experience with that? What's an author's responsibility in terms of marketing?

Mellas: I’m with a university press and they don’t have a huge budget. Finding place to read is my responsibility. Taking it on yourself is important. It’s important to market yourself to the local culture since they would be more interested in an author that is from your home state.

Poissant: You can’t just sell your books on Amazon and Barnes and Noble; you really want all the bookstores to have a sense of who you are. I finally put together my own website. I've tried to have a big presence on Facebook.

Q: What did you learn in the process of seeing your book through to publication that an emerging author would be wise to keep in mind? Or, what do you know now that you wish you'd known starting out?

Mellas: As an undergrad student, I was used to being one of the top writers in the class, so it was really a shock to get to graduate school and not be the best. In writing, whoever works the hardest and the longest will be successful; the more talented writers might just drop off because it’s hard, and it’s hard to sit down and do it everyday. I also learned that the more you learn about writing, the harder it is to do because you become more sensitive to the writing and get a radar [about] bad writing. It’s so much harder to write sentences when you’re so aware of what is wrong with them, so I feel you kind of have to go back to the drawing board and figure out new strategies.

Poissant: My main advice is don’t give up. I didn’t go to a MFA program until I was 26. I know a lot of students want to go a program right out of undergrad, and some are ready and some aren't. I applied to twelve programs and only got into one, and the one I got into, I didn’t get any financial aid. That was my test: Should I be writer? I got into one. I grew so fast.

  • About the Author
    Amanda Hancock enjoys the written word in all of its forms. As an admirer of powerful storytelling, Amanda is currently pursuing a career in journalism. Her perfect day would consist of a long run, a good book, and a bottomless cup of coffee.

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