Writing Cycles: Melissa Volker on ‘Still, Life’ & more (Q&A w/ event details)

Author/photographer Melissa Volker will appear at BookClub Bookstore and More in Westfield, MA this Sunday, September 11th, at 11 a.m. for a mini-brunch party in support of Delilah of Sunhats and Swans and Still, Life: A Collection of Echoes. This event is free and open to the public; an RSVP is required and can be made online. Copies of Melissa’s books will be available for purchase/signing. Location: 2 Main St.

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Today, I’m delighted to share virtual space with Melissa Volker.

Melissa is the author of the novel, Delilah of Sunhats and Swans (Little Dory Press), which was published in a second edition earlier this summer. She has also written a collection of literary short stories entitled Still, Life: A Collection of Echoes and a forthcoming middle grade fantasy adventure for girls who are looking to discover their own Harry Potter. A native of Albany, Melissa attended NYU for theater and liberal arts; she later left NYC—and her acting ambitions—for Boston, where she began writing and met her husband, Christopher. She currently makes her home with him and their son in western Massachusetts.

melissa-volker
Author Melissa Volker.

Praise for Delilah of Sunhats and Swans:

“Delilah of Sunhats and Swans combines the insouciance of youth with the tragedy of experience. It tells the bittersweet story of one young woman’s transformative effect upon the lives of others. Delilah is a seeker — a pilgrim and a stranger. She also is a charmer, a being blessed with a charisma as mysterious as it is luminous. Haunted by her past, Delilah somehow manages to make the most of her present. You won’t soon forget her.”—Alice Fulton, Professor, Poet, Guggenheim Fellow

“In a lovely work of fiction by author Melissa Volker, Delilah of Sunhats and Swans is a story that will stay with its readers long after the final page is finished. Follow the story of eighteen-year-old Delilah, arriving in the small New England town of Macaenas, and forever changing the lives of those who live there.

I so enjoyed reading Delilah of Sunhats and Swans. This beautiful book had me sucked in from the very start, and I could not stop reading until the very end. Author Melissa Volker has done a wonderful job in creating characters that her readers will relate to, connect with, care about, and will continue to think of long after the story is done. If that isn’t a hallmark of a great author, I am not sure what is. Any reader who enjoys reading an exceptional work of fiction with beautiful characterizations and a compelling story line should absolutely read Delilah of Sunhats and Swans. I highly recommend this book, and I certainly hope that the extremely promising author, Melissa Volker, is already hard at work on another novel. If it’s anything like this, it will absolutely be worth reading!”—Tracy A. Fischer for Readers’ Favorite

From the publisher:

Leaving behind a dark, uncertain past, a mystifying eighteen-year-old girl named Delilah steps off a bus in the small New England town of Macaenas. Charming and enigmatic, she is welcomed to the town and her presence triggers changes in all of them. But amidst it all, her past is catching up with her.

delilah-of-sunhats-and-swans

Now, Melissa invites readers inside her writer’s mind …

John Valeri: Delilah of Sunhats and Swans was recently reissued. How do you view this book with the benefit of hindsight – and to what do you credit its initial inspiration?

Melissa Volker: The reissue was mostly design updates — interior and exterior — indie/self-publishing has a definite learning curve! Mostly, it was me, as writer, deciding I was ready to come out from behind the keyboard and talk about it!  Coming back to the book was really great. I love this book a lot, and feel very strongly there was inspiration involved in the truest sense of the word.  Delilah came to me with her story and asked me to tell it.  I didn’t sit down and think, “Hey, I’d like to write/explore a story about XYZ”, it’s more that there was a feeling in me, an emotion — a sense of aloneness yet wonder in the world and suddenly there came the idea of a person who seems so mystical and untouchable, who lifts you above, and yet turns out to be just as earthbound and struggling and real as yourself.  And there came Delilah. It definitely was born out my own feelings of being adrift, wanting connection but uncertain of how, feeling there was something more to our existence, occasionally feeling I’d glimpse it, but then lose it again, wishing there was something or someone transcendent that could make the connection. That was Delilah.

Going over it again I remembered the experience of writing it, and fell in love with the characters all over again. Each one came organically as I wrote — no planning ahead — and each one sat behind me and whispered their story in my ear to transcribe. That’s the only way I can describe it. I did not create the story or the characters — they were living somewhere else and came and asked me to bring them to life. I missed them when I was done. And I will always, always, have a special place for Delilah in my heart. She is truly something.

JV: Still, Life is a collection of shorter pieces. Why did you decide to embrace this form – and what do you see as being the elements or themes that keep the overall work cohesive?

MV: The short stories came out of my 14 years in NYC attending NYU, and then living the ‘starving-artist’ life of pursuing acting while waitressing nights. It was all very cliché!  At some point I read Raymond Chandler’s “Where I’m calling from” and fell completely in love with his short-shorts style. He went after the meat of a person/event/situation and told just that part, and suddenly, that’s how I saw the world. In snippets. Vignettes. So each story is just a moment within an experience, but it reveals a great deal about that person’s internal and external life.  While not every story is set in New York, each does reflect the pain, the struggle, the emotional highs and lows that I both witnessed and experienced while living there. I suppose it’s the quintessential “human condition” thing — it’s something we all experience, but I found NYC heightens *everything*, including that.

I had also recently re-read (and re-watched) The Great Gatsby (the original movie, not the remake — this was the 80s!) and a character emerged in my head that was a little bit me, and a little bit an exaggerated character of whimsy, struggle and quirkiness. She was the personification of all the dichotomies I loved (and hated), from combat boots with dresses, to feeling lonely surrounded by a million people. She became the narrator that strings the stories together, talking to the reader “out there in the dark”. Holly Buchannan is her name, her parents naming her after their two favorite characters, Holly GoLightly, and Daisy Buchannan. She is the through-line of the collection, guiding the reader through both NYC, and the emotional content of the stories themselves.

still-life

JV: Having written both novels and short stories, how do you find the process to compare/contrast – and what tells you whether an idea is meant to be brief or more expansive?

MV: They are two vastly different approaches to writing. The novel is clearly a story that needs/wants to be told in detail and very thoroughly; a desire to take a reader from the beginning to the end. My short stories (not all short stories, but my approach to them), is more a snapshot; just a quick glimpse into a moment in someone’s life that happens to reveal a great deal about their lives as a whole, and reflects a common experience in ourselves. When an idea, or a moment strikes me as worth writing down, if it is just that — a moment — then a short piece will capture it. If it strikes something deeper in me, a more expansive sense of something, then it tends to need exploring throughout a larger context — so, a novel.

The idea of writing another novel write now is daunting to me! It’s consuming — Delilah woke me up at all hours of the night to the point where I had a tape recorder near my bed to capture phrases, thoughts, etc. I loved every minute of it, but considering it now is exhausting. But I suppose it’s because there’s no story knocking on the inside of my head demanding to be told just at the moment. If there were, then it would just happen.  I’ve had the itch, but nothing has coalesced. And I’ve never been a writer who could say, “Oh, I have an idea…” and then sit in front a blank screen and make it come. It’s organic, and often feels very outside my control.

JV: In addition to being a writer you are also a photographer. What is the relationship between imagery and words – and how do you think that one discipline influences the other?

MV: I *love* this question because there is definitely a relationship. From the imagery in Delilah — my need to find the exact right words, in the exact right order to create a rhythm in my writing, to the short-shorts — all of it is mirrored in photography. When I write the words are like notes that get strung together to form stanzas. If the lilt is wrong, I remove or change up words until not only the words chosen, but the rhythm of words strung together evokes emotion. How is that photography and not music? Because the result is visual as well as emotional. I see things in my head when writing a novel that are very cinematic. The only way to get that on paper is by careful choice of word and structure. It all works together. In the shorts, well, they are in essence snapshots of life. The way a photo captures just an instant, that is precisely how I view my short stories. A quick moment. A breath. Even in the longer short stories, they are moments in a person’s life that you know will linger beyond the final period. In my photography, whether it is a place a person, or an object, there is a story and emotion within it that prompted me to take the photo. The same goes for my writing — I’m looking to capture an emotion, an experience, whether over the course of a novel, or just a quick vignette of a short. Photos area echoes left behind after I’ve seen something. So are my short stories — and hence the title.

JV: You have a background in acting. In what ways does this inform character development and dialogue?

MV: It doesn’t influence it consciously, but clearly it’s there.  I want the characters and experiences to be real, for people to feel connected with them, to care, to get invested. So their internal lives must be rich and complete. Certainly their dialogue — which again, as odd as it sounds, I tend to feel like a medium, just transcribing what they tell me they are saying — comes pretty naturally (and I suppose that is an example of how acting effects my writing), but it’s also always pretty clear when something doesn’t ring true to that person. Even how they look is very clear in my head — I could give you actors who could play them in the movie version! All of that, I think, draws from my acting background. All of it — writing, acting, photography — are all arts that capture the experience of life and living in different, albeit connected, ways. They are different, but common, and certainly each of them, being part of me, come together in different ways depending on what I’m creating.

JV: In your opinion, what is the role of the bookstore within its community – and how can attending an author event help to solidify the reader/writer/bookseller relationship?

MV: Bookstores are so crucial! I’m all for hiding in my house and ordering stuff online. But bookstores have a life of their own. But more importantly (and less existentially), books are things that need to be held to be known. Their covers, their first lines/paragraphs, these things help convey the book to the reader before they own it. It helps a reader find the book that speaks to them. Bookstore owners (particularly the small, indie bookstores) are greatly invested in their work — they do it because books matter to them! — and so they can help guide, recommend, to a reader particular books that might be of interest.

As for author events — it’s so very important to connect a reader with a writer that might move and inspire them. Perusing a book is one thing, and will help you decide if you want to read it. But to meet the person who wrote the words, to get to ask questions, find out what makes them tick, why they write, how they write — suddenly the book is not just an inanimate object, but it is a physical manifestation of another person’s experience. Of their journey. It brings everything to life and makes it personal. And a good reading (here’s where my acting comes back into play as well!) will bring the book completely to life. It will jump off the page and into the world in a way that makes the listener want to know more. That helps a listener decide — without question — “I want to read this!”  And that creates a relationship between reader and author. There’s a person behind this story/these stories. It’s good for the reader to know that. And the writer gets to meet the “shadows beyond the page” (as my shorts narrator calls them), and see they are far more than mere shadows.

This brings me all the way back to your first question — the reissue of Delilah. Because while the writing itself was/is immensely satisfying, I don’t write for the work to then sit in a dark closet. I wanted people to meet Delilah — to invite her in and let her move them the way she moved me. That cannot happen if they don’t know she’s out there! Bookstores and events help make that happen. Then, what’s more, readers get to know *me*, and if they are moved/inspired/engaged by having met me, they will want to read what I write, and I get to hear why they want to. And then we all win — I get to have my work shared with others and connect with the world, readers get to find experiences that move and affect them, and bookstores get to bring those two worlds together. Bookstores are like the veil between two worlds: the magical and the real. The writers live in the magic world, the readers in the real world. Bookstores are where we pass back and forth between the two.

I’d love to invite people to my brunch-themed book launch event for the short stories at BookClub Books & More on Main St. in Westfield MA on Sunday Sept 11 from 11a.m.-12:30/1pm. Info is on my website under “news” and I’m asking folks to RSVP if they could, so we have an idea of how large or small it’ll be!

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With thanks to Melissa Volker for her generosity of time and thought.

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