Melinda Moustakis is an award-winning, Alaskan-born author who has also called the Midwest home. She talks with us about the death of the novel (or lackthereof), getting published, and learning to deal with Michigan weather.
MG: Can you tell us a bit about your connection to the Midwest?
MM: My connection started five years ago when I moved from Northern California out to Kalamazoo, Michigan, to start a PhD program at Western Michigan University. I had never thought I would leave the west coast and moving to Michigan was a dive into the unknown. The Midwest, at that point, was a blur in my imagination.
MG: How long have you been writing?
MM: I wrote a bit as a child. My mother still has a collection of dark and twisted poems I wrote when I was young—I call them “poems that scared my mother.” But I didn’t write with purpose or real intent until my junior year in college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. The English major had a creative writing concentration and I took a few poetry classes and enjoyed them. I thought I might be a poet at first. But all my poems were narrative poems and character-based and then fiction took over.
MG: Your debut collection, Bear Down Bear North (which releases in September of this year), is set in Alaska, where you grew up. We here at Midwestern Gothic are big fans of writing that has a sense of place—how has Alaska shaped who you are and how you write?
MM: Setting is an integral part of my writing. I moved from Alaska to California when I was very young, but we would visit in the summers or for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Also, my parents grew up in Alaska and my maternal grandparents homesteaded there in the late fifties. I was raised listening to all of these fantastic and unbelievable stories about Alaska and homesteading and hunting and fishing. I fell in love with these stories. Then, about seven years ago I started to summer on the Kenai to go fishing with my uncle, Sonny, who knows that river like the back of his hand. And I fell in love with fishing and fishing banter. Also, my uncle is a legendary storyteller in my family. No one can tell a story like Sonny can. We will all sit around the campfire at his cabin on the river and wait for him to tell us the same stories again and again. My writing is a mixture of all of these influences—a fusion of memories and stories of Alaska combined with my own experiences. Many of the stories in the book are also about the reckoning with a family mythology or heritage based on survival. I have tried to write about other places, but Alaska is my triggering town.
MG: Have you found that the Midwest has influenced your writing as well?
MM: The Midwest gave me an education in weather, especially in snow. I had visited snowy places and heard stories about treacherous weather, but the Midwest made me deeply understand it. There’s a certain sense of isolation and loneliness to the Midwest that allows for intense concentration and focus and interiority. This can be dangerous in the throes of winter, but if channeled correctly, you can get a lot of work done. I think writing in the Midwest taught me to be persistent. The writing world doesn’t care that you live in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Most people think you’re making up the name of the place where you live. You have to have a loud writing voice to make an impact and you have to make things happen for yourself. The Detroit Free Press just published an article talking about the hotspot of writers who live on the west side of Michigan. Currently, I live in the same vicinity as National Book Award winner Jaimy Gordon and National Book Award nominee Bonnie Jo Campbell, which is quite amazing.
MG: You have already received considerable praise for Bear Down Bear North, including winning the Flannery O’ Connor Award in Short Fiction and the UC Davis Maurice Prize in Fiction. How has this attention changed your outlook on writing (if it has at all)? Do you find your approach to writing has changed with these accolades?
MM: I spent so much time alone and writing through Michigan winters and now it’s sort of shocking that the book is going public and that it is being recognized. Winning the awards feels nice, and then it feels terrifying. You think, “Now that the book has won the Flannery, people are going to expect it to be good.” You hope the book lives up to the readers’ expectations. And all my award money has gone to pay bills. Win Maurice Prize. Get new brakes for my car. Or pay for something equally as glamorous. I can now say I have been paid for my writing, though. But the real test will be the next project. I don’t want this all to be a fluke and I am excited to begin the next book.
MG: Can you tell us about the road to getting published? Did you have to find an agent? Was it hard to get noticed?
MM: I don’t have an agent yet. I am going to see what happens when the book comes out in September and weigh my options in terms of representation. As for getting noticed, I waited to send out stories until I felt I had something polished and completed. What this means is I didn’t really start sending out stories in earnest until about five years ago. This was the right move for me because it helped to minimize the amount of rejection. I still filled a shoebox with rejection slips, but I also had a lot of success getting stories taken after sending in to the slush pile and I think this is because I waited and allowed myself time to grow as a writer, to find my own distinctive voice.
MG: What are your thoughts on the state of the publishing industry? Do you have an opinion on self-publishing vs. traditional publishing?
MM: People argue about the death of books and the death of the novel, but I think that storytelling will never die off or disappear. I’m optimistic about the publishing industry. This past year has been especially wonderful for small press books winning huge awards. I believe good writing will rise to the top. Self-publishing seems to be another avenue for writers to put themselves out there and to be noticed by agents and publishers because sometimes a writer can’t get published without an agent and can’t get an agent without getting published—it’s this strange predicament. I found myself trying to grapple with this same problem and that is why I am so grateful for UGA Press and the Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction contest. You can be anyone from anywhere in the U.S. and send in your manuscript and the judging is done blind.
MG: How do you feel about social media (such as Facebook and Twitter) used as a tool to promote one’s work?
MM: I just read an article in Poets and Writers where a publicist talked about social media and how it can be useful, but overwhelming. She said the best thing to do was to pick what you know you could do well and not try to do it all. I try to keep this advice in mind. I am not on Twitter, but I am on Facebook. Facebook has been invaluable in allowing me to keep others informed about the book and press surrounding the book. I also recently earned how to make my own author website and am in the process of making a snazzier one. The nature of the industry demands that writers be part of the promotion of their books. I think you have to find a balance and find what works for you because you don’t want to spend all your time on the internet—there’s writing to be done.
MG: What advice do you have for authors both in and out of the Midwest trying to get their work published?
MM: I’ll defer to a more seasoned writer first. At a conference many years ago, I heard Richard Bausch say, “Write like all hell.” I think this is good advice for any writer—write with hunger, fury, passion. I would say worry about publishing when you feel your work is ready and you feel you have something to say. For short stories, read journals and magazines to see where your work might be a good fit and send to them. I was an editor for Third Coast Magazine and I can tell you there were a lot of stories sent in that seemed like early drafts rather than polished stories. You need to make an impression on a reader or editor within the first two pages.
Melinda Moustakis was born in Fairbanks, Alaska. She received her MA from UC Davis and her PhD in English and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University. Bear Down Bear North: Alaska Stories, her first book, won the 2010 Flannery O’ Connor Award in Short Fiction and the UC Davis Maurice Prize in Fiction and is forthcoming from University of Georgia Press in September. Her stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Conjunctions, The Massachusetts Review, American Short Fiction and elsewhere.
You can find out more about Melinda at her official website.