Thursday, March 04, 2010

An Interview with Memoirist Melissa Hart

Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood: An Interview with Melissa Hart

Interview by Erika Dreifus

Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of the memoir Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009). She teaches journalism at the University of Oregon and memoir writing for U.C. Berkeley's online extension program. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Advocate, High Country News, Orion, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Writer's Digest. She lives in Oregon with her husband, their young daughter, and too many cats and dogs.

Melissa is ALSO, like yours truly, a contributing editor for The Writer magazine. (I always enjoy her "Literary Spotlight" columns profiling individual literary journals.) I am thrilled to present this Q&A with Melissa here.

Please welcome Melissa Hart.

Erika Dreifus (ED): Melissa, Gringa is your second memoir. Can you please describe the connections between the two books, as well as what motivated you to write Gringa specifically?

Melissa Hart (MH): I wrote my first memoir, The Assault of Laughter (Windstorm, 2005) as my Master of Fine Arts thesis at Goddard College. Inspired by teachers Jacqueline Woodson and Mariana Romo-Carmona, I wanted to tell the story of the first year in my life after my mother came out as a lesbian and lost custody of me and my two younger siblings. This was 1979; throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, women who came out routinely lost custody of their children to homophobic court systems. I thought it was critical that my story, as representative of many, come to light.

But . . . I was a young writer, and I felt that I could tell the story more skillfully a decade later. I wanted to explore the idea of growing up Anglo, heterosexual, and seemingly devoid of identity in multicultural Los Angeles with a lesbian mom, a brother with Down syndrome, and a deep desire to be a Latina. I expanded the year in Assault to include all the years of my adolescence, from the day my mother left my father to my post-college graduation trip with her to Spain. I'm indebted to Seal's senior editor Brooke Warner for helping me to shape the memoir as a coming-of-age story and a history of my mother's and my relationship, which prevailed in spite of homophobia on the part of both the legal system and my father.

ED: Both of your memoirs reveal a great deal about your family members. How have they reacted to your writing about and publishing your collective stories? How have their reactions affected your writing processes?

MH: My father and I have been estranged for almost two decades. My stepmother and I e-mail occasionally, and she felt that Assault, in particular, gave her insight into our troubled relationship. My mother is a writer, as well, and she's incredibly supportive of my work. She accompanied me on part of the book tour for Gringa. It's worth noting that she asked me not to write about a few elements of our story, and I honored that. My sister is also deeply supportive; she's told all her friends about the book and helped to organize a reading/signing event in her hometown. My brother has Down syndrome, and he doesn't read, but he does enjoy telling and retelling stories about how my sister and I used to dress him up like a girl.

ED: Food plays an important part in Gringa, and each chapter ends with an unconventionally-presented "recipe." How did the idea to include these recipes develop?

MH: I fell in love with recipes in the context of prose stories when I discovered Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate. I loved how her recipes reflected the characters' motivations and relationships. Then I came across Ruth Reichl's books, and then Diana Abu-Jaber's marvelous The Language of Baklava. Both authors incorporate recipes into their memoir, and I had these wonderful goofy recipes such as Frito Boats and my mother's Tortilla Flats which were so important to me as a child. I took so much comfort in food as an adolescent--still do, in fact--and I wanted to offer up some of these recipes to readers as one more way to illustrate key themes and plot points in the book. Food also became a symbol of culture, or lack thereof, when I was an adolescent. I adored my boyfriend's mother's authentic Mexican dishes, for example, and being able to make a savory salsa or a dozen tamales became my benchmark of acceptance into his culture.

ED: What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing Gringa?

MH: The biggest challenge I faced in writing Gringa was not knowing quite what the book wanted to be. Initially, it looked like a series of linked essays that were all over the place in content and theme. My agent at the time, Michelle Andelman, reined me in and noted with great insight that the memoir format might work better as a method of telling the story. In Gringa's next incarnation, I included several chapters between "O Christmas Tree" and "Citizens of the World"--chapters which explored further my problematic relationship with my boyfriend--but my editor felt that they disrupted the coming-of-age trajectory of the story. I cut five chapters and wrote five new ones in a two-month period. I'm a really slow writer, so getting these out and polished on a tight deadline was challenging.

Creating the book trailer for Gringa was also extremely challenging. Last summer, a colleague at the journalism school taught me FinalCut Pro and I became writer, director, food stylist, chef, actress and cat wrangler for this rather goofy trailer.

ED: How did Gringa find its home with Seal Press?

MH: Michelle Andelman shopped the book around to a few publishers, and we felt a particular affinity for Seal and for Brooke, in particular. Seal Press publishes exciting books on unexpected topics related to women, and Brooke enjoyed the humorous social commentary that informs so much of the book. I'm so happy to have worked with Seal; this is a dynamic publishing house with a professional and devoted staff.

ED: What else would you like to tell us?

MH: I teach a memoir writing course for U.C. Berkeley's online extension program which is open to all. I post my upcoming workshops pretty regularly on both my website and my Facebook fan page. I love teaching and working with other writers; I come away inspired and excited to sit down at my computer.

Thank you so much, Melissa!

A version of this interview appeared in the March 2010 issue of The Practicing Writer.


Theresa Milstein said...

This was a great interview. Thanks for posting it. Now I want to read the book, especially since food is incorporated into it. Food defines us.

My parents had a custody battle in the 1980s, and back then, men didn't get custody. Melissa Hart talks about one of the few exceptions.

AnnaB said...

It was a great interview -- thanks. I watched the book trailer and having been asked (as part of a large group) to blindly vote for book trailers before, I've made it a point to actually watch them. This was the first one that I ever liked, that gave me a sense of the author and her sensibilities. So thanks for both the interview and the link.

Erika D. said...

I'm so glad that you appreciated this interview, and I'm sure that Melissa is, too! Thank you for the comments.

Melissa Hart said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I'm so glad you enjoyed the book trailer and the interview . . . and thanks to Erica for asking such excellent questions about writing!


Melissa Taylor said...


(Hi, website twin!) I'm kicking myself I haven't gone out and bought your book! This must be a sign. Glad to read about your process - it makes me more interested in the book.