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Cathy Mellett’s nonfiction piece “The One Who Got Away” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 19, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I was born and raised in Pittsburgh and then moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in my thirties. Michigan is, of course, definitely the Midwest, but I’d consider Pittsburgh the Midwest, too, even though many Pittsburghers may feel differently. It certainly isn’t the East Coast. It’s so hard to say how the region has influenced my work because the Midwest is all I have known.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
For me, it’s the bigness of the sky. Because the land is flat you can see so much of the sky, which makes for beautiful sunsets. When I moved here I felt like I’d been living underground for the first part of my life. It felt good to get out and into the open.
How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?
For me, place is everything while I’m writing the story. In my head, I’m physically in that place that I’m writing about once again. In the end, I may not actually use the place as a setting in the story but it certainly informs the story and helps with the mood.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
My childhood is a big inspiration. I’m one of those people to whom other people are always saying, “So much has happened to you; you should write about it.” And just when I think I’ve told all my stories, another one pops up that even my closest friends haven’t heard before. I seem to be able to remember everything that ever happened in my childhood—but not to remember what I ate for breakfast or what to pick up at the grocery store.
I’m a freelance writer and work at home, so sometimes it’s helpful to get out of the house to a new environment. I have a little coffee shop I go to where everybody is intent upon working and there isn’t much noise. And sometimes it’s the quiet room of the local library. In these two places I can sit there and everything else just drops away so that I can be transported back to the place I’m writing about. I go there a lot when I’m doing my own writing—so much so that when my current book gets published I should mention the coffee shop on the acknowledgments page.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I have two writing groups I share work with. Between the two of them, no stone is left unturned. I listen to everyone’s comments, but at the end of the day I have to figure out what it is that I really think. Writers groups are really helpful in finding out other people’s perceptions of the plot and your intentions. Sometimes you’re totally surprised. And it’s better to fix it then than to send the story or nonfiction piece out for years and then look at it again and come to the same conclusion yourself.
Finally, I go over the work, read it aloud, put it away for a few days and look at it again. I repeat this process until I finally look at it and agree with myself that, for better or for worse, I can’t do anything else with it. Not even one more step. Then I send it out into the world.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
This is always changing. I would have to say that Willa Cather’s My Antonia is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Each sentence is crafted like a piece of beautiful sculpture and just takes my breath away. It was also meaningful to me that Cather was born in Pittsburgh, close to where I lived. When I was in high school I read Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, and I couldn’t believe how beautiful the writing was. Once again, the language was so finely crafted—in this case, almost biblical in cadence. I didn’t know at the time that her parents were missionaries in China. The “new” books that I know will stay with me for a long time are Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light You Cannot See, and anything by Kate Atkinson. I love how Atkinson can mix humor and sorrow in such profound ways.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing a memoir. I almost hesitate to say it because it seems so pretentious. But it is something I feel compelled to do. Some of my most successful short stories were based on situations from my childhood. And, of course, the piece in this issue of Midwestern Gothic comes from a situation that happened to me when I was a child. I’m sure that event will work its way into the memoir, too.
Where can we find more information about you?
I have a website, www.cathymellett.com, which I hope I have updated by the time you read this.