To date, Melissa Lion has released two novels, Swollen and Upstream. Each is narrated by a teenage girl with a boyish nickname who is troubled by a recent loss. In Swollen, Samantha (Sam) feels as thought she's a middle girl in everything that she does - middle of the pack during cross-country meets, not the best nor the worst student in school, known but overlooked by many of her classmates. In Upstream, all eyes are on Martha (Marty) as she deals with her boyfriend's death. Lion's novels deal with choices, consequences and circumstances. Though each story features a protagonist who feels weighed down by a secret burden, the books are appropriately serious without being too heavy. Readers will not sink; they will think.
One day earlier this summer, Melissa Lion's ears burned. She contacted me without having the faintest idea that I was planning to feature her novel Swollen during the week of Radar Recommendations. I was so glad to hear from her. We had a delightful chat in which I heaped praise upon her and she shared a story with me. Somewhere in the middle of all of that, we had this interview.
One of my favorite pieces of dialogue in Swollen appears on page 130:
"You could fill a book with the things you haven't
"Books are already filled with them," I said, "And posters and television shows." (Sam)
What is something you've seen in your mind's eye while reading or writing that you've never seen in real life?
I just wrote half a YA novel from the point of view of Sasquatch. I'm not writing the second half because it was roundly voted down by my publisher, my agent, my partner and several friends. It's a bit of what was I thinking?
Swollen has subtle changes. The high school is based on my high school, complete with windowless classrooms and no lighted football field, but the relationship between Sam and Farouk is my imagined version of a relationship of mine in high school. That dialog is about Farouk pressing Sam to see how far he can go before she presses back. She doesn't fight him and both are attracted by each other's reactions. She likes that he's bullying her a bit, but she's tough. She knows her heart and her mind. She knows that he's testing her. She still has the power here. The problem comes when she loses her heart to him.
Samantha, the main character in Swollen, is a runner. Are you?
No. Absolutely not. I despise exercise. My partner and I are buying a house right now, and I've been so stressed by it, I exercised the other day. I told my friend this, and she said, "I never thought I'd hear those words leave your mouth." I like to hike and to walk, but if it involves any sort of bouncing, I'm not into it.
I often say that in high school I was too busy ditching class and smoking cigarettes to consider being a cross country runner. But athletes fascinate me. In high school I found it amazing that these people would go to other schools to compete and that they would practice in their spare time.
The idea for Sam came as I was driving in La Jolla one day and saw the La Jolla High cross country team running on the city streets toward the beach. There were winning girls and losing girls and the middle girls. I watched them for a moment and wondered about those middle girls. I was a middle girl and I wanted to tell that story. Those girls looked so serious and focused and I thought, wow, what's that like. And then I began my book.
Chloe, Sam's best friend, has her own stories and secrets. Would you ever write sequels or companions to any of your previous works?
I don't think I could go back to Swollen. That high school and San Diego itself hold too many painful memories. I was really tormented while writing that book. I was revisiting a relationship that was so passionate, so full of love and anger and that had ended years before.
San Diego itself is hard for me to return to even for a visit. I see my hometown and it's so totally changed, in my opinion, for the worst and I don't want to be there even for a day. My partner and I moved from San Francisco back to Southern California. We haven't been here a full year and we've bought a house in Portland to escape.
As for Chloe, she has something bad happening with her brother, she has her cutting, she certainly deserves her own book, but I can't return to that high school. I do love the way she looks. I love complexity of her skin, her face is so pretty, but her back is so scarred.
As far us Upstream, I'm really interested in setting. I want each of my books to be set somewhere. I feel like I've exhausted my knowledge about Alaska. My next book is set in San Francisco, where I lived for ten years. It's good to be back there in my mind.
The theme of loss is also at the heart of your second novel, Upstream. When Marty begins to work at the movie theatre, she finds a confidante in her youthful boss, Katherine. (Not to be confused with Katherine in Swollen.) Katherine is fun yet protective - perhaps a surrogate aunt. Do you have anyone like that?
In my new book, I named someone Katherine. It's my grandmother's name and I absolutely love it, especially spelled with a K.
I need to change the name in my new book. I don't think I can do it three times.
I've always had older female friends. I live in Malibu right now and I've met remarkable women here, all older than I am. Each of them has helped me in my career, with my son and just generally in life. I've always had amazing teachers too. Women who would listen to my boy troubles, parent troubles and always show me kindness and love.
In Upstream, Katherine is who I wanted to be then. I wanted to move to Alaska and live like a native, but I knew I wouldn't ever be able to give up all of my California-ness. As a college professor, there are always young women who I mentor. One in particular has become a good friend and we've been in touch for years. I treasure that relationship and I always take her late night phone calls.
At your website, it says that Upstream has been optioned for a motion picture. Congratulations! Any news on that front?
It's been optioned by an indie company. They've just hired a screenwriter and they think they'll have a screenplay by fall, at which point they'll go to the money people. I can't wait to see Upstream on the big screen. Alaska will look so good.
Sam keeps a great deal of her thoughts to herself, and her first-person narrative is quite powerful. Marty also tells her story in first person. Do you prefer that POV, or have you written/would you write in other forms narrative?
I am currently writing in third person. It's so much fun! My humor comes out in third. I do love first person, present tense. It's got its own set of challenges. The intensity it creates becomes a challenge for the reader and the writer to tolerate. I want my next book to be a bit lighter -- no dead boys -- and third seems to suit this. Though you never know. I might go back to first.
When in the writing process do you tend to title your stories?
Swollen was always Swollen. Upstream was titled so late in the game that I had no saved versions of the text with that title in my computer. My editor and I were searching for a title and she gave it to a marketing person at Random House. He read it can came up with the title. It was perfect. I'd like my next book, however, to have more than one word.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Read as much as possible and sit down and start writing. Anyone can be a writer, but it takes practice. If you are a writer, support independent bookstores and libraries. These are the places that will carry your book. They will turn other people onto your book. Check the internet for a list of indie bookstores in your neighborhood. Read read read!
Speaking of bookstores, feel free to talk about your bookselling and writing careers.</b>
I'm no longer a bookseller. I'm writing full-time right now. It's an exciting time. I'm working on my YA book and an adult novel. My adult novel is so exciting to me right now. I write pages and pages at a time. I'm just in love with it. I want to stick its picture on my pillow case and kiss it at night. My YA novel is coming slowly, but I spend my days here in Malibu watching it unfold in some ways, so that's very good. It's an odd thing to say because the book is set in San Francisco, but the characters are always performing for me, always trying out new ways of saying and doing things.
What are your ten favorite novels of all time?
Pride and Prejudice -- Jane Austen
Feast of Love -- Charles Baxter
Behind the Scenes of the Museum -- Kate Atkinson
Love Invents Us -- Amy Bloom
Wuthering Heights -- Emily Bronte
Speak -- Laurie Halse Anderson
Weetzie Bat -- Francesca Lia Block
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close -- Jonathan Safran Foer
The Sun Also Rises -- Ernest Hemingway
Frannie and Zooey -- J.D. Salinger
(Basically anything that makes me cry at the end.)