5 from 35: Author Q & A with Melanie Hobson

HobsonMelanie Hobson, 50, publishes her debut, Summer Cannibals, today with Black Cat, an imprint of Grove Atlantic. You can read our review of Summer Cannibals here.

How long did it take you to write your first (published) book, start to finish?

Probably four years to actually write, but seven years for the entire process, because there’s a lot of waiting involved. I would give a draft to someone to read and it might be months later that they would send it back with comments.  One particular reader, whose expertise I really valued, had the manuscript for nearly a year because of a tragedy within his family – and I waited, because I was at an impasse and I couldn’t figure out what was missing.

What kind of work did you do to earn money while writing your first book?

Before my husband and I had children, I worked as a university adjunct in Rhetoric and Composition, or had teaching fellowships while in graduate school — but after we had our two children I stayed home with them, and my husband became the sole earner.  I know how lucky I am – that we were able to find a way to live on one income so I could keep writing and, best of all, so I could fit that writing schedule around our kids.

How many books did you write before you published your first one? What happened to them?

For my MFA thesis, I wrote a novel titled We Weight the Body.  I remember one of my advisors (Fred D’Aguiar) saying what an achievement it was to have completed a novel, even if it turns out to be a sort of ‘practice’ novel.  I vividly remember having to stop myself from sputtering ‘practice’ novel???  I will publish this novel!! It took a few more years of working and re-working it to realize that he was right, of course.  What I’d written was really just an extended character study or, at best, an allegory.  Then I wrote a novel about my grandfather who was a New Zealand coastwatcher in the Pacific during World War 2, and it found an agent but no publisher.  I loved that novel. I still think about going back to it.  Perhaps enough time has passed and I can look at it with a fresh perspective, and find the right voice for it.  Perhaps.  As soon as I finish the one I’m working on now …..

Did you ever want to quit? If yes, what kept you going? If no, what kept you going?

I never wanted to quit, but I felt compelled to quit twice.  The first time was when my children were small and everything seemed impossible.  Writing takes sustained concentration and I couldn’t even get through half a cup of coffee without an interruption.  And there was a lot of coffee in those days!  I was living in a new city, with no writer friends, and what got me through that period of creative drought were the new friends I made, and our little tribe of children.  I think of that time, now, as a kind of incubator.  I’d somehow tapped into our city’s sizeable ‘granola’ contingent and it was a fascinating time in a foreign land.  Women who used seaweed bandages to heal their natural childbirth tears, who boiled and ate the placenta; men who ran barefoot and bare-chested and barely clothed across the Florida scrub to forage food for their families; drum circles, co-operatives, moon worship, fort-building in abandoned blueberry farms where our unshod kids dodged snakes …. It wasn’t writing, but it was full immersion in an imaginative and creative space.

The second, and last, time I thought seriously about quitting was when the coastwatcher book found an agent, but wasn’t able to secure a publisher. There were a few near hits, which only made its ultimate failure more demoralizing.  I was in my early 40s by this point, and my writing life suddenly felt like an indulgence.  It was keeping me from other things; our children were both at school now, so it was also keeping me from an actual income.  But when I sat down and listed other jobs I could do, I couldn’t even imagine doing any of them (and I’ve spent my life imagining things!). So, I fought back, and wrote Summer Cannibals.  I just went for it, with everything I had.

What are you reading right now?

There are long stretches, when I’m working on a book, where I don’t read any fiction – unless it’s a paragraph here and there for inspiration.  I might dip into Anne Enright or Ian McEwan, for example.  Perhaps early Cormac McCarthy.  Books I know almost by heart, so my writer-mind can just drink in the rhythms.  When those droughts are over, I inhale books.  I’ve just finished a binge – Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut, Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling– and right now, I’m reading Tim Winton’s story collection The Turning.  But I can already feel that pull back to my own work, and know the books will start piling up again.  After The Turning, I have my eye on Claudia Dey’s Heartbreaker– but it may have to wait.


Click on the icon to purchase this book from the author’s preferred bookseller, Midtown Reader.