Oh. Okay. Facial reconstruction?
On second thought, forget it. Fetal surgery it is.
I don’t mean to be obsessed, but if I were a character, it would be one those formative backstories.
See, look at that. Even during an interview you’re starting with backstory.
You can begin at the beginning, or you can work your way back there.
Whatever you say.
I’ll tell the short version, okay? I was helping a fetal surgeon fundraise for his research, and he invited me to watch a triplet case in the operating room. I’d only watched surgeries from the abstract comfort of a telemedicine conference room before—this time I was huddled in the corner in scrubs. The mother was about 23 weeks along, awake but sedated. It was a minimally invasive surgery, all done through a tiny little instrument. When the surgeon put the diagnostic scope into the womb, it was like passing through a portal into the private universe of a fetus. I mean, we all know babies grow inside the womb, but it’s very hard, even when you are pregnant yourself, to conceptualize it. I could see the babies’ hair and fingernails, and they were actually grabbing at the scope. Several months later I got to see all three babies, now out in the world.
There are only a handful of people in the entire country who do fetal surgery, and that freaked me out. I started to think about the doctor as this scarce resource who was just walking around living his life, where he could get hurt. After that, the extremes of medicine and the nature of the people who commit themselves to this work became more interesting for me. My writing is better for it.
So everything you wrote before that sucked?
Well, I wouldn’t put it that way. But this unlikely subject matter found me. I’m squeamish—I never thought I’d work in medicine, let alone write about it. I didn’t watch many television shows about doctors. Now I’m completely hooked on The Knick.
Okay, it’s just that you’ve been writing for a really long time and this is your first published book.
Yes, there has been a lot of time spent on novels. I’ve been “emerging” for so long it seems like they need to call it something else. How about Failure to Launch, like the Matthew McConaughey movie.
Tell me about your first novel.
I remember thinking it was soooo important that I wrote a novel before high school, so I could make all those 15 under 15 lists. I spent the summer after I turned thirteen on a novel about then-President Reagan finding a portal to another dimension. Ronnie decided he’d make use of this space by creating a great communist experiment on the other side. (The irony was completely lost on me.) Reagan sent out a secret force to collect this diverse group of the nation’s greatest thinkers from different fields. Everyone lived in windowless, corrugated storage units and wore the same clothes (although different colors were available!); children weren’t raised by their parents, but by child experts, in cohorts. My protagonist Cassandra (I did not know the mythic reference) was being sent off to the next stage of childhood, where she’d have greater independence and live in her own corrugated box. But during a walk in the woods one day, she encountered someone from our dimension, who revealed another world, blah blah blah.
Then you went to Cuba? With a typewriter?
Not exactly. That was many years later. I was a poet then.
Wow, let’s live every literary cliché.
There were practical reasons, really! I was in a North American exchange workshop with Cuban writers and U.S. writers. Junot Díaz was the workshop leader for the fiction group, and I spent most of the trip observing him. (Maybe I felt so left out of the fun the fiction group was having that I stopped writing poetry after that.) There was no computer or printer access in Havana, and I was afraid I’d want to write something new and show it to my classmates. I have really bad penmanship. So the typewriter came. It was . . . heavy. Looking back, it sounds completely ludicrous.
Ooh, say something controversial about Junot Díaz.
You take yourself pretty seriously, huh?
I really don’t. But leave it to you to bring up every embarrassing thing I’ve ever done.
There’s just so much to choose from. What about the “literary” novel with the same plot as Disney’s The Kid?
We must never speak of it. In my defense, The Kid hadn’t been released at the time. Also, the movie was considered a financial success.
Or the one with the monk and the socialist. What was it called again?
I was one of those kids who didn’t just have imaginary friends, but imaginary enemies. That’s what this interview is like.
Or what about the one—
I’ve written a lot of bad novels, okay. I’ve written bad stories, too, the bad novels just take a lot longer.
But the stories in Dog Years are the good ones, right? You’re supposed to be promoting a collection here.
That’s right. Kirkus reviews suggests “similar titles” include Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, Robin Black’s If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This and Ramona Ausubel’s A Guide to Being Born. I really admire those collections and would hope fans of those would enjoy this one. And if you don’t believe me, for the amazingly low price of FREE! you can google my name or visit my website and read a sample story for yourself.
MELISSA YANCY’s short fiction has appeared in One Story, Glimmer Train, Zyzzyva, and many other publications. She is the recipient of a 2016 NEA Literature Fellowship, and her story collection Dog Years won the 2016 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and will be published by University of Pittsburgh Press in October 2016. She lives in Los Angeles where she works as a fundraiser for healthcare causes. You can visit her at melissayancy.com or at Twitter @melyancy.