Writer To Writer
It was my pleasure to interview fellow Florida writer, Melinda Clayton for the Platina Post.
Melinda is just a couple of hours north of us, in Deltona, where she and her family live. Melinda is the author of two series: The Cedar Hollow Series, which includes novels Appalachian Justice, Return to Crutcher Mountain, Entangled Thorns, and Shadow Days; and, The Tennessee Delta Series, which includes Blessed Are the Wholly Broken and A Woman Misunderstood. She also authored Making Amends, a novel of psychological suspense.
In addition to writing, Melinda has an Ed.D. in Special Education Administration and is a licensed psychotherapist in the states of Florida and Colorado.
Melinda, how long have you been writing?
I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I began writing professionally sometime around 2007-2008. I’m a psychotherapist as well as a writer, and about ten years ago I decided I needed to cut back on direct care hours with clients in order to focus more time on my children. I began to branch out with writing mental health/relationship-type articles for various magazines and newsletters, as well as a few grant proposals for our local ARC. From there, I graduated to writing short stories, published in both magazines and anthologies, and in 2010 my first novel was published.
What mediums do you publish in? (Traditional, Independent)
I was first published by a small publishing house out of Washington (state). By 2013, they had my first three novels, but I’d become concerned about some of their operating practices, so ended up terminating contracts with them that summer. I republished my first three novels on my own, and that’s what I’ve done ever since.
We writers all have something that pushes us to write, what is it with you? What inspires you?
What a great question. Nearly anything can inspire me. For example, when my children were younger and I drove them to school each morning, we’d pass a woman walking her twin boys to the bus stop. Sometimes she was in her pajamas, sometimes a t-shirt and sweatpants. But she was always there, always walking with them to wait for the bus. Eventually, a story began to take root in my mind, ultimately ending up as Making Amends, a southern suspense novel. That’s the way it tends to work with me. I notice something innocuous, start wondering about it, then make up my own story.
I understand how that works! Tell me, do you do your research before starting, during of the writing of the book, or both?
Thankfully, I enjoy research, because I do a great deal of it before and during. I’m obsessed with making sure each detail is accurate. Blessed Are the Wholly Broken starts out in a dorm room at the University of Memphis, on February 14, 1989, the rainiest day of that year in Memphis. I know it was the rainiest day of the year, because not only was I there, in that dorm on that day, but I researched to make sure my memory is correct. Small details like that – the weather, the date, the traffic pattern, etcetera, are important to me. It’s sort of a fun fact about my books: if I said it was ninety-five degrees in a certain town on a certain day, it really was.
What’s your favorite part of writing a book?
Tying it all together in the end. I like to have two or three subplots lurking under the surface, and it’s fun to make sure all the loose ends are tied up the way they need to be. The last three novels I’ve written could be classified as crime novels, so they’re especially fun to create. Red herrings, hidden hints – fun stuff to write.
What is your biggest challenge in creating your stories?
The research, while fun, can be incredibly time consuming. But I think an even bigger challenge is sitting down to focus. In my previous career, I hit the ground running early in the morning, and didn’t stop until falling into bed exhausted that night. Even then, the emergency pager might dictate I get up again to sort out some sort of crisis. Sitting quietly to focus on one project doesn’t come naturally for me, and is probably the biggest reason I’m such a slow writer. I generally complete one novel per year, but I’m not sure I’ll meet that goal this year.
How important do you find the communication between you and your readers?
My personal policy is to be available if readers want to contact me, but I don’t initiate contact, aside from a newsletter I send out sporadically. When I was first published, back in 2010, I responded to each review with what I thought at the time was a polite “thank you.” It was quickly brought to my attention that this was intrusive to the reader experience. Once the book is written, we have to let it go. People, in general, don’t want to feel as if an author is looking over their shoulder when they read a book. My contact information is widely available, and I love it when readers get in touch with me. I’ve made some incredible friends, Skyped a few book clubs, spoken by phone with others, and shown up for a couple of impromptu book signings. I love interacting with readers, but I want it to be on their terms, not mine.
Do you read reviews written about your book?
I only read reviews if I happen to notice the number of reviews has changed. In the beginning, I compulsively kept up with reviews, but that’s a bit of a crazy-making activity. I send my books out to a handful of reviewers, but for the most part, rely on reader reviews. I think they’re more authentic, and more helpful to other readers. Reviews aren’t for me, after all. They’re for anyone considering reading the book.
How do you handle personal criticism?
Of me, or of my book? [she asked me, laughing)] I tend to write about controversial topics, so I know coming out of the gate my books aren’t for everyone. Domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, misogyny, sexual orientation: these are topics about which people tend to have strong opinions and values. They’re also topics I love exploring, no doubt my mental health background coming through. I like to speculate on the motivations behind our actions, and to let readers ponder how they may have handled things had they been faced with the same circumstances. Some will be content with the journey the protagonist takes, and some won’t. Some might even get angry. Either way, the human psyche is always fascinating.
What are you working on at the moment? Tell us a little about your current project(s).
I’m currently working on the third in my Tennessee Delta Series, tentatively titled Child of Sorrow. The protagonist is the same from the previous two books, attorney Brian Stone, and the setting is Memphis, Tennessee. As always, Brian is fighting for the underdog, who in this case happens to be a foster child arrested for the murder of his foster mother. I had hoped to have it completed by summer, but that obviously isn’t going to happen!
Have you ever hated something you wrote?
Oh, definitely. Many, many of my first articles are cringe-worthy. So cringe-worthy I won’t even tell people where to find them.
What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
Probably the one I mentioned earlier, my need to get the minutia correct. After all, it’s not as if anyone is going to Google the weather in Tallahassee, Florida at a specific time on a specific day to make sure I got it right. But for some reason I enjoy knowing it’s accurate, even if no one else cares.
Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
There are many indie authors who write in genres I enjoy. Laurie Boris springs immediately to mind, as well as Gail Cleare. Both write thought-provoking, emotion-inducing, contemporary novels.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned as a result of researching a topic for your book?
There are many, but one that stands out occurred while I was doing research for Blessed Are the Wholly Broken. As I mentioned earlier, years ago I lived in the dorm as a student at the University of Memphis (Memphis State University way back then). My final summer there, I was moved to a different dorm, a very old dorm with tremendous character. I loved it. The campus was nearly empty; there were days I saw absolutely no one else in my building, aside from the student working the front desk. I felt very peaceful there, very safe, walking alone along the huge, dark hallways. It wasn’t until doing research for the novel that I learned that particular dorm has a long history of being haunted by the daughter of Seymour Myers, who was the president of U of M in 1912. I’d had no idea, and I wonder how it would have changed things for me had I known.
What are the things in your life that you’re most grateful for?
My family, without a doubt. I have a wonderful husband, wonderful (now nearly grown) children, and a crazy but cute cat. I’ve been fortunate to be able to explore different interests and career paths, and have had a lot of interesting experiences along the way.
If I give you a time machine, what time period and in what place would you travel to?
I had to think about this one for a minute! I adored all the Little House books (Laura Ingalls Wilder) when I was a little girl. I also loved Heidi, (Johanna Spyri) and all of the Little Women books (Louisa May Alcott). There’s clearly something about that era that appeals to me. I suppose it looks, from the outside, to be a simpler time. Work hard, value family and friends, live with integrity, take nothing for granted. In reality, of course, it was incredibly difficult. The perceived simplicity calls to me, but I also realize I’m spoiled by modern conveniences.
What are your thoughts on ebooks? (i.e. love them, hate them, wave of the future)
I have to admit, I’m a fan of paperbacks. I love that ebooks have opened up a whole new world of reading for many, and I have a Kindle app on my tablet. I even have quite a few books downloaded. But when I’m ready to sit down and read, I still tend to pick up a paperback.
What is in the works for you next?
Hopefully, I’ll publish Child of Sorrow sometime this fall. Of course, I also said that back in the spring, so take it with a grain of salt!
Name two things you consider yourself to be very good at.
I’m a master at organizing things. Household items, file cabinets, computer files, you name it. I organize so much I can’t even keep up with my own systems. I’m also fairly good at research, probably because I had to do so much of it within, and on the way to, my previous career. I’m the Google queen of our house. If someone else can’t find an answer, they ask me to look for it.
Name two things you consider yourself to be very bad at.
Finishing books on time! Seriously, I always run months behind my planned writing schedule. I have a very difficult time planting myself in front of my open manuscript and focusing for long periods of time. The story is in my head, but it takes forever for me to get it down on paper.
I’m also an introvert, so I’m definitely not my best in social situations. I’m a bit of a loner. I don’t enjoy crowds, I can be awkward, and I can never think of anything clever to say. I’m more likely to smile and covertly look for an exit. Once I’m home again, hours later, I think of perfect responses, of course. And say them to the cat.
What is your favorite quote?
So many to choose from! One of my favorite book-related quotes is:
“Books let us into their souls and lay open to us the secrets of our own.” ~ William Hazlitt
Melinda, thank you for doing this interview, I truly appreciate it. One more question and we’re done. What are the titles of your novels, and where can we find them?
- The Cedar Hollow Series: historical fiction, southern fiction
- Appalachian Justice, Return to Crutcher Mountain, Entangled Thorns, and Shadow Days
- The Tennessee Delta Series: southern fiction, crime
- Blessed Are the Wholly Broken and Making Amends
You can find them in all of these stores:
Barnes and Noble
[This Interview was published in the Platina Post October/November edition]