I first met Melissa Yancy in a writing workshop in which our teacher asked us to answer the question: Why do you write? Melissa responded, “Because I cannot sing.” I don’t know if Melissa can sing vocally, but I learned in that class and beyond that she is a genius at singing in prose. Her stories, like the best songs, are ones that make you want to turn up the volume and hit replay again and again, and then track down everything by the artist. Her work has appeared in One Story, Glimmer Train, ZYZZYVA, and The Missouri Review, and this year her debut collection Dog Years was selected by Richard Russo as the winner of the 2016 Drue Heinz Literature Prize.
Drawing on her career as a fundraiser for medical causes, many of the stories in Dog Years focus on dramas transpiring on the frontiers of healthcare. Readers enter the unusual worlds of fetal surgery, facial reconstruction for wounded soldiers, and a sixty-person kidney transplant chain. Defying my expectations for the medical genre, Melissa’s stories charmed and moved me with their unique lightness, fresh imagery, indelible characters, and captivating humor. I discovered there was something shining I had failed to see in confrontations with frailty and mortality. Melissa’s stories made me perceive that shining thing, illuminating moments of grace in the midst of loss with just the right touch. The stories in Dog Years that take place outside of the medical arena similarly defied my expectations, so that a quirky, funny premise evolved into a story of surprising depth and meaning. There were abundant laughs, but there were also keen insights when least expected.
By email, I had the pleasure of discussing Melissa’s first collection with her, trying to suss out the secrets of her beguiling brand of storytelling. Take note: this author can sing.
The Rumpus: Five of the nine stories in Dog Years explore medical peril with exquisite emotional nuance, along with startling scientific detail. Readers meet characters grappling with cancers, muscular dystrophy, organ and face transplants, and fetal surgery. Can you talk about why you gravitate toward stories about health crises? Did you choose this subject matter or did it choose you?
Melissa Yancy: There’s no doubt it found me. At first, it was a matter of efficiency. I’ve worked in the non-profit sector for fifteen years, with the last nine focused on medicine. As the jobs became more demanding, I was looking for a way (perhaps subconsciously at first) to make double use of my time, to make all the hours spent not writing into research. But even after working in the field for a number of years, I wrote more about the drudgery of office life than hospitals or patients. I’ve always had an aversion to medicine. For one thing, I don’t like being a patient. (Who does?) And I’m a skeptic. In college I was averse even to social sciences. If there were only people like me in the world, we’d be living in caves surrounded by some really lovely cave art spending our days performing intricate religious ceremonies. I didn’t know what I was missing.
There’s a story development in season two of the TV show The Knick where one of the younger surgeons goes to work at a competing hospital where there’s a faithful regard for the scientific method—carefully controlled experiments moving from basic to animal to human research. That’s well and good until his own mother gets sick, and he loses all patience for the process. He ends up back with Dr. Thackery, the head of surgery at The Knick, who innovates at all costs. A colleague of mine says first we understand, then we cure. Doctors like Thackery come at it the opposite way. I think the history of medical progress is actually both methods, often colliding, with interesting results. One of the things that show gets right is how the field of medicine revolves around just a few superstars. The “diagnostician” House, although less realistically rendered, is another such character. And character was what finally drew me in. It was the geniuses working at the edges of the field. The more I encountered them, the more this world opened up to me.
Rumpus: From the convincing and evocative medical scenes in Dog Years I would have thought you were a science aficionado. For instance, I loved when the fetal surgeon encounters cloudy amniotic fluid during a procedure and “feels like he is walking down a dark hall, brushing cobwebs out of his face all the way.” Do you consult doctors and researchers to get it right? Do you think being averse to science gives you a clearer sense of what will make science dramatic and persuasive to lay readers like me?
Yancy: The research is really just my day job. I spend a lot of my time with doctors, and they try to explain their work to a simpleton like me. I think my lack of understanding can help professionally (when I have to explain something to a prospective financial donor, for example) as well as in my writing, since I’m not geeky enough to get too technical with it. So outside of my fiction, it is part of my role to make things persuasive to a lay audience. In the case of the simile you referenced above, I was there in the operating room seeing it for myself.
Rumpus: I admired how you raised the stakes for your doctor characters by having them address medical plights not just in their careers but also in their homes. The married geneticists in “Dog Years” are raising a son who will be both disabled and have a foreshortened life from the very disease they are researching. The fetal surgeon in “Consider this Case” is not only treating women with high-risk pregnancies, but also caring for his father as he dies from cancer. Do you feel afraid when you come up with these story scenarios? I think I’d find it terrifying, yet I leave your stories with my fear of illness and death relieved rather than heightened. Are you aware of seeking to balance pain and fear with some kind of redemption as you write?
Yancy: At the risk of sounding unimaginative: sometimes I’m not coming up with the scenarios. The title story in the collection is the one most closely inspired by real-life people. So it’s more like I hear a story that is terrifying or confounding, and I try to understand how these people survive. And I often encounter scenarios that sound too unbelievable for fiction. I think of the defensive objection you hear in writing workshops—but it’s true! You can’t say it’s unrealistic because this happened to me! The story “Dog Years” in particular, is like a made-for-TV movie. When these larger-than-life stories get told, they can easily turn maudlin. That was one of my projects here. How to take the potentially maudlin down to the level of real life, lived day-to-day. And in the process of doing so, it becomes deeply personal. Even though the situation described in the story is nothing like my life, I think it reflects my inner psychology the most.
I wasn’t that conscious of the redemptive nature of these stories or their endings until I read them together. It’s not something I’m consciously balancing, but I think it’s a reflection of my worldview. And a children’s hospital is both the most horrible place and the most inspiring place, all at once. Even as I write that, language is failing me. You can’t summarize it. It’s a weird place to dwell for the clinicians who spend all their days there. I know I couldn’t be one of them.
Rumpus: Chris Adrian is another author whose job—he’s a pediatric oncologist—is a source of inspiration for his writing. He’s said that his work as a doctor is “a window into what’s both tragic and miraculous every day.” What’s your specific job title and what are you charged with doing?
Yancy: For six years I worked at a children’s hospital, and now I work for a larger hospital system and school of medicine, which includes pediatrics. I’m no Chris Adrian, that’s for sure. The more specialized your career in medicine, the more demanding, and if you are a specialist working in a top hospital setting, even more so. I’ve never understood how these people manage their teaching, research, and clinical responsibilities and make time for anything else. A pediatrician-in-chief told me once that during medical school and residency you basically learn to function with half a brain at all times. So I guess that frees up the other half to sleep while standing, or write a novel? My specific job title is senior director, corporate and foundation relations, which means I’m a fundraiser. I help the faculty raise money.
Rumpus: I am curious about your personal sensibility because your stories made me feel a surge of earned delight in their endings. I wasn’t devastated but elevated, and I appreciated your vision in consistently taking me to places that felt generous and expansive in the midst of dire circumstances. Apart from the endings, throughout their telling the stories are infused with humor and wry charm during the worst of times. Can you talk about the inner psychology and worldview that guide you? I’ll confess that I can’t help but think you had a loving childhood.
Yancy: My mother will love this question. I wouldn’t say I had a happy childhood, exactly (it was volatile but happy at times), yet it was loving in the way that’s most essential—I understood how much I meant to my parents and that they loved me as I was and saw it as their job to guide me to become myself. I felt special, which I think is what a lot of kids want. But my family can be a humorless bunch. It wasn’t the kind of home that’s filled with laughter. Sometimes I see families in movies that are similar in their dysfunctions, but they’re a lot funnier, more palatable that way. I wouldn’t say I’m a happy person, and my taste in movies runs pretty dark (I seemed to be laughing inappropriately at the milkshake scene in There Will Be Blood). But a sensibility that feels very familiar to me is filmmaker Noah Baumbach’s. His characters can be melancholic and narcissistic, and his films may be scathingly satirical, but there’s a lightness, a sense of optimism that comes through and gives you the sense that he probably likes his life, at least on some days. This isn’t Lars von Trier territory. I think it probably comes from two things: an ability to fall hard in love—which gives you a perennial sense of hope; and a tendency to be optimistic in the long-view. I think politicians like Obama and Cory Booker appeal to me for that reason.
Rumpus: I’m surprised your childhood home wasn’t filled with laughter since Dog Years is loaded with funny observations, situations, and one-liners. How important is comedy to you in your writing? Do you have any wisdom to share on writing with humor? I also wondered if you had experience writing plays or screenplays based on the timing and punch of the dialogue.
Yancy: I’m afraid if I answer this question honestly I will lose what little mystique I have. I am one of those people plagued with the “wit of the staircase” and I often wish I’d gotten a zinger out in person. That’s about all I know about comedy writing. Some of my friends are comedy writers, and they are also jokesters in person. My playwriting is atrocious, just atrocious. The best playwrights actually leave a lot of room for the actors to do the work. I’ve learned more about that from being in plays than writing them. I once wrote a bad play about one of the last men left in a leper colony in the US, who has to go and live with his grown child after it closes. My comedy-writer friend called it Def Leper, which was the funniest and best thing about it.
Rumpus: All the elements in your writing seem equally strong to me, from structure, to language, to characterization, and so on. Anthony Doerr described your stories as “incredibly well executed,” and that’s absolutely true. Do you have a personal north star when you sit down to write? You’re striking me as a very intuitive and instinctive writer who doesn’t approach the page with a lot of concepts about what makes a story work. Is that the case? Are you a “don’t think, just write” kind of writer?
Yancy: I could answer this with paragraphs of ha ha ha, like in the Lorrie Moore story. Or we could cue my villainous laughter. Let’s just say that in graduate school I was primarily a poet, and people often encouraged me to pursue my poetry, in large part because my fiction was so bad. I could see even then that I lacked a certain lightness, a magic that a truly great poet needs. I muscled poems too much. But I suppose that means I started with language, although even that has always bothered me, because mine isn’t distinct enough for my taste. And I had a good handle on character before I understood characterization, how to get that character on the page from different angles. I wouldn’t say I’m a “don’t think” writer, but for sanity’s sake, any writer should try to let the subconscious do some of the work for you. Sometimes that’s happening at the page, sometimes it’s away from the page. But by doing it over and over, hopefully you learn to make smarter choices, at least most of the time.
Rumpus: Engaging eccentrics populate quite a few of your stories. Two of my favorites were Laurie, the aging alcoholic struggling to preserve an image of herself as a chic Francophile, and Morton Feingold, the guru behind the lowbrow self-help regime The Program, the first step of which involves not bathing for two weeks. Who are your own favorite characters in the collection?
Yancy: My two favorite characters in the collection are the two old men, Sheldon in “Go Forth” and the father in “Consider this Case.” We see Sheldon from his own point of view, and that intimacy is important. From the outside, I think you’d just see a cantankerous old man. On the other hand, we only see the father in “Consider this Case” from his son’s perspective. That unknowability is important to the story, but he’s a larger than life character, and easier to render on the page through dialogue and action. I think what I like about writing older men is that for men of a certain generation there is a strong line between the public and private self. Many of these characters are dealing with this divide, but perhaps these men the most. Some early readers found Sheldon monstrous, but I have a real soft spot for him.
Rumpus: Can you say more about why you have a soft spot for Sheldon, and also the father in “Consider this Case”? What is it about their particular struggles between their public personas and private selves that you find compelling? I loved the scene in “Consider this Case” when the father shows his son the clothes he’d like to be buried in. When the son is surprised by his father’s burial outfit, the father says, “If you can’t be yourself when you’re dead, when can you be?” That was heartbreaking and beautiful.
Yancy: I think men can also suffer a great deal from the expectations of gender, particularly in older generations. My father is part of the so-called silent generation, which is such a sad name for a generation. But I think a lot about the burdens of growing up in that post-depression, WWII era. I’ve had to cheat a little bit to make the medical science work in the story, so Sheldon is a bit younger than I wanted him to be. But he very much has the silent generation mentality, not the boomer mentality. He’s afraid of so much in the world. It’s so easy for us to forget the kinds of threats faced by other generations. Our own threats feel so large.
Also, that story feels like a conversation between the voices in my own head. I’m really an old curmudgeon at heart.
Rumpus: Of all the places portrayed in Dog Years, Los Angeles was the one that resonated for me the most. Do you consider Los Angeles your quintessential writing territory? I know you live there, although you’re not a native. What is the Los Angeles writing community like?
Yancy: I’ve written other stories that deal with Los Angeles as a city more explicitly (my very first published story was one of those stories) and it bothers me that the collection doesn’t reflect the full life and diversity of the place I live. Los Angeles as lived, not the Los Angeles that’s represented and sold, has to be one of the richest environments for writing you can imagine. But it’s no one place. It’s many, many places, and any representation is always just a sliver. Think of The Virgin of Flames by Chris Abani or Pasadena by David Ebershoff—worlds apart, yet both feel like the place I live in, and neither has anything to do with Hollywood. Janet Fitch tries to capture it broadly in White Oleander, by showing us many different cities; she really knows Los Angeles. Michelle Huneven is another. The mystery writers get a lot of it right—Walter Mosley, Michael Connelly, Denise Hamilton—and take us into underrepresented parts of the city. LA has an inferiority complex at times. There are so many writers living here but they’re not necessarily considered “LA writers.” A lot of times I don’t even realize writers I love live here. I’ve also seen many ambitious literary magazines in the city fail. I think the geographic sprawl combined with the lack of a central MFA program or literary magazine keeps the community dispersed. There’s Antioch, UC Riverside (both low-res, so not necessarily local students), UC Irvine, CalArts. But I think it might look different if UCLA or USC played a large role. There are more like micro-communities, centered around a few special teachers.
And then there’s the old reluctance to think of “West Coast” writers and the tension between Los Angeles and San Francisco. One in eight Americans lives in California, and I think the West Coast represents the future of the country, so I wish we had a stronger voice. I’m really excited about Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, and think all the pre-publication buzz was in part because people have been waiting for a book like that out of Southern California. It would also make sense that West Coast literature would be known for its diversity, particularly for Latino and Asian writers, given our demographics. I hope that happens. I certainly don’t represent the future of what my city has to offer.
Rumpus: Can you talk about your education and training as a writer? Was there a point in time when you made a decision that you were going to become a writer, in addition to your day career? What were the milestones and turning points for you along your journey to the publication of Dog Years?
Yancy: Some of the usual things—I was the editor of my high school newspaper, a creative writing minor as an undergraduate, then went straight into an MFA. I won my first writing contest at ten and still have the thesaurus they gave me. I thought I was off to an auspicious start—ha again!
I’ve been in workshops off and on for twenty years of my life. But I knew I didn’t want to be an English major or go straight into an academic career. For one thing, I never wanted to lose my ability to approach a novel first as a “naïve” reader. I do try to read as a writer, the second or third go-round, but I’ve never learned to read as a critic or a theorist. And I wanted to study subjects and pursue jobs that would add depth to my work. I talk about accidentally ending up with a day career in a Glimmer Train bulletin piece called “The Upside of Failure.”
I’ve written a lot of shelved novels. If there was a turning point, it would be in 2010 when I went to the Tin House Writers Workshop. The change was that I stopped having a pity party for myself, and I gave myself permission to treat each story like a novel. I wrote about the pity party for Glimmer Train, too, in a bulletin piece called “Playing the Odds.”
If there’s one thing I’ll say about education as a writer, it’s that you can’t underestimate the value of a little tutelage from people working at the top of their game. You can’t teach everything to someone who has developed no tools, but it’s total bullshit to think a great deal can’t be conferred by these writers if you’re a serious student of writing. So I’d advocate that people spend money and take the time to put themselves into the room with excellent writers.
Rumpus: In 2016, in addition to winning the Drue Heinz Prize for Dog Years and receiving an NEA Literature Fellowship, you also married and had a baby. How have these literary successes and your new family affected what you want to do as a writer and your writing life? It seems like your life as an artist is well integrated with all the other aspects of your life, that they feed one another instead of being at odds, and I’d love to know your tips for attaining that kind of harmony.
Yancy: That’s a really difficult question. I feel like there were so many competing voices and demands inside my head, and now it’s just white space. The to-do list has been replaced with silence, because I can’t hold a thought in my head long enough to go through my list.
For the past few years, my biological clock and my “writer” clock were both screaming with the same intensity, demanding to be heard. It was crazy-making. Of course, I didn’t—and couldn’t—have planned any of it this way. I think these encouragements in my writing life came at a critical time, when the demands (and joys) of motherhood could have put the fiction way on the back burner for a while. Now I’m forced to keep it front and center, and that’s probably good. I don’t know if having a baby has dampened my enthusiasm around the book’s publication, or if it’s just made me more zen about it. Or perhaps knowing the book was coming out allowed me to enjoy motherhood even more—without any minor resentment about “losing” myself. Because I have loved it. It’s certainly hard to worry too much about any one thing when there is so much happening at once. I still work full-time, and spend two and a half hours a day commuting. Everything is urgent, but everybody’s got to wait their damn turn. Does that sound like harmony? Right now I’m in survival mode, just putting one foot in front of another, and trying to enjoy every moment with that baby, who is growing up so fast. But my five-year plan? I’d like to be teaching in a low-residency MFA, writing, and dropping my son off at kindergarten and picking him up every day. A girl can dream.
Author photograph © Trixie Sison.