The Challenge of Writing the Historical Short Story:
An Interview with Melissa Wyse (MFA ’12)
Interviewed for Café Américain by Jessamine Price
Melissa Wyse is completing her MFA in fiction and creative nonfiction writing at American University. Her stories, articles, and poems have appeared in print and online publications, including Urbanite and decomP. Melissa has taught writing at American University, Writopia DC and the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. She lives in Ellicott City, Maryland.
CA: The third year in the MFA means focusing on your thesis. Can you tell us about your thesis? And what else are you working on?
MW: My thesis is a collection of linked stories set in World War II Hawaii. I spend most of my time working on the thesis, but I’m also doing an independent study to examine story collections linked by place such as Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago and Yoon’s Once the Shore.
CA: How did you choose Hawaii as the setting?
MW: My grandfather was stationed there in the navy during WWII and wrote numerous letters home. My grandmother had enormous boxes full of his letters, and one of them inspired me to write a story. I planned to do just one story, but I found lots of material. So one story became two, three, until I discovered the subject wanted to be a whole collection.
CA: How did you research the subject?
MW: I found some great material at the National Archives and I’ve worked with a wonderful librarian at the Library of Congress. To get the feel of the period, I do things like read women's magazines from the 1940s and watch old movies that were popular with servicemen.
CA: What has been the biggest surprise you’ve encountered in working on the thesis?
MW: I’ve wound up needing to do a lot of research. There aren’t many "historical" short stories out there. Most historical fiction is found in novels. The challenge of writing short stories set in the past is that I have to learn about an entire new universe for each story. Some stories I can't write until I find some specific information, for instance, how a Navy Court of Inquiry works.
CA: What attracts you about short stories? And who are some authors who influence you?
MW: I love short stories. They have resonance and impact that you don't always get from a novel. I'll never forget the first time I read "Cathedral"—I felt that same way when I first read "The Dead" by Joyce. Those writers showed me what the short story could do. Then when Jumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies came out, I thought, I can learn from this approach for my own writing. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Elizabeth Strout, Colm Tóibín and Andrea Barrett.
CA: You had a great experience with your first work of literary journalism. How did that happen?
MW: I published a piece on pit bull rescue in Urbanite, a Baltimore-based magazine that publishes thoughtful literary journalism. I wrote the piece for Rachel Louise Snyder's literary journalism class—it was the first literary journalism I'd written. Rachel saw potential in it and helped me get in touch with the editor. The process was fun: I interviewed interesting people and met a sweet pit bull named Piglet.
CA: What did you do before the MFA and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
MW: After going to college at Rutgers, I moved to Baltimore. I had always planned to move somewhere new. But it was strange getting used to Maryland: people would mention names, locations, local history--all these things I didn't know. I felt a sense of displacement, of being split in small ways, even though I love Maryland and plan to stay. This feeling surprised me and it influenced my stories. A lot of the characters in my stories feel out of place, such as the soldiers arriving in Hawaii.
I worked for several years in a retirement community, which I loved. But I had always wanted to get an MFA, too. Working for a few years first was good because when I started the MFA I knew more about myself and my capabilities. Also, I already had a support network here, including people from the retirement community, who encouraged me to get more education. Now I miss having friends in their seventies, eighties and nineties. My work with the residents doesn’t directly enter my stories, but it did influence me as a person.
CA: What strategies do you use to keep you focused and writing regularly?
MW: Part of the MFA is finding your own writing process. I'm a big believer in ritual, which is different from routine. One of my writing rituals is making hot tea: turning on the kettle, waiting for it to sing. I drink chai in winter and peppermint tea in summer. When I engage the senses like that, it puts me in the right mental space.
MW: When I get stuck, I get away from my desk and do something physical like going for a walk or a swim.
CA: How would you describe the literary scene in DC—and Baltimore, since you live halfway between the two cities?
MW: There are people who care deeply about literature all over the area—in Maryland and DC. We have amazing places like The Writer's Center in Bethesda, which has a great reading series. This area has a very supportive writing community: you can go up to someone who's a fabulous writer and they'll take an interest in talking with you
CA: How would you describe the effect of the MFA program on your work?
MW: When I first started, if I had a conceptual challenge with a story, I wanted a result much faster. Now I know that if I can't get it right immediately it doesn't mean it won't get written. It's still frustrating to spend a day writing and not have something I can use, but I've learned to trust that it will get there.
It's ironic, because in the MFA you do have a time-line and deadlines, but the MFA has taught me to let go of the time-line and have patience. I’ve learned to trust myself and the process.