On Writing a Social Novel, Giving Clear Feedback, and Outlasting Doubt
A Conversation Between Steve Almond and Melissa Chadburn
I met Melissa Chadburn in 2011, at the Tin House Writer’s Conference, where I taught her in workshop. You already know that I’m going to tell you that she was brilliant and kind and funny, even back then, so I’ll skip to the part where I get really stoned.
This happened on the final night, when the poet D.A. Powell (bless his soul) proffered me hits off a blunt the size of a drumstick. At some point, I passed along to Melissa the little secret I had been saving for just such an occasion: the Croatian publisher of my debut story collection (“My Life in Heavy Metal”) had—after much anguished consideration—come up with a title that would capture the essence of my work for her readers: Sexburger U.S.A.
Oh my god, did we laugh.
Over the next five years, Melissa did two things for which I am still grateful. First, she took to calling me as Sexburger. Second, she sent me various drafts of her novel for review, absorbing, in the process, some pretty blunt feedback.
I had no idea if she was going to be able to finish the book. The same doubt was plaguing me. Because it turned out we were both working, fitfully, on big, ambitious social novels, starring young heroines up against forces beyond their reckoning.
After more than a decade of mutual toil, those novels are coming out, just a week apart. To celebrate, Melissa and I decided to whip up a couple of deluxe sexburgers and chat (via email, alas) about the long road to redemption. Note: neither of us was stoned.
Steve Almond: More than a decade ago, when I read a draft of A Tiny Upward Shove [ATUS], my reaction was that the novel was absolutely, gob-smackingly beautiful at the line level, but also really confusing. I felt you needed a stronger narrator, to guide the reader through the harrowing realms your heroine, Marina, inhabits. I was startled to find that the novel is now narrated by the aswang, an omniscient folkloric spirit who enters Marina’s consciousness upon her death, and recounts the story of her short, sad, and vibrant life. How did you come to this ingenious solution?
Melissa Chadburn: Yeah, that draft was confusing, wasn’t it? It was my intention all along to use the aswang as a narrator, but I don’t think I properly conveyed that. Readers wanted to know why I kept switching points of view, and how the narrator had access to other people’s thoughts and memories. I had to take the time (seven years) to really break down the mythology of the aswang.
And the aswang is a fascinating figure. Because, like someone who has grown up in foster care, the aswang is a shapeshifter. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a very different explanation of what the aswang actually is—similar to the fiction of “America” that you write about in All the Secrets of the World. The aswang was a figure borne out of enlightenment and colonialism; a narrative tool used to get a whole country of heathen women to behave. Women who, pre-colonial predation, were able to practice their sexuality freely. A country where nudity was not eroticized. In time, the aswang became a tool to get children to behave. My lola used to warn, “You better be good or the aswang will get you.”
But I want to pause here to speak to your strength as an instructor. I find some of the most damaging feedback—in life, but definitely in the workshop—to be feedback that is vague. It was so helpful to know that certain scenes were confusing, and why they were confusing. My initial reaction, though, was to fret over structural issues. I felt I needed a ticking time-bomb early in the book, as well as an occasion to tell the story. I grappled with these questions in outline after outline. I’ve since realized that I’d been grappling, all along, with point of view.
You also spent many years working on your novel, while publishing steadily in other genres, including short stories and nonfiction. How were you able to dip in and out of All The Secrets of the World?
SA: There’s this misconception that novelists are banging away on their books, 24/7–like Kerouac with his uppers and his endless scroll. But most writers I know have a novel simmering, with other stuff getting pulled onto the front burners. I started writing Secrets in 2014, and got 200 pages down before the 2016 election drove me into the arms of a different book. When I picked up Secrets again, in 2019, I found the story had become even more urgent. I was writing about the collision of a wealthy white family and an undocumented Honduran-American family, and how the powers of the state align to criminalize immigrants.
And there, right on our TV screens, were images of ICE officers ripping refugee children away from their parents. I set the book in 1981, at the dawn of the Reagan era, because this kind of eugenic psychosis didn’t start with Trump. It was the rotten underside of Reagan’s Morning in America.
Which brings me back to ATUS. I wonder if you could talk a little about your motivations, given your work as an activist and journalist. Because one of the many things that blew me away about the book is that it feels so human and particular to Marina, even as it tells a larger story about how our systems of power endanger young women.
MC: I’ve spent much of my time reporting on the child welfare system. Last year I appeared in a docuseries on Netflix, reporting on a particularly harrowing case that took place in Los Angeles County. Journalism often sets this limit, focusing on one child as “a way into the story.” But I felt this wasn’t about one child or one death. I wanted to tell the whole story, the story of a broken system, the story of what feminist critic Lauren Berlant calls “slow forms of killing.” Poverty, racism, lack of access to equitable healthcare, sexism, fascism, colonialism. Much of early writing is finding the right container to tell a story, and in this case fiction seemed the best vehicle for such an expansive desire.
It seems Secrets holds a similar space for you. Much of your project in the book is to write about the fiction of America. Could you share a bit more about your motivations?
SA: I think we share the same basic project: to make the dispossessed visible. That task requires mustering hope in the face of heartbreak. We’ve both expressed that hope in different literary forms. Like you, I spent years as an investigative journalist. Down in Miami, I wrote a series about the Bird Road Rapist, who abducted and raped two dozen women in the late 70s. The police were under intense pressure to find a suspect.
So they arrested a Cuban immigrant named Luis Diaz. The case against Diaz was almost comically weak. The assailant described by victims was tall and white and spoke English. Diaz was five-three, spoke no English, and (as a result of his work as a fry cook) smelled of garlic and grease. No physical evidence. Solid alibis. But you know how the story goes. The state leaned on emotionally fragile victims, and Diaz was convicted. He spent 26 years in prison before being exonerated, based on DNA evidence. That experience haunted me, for sure.
But you can only go so far in journalism. We both wanted to write novels to dramatize—rather than reporting—what happens when the powerful and powerless collide. That’s also why we both chose to inhabit multiple POVs: so the reader couldn’t flatten any of our characters into caricatures.
In ATUS, for instance, you write with great compassion about Willy Pickton, the serial killer who murders Marina. This forces the reader to see Willy not just as a villain, but a victim of abuse and poverty and neglect. It’s astonishing, really. But that’s what literature is about. Our job is to complicate the reader’s morality, to make them feel sympathy for every human being. We’re the fools in charge of forgiveness.
That’s why I wanted to get inside Nancy Reagan’s head. Because it’s too easy to write her off as this ditzy astrological debutant. She was also a traumatized wife who feared for her husband’s life, and was desperate to find some way of keeping him safe, even if her actions have these terrible unintended consequences.
MC: Hey, look what I found. This is a photo from when we first met at Tin House. That was my first writer’s workshop residency and I remember being kind of in awe of you, and unsure of myself and my writing. There is a hierarchy in these spaces that dictated things like the quality of your accommodations, the access you have to the instructors—it can be terrifying to walk around with a plastic brown tray trying to figure out who will eat with you. In recent years places like Tin House and Breadloaf have tried to do a lot to move away from these old structures and be more inclusive.
Still, in my experience, some people subscribe to the hierarchy and some don’t, and hang with the students. I was also in the early stages of my novel, thinking that there was some sort of external solution to the challenges of, not writing, but publishing a book—if I was invited to this or that thing my dreams could come true, that sort of thing. (Oh man, I’m remembering now the embarrassing pitch session I had with an agent there. I told her I had some short stories. She asked how many and I said around five and she said, “I’d likely need more for a collection.” I told her, “Oh yeah, I got more. I have like 20 or 24.” It was so clearly one of those, Who do you want me to be? moments.)
So I guess what this photo represents to me is something larger: it meant a great deal to me that you sat and ate with me. That we could continue this conversation about writing and life and wives and babies and stuff, outside of the classroom. You’ve remained a source of support to me throughout. Do you have any advice for other folks out there aspiring to become writers and have their publishing dreams to come true?
SA: First, I need to clarify the context of that photo. This was me trying to show you how to deal with the Writer Sobriety Test administered (at random) by Tin House staff. Subjects were required to touch the tips of their index fingers together. Sadly, I failed to do so in my demonstration, partly because I was stoned, and partly because I was in my squinty phase.
Ok, my advice to aspiring writers:
1. Find a story that interests you more than your own ego need
2. Focus your attention in the midst of distraction
3. Outlast your doubt
Warning: it is always—always—going to take longer than you think. By “it” I mean finishing the book, revising the book, seeing the book into the world.
I do, of course, know what you mean about literary conferences. There’s this hierarchical mania, fed by the pea-brained idea that you can “network” your way into a book deal. I get the allure of such magical thinking. But there’s no shortcut around the lonely, dogged work.
That’s what you’ve been up to these past fifteen years, and I cannot convey how moving it was for me to read the final draft of ATUS and to marvel at the courage of the story and the precision of your sentences. Amid everything else going on in your life, and the life of the nation around you, you put in the work. I feel so (fucking) honored to have been a part of that journey, and to have provided some useful feedback along the way. I’m also really proud that I managed to write a novel of my own, after so many years of struggle.
But even if neither of us got our books published, we’d still be writers. We’d still be face to face with the keyboard, trying to figure out how to save our people, how to wring a little beauty from the neck of shame.
My hunch is that ATUS is going to be a big fat hit. That excites me on about twelve different levels, most of all because reviewers and readers will have to think about the vulnerability of people like Marina and Alex and Willie. But also because someone as open-hearted and real as you will be in a position to mentor young writers, to sit with them at lunch, and to help them find the truth.