Melanie Bishop’s YA novel My So-Called Ruined Life has just hit the shelves and is one you’ll want to read. It’s a powerful and heartfelt debut about human fallibility, and Tate is one of the truest characters I’ve come across recently. Read on to see what Melanie says about her characters, the writing process, and teaching creative writing.
Tate McCoy has not spoken to her alcoholic mother in two years when her mom is murdered. If this were not enough to endure at age sixteen, Tate has to face the fact that her father is the prime suspect. Convinced of his innocence, and of her own resilience, she sets out to prove her life is not ruined. Amid this life-shattering tragedy, Tate takes up swimming and finds solace in her best friend Kale, volunteer work, the great outdoors, and a new crush. But after discovering a horrible secret, Tate questions everything she thought she knew about her parents. This is the first book in the Tate McCoy series.
1. Tate is strong and healthy considering what’s happened, and it’s refreshing to read about a girl who’s trying hard to move forward despite her mom’s murder and dad’s arrest as prime suspect. Where does Tate’s strength come from?
This is a great question because there’s no quick and easy answer and it’s making me think. It’s the kind of question that helps me know Tate better. One source of Tate’s strength is her history with having an alcoholic mother. She learned early on to rely on her father and herself, and also leans on her aunt, her best friend Kale and Sawyer. Some kids who grow up around difficulty and dysfunction are just really good at drawing on an inner strength. If their parents were completely wholesome and attentive, these kids might go out seeking some trouble, something to liven things up, but when parents are the ones providing the trouble, kids tend to seek out stability. For balance. And then I also just think Tate is naturally upbeat and resilient. She believes in the goodness in the world, and nothing is going to change that. She rarely spends time feeling sorry for herself, even though her circumstances are pretty tragic.
2. All the characters and relationships in the book are vividly drawn. Apart from Tate who was your favorite character to write and why?
It would probably be a toss-up between Aunt Greta and best friend Kale. They both came very naturally to me. I didn’t have to sit and ponder what these two were like; they came to me fully formed. This may be in part because both Greta and Kale have a really easy rapport with Tate, so somehow they grew fluidly out of my creation of her. Almost like they represent different parts of her.
3. Some of the thrills of writing are the organic discoveries we make in the writing process that can crack open characters or storylines. Can you tell us what a couple of your thrills were in writing the book?
Two things occur to me immediately, and for two different reasons. The book’s opening paragraph and a pivotal scene in Montana were both pretty thrilling to me. The opening paragraph came to me so fast and so certainly and so clearly in the voice of Tate, it really was like someone else was telling me what to write down, like I was just the medium or the scribe, but Tate was the one talking. This is the paragraph that motivated the whole book, and I can still see in my mind where it was jotted down hastily in my small notebook. I wrote that paragraph, and then, very matter-of-factly, knew I was going to write a young adult novel. Since I’d never written one before, this just felt pretty interesting and intuitive.
The scene in Montana was inspired by a walk I took in that same place, near my friend’s cabin where I wrote most of the book. I came across the ruins left from a house fire, probably a fire that had happened several years prior, burning down to the foundation. It was fascinating, looking at what remained, and what had grown inside the space since the place had been abandoned. I didn’t even have paper or pen with me, but the scene just started flooding into my head, exact dialogue and description and purpose. At the time, I thought this scene would be the book’s ending. I rushed back to the cabin, frantically wrote down everything I’d been hearing in my head, and ended up writing the whole scene, even though I wasn’t up to that point in the book yet. But it gave me this ending to write toward, and it was enormously exciting and helpful. I called my friend who owns the cabin where I was working and told her what had happened and thanked her up and down for letting me stay in this place where I was literally discovering things that would be part of Tate’s story. As I got to the end of the book, this scene in Montana no longer seemed like the final scene. There’s another chapter after that one, now, but while this scene stood in as the book’s ending, it provided a guidance I needed. I love when things like this happen! Had I not been offered my friend’s house for a solo writing retreat, and had I not investigated that burn site on that particular walk, the book would not have that scene in it. It’s a crucial scene and it leads gracefully toward the book’s conclusion, and it was just handed to me there in Montana, and I am so grateful. It’s a great argument for going new places, for doing writing residencies, for exploring wherever you are. You just never know when you might come upon a scene that’s going to inform your book, or land smack dab inside it.
4. Does teaching creative writing help your fiction? Some writers feel it hurts them, maybe affects the ability to blindly follow intuition and inspirations or maybe too thoroughly soaks the brain in craft and process. Where do you stand?
Teaching writing makes me a better writer, I think. Some of the basics you cover in the college classroom are things we writers need to remind ourselves of rather constantly. Teaching keeps me in touch with those basics, and even more importantly, I’m inspired by my students’ talent. Now if you’re talking about time, I definitely did not have enough hours for my own writing when I was teaching full-time. But the teaching itself, the dynamic exchange that happens in the classroom, that definitely energizes my work. I’ve also had whole stories grow out of writing exercises my students assigned during class presentations. Teaching for me has always been a very good thing.
5. Many writers—me!—have a love/hate relationship with writing? Do you?
Oh yeah. You would not believe some of the strategies I have to employ to just make myself sit down and write. I’ve heard an answer given by a well-known writer who was asked if he enjoyed writing. He said something like “I enjoy having written.” That is true for me, too. It is usually not fun or easy when I first get started. But once I’m into whatever world I’m inhabiting in a piece of fiction, I will usually get distracted and forget that I’m not having fun. I set a timer and write in 45 minute sessions; often when the timer rings, I’m shocked that much time has passed. I’m deep into what I’m doing. And it’s satisfying. But the next day or next time I sit down to write, it’s just as hard as before. It never gets easy. I expect that will never change. If you think about it, writing is psychologically back-breaking work. You sit down with the intention of creating something, inventing something, making something out of nothing. It’s just not ever easy.
If I were to wave my wand and bestow with you two qualities/gifts/talents from writers, living or dead, what would you want and why?
I’ll take the gift poets have for language. I’m in awe of what poets are able to do with description, simile and metaphor. I just do not have that ability. And it’s probably why I don’t write poetry! But poets who also write prose (many write and publish memoirs) produce the most original, lovely sentences, and I would give anything to write like that.
Melanie Bishop writes fiction, nonfiction, and screenplays, and has taught all of these subjects for the past twenty-one years at Prescott College in Arizona where she is founding editor of Alligator Juniper, Prescott’s award-winning national literary magazine. Bishop divides her time between Prescott, Arizona, and Carmel, California. Visit her at http://melaniebishopwriter.wordpress.com/