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Three Questions for Melissa Yancy

Claire Harlan-Orsi interviews the PS Summer 2012 Contributor on her story, "Firstborn"

Melissa Yancy’s fiction has appeared in One Story, Glimmer Train, Prairie Schooner, Meridian and many other journals. She holds a Master of Professional Writing degree from the University of Southern California and resides in Los Angeles, where she has worked in the non-profit sector for more than a decade. You can visit her at www.melissayancy.com.

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What was your drafting and revising process like for this story? Would you be willing to share a sentence or paragraph from the rough draft that you ended up modifying or cutting?

It’s a sophisticated algorithm. Actually, I use machine learning—I cut and paste volumes of data about subjects that obsess me and let the computer do the rest. Is that where writing is headed? Probably. Probably somebody could be famous for that. But not me, since I can’t write an algorithm. I can, however, usually figure out how to turn my computer on.

This story was a sprint—the revisions were pretty small scale. I usually write sprints when I am working on a marathon story because I’ll lose my mind otherwise. (Marathon is a bad comparison because it’s too linear to describe the process, but you get the idea.) If I’m writing a marathon story, I can read the first paragraph, say 100 times, and still can’t fix it. Those stories often have structural concerns I can’t resolve—they’re Alice Munro stories penned by a third-grader. And thematically, when I’m trying to get at something elusive, the revisions never come to an end. So I’m left with the need to write something more straightforward. This story is basically a one-scener, more like a one-act play, really, with all kinds of comforting limitations. Two characters, one evening, one location, an outcome pre-determined. So the revisions felt more like play revisions (I was terrible at writing plays, so I don’t know what this says), which allowed me to focus on slight turns in the dialogue and pay full attention to the details. Most of the feedback I got on an earlier draft (shout out to David Borofka’s UCLA extension class) was that Paulette’s immaturity wasn’t plausible. I usually don’t want any character to feel so flat but with Paulette it was an intentional choice. In the first draft, Paulette was described as wearing, “khaki Capri pants and a pink sweatshirt with glittery letters that read D-R-E-A-M.” I can see that this might read impossibly tween. In the final version, she is wearing, “a velour tracksuit, of the variety grown women had suddenly taken to wearing in public. It was plum-colored with a crest silk-screened across the chest. Most baffling to Laurie was that it read Juicy Couture, and she could hardly imagine what, by definition, could be said to be couture about a tracksuit. Surely those were just her airplane clothes, and she would not be wearing emblazoned velour in France.” I’m not a fan of brand names and use them sparingly, but in this case the Juicy sweatsuit is an icon of extended adolescence that most people know—it stereotypes Paulette, but creates the right picture. Details don’t always have to be great (meaning original, interesting, cool) they just have to be right.

Your story focuses on a couple key dichotomies: mistress/wife and aunt/mother. Can you say more about your thoughts on these tensions in the creation of your protagonist and in general?

Hmm. Maybe I should have given this subject more thought. I guess I was thinking about the rewards and risks of responsibility. For Laurie, being a mistress and an aunt has meant getting to have the good stuff without the full-time commitment. As now she’s in the latter half of her life, alone, and she’s beginning to feel the full effect of her choices—she’s suffered. But ultimately, the events of the story only affirm her choices, because she is the kind of person who will always choose to affirm them. She will always tell her story that way, and that is a defining characteristic for her. She’s not capable of change, only the re-telling. In that sense, she and Paulette are alike. Their tastes may be utterly different but they are equally myopic.

How do you see your own work relating to other short fiction being published in contemporary literary journals?

That question almost implies a conversation out there—and a body of readers of contemporary literary journals. A small number of people read journals and those that do have a favorite one or two (with the exception of publishers of literary journals and literary agents) so I think there are few readers who really know the landscape out there. I can’t say that I have taken it all in—it’s incredibly diverse and vast. The internet has changed things, with many venues for flash/short-short fiction and a rebirth of writing that’s more confessional and off the cuff. There’s a lot of work with a voyeuristic quality, which seems fitting for the internet—there’s the appearance of connecting “directly” with other people in a way you do not a print magazine. I recently had my first online story published. It’s just a weird story that I can’t really imagine in a print journal. In that sense, the online world allows you to take risks.

But on the other end of the spectrum, with Harper’s and Esquire and The Atlantic largely out of fiction, the New Yorker seems more dominant than ever before when it comes to chronicling the state of the short story today. (What’s with the New Yorker and this unilateral insistence on the umlaut? Is it just me, or does this seem to be in response to something? A symbolic reassertion of their ultimate authority? I tease. I love the New Yorker.) I guess this trend mimics the larger industry proliferation on one end, ever smaller consolidation on the other. Journals can still distinguish themselves with strong editorial tastes (following the McSweeney’s indie-music label model, where the journals are tastemakers that deliver a consistent brand—although that can get clubby) and new journals like Ecotone can still make a splash. I like the One Story model because each story has got to stand on its own.

I say all this because I have no idea how to answer your question. I will say, however, that I love the new look of Prairie Schooner and the web features. It’s nice to see one of the country’s oldest and most steadfast journals get a refresh.

Check your mailboxes for Melissa's story in our Summer Issue, out now!