And a liar.
Well, I am a writer. But this is a strange way to begin an interview. Can’t you be nicer to yourself?
Why didn’t you just call your book a memoir, chicken? Were you too scared to put yourself out there and be honest?
Hand Me Down isn’t a memoir. It’s a novel.
But isn’t it true?
This question begs for discussions about the fallibility of language and memory, about how truth can be revealed through fiction. Since all narratives are filtered through our individual frames of reference and are therefore biased and not 100% accurate, what does “true” really mean? Since perception creates variations of the truth—ask five family members to describe the same dinner—does capital-T Truth really exist? I may have fictionalized events to better serve the truth of the story, but if the characters feel real, if the story elicits a real emotional reaction in the reader, then isn’t it true whether all of it really happened or not?
It sounds like you’re afraid to admit the truth.
I love the blurred lines in writing semi-autobiographical fiction, the freedom to shape the story it allows. But I’ll admit there is also definitely a layer of protection in writing a novel that I appreciate.
I knew it. Chicken. We still want to know: how much of your book really happened?
It’s mostly true.
All right, geez. About eighty percent if you need a number.
And actually, many people think it’s brave that I shared my personal story with the world. Although I didn’t write a memoir, I’ve made it no secret that Hand Me Down is based on my experience of my mother choosing her sex-offender husband over her young daughters.
No shit, your mom did that? That’s cold.
Yeah. I was fourteen, and my little sister and I were separated and forced to leave our home…didn’t you read the book?
Refresh my memory.
Hand Me Down follows teenage Liz, who grew up protecting her younger sister, Jaime, first from their alcoholic father’s abuse and then from their sex-offender stepfather’s lingering hands. When their mother is legally forced to choose between her girls and her husband, Liz and Jaime are uprooted and separated, losing their home, their mom, and the shelter of each other.
So you must have some serious abandonment issues.
Is that a question?
Do you hate your mom?
I did for a long time, but we’re great friends now. Writing the book went a long way in helping to make that happen.
Is she still married to the sex-offender?
That must help, too.
Still, that says a lot about our capacity to forgive.
I’m fascinated by forgiveness and the question of what is unforgivable. Betrayals hurt because we love the person who wronged us. With time, if the love lasts through the pain, I think forgiveness is possible.
What about the flasher? Did you forgive him?
Love was never a part of that relationship.
Do you still see him?
Thankfully, not much. One of the last times I saw him was on the local news a few years ago in grainy security camera footage from a Wal-Mart. Authorities were searching for the “unidentified Hispanic male” who had been exposing himself to female shoppers during the holidays. It was so unmistakably my mom’s ex-husband, his outline and his swagger obvious to me even in blurry video, and I had the phone in my hand ready to call and turn him in when my mom called and said she’d already done it.
What was that like?
You can read more about that experience in the bonus epilogue that will be available only in the paperback version of Hand Me Down.
Way to bring us back to the book.
Thanks. It goes on sale 3/26/13 and is available for preorder now if you’re interested.
Some readers have said your book is depressing. Are you trying to make us cry?
There are comparisons to White Oleander and Bastard Out of Carolina on the cover, so I feel like people should know what they’re getting into, though my narrator sustains much less physical harm than Astrid or Bone. Hand Me Down is definitely not a light, fluffy read, but there are almost always moments of joy to be found in even the darkest circumstances, and any complex story will show the beautiful moments along with the sad ones. In a really complex story, they’re often the same moments.
Did you really cry?
I might have shed a tear or two. Shut up.
I secretly love hearing the book made readers cry. It means I did something right if the writing and the characters can induce a physical reaction. But readers also comment on Liz’s determination and hope, and the strength of her voice.
Some have even said the book is funny.
Clifford Chase described Hand Me Down as “grimly funny,” a description that captures exactly what I was going for: the kind of humor that makes you laugh and then think, oh, that’s actually kind of awful. David Sedaris is a master of that kind of comedy.
Speaking of other authors, who are some of your influences?
My earliest influences were Nancy Drew and Christopher Pike books, which I would check out in piles from the library and devour in days. When I began to really study the craft of writing, my major influences were Toni Morrison, Dorothy Allison, Amy Bloom, and Pam Houston.
Don’t you still read Christopher Pike books?
Yeah, so? His vampire heroine is a hell of a lot more interesting than that wimpy Twilight girl, and he recently came out with new installments of The Last Vampire series I loved in the 90s…What?
I hate you.
Christopher Pike makes an appearance in Hand Me Down as one of many cultural references—including Dawson’s Creek, Nirvana, MTV when it aired mostly music videos, and other stuff that was hella fresh in 1995 when the book takes place—that readers who grew up in the 80s and 90s have really been responding to. Did you mean to conjure so much nostalgia?
It was impossible for me to write about my teenage experience without all the music and TV and movies and fads around me. Pop culture is such a huge part of our lives, especially as teens, and such a clear identifier of time. How could I not mention Daisy Dukes, Glamour Shots, the Mentos commercial jingle? If I was watching Melrose Place and My So-Called Life and hearing Seal and Soundgarden on the radio, then other kids my age were, too. All these tiny pieces of our history bring back visceral memories not only of where we were when we heard or saw them, but who we were.
Now I just want to talk about old bands and TV shows. Let’s watch Fargo. Or Clueless. Did you have a Bedazzler?
We can reminisce after the interview.
Okay, one last question. Your book deals with some pretty heavy topics and is classified as adult fiction, yet people keep calling it YA. What’s up with that?
I think there is a tendency for some readers to label any book with a teenage protagonist as young adult. I wouldn’t mind except that there are plenty of adults who completely dismiss YA books and refuse to read them. I think they’re missing out on some great reads, but Hand Me Down, while it may also appeal to teens,is indeed an adult novel.
Should we shake hands? Hug it out? I feel like we grew closer during this interview.
Aw, look who turned into a softie.
Why don’t you come over and we’ll do YM magazine quizzes and listen to Weezer’s Blue Album.
Yeah. It’ll be fun. The rest of you are welcome to join us!
Melanie Thorne is the author of Hand Me Down, a debut novel in the tradition of Dorothy Allison and Janet Fitch, named a Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction Book of 2012 and a 2013 YALSA Alex Award nominee. Melanie earned her MA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Davis, and has been awarded the Alva Englund Fellowship, the Maurice Prize in Fiction, and a residency at the Hedgebrook Writer’s Retreat. Born and bred in California, she currently lives north of San Francisco. You can find her online at www.melaniethorne.com or on Twitter @mthorneauthor.