Aurora is pleased to have Melissa Wyatt with us. Melissa’s latest book, Funny How Things Change, has been named a 2010 YALSA Best Book for Young Adult and a Kirkus Best Young Adult book of 2009.
Melissa told me she credited Tom Petty in the acknowledgement of Funny How Things Change, because the tone and feel of his early music suited the feeling she wanted for the book and main character. You can see the soundtrack on Melissa’s blog.
She loves doing research and shared with me some of the research she did for Funny How Things Change.
“I visited a so-called ‘reclaimed’ strip mining site that had been turned into a golf course. I also did a lot of reading about snakebites and the treatment of snakebites because originally the main character was going to be bitten by a snake (thank goodness that ended up on the cutting room floor!) But I’m very squeamish, so I’d read a little bit about snakebites and then have to put my head between my knees to keep from fainting and then read a little bit more, head back between knees.”
I also asked Melissa to tell us a little about her latest book.
“Funny How Things Change is a classic coming-of-age story and at the same time, I think it’s something we don’t see much in YA lit, and that’s a frank look at socio-economic class and questions of worth. Remy Walker is a decidedly blue-collar guy in a small dying coal town in West Virginia, torn between wanting to follow his long time girlfriend when she leaves for college in Pennsylania and his deep attachment to his home and way of life.”
“As an adult, how do you keep your finger on the pulse of today’s kids?”
“I reach to the left and touch my son’s wrist. Ha! But having kids around helps. Nieces, nephews, neighbors. And just keeping your eyes and ears open, keeping the sensible grown-up voice at bay long enough to understand what’s going on with them.”
The books that moved Melissa the most were YA books. That age group is also the one that interests her the most, so it was a no-brainer for her to write YA.
“That time of life is all about change and choice,” she explained. “and change and choice are conflict, and conflict is the basis of a great story.”
Her favorite author as a teen was K.M. Peyton, a British author best known in the United States for her Flambards series.
“Her contemporary novels are necessarily dated in some ways but also still wonderfully immediate. They were the first books I read where I felt the shift from the storyteller voice of mid-grade fiction to that confidential voice of someone my own age, telling me about themselves,” Melissa explained.”Her historical fiction remains outstanding, with a vigor to it that is rare in historical novels for teens.”
Melissa is currently working on The Novel That Will Not End.
“It’s totally different from my other two books, which were both contemporary realistic boy books. This is historical supernatural and very very girly,” she told me. “I am not very good at branding myself as a writer!”
She shared with me that she always loved stories and telling stories.
“Okay, telling lies,” she confessed. “I used to lie like crazy when I was a little girl, but what I was really doing was making up stories about myself so that I would seem more interesting to people. Turns out, it was very good practice for being a writer. But I didn’t start to think about writing until eighth grade, when Mr. Bailey made us read The Outsiders. From then on, I was hooked.”
“If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?” I wondered.
“Olympic figure skater? Yeah, I didn’t think so either.”
She didn’t want to share a picture of her writing environment, telling me, “It’s an awful mess.”
And, she admitted that her writing process is just as messy.
“Seriously, I need to get a new process but I don’t know where you get them. I tend to write in spurts and need a lot of down time in between, which is not very efficient, but I find that when I try to push, I end up writing myself into snarls.”
“Do you believe in outlining?” I asked.
“I believe it exists, just not in my world. I’m mostly a ‘plunger,’ starting with a character and a situation and some vague idea of where the whole thing will go.”
One thing she doesn’t do is base her writing on her own experiences.
“I’m a firm non-believer in ‘write what you know.’ I can’t think of anything more boring than writing about my own experiences because really, I was and am a very boring person. I like it that way. It’s a comfortable way to live. And I get all the excitement I want out of writing.”
“What was your big break in writing,” I wondered.
“Two things: One, I won a scholarship to a writers conference that gave a big boost to my confidence. You know, you get to that point where you wonder if you are wasting your time and don’t know if you should keep going or not. To me, that said ‘Yes, keep going.’
“Two, I entered the Delacorte Press Prize contest for a first young adult novel. I didn’t win, but I got the attention of the editor who eventually bought my first book.”
That editor gave her the best piece of writing advice she ever received. “She really taught me to revise. She said ‘You write the first draft for yourself. Now you have to think 100% from the point-of-view of the reader.’ That clarified the whole process for me.”
On a personal note, here are some things you might not know about Melissa:
~~favorite movie: “I love old movies, and my favorites are The Heiress, All About Eve and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
~~favorite word: “Apple dumpling, pickle relish, elbow, and windowsill. (Fellow old movie lovers will know what I’m talking about!”)
~~least favorite word: liver
~~She’s an avid bird watcher and she keeps a life list of birds she’s seen.
“If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be and why?” I asked.
“Somewhere warm! I’m freezing. But it would have to be somewhere warm where there are no earthquakes, hurricanes or very large bugs.”
Finally, I asked, “What’s the one question you wish an interviewer would ask you (and the answer)?”
“Q: ‘More gooey chocolate cake?’
A: ‘Why, yes, thank you. I think I will.'”
Bio: Melissa Wyatt is very boring. She still lives in the same town in which she was born and raised and has never lived anywhere else. She has never had any great adventures. She doesn’t climb mountains or wrestle alligators or anything cool like that. But if she was doing all that cool stuff, she wouldn’t have time to write, and that’s what she does when she isn’t raising her two sons or hanging out with her husband.
At seventeen, you’re not supposed to already be where you want to be. You’ve got a whole world to make your way through, and you start by leaving the dead-end coal town where you grew up. That’s what Remy Walker plans to do, to follow his girlfriend when she leaves for college. It would be the start of everything they ever wanted. Even a fascinating young artist from out-of-state who shows Remy his home through new eyes isn’t going to get in the way of those dreams.
Over the course of a summer, Remy learns how much he has to give up for a girl, and how much he needs to give up for a mountain.
A 2010 YALSA Best Books for Young Adults
Kirkus Best Young Adults Books of 2009
Capitol Choices Noteworthy Books for Children and Teens 2010