Greetings from the Ether,
Finalizing our spotlight on dark fiction author Michelle Mellon, we present your our interview with the talented writer. Make sure to check out our review of her debut collection, and to also order her book on Amazon. Down by the Sea is a fantastic collection and we guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
CP: For the readers who might be new to your work, can you tell us a little about yourself? What led you to writing in the darker side of fiction?
MM: The short summary of me as a person: Until my sophomore year of college I was an Army dependent (aka “Army brat”), and even as an independent adult I haven’t yet lived in one place for more than four consecutive years. In August 2015 my husband and I and our (then two) cats moved to Germany, and my not-so-inner nerd has been overjoyed with exploring Europe. No matter where I am, I like to think my adventures feed me as a person and as a writer.
The not-so-short of me as a writer: I started writing in elementary school, mostly poetry. In middle school I created a world and wrote a long science fiction story about it (which I’m hoping to return to someday to develop it further). In my high school creative writing class, I experimented more with stories and sketched out a movie script, but my focus was still mainly poetry. After college I mixed it up. My master’s thesis was a novella (political thriller), I was writing freelance articles, and still writing some poetry. When I decided to focus on fiction, I worked on developing my voice as a short story writer. My poetry was never particularly dark, but I had grown up reading my dad’s horror and science fiction collection, so dark fiction is what felt the most natural to me.
CP: Down By the Sea is one of the best collections I’ve read in some time. Can you tell us a little about how it came to fruition? What hurdles did you face in its development?
MM: Thank you! Down by the Sea came about in a backward way, I guess. Four of the stories had been previously published and a couple of others had been sitting around waiting for a home. One day I was thinking about “Crawlspace” and “Fear of the Darkness” because the publisher for those had gone out of business. My less-than-humble idea was that if I pulled together my own collection I could share those stories with readers again. Still, I didn’t have an overarching theme until I wrote “Down by the Sea” about two years later. I slowly started gathering my favorite stories around it to see if I could make them work with any kind of cohesion. (And by slowly, I mean it was another few years before I stopped thinking of my collection as a nice-to-have and started pursuing it as a must-do.)
To strengthen my resolve, once I had a rough first draft of the collection in place I left the husband and cats behind in San Francisco, rented a casita outside of Santa Fe, NM and stayed there for just over a week to narrow down my choices, edit existing stories, and write new stories to fill the gaps. The only real hurdles were debating what to include versus what to leave behind and pushing myself to write a few stories specifically for the collection, but not feel like that would be restricting them too much. Down by the Sea spans about seven years of my writing life and I wanted the stories to show a breadth of ideas and experiences.
CP: There is a wide plethora of themes taking place in Down By the Sea, from weird fiction to cosmic horror, and supernatural to more realistic crime fiction, and even psychological horror. Was it difficult to so perfectly interweave all of these different genres into a single collection?
MM: Let’s just say I love puzzles. Honestly, I usually write the story that wants to be told, and then worry about where it fits later. Turns out that’s fine for individual submissions, but it did pose a challenge for figuring out what I wanted this collection to be and which stories would fit that idea. Over the course of editing I probably spent just a month’s worth of time adding, removing, reordering, etc. At some point I decided not to worry so much about the type or genre of story—I just wanted the best ones that represented my ideas around destiny and what fates people might have in store for them.
CP: Your language is concise, and your pace ensures the reader will not be able to put the book down once it’s started. All of these are characteristics of a veteran writer, someone who has unrivaled confidence in their prose. Did writing come naturally to you? Or have your skillsets developed over time?
MM: I would say it’s both. Expressing myself through writing came naturally. Finding the right means to say what I wanted to say came through trial and error, training, and practice. I’ve spent a lot of time reading to see what other writers are doing and breaking down the structure of things that resonate with me. In the beginning I worked to combine the descriptive elements of my poetry with the preciseness I wanted to achieve as a story writer. I went to workshops to study dialogue and even now read my stories out loud to make sure everything sounds natural. I had a wonderful writing group for several years and that was a great way to get used to giving and receiving feedback. It also helped me learn more about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and how to make those early rejection letters feel less personal. Speaking of, I often got feedback with those rejection notices—suggestions on things like pacing or character development—which I really appreciate because I was able to incorporate them into my revisions and my future stories. I’m not a “write everyday” kind of writer. I’m very much in love with, and disciplined about, the craft of writing. But I’m still finding the balance between that and increasing my output.
CP: We found “Down By the Sea” and “Fountain of Youth” to be some of the best works in the collection, “Nameless” is definitely in a class of its own. If you had to pick a favorite story in your collection, what would it be? Why?
MM: “Down by the Sea” came from my love of “The Little Mermaid,” because Hans Christian Andersen’s original story has such a beautiful dark ending. “Fountain of Youth” was actually a last-minute addition to my collection, inspired by vignettes from two years of my childhood living in Kansas.
But “Nameless” continues to be my favorite story to date. The setting is taken entirely from where my mother spent the first 10 years of her life. I’ve only been there once, and my visit took place about 15 years before I wrote the story, but it was like a place out of time. Seeing the one-room schoolhouse and the family home next to the county cemetery and the rural beauty of the place and its possibilities just haunted me.
Over the years the family had been renting the land out to hunters, since no one lived in the house anymore. At some point the house burned down, and I thought about old toys we’d seen in the attic when we visited and lost stories now that the walls could no longer speak, and the fact that no matter what, that cemetery would still be sitting there next to the charred ground. And I just had to write some sort of story around it all.
CP: HellBound Books spearheaded the collection, and they have been releasing quality work for years. How was your experience finding a publisher? Did you face any challenges in the process?
MM: HellBound was the sixth publisher I contacted. I tend to be pragmatic about big tasks, so after I finished my edits to Down by the Sea in December 2015 I created a spreadsheet of independent horror and dark fiction publishers to contact. I narrowed them down to the ones who would even consider short story collections, then prioritized the list by those with stated response times. (Because even though it had taken me many years to get to this point, now I was impatient!) As I came across new possibilities I’d add them to the list and re-prioritize. Of the five publishers I contacted before HellBound, four never even responded, even after I sent follow-up queries. I received a nice rejection from the fifth, which was heartening after so much radio silence, and I pressed on.
HellBound had been one of the late additions to my list, but I had bumped them ahead of the remaining choices. Unfortunately, I thought I was on a depressingly familiar path when I hadn’t heard back from them for several months. Turns out my initial submission got lost in the shuffle. I re-sent it and signed with them 12 days later. The whole journey from final manuscript to contract was just shy of two years. Giving up was not an option, because I have a bit of a stubborn streak and I believed in what I had written. In the spirit of my book and the idea of meeting our appropriate destiny, I guess it took just as long as it needed to take, right?
CP: I like to think that travel and new experiences can really help a writer in terms of their ability to conceive new places and ideas. Having lived in so many different locations, and with your experiences abroad, would you say this helped with your writing? Would many of your stories have been more difficult to write if you had remained in the same place for the majority of your life?
MM: Visiting and living in so many different places has definitely inspired my stories and some of the characters in them. Sometimes that means seeing different settings in my mind’s eye, sometimes it’s being inspired by a local legend or tradition, sometimes it’s the particular vocabulary of an area that strikes me. But I also think all of our experiences are important stories to share. There are times I envy people who have one “hometown”—someplace with very deep roots—instead of a shifting allegiance. I think that would be a fascinating thing to explore; the complexities and secrets that are entrenched in a close-knit shared history. Instead of my stories being difficult to write in that scenario, I think they would be different stories entirely—coming from a very specific place with a specific point of view trying to unravel the layers of a different set of issues.
CP: Concerning the time it took to get the collection off the ground, what advice would you give to authors attempting to publish their own works? Is there anything you wish you had known, or wish you had understood, before beginning that journey?
MM: I don’t think I would have done anything differently. Once I got through the writing and editing and agonizing over assembling my collection, I needed it to live somewhere outside my own bubble. So my goal was publication, and I had a two-part strategy to get there. Part one: Prioritize a list of publishers and run through the entire list until I was published. Part two: If part one was unsuccessful, do a similar evaluation of self-publishing options and go from there.
Laying it all out helped me feel I had some control, especially when there are so many things about the publishing process that feel beyond your reach. I’m a worrier, so having a timetable to check back in and knowing there was a plan for next steps freed up my mental resources to keep writing rather than obsess over where things stood. In summary, my advice would be to set a goal, whatever that may be, and then see your plan out to the end.
CP: You mentioned above how your love for dark fiction partially stemmed from reading your father’s sci-fi/horror collection. What authors or works are your favorites? Anything that still heavily inspires you today?
MM: I read a lot of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, John Saul and Ramsey Campbell growing up. Stephen King is my horror hero; his writing has been a master class for me in how to combine technique with terror that spans the subtle to the explicit. My favorite King works are The Stand and “The Long Road.” My favorite “scares-the-crap-out-of-me-every-time” read is still Straub’s Ghost Story.
When I write sci-fi it tends to be post-apocalyptic, which is certainly influenced by my love of horror because most of my sci-fi favorites are not in that vein at all: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series, Doris Piserchia’s Spaceling, Alph by Charles Eric Maine, “In the Walls of Eryx” by H.P. Lovecraft and Kenneth J. Sterling, and the fantasy novel Blind Voices by Tom Reamy.
CP: What does the future hold for Michelle Mellon? Are there any projects looming on the horizon that we can look forward to?
MM: I have a story coming out later this year in a multi-genre anthology with a cat theme, and a werewolf story in an issue of Bloodbond magazine next year. Other stories are TBD—I have a handful in the pipeline and a few new ones I’m finishing up to start the submission rounds.
But my big project is my second story collection. While I was living in Hamburg I wrote a set of linked “ghost” stories located in different spots around the city. I would like to finalize the stories and have them translated into German for a bilingual book. I looked at the manuscript recently and I think I have a few more stories to write first. So, I think my timeline is going to shift from this fall to early next year for completion.
CP: On a final note, we always like to end interviews with a question for our readers, of whom many are writers themselves. If you could only give one small tidbit of advice for a budding author, what would it be? Why?
MM: Ah, that’s tough. One small tidbit that I think encompasses so many things: Dive in with your ears closed but your eyes and mind and heart wide open. Be true to the stories in your head and the passion in your heart. They will feed you when you start to wonder if you’re good enough and if you should keep going. You should. Don’t listen to the people who tell you you’re not a writer till you’re published or say, “you don’t look like a horror writer” (whatever that means) or that they “outgrew” reading horror and wonder by implication why you persist.
Don’t listen to the people who deal in absolutes about what you “must” do. No writing journey is identical to another. Do your homework, do the hard work of writing and seeking a home for what you create, but follow the path that fits you to get there. Persist because you love what you do and be inspired by the idea that when you’re ready to share what you’ve created, there are readers out there who are waiting for you.
Michelle Mellon has been published in several horror and science fiction anthologies. In August 2015, she and her husband relocated from San Francisco to Germany, where Ms. Mellon is a stay-at-home mom to their cat while she works on a horror story collection and writes a blog about living overseas.