I first came upon the work of Melanie Rae Thon in London. A publicity manager at Penguin (U.K.) suggested I might like the work of this “new writer” who had recently published a first collection of short stories, Girls in the Grass I not only liked them, it seemed clear to me that I was witnessing the debut of a serious and powerful voice in contemporary American fiction. The brief biography in the book mentioned that the author lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the time I was teaching at Amherst, so I invited her to come and give a reading at the college. Thereafter, a firm friendship was forged.
I spoke with Melanie in a hotel room in Cambridge. I was mid-way through a coast to coast reading tour promoting my novel, Cambridge. Melanie was anxiously awaiting the imminent publication of her second novel, Iona Moon. Her first, Meteors in August, had attracted fine reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, London’s Time Out calling it “beautifully written, serious and thoughtful.”
Caryl Phillips Graham Greene said that childhood is the bank balance of a writer. You were born and grew up in Montana, and this clearly has informed your stories some of which are set in the West. Have you defined your subject matter as that geographical milieu?
Melanie Rae Thon I’ll always return to that landscape. No matter how long I live somewhere else, those images are embedded in ways I can’t escape. As much as I might like to think I’ve worked through a certain period, I’ve found that some experiences can’t be exorcised. Many years later I may return to an old story in a new form. But the next piece I have in mind to write is set in Florida. I’m very interested in moving beyond childhood, both within the body and within the space of the story.
CP But are you ever really going to be able to go beyond that western experience? It seems to me that it’s the old adage: You can take a person out of a place but you can’t take the place out of the person. Writing a novel set in Florida, is that something that’s happening naturally?
MRT I think it’s a natural movement. I don’t know how it will work out. I feel a connection with the way so many things collide in Florida, with the extremities of wildlife and landscape, the violence of weather, the collision of cultures. Even though it’s radically different from what you would find in Montana, there’s a strange parallel.
CP At what point did you know your first collection of short stories, Girls in the Grass, was complete as a whole?
MRT I knew it was a collection when I had enough good stories. I made other stories that are not included. The eleven pieces in Girls in the Grass emerged over a span of 12 years: 1977-1989.
CP That route suggests what most people contemplating MFAs in writing may not want to admit. In other words, that it’s: degree, writing fiction, master’s degree in fiction, then a long slough, slowly putting together a collection of stories. Was it a case of bit by bit writing when you had the time and money to write? Is that the traditional development of an American writer or are there short cuts?
MRT I don’t know what’s “traditional.” I didn’t find any short cuts. I started my first real story in 1977 and finished it eight years later. It took me that long to hear the true voice. I did other work during that time, but nothing as strong or important to me as Repentance. I did go through a master’s program in creative writing but nothing I wrote during graduate school became part of my published work.
CP Why do you think that happened?
MRT I wasn’t working on my true material. But I don’t consider that time a waste. I was building many skills: most importantly, I was learning the tolerance for revision, which I really didn’t have before that.
CP You said I wasn’t going to like anything else of yours as much as that story Punishment in Girls in the Grass. You’ve got no reason to worry about that. But I detect in Punishment, the influence of Toni Morrison and John Wideman and Faulkner. It was the first thing of yours that I read, and it deals with the black experience, it deals with the institution of slavery and the legacy of slavery. But there was no author’s photograph on the book. I had no idea whether you were black, Latina, Asian. Your name didn’t betray anything to me, at least, of what you were. I had no idea who was the author of this incredibly passionate and lyrical story, partly rooted in the black experience, a story which due to the sources that I sense feeding into it, is technically very daring. Does it concern you or surprise you that I had no idea what kind of person had created such a story?
MRT It’s exactly the response that I would wish for. I believe it’s important for people to transcend who they are as individuals. That’s one reason we write, to get outside of ourselves, to try to understand something beyond our particular experience.
CP What about the influences that I detected? I did sense that lyrical passion of a Toni Morrison, particularly in the black vernacular voice. I did feel, structurally, Faulkner. Was I way off track?
MRT I love all those writers. I had not read anything by John Wideman when I made Punishment, but since then I’ve read most of his work, and I identify with his desire to speak in voices much different from his own. Certainly I feel a connection with Faulkner and Toni Morrison because of the lyrical tilt in my writing.
CP Your recent story, Little White Sister, again flies in the face of those who would argue against this clumsy term I first heard used years ago called “cultural appropriation.” I found the story strong and moving and totally convincing. Writing outside of yourself allows writers to deal with some subject matter with a greater panache. Nobody would dare imagine that such writing might in any way be autobiographical, because the voices are so far beyond the person who’s created them, at least on the surface. Is there something in either Punishment or Little White Sister that you do identify as autobiographical?
MRT I thought about that a lot after I made them. Whenever you go outside of yourself—in your writing or your reading—there’s a point at which you get pushed back inside at the very deepest level. You’re forced to recognize things that you really didn’t know about yourself. Months after I finished Punishment, I realized how desperate the white girl is to understand the black woman: that’s how I’d entered the story. The white girl identifies passionately with the abuse the slave endures. In fact, she believes the slave has suffered for her sake. She fears her own father, the man who becomes a threat to the slave as well. That was where my life touched the lives of the women in that story—not because I feared my father, but because I understood how dangerous men could become at any time. And those men who enter our lives most intimately are the ones who create the most fear. The story Little White Sister kept coming to me in the voice of a black man in first person, which I realized was completely inappropriate. It took me a long time to trust that voice. But every time I tried to write the story from some other perspective, it didn’t work and didn’t seem as true.
CP Why is it inappropriate for you to write the story as a black man?
MRT I was listening to the outside voices, the ones that say: “What right have you to do this?” I was comforted myself, listening to your voice saying: “Go ahead, do it,” but that didn’t always work. Little White Sister is about a black man explaining why he didn’t help a white woman in trouble. He’s trying to understand her life just as I’m trying to understand his. So, this man and I were engaged in the same process. When I saw that I said, “Fine, I have the right to make this story.”
CP You must have come under some considerable pressure listening to what you termed the “outside voices.” Do you still listen to those negative outside voices? Has the process of writing another short story, which has largely to do with a black person’s experience, shut down the volume?
MRT Each time I do something different I become a little less vulnerable. If you listen to those voices, you start to wonder what right you have to make any story? Each story is some kind of leap, unless you write only about yourself, exactly as you are at this moment, which is tremendously uninteresting to me. The novel Iona Moon is about a white girl. But, people might say I had appropriated that experience as well because the way that Iona grew up is not the way that I grew up. Those voices of censorship become ridiculous. The extrapolation of that kind of thinking is that you can’t write as a child, you can’t write as an old person, you can’t write as somebody of the opposite sex. I move into my material intuitively and if I’m paying attention to that, if the things that I’m writing are things I feel I must understand, then I have a right to explore them. I have a need to explore them and ultimately a duty to do so.
CP When you read Faulkner, did you feel any discomfort or any sense that Faulkner is somehow culturally appropriating the black experience of the South in his novels? I mean, there are a number of academic/critical skirmishes that have focused on Faulkner’s perception of the black South. When you read, are you reading it looking at that, or for the structure, or something else?
MRT When I read Faulkner, I certainly don’t think of the work in those terms, worrying about whether or not he’s done something inappropriate. When I read any writer, I think: Is the story honest? Are the images vivid? Are the people real to me? If those things are true, what do I care who the author is in real life?
CP Let’s move on and talk about your novels. Meteors in August picks up where Girls in the Grass left off. Its first person tone is assured and its world is busy and certainly disturbing. Lizzie’s rite of passage takes place in this small Montana town, riddled with racial intolerance and bigotry of a religious nature. Did writing Meteors change your view of Montana? Or had you already, as a sort of long time East Coast resident, looked West with a change of heart? It’s such a searing, critical, passionate look at small town Montana; at times I had the feeling that you couldn’t be looking back at the place the same way after having written a novel like that.
MRT Writing that book definitely changed me. I don’t think I had any sense of how far I was going to go into that experience or what I would see when I got there. The racial “conflict” in Montana is between Anglos and Native Americans. It’s a strange situation, because many Native Americans have assimilated completely; but if they are living as Native Americans, they may be marginalized still on reservation land. There are seven reservations in Montana. In the book the communities aren’t so segregated. I pressed them up against each other to see what would happen. By doing that, I discovered things I’d always known but hadn’t been allowed to acknowledge so explicitly. I can remember, as a child, driving through the reservation and being completely puzzled by the way people lived there, by the poverty. So one of my journeys in the book was to understand the conflict between the Anglos and Native Americans. I couldn’t have done that as long as I lived in Montana.
CP Obviously, you looked at this world differently. How did people in this world look at you differently?
MRT It surprised me. Most people didn’t identify with the book at that personal a level, which is interesting. My hometown newspaper reviewed the book and one of the questions they posited was, “So, is it about us then?” And the answer within the review was, “No, not really.” I pushed things to the extreme in order to see them more clearly, so in many ways it no longer is about my experience or about that town in particular, but I believe that it reveals certain underlying truths. A pervasive aspect of that culture is the violence. The intimate violence of a place where, as Lizzie says, “Everything happens to someone you know.”
CP The leap from Punishment to the novel isn’t really so difficult to make. They follow logically, particularly when one looks at the themes. They seem to be about racial intolerance, religious bigotry, two communities, whether it’s black and white at the time of slavery or Native American and Anglo now. These problems seem to be explored time and time again, just in different locales. In all your work, particularly Meteors in August, there seems to be a concern with how sex is related to violence, to a certain form of repression. The sex and the religion and the racial aspects all seem to be tightly connected with each other. Meteors in August is in all senses of the word, an intimate novel. After all, you can’t write a whole novel in the first person without having some powerful attachment to the narrator, in this case, Lizzie. I wondered what you felt, as an author, about Lizzie’s predicament.
MRT Lizzie sees the way that sexuality destroys her sister Nina. It’s Nina’s pregnancy by a Native American boy that catapults her into an entirely different life. Her father, who had adored her rejects her completely. Her mother lets her disappear. For Lizzie, being sexual is tied to the possibility of being destroyed, to the fear of being abandoned by everyone she loves. She sees Nina as both alluring and powerful. Even after her decline, Nina dazzles people. But she’s always in danger. The same people who are attracted become potential attackers and aggressors: anyone might betray her, even Lizzie.
CP Your new novel, Iona Moon, is set in Idaho. It picks up from two stories in Girls in the Grass: Iona Moon and Snake River. Did you know back then that you had unfinished business with this character Iona Moon?
MRT Most definitely. I didn’t see it as a novel at that point. I saw it as a series of interconnected stories. The idea to make it into a novel came later. I started writing about one of the people in the book 18 years ago. So really, I’ve been imagining this world since I was in my first year of college.
CP You’re quite a careful stylist. How you tell a story seems almost as important as the story itself. Meteors in August is written in the first person, Iona Moon in the third person, as were the source stories for the novel. Are these decisions of form ones that grow naturally out of the characters themselves, out of your relationships with the characters, or do you deliberately plan in advance the perspective you’re going to take?
MRT For the most part it happens naturally. Sometimes I come to it immediately. Other times I shift back and forth trying to find the truest way to tell a story. When I first started Meteors in August, I didn’t feel confident writing in anything but the first person. I need to feel close to one person, to live in her body. But over a period of five years, I found myself becoming extremely frustrated, I wanted to move beyond Lizzie’s point of view. I longed for the flexibility and range of the third person. Iona Moon weaves between three primary points of view, but other people’s voices and thoughts also enter the narrative. Those shifts emerged naturally. They were necessary. I thought the first story was Willy’s alone. It was about a boy who had been attacked—sexually—by a teenage girl. When I heard this story, the boy had become a big Montana man, 6’2", and it was hard to imagine him being attacked by anyone, much less a high school girl. He did escape unharmed, and he left her in her truck by the river. But when he heard tires spinning in mud and realized she was stuck, he went back to help. It amazed me. He was so angry. Twenty years later, he was still angry. But he helped her. I wanted to know, who was this boy? I realized I couldn’t understand what happened that night without also understanding who the girl was, so I split the story between Iona and Willy to find out how they ended up in that truck together.
CP Iona Moon has this wonderful wildness of the maverick, a quality celebrated in American men, but reviled in women. As a poor farm girl, she is treated as desirable and discardable. Is this a fair assessment of her?
MRT Yes. She’s desirable because she’s passionate. She’s not afraid of her own body. She’s not afraid of her sexuality. At one point she says, "What sense was there in saving everything up for some special occasion that might not ever come?" She lives in the present and does what she wants—or what’s necessary—in any given moment. This quality makes her tempting but also terrifying. It gives her a great deal of power over the boys who are attracted to her. She scares the boys who want her, throws them off balance. I think that’s why she’s discardable. If she becomes too threatening, they can revert to their moralistic sensibilities; they can think of her as dirty—physically and spiritually. They can escape her by convincing themselves they prefer “nice” girls, girls who have been taught to feel alienated from their own bodies. As Iona says, "Girls who could pull you right up to the edge and still always, always say no."
CP The theme of wild yet sensual local girl has been the raw material for a light industry of inferior novels. In your hands it becomes serious and literary. Were you aware of any tension between the history of the subject matter and your intentions as an author?
MRT No, I honestly wasn’t. I didn’t ever think about it. As soon as I started telling Iona’s story, she became absolutely real to me. She was in me. That’s not always true when I write. Sometimes it takes me months to get close enough to my people to hear their voices and understand what’s happened in their lives. But Iona, I felt I knew everything about her—or that I could know everything if I was patient enough, if I thought about her and let her remember. So I never considered the possibility that she might be a “type.” To me she was unique. As soon as she spoke she was fierce and insistent. She couldn’t be anyone but herself.
CP I’m going to put you on the spot here. A good portion of your life has been taken up with teaching, which you’re not only good at, but you obviously like. In what ways has the teaching affected, fed off, your writing? Some people teach as a pain-in-the-backside-job to get money, other people love to teach. Your fellow Montana man, Norman Maclean, fantastic at teaching, would have written more if it hadn’t been for teaching. It’s a balance, one suspects, between writing and teaching.
MRT I’m certainly in the group of writers who love to teach. Being rigorous in the way that I look at other people’s writing, being forced to understand how ideas and language converge makes me capable of doing more in my own work. I grapple with ideas in a more sustained and conscious way. When I was teaching The Artificial Nigger by Flannery O’Connor, I was struck by the moment at the end, a fleeting moment, when Mr. Head and his grandson are both “saved” by this image of the artificial nigger, the lawn jockey that they encounter in Atlanta. In that moment of grace there is a miraculous transformation: they can forgive each other. But as they journey home, we see them regressing into their old patterns. They’ve witnessed a miracle, experienced this sacrifice outside themselves, but they haven’t been changed in any permanent way. It’s a very Christian idea, that Jesus—or the artificial nigger—had to die in order for these people to be spared. But, in Flannery O’Connor’s interpretation, Jesus has to die again and again. I think that’s one of the ideas that was working for me in Punishment. I had a vision not of a single death that allows us to be merciful and humane, but of sacrifices innumerable and endless.
CP How does that connect with teaching?
MRT Being forced to articulate that about O’Connor’s story made me understand something about myself and my beliefs. It made me want to explore the idea in my own way.
CP Are there any contemporary American writers that you particularly admire?
MRT I wouldn’t limit that to American, or contemporary writers. I was influenced by Thomas Hardy and also by Emily Bronte. Both of those writers took on huge subjects. They weren’t just looking at individuals and their passions, but also at the society and the landscape in which those people lived. I’ve always wanted to make big stories. I was tremendously influenced when I read A Death in the Family by James Agee, because of the lyricism and the release from structure. I know he died before he had a chance to finish the book, so we can’t ever really know his final intentions. But the fact that the book works, despite breaking all the rules, is tremendously liberating to me. Certainly my writing changed when I read Tell Me A Riddle by Tillie Olsen. She compresses a novel’s worth of material into only 40 pages.
CP What do you, after all these years, know about writing?
MRT The only thing I know for sure is that it takes a tremendously long time to find and explore the truth. I’m still scared. Even when things seem to get easier for you in circumstantial ways, there is no way to make the internal process easy.
CP You know that?
MRT I’m certain of it.
CP John Cheever said in 1979, "Endeavouring as a serious writer is quite a dangerous career," and though it seems the pendulum is swinging in your direction, what do you see lying ahead? Has it been dangerous?
MRT It’s been dangerous but I can’t imagine living any other way. When I’m in the middle of making a story, I feel completely separated from what most people would consider to be a normal life. There’s always a risk: how far will I go, and how long will it take to come back. But the alternative is to willfully ignore what’s in front of me. I can’t. To live that way would be like being dead.
CP There is an aspect of writing where you turn that around. The danger, perhaps, is that you can’t see what’s in front of you and you have to discover it all the time.
MRT Maybe that is the problem.
CP Most people are quite happy not to have to grope towards certain questions, answers, resolutions, or truths. It’s a dangerous thing.
MRT This goes back to what we were talking about earlier when you asked how it changed me to make Meteors in August. The impetus for me to make a story or a novel is that I believe I see things that others don’t see or don’t wish to see. I have to speak about what I’ve witnessed. But once I’m inside a story, I begin to see things that I didn’t know were there. That’s the scary part. You never know what any piece will force you to face.
—Caryl Phillips is a novelist and contributing editor to BOMB. His latest novel Cambridge was recently published in paperback by Vintage International.