Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Melanie Crowder

Posted on: April 10, 2014

Melanie-CrowderAlthough Melanie Crowder may not have been one of those who grew up knowing she wanted to write, she was one of those who wrote her first novel while she was supposed to working on her university studies. Parched is told in three voices and set in a near future scarred by drought and devastation. Tomorrow I’ll provide some background to her debut novel and on Saturday I’ll review it. Save the dates: April 11-12!

Crowder didn’t grow up keeping journals and writing stories. Instead she held many jobs in her adult life including artist and teacher. One summer, Crowder even worked as a fisheries biologist, snorkeling in streams to count and identify fish! However, in 2005, Crowder hit a rough patch in her professional life and needed something outside of work to put her heart into.

Eight years, several manuscripts, and an MFA in Writing later, Crowder now has a published book. She explained to Writer’s Digest that getting her writing degree was the best thing she ever did. “It was a time for me to forget about the pressures of the industry and just focus on the craft of writing.” For Crowder, those two years were invaluable. And now she’s pursuing the career she was meant to have!

Her novel Parched came about in the third semester of her MFA in Writing program. Between drafts of her critical thesis, the story began to take shape. She shared with Literary Rambles that the idea for Parched came to her from a combination of things: First, an image of her character had appeared in my mind; Second, she was living through a hot and dry summer in the state of Colorado, which is often in state of drought; Third, she started thinking about water politics and scarcity, and the play of power when critical resources become threatened.

A West Coast girl at heart, Melanie now lives and writes in the foothills of the Rockies. In my interview with her, I ask her about her aspirations outside of writing, her studies, and her novel.

ALLISON: You said once in an interview that you were never one of those kids who knew in her bones that she wanted to be a writer. What dreams did you have as a child?

MELANIE: I was certain I would be a marine biologist. Absolutely certain!

ALLISON: Adolescence seems to be either the best or worst of times. How would you describe yours?

MELANIE: I was lucky in a lot of ways. Truly. But dealing with the aftermath of my parents’ divorce as a teenager was really difficult. It took me a long time to grow into the person I wanted to be.

ALLISON: You have had many jobs as an adult. Which did you least like? Most like?

MELANIE: For a summer after college, I waited tables at a resort perched at the edge of a narrow spit, surrounded by ocean, a stone’s throw away from the Canadian border. It was so beautiful—that’s pretty much the only reason I applied for the job. But I was probably the worst waiter in the world, and it’s not fun doing something you know you’re not doing well.

It sounds cheesy, but seriously, being a writer is my favorite job. It fulfills both my cognitive and creative needs, and it is incredibly satisfying to hold the tangible result of all my hard work in my hands.

ALLISON: You said once in an interview that it was a good decision to get your MFA. How did pursuing it benefit your writing career?

MELANIE: VCFA helped my career by giving me a massive network of writing professionals to turn to for mentorship, support and camaraderie. This is a tough business, and I would never want to go it alone!

More importantly though, my MFA helped my writing by encouraging me to experiment, to step outside my comfort zone, and to see that I could write in ways I had never imagined before. It gave me a glimpse of all that is possible in this medium, and it gave me the skills and training to begin the lifelong pursuit of realizing those possibilities in my own work.

ALLISON: What has been your most fun creative project outside of writing?

MELANIE: I love ceramics. There is something almost meditative about throwing on a wheel. I’ve always wanted to take an encaustic class. Oh, and glassblowing. There is so much still out there to explore…

ALLISON: Are you a summer or winter person?

MELANIE: Summer! A fresh snowfall is beautiful of course, but summer is just so…alive. (And I love to swim!)

ALLISON: Why did you write Parched from three perspectives?

MELANIE: That’s a really good question.

I suppose the simplest answer would be that each character had such a distinct experience of the events, that to take the narrative away from any of them would have limited the reader’s experience of that character, and, as a result, of the story.

ALLISON: You said once in an interview that your editor for Parched helped you realize that you needed to show emotion more clearly on the page. How did you accomplish that?

MELANIE: Oh, it’s so hard! Especially within a spare prose style like I used in Parched.

I couldn’t use dialogue, which is a great way to show emotion, because my characters spent a lot of time alone, and if they were with another person, they usually didn’t trust that person at all!

So instead, I used the weather and the natural environment around my characters to reflect their emotions. I wrote short, crisp sentences, or long flowing sentences to show the character’s state of mind. I chose harsh or soft or sweet sounding words to show anger or sadness or joy. And I used the other characters, like how Sarel subconsciously reaches out to Nandi when she is afraid, or the push/pull that gets Musa when it comes to Dingane.

ALLISON: You live in Colorado, where there is often drought. Thinking about water politics and scarcity and about the play of power when critical resources become threatened was part of the inspiration * behind Parched for you. Have you ever encountered situations where a region erupts into conflict?

MELANIE: I have not, and I hope I never have to. But we have all seen it, both through the lens of history, and in current events. Right now, children are caught, just like Musa and Sarel, in the middle of violence. It may not be water that is the cause; it may be oil, or diamonds, or a dispute over borders between countries.

The question remains, are we going to let all that suffering continue, or are we going to do something about it?

ALLISON: What other kind of research was involved in writing in Parched?

MELANIE: Oh, I researched all kinds of things—geology, plants and severe drought, animals (especially ridgebacks), trauma and child psychology—you can lose yourself in the research. It’s fascinating.

ALLISON: Which natural disaster most scares you? Most awes you?

MELANIE: I don’t live in a tornado territory, and I’m so glad! Those things are terrifying!

I grew up on the coast, so I’m most in awe of tsunamis. The ocean is astonishingly powerful!

ALLISON: What’s next?

MELANIE: My next book is a poetic novel for teens about labor activist Clara Lemlich. She was an amazing young woman living at a critical time in this country’s history. It comes out from Penguin/Philomel books in 2015. I can’t wait!

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