To be an author, you must be willing to become another person, to pull your characters’ skin tight around you and see life through their eyes … and then destroy it, intent on creating something even better.
Putting together our lineup of authors, it’s amazing the number of poly-artists we have. You, for example, a musician—piano player and instructor—a painter, illustrator—book covers, interior art, logos, signs, banners—and, finally, an author, short stories and poems … and to think you’re just starting.
When did you first discover this artistic bent, and in multiple mediums? Were you a child? Did these various talents develop in tandem or sequentially? And who were your mentors and/or cheerleaders?
Hmmm. Well, as far as the music part of me goes, I started playing piano around four or five. I remember going to my aunt’s house for lessons and waiting on my cousin to get off the bus. So I know I was not yet in school. I continued because it was [and is] an outlet. A way to let off stress and express my feelings.
Artist-wise, I don’t feel you can confine creativity. From the time I was able to hold a pencil, I created something. Wasn’t always pretty, but … practice, right? In elementary school, we had book reports, which I hated. But, you got to draw your favorite scene from the book—which I loved. In middle school, I wrote (bad) poetry and a book that was a rip off of a Sweet Valley High and Nancy Drew mesh, and actually entered them in a contest. Always was art in my life, and to prove it, I still have the sketch pads.
In high school, art was my go-to. And for college, well, I really wanted to go to art school. But the funding was not there, so I chose a different career path. And college was the time I rediscovered my love for writing, though I didn’t do a lot of it until I had reconstructive surgery and was housebound for several months. I’ve found a lot of different outlets. Cake decorating, writing, cross stitch, knitting, gardening (yes, gardening), but something I could do for months on end without being bored? Digital painting. I love it. And that’s come about only in the past few years.
I can’t say I had any mentors. That may sound harsh, but art/writing has always been something I do for myself, and only in the past six years have I went public with any of my work. I work hard on my own. And occasionally, I make myself proud.
My cheerleaders are my daughter and husband. They make me want to push myself. My grandmother also played a large part in me becoming active in the writing and art world. Before she passed, I would read her some of my stories, and then being the great grandmother she was, she would praise me repeatedly, and tell me not to give up my dream.
Growing up, who were your favorite authors? Who were they in your teens? And now as an adult?
Okay, so there is this book, which I am going to order for my daughter, that I read when I was in elementary school. Actually, it’s an entire series. Bunnicula, written by James Howe (and his wife, for the first one). It’s about a vampire bunny that drinks carrots dry, and I remember staying up late to read them. Loved the series. And obviously, I started my supernatural phase at a young age. Something Wicked This Way Comes was my first true novel, which I also read in elementary school, and got in trouble with my mother because it had “language” in it.
Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys I ate through as fast as I could find them. Also were the Sweet Valley High and The Babysitter’s Club series that I was in love with (and still own, thank you very much). I found The Incarnations of Immortality in early middle school, and drove my parents crazy hunting down the last two of the series. But not until a friend gave me a Dean Koontz novel did I truly find a passion for horror. Within a year I had read all the horror in my high school library, and afterwards quickly sucked down thrillers and mysteries. Watchers was my introduction, and I think I’ve read that story a half dozen times. I moved quickly through Dean Koontz and started Stephen King, and really, those are still my two favorite authors. For a classic author, it has to be Poe.
Now, I’m still a sucker for Koontz and King, and will always be a fan of Poe. As you can see, I have a problem with series, and tend to stay within my comfort zone. I can also now add Charlaine Harris and Jonathan Mayberry to my list of favorites. What I cannot stand, and what a certain best-selling author does with every one of his novels, is having cookie-cutter outlines or plots. Once you’ve read one book by the author, you know what will happen in every one after. The only things that change are the names. I want originality.
In a recent interview with Lisa Morton, dark fiction author Sarah Langan mentioned that during her college days, she found the sentimentality in Stephen King’s work a bit off-putting. That King’s kids were already born when Carrie was published, whereas she didn’t have any children during the publishing of her first three books. Langan went on to say: “These days, I find myself saying really cheesy things [now that she’s married and has a daughter] that never would have come out of my mouth ten years ago, like, ‘I’m so in love with you. You and your sister and your daddy are my whole world.’ If I’d read something like that, pre-kids, I’d have assumed it was made-up bullshit.”
So, with you, did you find that your written work changed once you had a family? Is it still changing? And what about your other endeavors, from your artwork to your music, how have they been influenced? Or how does all your artistic endeavors influence each other?
When I was pregnant, everyone told me I would have plenty to write about once my daughter was born. And it’s true—some of the things she comes up with, well, they should be filmed because that’s the only way people would believe it. And now at four, when she makes up her own stories (some quite detailed), I am a very proud mama. But with my written work, nothing has really changed. I’ve always been cheesy and romantic, so yeah … that didn’t change. All of my female characters are either barren or childless, because that was me for many, many years. I’ve not deviated from that because if I write horror, I don’t want to include children. I never write about children being abused, or murdered, or anything horrid, but it’s not all because I have a child. Partly, sure. But even before I had a family, I could never write something like that. Some writers are proud that they can write about anything, and kudos to them. I’m proud I don’t write about everything. Some horrors are better left unsaid.
Of course, my daughter has influenced me in subtle (and not so subtle) ways. She is an integrated part of my life that I will always feel blessed to have. Her true influence hasn’t been an overt part of my preferred subject matter, no, but she has given me the ability to be confident with my work. And maybe, just maybe, she’ll want to follow along in her mother’s footsteps.
As far as my artistic endeavors influencing each other, I don’t think they do. Everyone has a right and left hemisphere of the brain … well, I think I have about four other hemispheres. Writing, playing the piano, and painting all seem to originate differently inside me. When I play, I am rigid in the notes I hit, but I am passionate in the tonal shading. When I write, wanting readers to become absorbed by my words, I strive to find the right combination. And when I paint, I go with my gut and ride it ’til the end.
It’s been said that if writers don’t always have high IQs (intelligence quotients), they most certainly need high EQs (emotional quotients). That it’s a must in order to connect with characters, the ability to feel their pains and joys—even with villains. This seems, too, to echo the quoted sentiment of yours heading this page, that of the need to be willing to become another person. But apparently, this need isn’t limited to just the written word. Reading some of the posted testimonials on your site The Illustrated Author, there’s the following running thread concerning your book covers:
… Patty Green of Chicago, who described Melissa’s cover job as “dark, but crisp and powerful,” said that when she was done reading Someday Always Comes she re-examined the cover to find story elements present there….
… Stevens is not only a craftsman who understand the importance of quality art, be it a book’s front or back cover, or any internal illustrations, what with all of the necessary aesthetics involved, but she’s one who first understands a cover has to carry a book’s theme, its message, verily, its heart! ….
… Mel has the unique mind of both a writer and an artist, which lends her the vision to really embody a book in its cover. She took my idea and turned it into something beautiful and sexy….
… She used her talents to manufacture designs for me that were almost right out of my mind….
How does this … well, sense of empathy work? Can it even be described? When did you notice it, and how have you honed it? And, if it’s a given with your writing and artwork, do you also find it working with your music?
Ha, well, I hate to burst your bubble, but really, it’s just called “listening.” I understand that the cover art is what sells the book beyond … say, an author’s immediate circle of friends. One thing I refuse to do is create pre-made covers, because that cover has nothing to do with the book itself. How can it, when it was made weeks or months before the book was finished? No, I want all that blood, sweat, and plenty of tears that went into that novel, to be splashed across the front of that novel. And I listen very carefully to what the author says about his or her book. Not necessarily the plot, but the woven story itself. And I research. I study other covers, I search other sites that create covers, and I look for what drives me to click on that thumbnail in a sea of thousands of others. After all, I’m a reader, too.
There is one other thing I use. Some people see numbers as colors or feelings. When someone tells me about their novel, I see a color. And that becomes the base I work from. From there, I have what I lovingly call The Click. Intuition, if you will, or perhaps there is some odd wiring in my brain. It’s hard to describe, but when I’m working and I think I’m close to being done, I’ll stop, zoom out, and look at the picture I’m working on. If it clicks, I’m golden. If it doesn’t, then I’m far from being through. I can say without a doubt, I’ve scrapped many a piece to begin anew three-quarters of the way through.
But that is just in my art. I don’t have that click with my written words, and part of that, I believe, is because I’m not as confident with my writing as I am with my art. It’s a different kind of thought process. The same goes with music. I’m much more rigid in how I play than how I draw.
With publishing having gone through—and still going through—such major upheavals of change, what are your thoughts on how a budding writer might proceed? And if they’re looking to make a living, which route might be best: indie, legacy, or self-publishing? With your own work, for which do you find a more accepting marketplace, your stories or your art?
First, if they are looking to make a living from writing, they need to back up and take a good, long look at the industry. Very few authors can truly make a living from writing fiction. For a budding writer, I would suggest starting with short stories, and make a name in the writing community first, before tackling that elusive novel. A novel is hard work, and in choosing a route, it all depends on the person. I know writers in all three routes, and this is what I see. You have to be dedicated, and hardworking, for all three. More so for self-publishing. You also have to be willing to handle the business side of writing. (Yes, there is more to it than just throwing down words.) You have to be a go-getter and willing to commit the time to research blog hops, tours, PR, cover designers (I should mention, there is a difference between artist and designer), editors and formatting, all for the love of your novel. And then, there is cost. As a self-publisher, be prepared to spend plenty of money for all the above. And, don’t go cheap on the cover or editing. If you are still dedicated and hardworking, but don’t have the upfront money, go indie or legacy. Indie will work with your ideas better than legacy, but be prepared to pull a lot of weight on the PR side, out of your own pocket. Legacy is a business. They look for what will sell, not necessarily what is well written. Don’t expect to have much say-so, either. If you are a control freak, legacy is not your friend.
With my own work, it’s a toss up. I feel as though I am known more in the writerly community for my stories, but my art is beginning to pull ahead. Cover artists/designers don’t really have a community (at least not one that I’ve yet found), so I don’t have a foothold in that world. Now I am trying to just have authors see me as both a writer and an artist.
With “Anna,” your Sideshow story, without giving away any spoilers, what was your inspiration?
Actually, my inspiration came from a piece of art I created for Sideshow—A Living Doll. From there, it took on a life of it’s own … and if I tell you too much more, you’ll know the story.
With Sideshow, you’re not only a contributing author, but also the sole artist behind the cover and the interior work. What process did you go through to come up with such perfect images? And with each, in their own right, a gem, how did you find a way to have all the pieces fit together as a greater whole?
Carnivals and sideshows are fascinating. They are a world within our world, and with their own rules. I took my fascination and attempted to mold it into an image after reading each story.
The great thing about this anthology is the versatility of the writings, which plays into the sideshow theme. Each act is its own, held together by a big striped tent. I took the stories and pulled little nuggets from each to create the artwork. Each piece of art can stand by itself, a dedication to the author. I wanted a Tales From the Crypt feel—you know, in the beginning of each short, they showed a piece of artwork that told about the story. Something that didn’t give the story away, just added to it, until the end, when you finished and went, “That’s why that horse’s leg was sitting on a bench!”
To tie them together, I used the background. Every work has the same background, that same tent, if you will, and the same type of banner. That’s it. That’s how the sideshows do it, and I figured, they’ve been around for a long time, so they must know what they’re doing.
What words of wisdom would you give a budding writer, and what warnings?
If you’re in it for the money, you’re in it for the wrong reason. If you’re in it to tell the story, then you’ll become a good writer. Listen to others, but don’t change yourself to fit their mold. Make your own mold, taken from the experience of others, lots of hard work, and lots of research. And don’t stop. It’s easy to quit. It takes a lot to keep going.
If it seems to good to be true, it probably is. There are a lot of scam artists out there, ready to swindle you out of money. Do your research, ask questions. If they are legit, they’ll be happy to answer you. Don’t take rejections personally. This is a business, after all. You don’t take it personal when a cashier holds your twenty up to the light to make sure it’s real. Publishers and agents see more slush in a week than we can write in our lifetime. You are a piece of paper to them. It’s up to your words to make them see you as a person.
Will you give us a teaser about your next writing project?
My latest writing project is a novel called Wellings Farm. I’m trying hard to keep it a thriller, but supernatural tendencies want to keep creeping in. Without giving too much away, it’s about a serial killer stalking a family whose cranberry farm is about to get hit by a severe storm (flooding, tornadoes, all that good stuff). Here’s an excerpt:
THE ROOM was dark, with only a thin sliver of gold light illuminating an L shape in one corner of the room. He sat in the opposite corner, fixated on the dim glow and waiting on her to awaken. Her face was void of any makeup, letting him see her features better, and unconscious in her bed. He had taken the liberty of unplugging her digital alarm and moved the small lamp on her nightstand to the floor next to him. Pictures littered the floor around him, all unseen in the darkness but committed to his memory. A military green duffel bag lay beside the bed, one he brought in from his stolen car. She tossed for a moment, the sheets rustling and dragging his attention to her, but she fell silent once again.
He was patient.
He could wait.
A small jolt of pain sluiced up the nape of his neck as he drew his head down to control it as much as possible. A migraine was building in his head, already. He closed his eyes and gazed unseeing at the floor until the wave of nausea left.
She could be her sister, really. Everything about her matched; her hair, her petite form, her lips. Everything but her eyes. They were the wrong color, the wrong shape. He had been so excited to sit down at her booth, certain of her, until she turned to face him. Disappointment had flooded through him, making him almost sick to his stomach until he could control his emotions.
“So close…,” he whispered.
A moan escaped her, followed by a whimper.
She was awake.