Monday, October 29, 2012

Interview with Ampersand's first signed author Melissa Keil

The Ampersand Project is a Hardie Grant Egmont program dedicated to finding amazing debut authors. They're about to reopen to submissions so I'm talking to Melissa Keil, the first writer signed up through the Ampersand Project. Her debut novel, Life in Outer Space, will be published in February 2013. Keep in touch with Melissa on Facebook, Twitter and her website. I'll also being talking to Ampersand editor, Marisa Pintado about what she's looking for this year on my personal blog
Sharon: Geeky seems to be the new sexy – what do you think about that as a self professed lover of all things geek?

Melissa: Ha, I’m not sure if ‘the new sexy’ is quite right, but it is great to see people openly embracing whatever weirdness it is that they’re passionate about, and finding little (and not so little) communities of people who share that weirdness. There’s something very liberating about accepting the fact that it’s okay to not be one of the cool kids; that staying home on a Friday night and watching back-to-back episodes of Doctor Who (or whatever) is awesome. I love that John Green quote that nerds are allowed to be un-ironically, jump-up-and-down enthusiastic about stuff (I know it’s contentious, but I draw no distinction between a geek and a nerd).

Sharon: You’ve been a high school teacher, a Middle Eastern tour guide, waitress and a community theatre dogs-body, which job of those did you enjoy the most?

Melissa: All of them for different reasons; travelling through the Middle East was brilliant, and eye-opening and inspiring, and my short time as a high school teacher gave me plenty of material for characters. I waitressed through uni and despised it at the time, but in hindsight I had a lot of fun, I made some great friends and got to eat lots of free food; I really do think that everything is useful (gosh, it’s probably really pretentious to quote one of your own characters…)  

Sharon: You’ve got a picture book under your belt with Rabbit’s Year, how was it to write YA instead?

Melissa: Your words in a picture book are only part of the narrative, because you’re sharing the telling of the story with the illustrator, but one of my favourite things about writing longer fiction is having the scope and space to become completely immersed in a world; creating a landscape for the characters to play in and filling in the detail. I became a little obsessed with creating mood boards for my characters; the d├ęcor of their rooms, the clothes they would wear, the locations they would hang out, the stuff they would own – like writing back story and character profiles, it’s hard to quantify how much of this made it into the final pages, but it really helped me get to know them and their universe. I spent a lot of time wandering the streets of Melbourne and taking photos of the carpet and walls in odd places while imagining the sorts of conversations my characters would be having there (I freely admit that this may not be normal behaviour!)  

Sharon: You were plucked out of 250 submissions to be the first Ampersand Project author, and are going to be published next year. Walk us through what you went through to get to this point.

Melissa: I’d been editing the novel and workshopping the manuscript with my writing group for about eight months, and was at the point where I was pretty much just tweaking single words and commas. One of my writing group members suggested I submit it to the Ampersand Project, but it took some convincing to send it off. Like 98 per cent of writers I’m pretty anxious about putting my work out there, and I think I would have sat on it and tweaked for many months more if I wasn’t given a shove. So I sent it off with a synopsis and pitch, not really expecting anything other than a thanks-but-no-thanks letter. A couple of months later I received a very lovely ‘we’d like to meet you’ email. I went in for a chat with Marisa Pintado (commissioning editor extraordinaire), convinced her I wasn’t a crazy person, had an initial brief discussion about possible editorial suggestions, and then went home to wait it out. I found out I was shortlisted a few weeks later, and received a formal offer a little while after that. It was a bit of a whirlwind! And then there was editorial, which began maybe a month or so later…

Sharon: Your day job is an editor Five Mile Press and previously for Black Dog Books, how does it feel to be on the other side of the publishing table as the writer?

Melissa: It’s been an incredibly interesting experience to wear the other hat; at times I’ve felt like I’ve developed something of a split-personality disorder. For instance, I understand certain things as an editor that the author half of me really wants to ignore (the pace in this chapter needs to speed up? But I really like this chunk of dialogue and I don’t want to cut it!) It was also far more emotionally taxing than I was expecting, due in no part at all to my editors (who have been fabulous). I think that my editorial brain has the ability to be analytical and objective, even with work that I’m really passionate about, but I found seeing my own writing through the same eyes much more difficult than I anticipated (which is precisely the point of needing an editor!)

Sharon: On your blog you talk about the emotional rollercoaster the journey has been so far, what advice do you have for any debut writers in coping with the journey to publication?

Melissa: Take a deep breath, and try and step back from your work as much as possible. I think it’s only natural to feel a little precious about something that your really close to, and the editorial process can be somewhat daunting, but try and look at the intent behind the feedback you’re receiving – the solution your editor suggests for solving a problem may not be the right solution for your story or your characters, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem that needs to be solved. And I think it’s really important to have some writerly friends that you can bounce ideas around with; people who understand the particular madness that’s required to shed tears over the made-up people in your head.

Sharon: So far for your story we know that it’s YA ‘romantic comedy about a horror-film geek and the indie-dream girl he refused to fall in love with’ and is going to be out next year, your protagonist as a stuffed Freddy Krueger doll, combines your many loves (movies, music, karate, the Astor Theatre, Star Wars and all things geeky) and has been described as ‘everything we love about 80s rom-coms and The Big Bang Theory.’ Is there anything else about it you can share?

Melissa: I’ve always had a soft spot for nerdy boys, and I really wanted to see more of them in YA. I’m as partial as anyone to the too-beautiful-to-be-real alpha guys, but there is something inherently sweet about the shy, socially awkward boys, and, um – there are a few of them in my book. 

Sharon: What future projects are you currently working on?

Melissa: It seems like bad juju to talk about a project that’s still being written, but I am working on a YA novel in a similar genre. I’m doing a lot of research on card magic. That’s about all I can say.

Sharon: What advice have you got for writers planning on submitting to the Ampersand Project when it reopens in November?

Melissa: Write the story that you want to read; the Ampersand editors are genuinely excited about finding manuscripts they can fall in love with, and I think that if you’re passionate about your story, it’s evident on the page (and is much more appealing than trying to bend your writing to fit a market trend or genre). Submit the most polished version that you can, but recognise where the weaknesses lie and be open to editorial feedback. Have a pitch; try and capture something essential about your story in a sentence or two (I pitched Life in Outer Space as Pretty in Pink meets The Big Bang Theory – not a perfect comparison by any means, but I think it conveyed something about the tone of the book). Don’t panic – the Ampersand editors really are lovely people who are looking to support new writers, and they understand just how daunting it is, especially as a first-time writer, to send your work out into the world.

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