Interview with Melanie Westerberg

By Jené Gutierrez

Jené was able to chat with Melanie this week about the lunar eclipse, grazing those spaces of liminality, Keebler elf fan fiction, and cats—lots about cats—among other craft topics. 

How do you think this moon will affect your writing?

I've read so many people's worries about the moon affecting their writing that it has psyched me out! I haven't felt any effects myself so far, despite this. My big writing thing is that my close friend had her baby a week early yesterday (hoping Baby L still gains witch powers since she was born close enough to the blood eclipse) and I instantly became super sentimental upon seeing the tiny red baby in her text message and wrote a lovely, non-harsh scene.

[email from Melanie shortly after interview was complete]: Holy shit...I just realized that the scene I wrote earlier today was multiple paragraphs about periods, missed periods, menopause, and an old hippie lady who called her period her "moon." It IS affecting me. *shudder*

Tell me about the first thing you remember writing or creating that was memorable or signficant.

Oh my. Two things. The first is a short story I wrote when I have no idea how old, maybe 10 or 11? It was a fabulist story set in a forest and involved several Keebler Elves, these cartoon cookie-selling critters from the 80s...the story was very creative yet also hugely commercial (like actually ripped from TV commercials, like Keebler Elf fan fiction, probably). I remember it being something that I wrote all the way through from start to finish and that I was hugely excited about. The second is a book I wrote and illustrated myself. It was about a unicorn and a pegasus finding love. I think I was around the same age when I wrote this. There was a young girl with long hair (I desperately wanted long hair) who witnessed their love and got to ride them. It was for a contest, so my dad bound it with his industrial sewing machine and it was on nice paper with cardboard covers. I was very proud of it and surprised that I didn't place in the contest.

Keebler Elf fan fiction! That all sounds very lovely. Your parents were always supportive of your craft?

They've always been very supportive. They have no background in it, but they encouraged me a lot and still do. They didn't get hugely into reading until fairly recently, but they read to me a lot when I was little.

It's interesting that your first story was about elves and the woods because both of the stories I read of yours also seem to have nature/its elements as a character itself (forests, ice, water). Can you talk a little bit about that?

Well I'm certainly guilty of repeatedly falling into certain tropes in my writing, but the natural environment is really what most interests me as far as settings and plot points, even though I've always lived in cities and college towns. I've become a lot more interested in working with human psychology and built environments in fiction over the past few years, and I'm always working toward exploring those intersections (nature--people--animals), but I've always wanted to write about animals, spooky forests, etc. most of all. It's just where my mind goes first. My challenge is that since I have little firsthand knowledge of a lot of that stuff besides the direct experiences of bumbling around in the wilderness (often, and perhaps unwisely, alone), I don't want to sentimentalize nature. I have a wonderful time hiking in gorgeous, remote places, but it's clear to me that I couldn't survive more than a day in that kind of environment if my car and water bottle blinked out of existence.

Yeah, and there are lots of "unknowns" to work with in these environments, it seems.

So your work kind of has this magical realist element to it (I hate to try to define or place things in genres though). Like, there is something magical, but the phenomena don’t seem that far off from reality. Do you intentionally just like to graze those spaces of liminality? Anything else you can say about that?

Yes, that pretty much sums up my favorite kind of stuff to write. I like to try to figure people out and aspects of human life on this earth and also make magical things happen sometimes, and to integrate all that so that the boundaries between reality and imagination are more fluid. I like the way you put it, "graze those spaces of liminality." That way of writing is the most fun for me. I'm a pretty skeptical, agnostic person, but lately that has come to mean giving equal weight to multiple ideas of reality. The formal challenge, writing-wise, is to make stories like that still seem emotionally credible and engaging. Part of the fun for me is reinventing the rules for each new thing I write.

Yeah, I like how the "magical" elements are really quite seamless in your work. They're woven in very nicely. A big deal isn't made of them, they're just there.

Haha, it took lots of conversations with confused crit partners for me to realize that there's a more elegant way to do what I want to do.

In the two stories I read, I noticed two recurring elements: the name "Wren" and the transformative power/potential of water. They were both in these stories, but used very differently. Anything you want to say about that?

I just realized that I'd reused that Wren name last week! That one was accidental (or at least I think it is!). I come back to water again and again. Part of it is that it just feels natural and easy to me, but it must feel that way for a reason. Still exploring what exactly that reason is, but...I wrote the ice story over several years after initially coming up with the idea with a friend while we were walking on a glacier. It was a collaboration that never happened, but I still wrote the story and it's for her. The spring in my chapbook story comes from a few's mostly a hybrid between some sacred springs I visited in eastern Bali and some water at Madroño Ranch in the Texas Hill Country, where I wrote alone in a cabin for a few weeks this summer and last. So I keep going to lovely, fascinating bodies of water, and then setting stories around them, and the water comes to mean something different depending on the context of the story. Hmm.

I'm very attracted to water myself, love to swim, etc, so I'm definitely into it!

I have a mild fish phobia but still like to hang with fish, even though I scream a little

Okay so tell me about your Twitter profile. First, you're a "Texas lege aficionado" - do politics inform your work at all?

Oh, I don't think so. I'm extremely interested in politics and always have been. I work for a nonpartisan legislative agency so know a fair amount about Texas politics, but I think it impairs my creative work if anything. I can get really into Texas politics if I let myself--it's full of dramatic arcs with real and visceral consequences--but I don't think it does me much good. When I'm reading #txlege Twitter on my personal time instead of writing or reading or walking around in the woods, I'm not in that great of a place mentally or creatively. I try to walk the line between keeping informed and being obsessive. Compartmentalizing, in other words

Another Twitter thing: you're a "vegetarian who digs ham"! Please elaborate.

#ham was the secret Binders hashtag! It might be old-fashioned to still have that on there, but I have a problem with brevity so have not come up with anything to replace it. Let's get real: ham was my least favorite of meats when I ate meat.

Secret binders hashtag? From the “binders full of women” ordeal?

Yes! At the very beginning (not really, since I wasn't that early of an adopter), they used hashtags to find each other on Twitter, and #ham was one of the first. That might be secret info. It's hard to resist secret codes.

Yeah, I had no idea! So it was for women who were talking about it to find each other? I mean, don't divulge too much!

I think so. I had a really crappy Internet connection when I was first invited to be in it and I'm not much of an insider anyway, so I'm not sure exactly, but my understanding is that it was for the women to find each other, which is SO COOL.

Nice. What a more interesting answer than I anticipated about that Twitter bio line! So how important are cats to your writing process? Very important? Or absolutely crucial?

There was this Internet thing recently about how in the 1960s (or some other bygone era?), women writers were encouraged to pose for their author photos while writing in bed with their cats, and how sexist that is. Which, it IS sexist, obviously, it's completely absurd, but I also personally do like to write in bed while one of my cats sits next to or on me. I feel like writing in a reclined position can make the brain more receptive, at least until it becomes uncomfortable. Or she will sit under my desk and I can pet her with my feet a little while I write. It's what writers do instead of smoking now, maybe. Cats are absolutely crucial.

Yeah, the association of women with cats generally, like a default, is incredibly sexist - like how cats were used to sort of demean the cause of suffrage, make women seem petty. I never understood that association.

I think it's largely a cultural association. I was actually complaining about that this morning.I should clarify that kittens are detrimental to the writing process because they're so naughty.

Yeah, it sucks to love cats so much and fulfill some dated ass stereotype. Haha, I think the audience needed that clarification.

I like to buy cat litter and wine at the same time

I like to go to the pet store wearing my cat dress, cat necklace, and cat sunglasses. Okay, tell me about a time you were discouraged as a writer, and how you powered through it.

So many to choose from...I did have a dark night of the soul (actually an afternoon) about my novel at my residency last year. You know: this is crap, the writing sucks, nothing in it makes sense, sucky characters, etc., and I couldn't figure out a structure for the book or any trajectory through it, etc. This happens to me a lot, but since I was alone in the country, I had nothing to distract myself and just had to take notes and feel everything. Eventually I went for a hike. It was very humid and muddy, and by the end of that two hours I had a new structure for the book in mind and also a title. I got really into taking long walks when I was confused about a novel issue, and by the end of the walk I'd have some new insight. I can't do this practice in my daily life to that extent, but I know that possibility is contained in me and that it can happen again. It ended up being a pretty great dark afternoon of the soul. I think that time and an unflinching willingness to start over can get me out of most writer craft despair.

What work are you most proud of?

I think the answer to that question will always be the piece I'm working on currently. I'm a slow writer, and though I tend to work with similar themes, the depth and breadth of my stories is always transforming. SO...I'm most proud of the novel I'm working on now. It might not be done for another 8 years, but it has challenged me in new ways, and I'm still in love with working on it even though it has been a few years and it sometimes fills me with despair. I love its deer people so much that got a tattoo of a deer. Ill-advised, but dedicated!

Who are some artists/writers who have influenced your work most profoundly?

The fabulist fiction writers who most make me want to write after I read their work are probably Aimee Bender, Julio Cortázar, Kelly Link, and George Saunders; reading Shirley Jackson rescued a story I was stuck on once, and I try to channel César Aira when I'm working very slowly out fear because he's produced a great volume of weird novellas (very few of which I can read since I can't read Spanish) and I like his philosophy on work. John McPhee's Basin and Range really stepped up my Wyoming/big landscapes obsession. I'm very taken with the work of some female Surrealist painters, particularly Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, who also wrote a book called The Hearing Trumpet I wish everyone would read.  

What is the last piece of work (doesn't have to be written) that you engaged with that blew you away?

I know this one! This past Thursday I went to the Blanton Museum of Art to see the Natalie Frank goache and pastel drawings from the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, and the show was so excellent! I'm simultaneously drafting some short stories inspired by creepy old fairy tales (who isn't?!), and am super interested in other work inspired by them. The drawings are bright and weird and scary and utterly striking. It's the kind of art that makes me want to write.