1) So tell us Mel about your writing. I hear your work has appeared in magazines and anthologies. I also hear you are working on a novel, can you tell us a little something about it?
My earlier works were in the horror genre. I was a fan of Edgar Allen Poe, Ramsey Campbell, Richard Matheson, and Richard Laymon. I liked working with characters who suffered deeply disturbing or odd psychological disorders and committed acts of violence. Because of those earlier works I was a member of the Horror Writer’s Association for a few years. But I began to realize my real interest was more in the vein of criminals or crime fiction, not so much in the supernatural or conventions of horror. I moved into writing more hard-boiled crime fiction and I’ve been very happy in the genre.
Currently I’m working on a novel set in a small southern town where a resident has murdered the minister of the Baptist church and then killed himself. It’s a “why done it” story.
2) How did you get started into writing?
I credit being from the South. The South has always been fertile ground for storytellers. There is a long history of oral storytelling as a form of art and entertainment here. The first stories I heard as a child that stuck with me were ones where characters had to tell a great story in order to save their own skin. In fact, most of the stories people loved to tell were ones about someone being clever to some degree, outsmarting someone. The story of Brer Fox and the Tar Baby was a favorite one to tell.
Telling and retelling stories seems to be the favorite form of entertainment in the rural south and when I was a kid it seemed if you experienced something that would make a good story, heard a story, read a story, watched a movie, you had to find a way to retell it. You felt compelled to retell it because it was what everyone seemed to do and the ones who could do it well had clout. They were most revered. If you wanted kids to learn something about life, you had to spin it into an amusing anecdote. If you wanted to get to know people, you brought out your best stories. Stories were everywhere, all the time. You had the beauty parlor. You had the old men who liked to sit in front of the local store and keep each other laughing with tall tales. You had the extended families sitting on the front porch sharing memories of another time or telling a folktale they liked. You had people telling stories while they graded potatoes under the barn or cropped tobacco. Those days have probably changed since farming has changed and the world has grown ever closer with technology. The South is not so insular. And I don’t see as many people on porches and in front of stores anymore. Doesn’t mean storytelling has gone away in the South. I still hear a lot of stories. I think only the venues have changed and maybe the themes of the stories. Because the world is becoming progressively A D D, I think the structure of stories is changing and unfortunately maybe the depth of the stories. But that’s a dissertation for another day.
What was great about growing up with people telling stories was that I knew from an early age there was something to a story other than the plot. There had to be a buildup of suspense or the wind up to a punch line. For the story to work it had to be told with flair. You had to learn comedic timing or pace for it to come alive for the audience. It made me more aware of audience expectations.
My grandpa is one of the best natural storytellers. Even if he tells you a story you’ve heard him tell before, you love hearing it again because of how he tells it, putting on the voices of the characters and everything. I fell in love with storytelling from listening to all these people do what seemed to come naturally to them; tell lively stories. So my first foray in writing began with trying to tell stories to people out loud. In that regard I probably became a bit of a con artist/liar before I seriously considered putting stories on paper. By high school I remember telling strangers on airplanes elaborate lies about my life. By college I had to major in something and that’s really when I was introduced to the idea of crafting stories in writing. I’m still most drawn to the cadences of oral storytelling and love working on stories that try to capture that.
3) What kind of books do you like to read?
Biography and memoir are favorites because I’m nosy. Same reason I enjoy personal essays and collected letters. I am willing to give most books a try but I most enjoy reading old pulp noir from writers like Jim Thompson and Gil Brewer. I love reading Elmore Leonard’s stuff. Love John Le’ Carre’s spy stories. Like to read some true crime. I guess anything with a mystery or anything that pulls me in. But if the writing is distractingly bad and people glitter, I’m out.
4) What other books have you written? What can we expect from you in the future?
I’m putting together a collection of interlinked short stories I’ve written, all revolving around a ruthless bookie who goes by the name Herbert. I hope to have that out later this year on amazon.com. I have an agent interested in my work so I hope you’ll see a lot more from me in the future.
5) Where can we read your work? (Which magazines?)
My most recent short story is “On Parole” at powderburnflash.com.
A lot of the earlier publications were in magazines now out of print. I hope that’s not a bad sign. You can find a link to my available online publications on my website at www.melclayton.wordpress.com. I have an author page at www.amazon.com/mel-clayton that list anthologies available.
6) Do you edit your own work?
My husband reads them over and offers his input, which is tremendously helpful. Then I hack away at the edits based on his suggestions and my own observations after rereading. Usually best edits happen if you can put some distance between yourself and your story. Throw it to the side for at least a week. At least that’s what works best for me.
7) If you were stranded on an Island for a year with an endless supply of pens and paper, what do you think you would write?
Hummm. Well if I stayed true to form I’d waste paper on making airplanes and hats. I’d get around to writing two very long jumbled false starts of a novel that I would then use on the campfire and then I’d get serious and write most of one. Hopefully an entire one. I think I’d write a comedy based on everyone I’ve known as a way to feel happy and connected. I wouldn’t want to sit alone on the island thinking dark thoughts.
8) Describe the feeling you had the first time you saw your work in print?
Felt a bit like “Yeah! Suck it world! I’m on my way now! Nobody can stop me!”
I’m sure some symphonic victory song, something you might hear playing on the 4th of July, was bursting in my brain. I could see my Malibu swimming pool and the bidding war for the rights to my work. And so imagine my chagrin when that was followed by the usual pile of rejections. Short lived victory. I think the next time I saw my work in print I was a little more realistic. I’d say more realistic about rejection as well. In the early days rejection felt so personal. It hurt just as much as acceptance felt elating. But you even out over time. Not to say that acceptance doesn’t thrill me now. It’s always exciting to get an acceptance. It feels like finally being asked to prom after trying your best to be noticed. But you have few illusions about where that relationship is headed. One never knows.
9) If you were not a writer, what do you think you would be doing?
I’d love to think that I’d be doing special effects make up work in Hollyweird …but …more than likely I’d be doing people’s taxes and slowly dying inside.
10) What are the three most important things to you in your life.
Excluding specific people and my cats/animals, I’d say the three most important things to me are: Fairness, creativity, and loyalty.
11) How do you find time to write.
I quit my day job teaching English 101/102 at a community college. That opened up a lot of time to write. However, having the time doesn’t necessarily give you the discipline to get the writing done. I spend all day fighting myself and my self imposed deadlines. Trying to resist the temptation to sneak in a few episodes of a television show or a movie. Resist the invitations to go out and play.I never ever thought I’d say this but I’m a morning person. I work best from the time I get up until around lunchtime, before I start getting distracted with other things. I start going downhill after lunch. Find myself playing Peggle or googling random weirdness or weeding the garden.
12) What time of day is perfect for you to write? (Mine is from midnight until about 5 or 6 in the morning)
I never ever thought I’d say this but I’m a morning person. I work best from the time I get up until around lunchtime, before I start getting distracted with other things. I start going downhill after lunch. Find myself playing Peggle or googling random weirdness or weeding the garden.
Thanks Mel, and best of luck with your writing career. We'll be looking forward to your first novel. I know I will.