Interview (and book GIVEAWAY) with Melissa Hart, author of Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood


Melissa Hart

Please welcome author, Melissa Hart, as she shares her experience as a journalism teacher, finding that balance in life and the writing process of her memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood.

One lucky reader will be selected to receive a copy of Gringa – but you must post a comment or question before end of day Jan. 22 !


Interview by  Mary Jo Campbell

Tell us about your writing process: do you start with an image? a conversation? an idea for a theme?

I generally begin with an image.  For instance, I just wrote a piece of social commentary about quitting my C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture) program in favor of buying local produce at farmer’s markets.  In my head, I had an image of my husband holding up a bag of moldy greens from the refrigerator, and I wanted to explore my inadequacies as a domestic goddess and my inability to deal with a box of fresh produce every week.

Other times, especially in the case of social commentary, I begin with an issue that I want to explore.  I wrote a piece a while back for The Chicago Tribune, in which I wanted to examine my feelings about adopting a child and wanting, irrationally, to be seen as the “only” mother.  In that case, the issue came before the images in the essay.

Your website showcases a lengthy list of published articles and essays. Can you tell us how you know when the seed of an essay has the potential to grow into a full memoir?

I knew when I wrote “Wanting What I Have,” an essay which appeared in both Brain, Child and Mothering Magazine (online), that it had potential as a full-length memoir.  The essay examines the two and a half years I spent waiting to adopt a child; the wait was excruciating, and I distracted myself by learning to train permanently injured owls at Eugene’s Cascades Raptor Center.

I shy away from writing pure “mommy lit,” but the very real presence of owls in my daily life during this period is unusual and I’d like to offer it to readers along with stories of my own angst and amusement at the process of international and domestic adoption.

Your latest memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood, has a list of questions for book club discussions. How cool is that! How does it feel to relate/connect with your readers? Have you ever been invited to book club discussion on your book (in person or via phone?)?

I’m attending my first book club discussion for Gringa this Thursday in Seattle, and I’m honored to think that I’ll be sitting in a room full of people who have taken the time to read this book.  I’ll be attending similar discussions in February.  It’s one of the most gratifying aspects of being a writer—to get to meet and talk with readers, whether in person or online.

Still, I’m a bit nervous.  I’ve just reviewed Cindy Hudson’s fine “Book by Book: The Complete Guide to Creating Mother-Daughter Book Clubs,” in which she suggests to  readers who didn’t like a particular book that they might want to refrain from noting this to the author.  I worry that people won’t like Gringa, of course, and that they’ll refrain from telling me why.

I tell my journalism students that they’re free to dislike a piece of writing that I assign, but they must explain why they disliked it as eloquently as possible.  To me, this is sometimes even more interesting than hearing why someone enjoyed a book!

If you read my first post of the year, I’ve dubbed 2010 The Year of Clarity.  Tell us how you balance all that is on your plate: wife, mom, teacher, essayist, memoirist, and journalist, to name a few!  While writing longer projects (books) do you still write and submit articles and essays? Do you write only during school breaks? Or do you streamline your energy and focus only on one large project: writing, revising and marketing one piece at a time?

I admit that it’s difficult to balance it all, and I have chronic insomnia.  But I’ve dubbed 2010 The Year of Letting Things Go.  I have a few unfulfilling paid obligations that I need to quit, so that I have more time with my daughter.  I’ve almost got my work to a point now that allows me to write one short essay a week and work on one chapter of my new memoir.   look forward to breaks between university semesters as weeks which offer a great deal of clarity—this last break, I wrote four essays and three travel articles and spent wonderful time with  my daughter.

You asked about my process; I’m a slow writer.  I love to scribble down a rough draft by hand, and then type it up and let it sit for a few weeks.  I pull it out again and revise, then let it sit once more for a while.  Finally, I look at the piece again and revise, read it out loud, and then, when I think it’s perfect, I give it to my husband.  He’s a professional photographer with a background in philosophy, and he’s my most trusted critic.  He inevitably reminds me that when I feel something’s polished, it usually needs a bit more work.

Speaking of teaching, you are a Journalism and Intro to Memoir Writing teacher for at the college level and teach creative writing to H.S. students.  What is your biggest challenge? What is your best advice for helping young writers find their true “voice” and bypass those nagging editors (especially their own parents!)?

My biggest challenge is finding enough time to devote to each of my students.  Some terms, I have 50, and I want to give them so much individual attention and support.  At times, though, that’s just not possible.  We keep in touch via e-mail, and on Facebook once they’re no longer my students.  That’s immensely gratifying.

My advice to young writers is to get a notebook and write every day.  I’d also use the notebook as a repository for photos, compelling quotes, lists, sketches, movie ticket-stubs—whatever has energy and helps to recall an event or era.

I remember meeting the novelist E.L. Doctorow when I was eighteen.  I went up to him and timidly asked him for advice.  He told me to write every day.  At the time, I thought that was awfully simplistic advice, but now I see that it’s the only practice which will train a young writer to develop and trust his/her voice.

Can you share with us your favorite collection of essays, favorite memoir or best book on writing in either of these genres?

I adore Sue William Silverman’s “Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir,” as well as the “Best American Essays” series and “Creative Nonfiction Journal.”  Anyone writing memoir will want to check out all three for inspiration and practical advice.

What’s next on the horizon for Melissa Hart?

I’m working on a memoir tentatively titled “Learning to Triangulate: A Pregnancy, an Adoption, and a Baby Barred Owl,” as well as honing my skills as a travel writer.  I really love quirky natural history and unusual places around the world, and I’m having a good time writing short travel essays and selling them to magazines and newspapers.

I’m also hoping to get a job as a teacher in a low-residency M.F.A. program.  I graduated from this type of program (Goddard College, class of 1996) and I’m excited to work with writing students and guide them toward publication.
Read more about Melissa Hart and purchase her books here: http://www.melissahart.com/

You can view the book trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrQKInQRMis

Melissa Hart grew up in Southern California. She teaches Journalism at the University of Oregon, and Introduction to Memoir for U.C. Berkeley’s online extension program.She’s the author of The Assault of Laughter, a memoir.  Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Advocate, High Country News, Horizon Air Magazine, Hemispheres, Orion, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

She lives in Eugene with her husband, photographer Jonathan B. Smith, and their daughter Maia.

Melissa Hart grew up in Southern California. She teaches Journalism at the University of Oregon, and Introduction to Memoir for U.C. Berkeley’s online extension program.

She’s the author of The Assault of Laughter, a memoir.  Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Advocate, High Country News, Horizon Air Magazine, Hemispheres, Orion, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

She lives in Eugene with her husband, photographer Jonathan B. Smith, and their daughter Maia.

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19 Comments

Filed under Author Interviews, books, Non Fiction

19 responses to “Interview (and book GIVEAWAY) with Melissa Hart, author of Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood

  1. Bailey

    I would love to win a copy!
    baileythebookworm at gmail dot com

  2. Denny Gill

    Thank you for entering my name in your book giveaway!

    denny(dot)gill(at)gmail(dot)com

  3. Thank you for posting this interview!

    Readers, feel free to ask questions about the book, memoir, writing in general, and I’ll answer them throughout the day.

  4. Lianna

    What would you consider good content for blog posts?

    • Hi, Lianna–

      Well, I have a difficult time writing regular blog posts for emerging writers (www.butt2chair.wordpress.com, if you’re interested), but I find that my favorite blogs are those which teach me something. I love those in which the writer shares his/her expertise in an engaging manner.

      One that comes to mind is “Iran in Translation” by Harvard Persian studies librarian Matthew Smith–http://persiantranslation.wordpress.com/. He makes Persian studies so accessible and interesting. I also really like Dana Rudolph’s relevant and entertaining blog “Mombian” at http://www.mombian.com/about-mombian/

  5. Jan Udlock

    Can you talk about getting better at writing? Can you speak about over the months, years, your writing becomes better, clearer or more concise?

    Thank you.

    • Hi, Jan–

      Twenty years ago, I took as my writing guidebook Natalie Goldberg’s classic “Writing Down the Bones.” I still believe wholeheartedly in what she advocates for improving one’s writing–get a blank notebook and fill it with freewriting on every subject imaginable. This will help you to develop your writing style and trust your voice. Plus that, it’s just so much fun to make a coffeehouse date with yourself once or twice a week to write.

      I have notebooks I filled twenty years ago, ten years ago, five years ago, and while I don’t want to show them to anyone (too rough, too raw), they help me to see how my writing has improved over time.

      I also suggest finding a critique partner or a critique group that you trust to give you honest, helpful feedback in a positive manner. I wrote about how to evaluate critique groups in an article for the 2010 Novel and Short Story Writers’ Market, based on my own experiences. I’m lucky to have two readers who give me superb feedback on my work so that I’m able to polish up rough drafts and submit them for publication.

  6. Mine is a question for Melissa Hart. As a memoir writer, how do you deal with criticism of your novel without taking it as personal criticism of your life?

    cara(dot)holman(at)gmail(dot)com

    • Hi, Cara–good to hear from you!

      Fortunately, 99% of the reviews of Gringa have been terrific. But there’s that one percent, and yes, the reviewer’s comments definitely bothered me. He didn’t understand the tone of the book–called it “whiny”–and for a few days, I wondered if I’d failed in my efforts to avoid portraying myself as a victim in the memoir.

      Many of the reviewers note my willingness to portray myself in the memoir as naive and laughable and even unlikeable. That’s absolutely fine with me–that was my intention when writing the book. I told one of my classes yesterday that if you’re going to write humorously about other people, you must poke twice as much fun at yourself. David Sedaris is a master at this, of course, and I don’t mind people having a laugh (or several) at my expense.

      Regarding criticisms of my life, it’s all fair game since I chose to publish a book about it. I’d be upset if someone criticized, say, my mother’s life on a public forum, but fortunately, this hasn’t yet happened.

      • Thanks, Melissa, for your thoughtful response. My mother used to say that “old age is not for the faint of heart”, but perhaps it is equally true about memoir writing. As you note, any writer who chooses to puts their life out there on the printed page for all to see is opening themselves up for potential criticism. It seems then that a useful trait for memoirists would be to grow a thicker skin!

  7. Melissa, thanks for sharing your thoughts on all of these topics! My question for you is this: Do you consider any parts of your life off-limits for memoir or essay material? How do you balance writing about people or relationships in your life without making them uneasy or embarrassed?

    Thanks to both of you for the interview! I’m looking forward to reading the book. 🙂

    • Hi, Stephanie–

      Good question, especially for a memoirist. In Gringa, I didn’t write as much as I would’ve liked about Tony, my ex-boyfriend. That just didn’t feel fair to him. And there are aspects of my father which didn’t make it into my book at my mother’s request. I don’t write much about my husband. When I do, he represents the “voice of reason,” which is certainly true of our relationship. I’m writing more about him in my new book than I’m comfortable with, and he’s agreed to read each chapter and edit as needed.

      I’ve written a great deal about my mother, and it’s interesting to note that she’s a writer, too. She writes about me, as well; we operate out of a basic trust that neither will write anything too embarrassing about the other.

      I haven’t written much about my three-year old daughter; she’s in my essay “The Vitality of Language” at http://www.hcn.org/issues/41.7/the-vitality-of-language, but until she’s old enough to read and approve or edit, most of her antics are off limits in my writing because she could very well grow up to be a memoirist, herself!

  8. Grier Jewell

    Melissa–Your reading of Gringa at the Whidbey Writers Workshop rocked! Your timing is impeccable, and your honesty and humor is the stuff of rare talent. Thanks for letting us soak up some of your solid gold sunlight. 🙂

  9. Talya

    I would love to win this copy. Great interview!

  10. mindy

    this seems as if it was written with a lot of heart thanks

  11. I’d love to win a copy.

    I’d also like to share a resource with you and your readers. I compile a list of Recommended Memoirs by Women, inspired from discussions on SheWrites. I keep adding to the list so I encourage new recommendations. http://wifp.org/Memoirs.html
    My email address is at the bottom of the list for additional recommendations. Thanks.

  12. http://newquickweightlossdiets.com

    Woh I like your posts, saved to my bookmarks!

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