Monday, January 31, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Melissa Senate

A 1/2 Dozen with bestselling, beloved novelist


who talks about the loss of her father

and her confused childhood

the truth about Harlequin

and the most brutal writing teacher
she's ever had

(for gajillions of readers)
stopped listening to.

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise. (I prefer otherwise.)

I've always been enamored by the great and beautiful actress Meryl Streep, and for the past year I've been rewatching her oeuvre of films--from my favorite, Out of Africa, to The Bridges of Madison County to Kramer Vs. Kramer to Sophie's Choice, and everything in between and since. I'm obsessed with movies in general. And there's a river I like to drive past these days, this huge, sparkling, gray-green-blue body of water with tiny cottages and huge mansions dotting its shores. I live in Maine, where's a body of water every ten steps, but this particular river keeps calling me by. If spring ever really comes, I'll go sit by the river and see what it wants to tell me. Maybe something about my next-next novel.

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

I agree with you. I never have a singular moment of inspiration--except for a pervasive feeling. I think a sense of loneliness inspired The Love Goddess' Cooking School--I wrote it during a time that I was feeling alone (post divorce blues) and scared about a bunch of things, from my little son's health and happiness to finances, to why I was suddenly living in the state of Maine (if a state could be the very opposite of you as a person, the state of Maine is that for me). As I was writing and conceiving the novel in the first draft, I did pull singular moments of inspiration into the book in ways that transformed the entire story--for example, my son wishing into a bowl of raw eggs that he was scrambling that I'd get him a mouse, rat, hamster or rabbit for his 6th birthday. Suddenly, in the cooking class my main character teaches, wishes and memories are the final ingredients of every recipe. I do love that about inspiration.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

When I know what I’m doing, I’m in heaven. Not that the words always come, but I understand the point. When I’m unsure, when something isn’t making sense in a big way—a character is missing something crucial that I can’t pinpoint, the structure is off, the story begins too early, the plot is lagging—I need to do my magical thinking, which always happens when I’m asleep, in the hours right before dawn. I know that if I’m stuck, if I sleep on it, the answers will come at 4:30 a.m. But when I know what I'm doing, when I understand the inside of the story, the inside of the character, the page is my best friend.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

The Publishers Weekly review of my first novel (See Jane Date) was scathing, but the review came out exactly a week after 9/11, a time when not much else could affect me or break my heart. I’ve had “this is the best book ever!” reviews. I’ve had “this books sucks cheese balls” reviews. And everything in between. I’ve learned to feel wonderful for five minutes at the glorious ones, and feel sad for a minute at the negative ones. That’s really how long a bad review gets to me. It’s just ONE PERSON’S opinion, based on one person’s sensibilities or mood. The word subjective in the dictionary should include book review as part of the definition. The way I like to look at it is this: an editor, whose job it is to buy books and publish them, gave it the ultimate 5 star review. That’s all I need to know.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I was a confused kid, but a reader and a writer from first memory, which got me through so much. I haven’t seen my biological father since I was eight or maybe nine (standard story that he an affair with my mother’s friend, got her pregnant, then moved from our 6th floor New York City apartment to hers, with her three children, yada, yada, yada, we never saw or heard from him again). The nothingness and everythingness in this, what you have to do as a child to rationalize such a thing in your heart and mind, has informed every book I’ve written. Somehow, someway, I work it out in my fiction, sometimes in the tiniest ways, sometimes very obviously. I learned that my father died last summer from the half brother I've never met, the one born from that affair. The awareness of that half-sibling gave me an entire novel (The Secret of Joy). Now that's my father is truly gone, instead of just being his as usual gone, I think I'll have some kind of necessary closure that'll play out in my work in interesting ways.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

I love big, smart, warm women’s fiction. Elizabeth Berg and Jo-Ann Mapson are two authors whose books and backlist are taking over my bedside table and my Kindle. Two under-the-radar books I was crazy about in recent years were: The Fiction Class by Susan Breen and Some Assembly Required by Lynn Kiele Bonasia. Knock-outs, the both of them.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

I’ve always worked in publishing—a year at Berkley at the tender age of 22, ten years at Harlequin (and loved every minute there), two years at 17th Street Productions/Alloy, which is probably the most creative place on earth (Gossip Girl and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants were dreamed up during my time there). The Harlequin authors, the books, the community of RWA (Romance Writers of America) taught me some beautiful things about people and different ways of life and camaraderie and support; I knew when I started writing that I’d find support and friendship among fellow authors). And the YA think-tank book packager 17th Street/Alloy taught me how to write a proposal, how to package it, how to think SALE. If you mix the heart and earnestness and truth of Harlequin (and I will say to my death that those who put down Harlequin romances have never read a single one) with the SELL ME of 17th Street, you get a very helpful mix for writing for which I’m very grateful.

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

There was one, and whoo-boy, was it a negative impact. Sledgehammer impact. When I was bright-eyed twenty-two year-old, I took a fiction writing class at NYU (continuing ed dept) because my favorite author at the time (a literary author) was teaching the class. (I won't name names, and I still admire her as an writer, even though she did a number on my already shaky confidence.) This teacher, this writer, HATED everything I turned in. She circled adjectives in my story and scrawled the equivalent of today’s REALLY? in the margins, which would be fine, except she circled pretty much every one. She did not like my voice or style at all, and because I admired her so much, I decided to face facts—that I wasn’t meant to be a writer, that I wasn’t good enough, that I could not summon the right adjectives, that my imagination and talent was limited, and I focused on being an editor instead.

But at age 34, when my life was kind of up in the air (I was leaving publishing and the corporate world behind for grad school), the novel that had been poking at me for years came rushing out of me. As I was writing (what turned out to be my debut, See Jane Date), I realized that the reason the Very Important Writing Teacher didn’t like my voice or style or anything I'd turned in was that I'd been trying to be something I wasn't--trying so hard to write like she did, trying to be a literary writer, when my true voice was very commercial. Once I let it out, let out the funny, the warm, the heart and soul, my past, my present, everything I am, my voice clicked. That was ten books ago.

Are you bloggish? Why?

I long to be bloggish because I spend an hour every morning before dawn (in the hour before my little dynamo of a son wakes up with his CAN I HAVE SMILEY FACE PANCAKES, CAN I PLAY ON THE DROID, I’M NOT WEARING A SHIRT WITH STRIPES!) reading my favorite blogs while I drink my hot tea. Book blogs, author blogs, editor blogs, agent blogs (one of my favorite morning pasttimes involves trying to figure out what song Betsey Lerner’s blog lyric-headlines come from). I love reading long personal essay type blog posts from authors. Guest blog posts. New book news. Cover info. When authors post links to blog posts on Facebook and Twitter, I’m the biggest clicker to head over and read.

But I often realize that long stretches go by before I update my own blog. Not sure why. Half of me is private and introverted, and the other half spills every detail of my personal life and never shuts up. For the past six months (since I last blogged on my own site), I must be in private mode. But I do long to be bloggish. I even love how that sounds.

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Check out The Love Goddess’ Cooking School on Amazon.

Melissa Senate is the author of 10 novels, including her newest, The Love Goddess' Cooking School, which Publishers Weekly kindly said "reinvents comfort food;" her debut, See Jane Date, which was made into a TV movie; two books for teens; and several short stories and essays. She lives on the snowy coast of Maine.