Interview with Melanie Rose Huff, Author of Phantasmagoria
Author Name: Melanie Rose Huff
Names of Book(s): A Phantasmagoria
What was your first thought once you were told you were a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree? It wasn’t really a thought so much as a suffusion of glee. My first novel, Ashford, was a BRAG honoree as well, so I was familiar with them and what they do, and I was very…well, honored. I love that they’ve set the standard for quality that they have with indie books. Especially when the market is as flooded as it is, I think it’s very helpful for readers to be able to see that a book is a BRAG honoree and know that it’s gone through a rigorous evaluation process to earn that title.
What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them? This book actually started by mistake, because I was working on another novel, but I was a recent widow with a baby. I really struggled with finding time to write without distraction. It felt like I’d barely get started, and my son would wake up, or need a fresh diaper…and of course I was also dealing (and still am…it never really stops, it just changes) with the grief of losing my husband, and trying to heal. So the short pieces, the flash fiction, the micro-essays…I started writing them as a sort of catharsis, as a way to heal, but also because here was something I could finish. I mean, I took a lot of time going back to edit them, get the wording tighter, and all that – but the idea, the heart of the thing, could be captured during a nap. And then I just started really enjoying the process, and how writing really short pieces forces you to cut out everything unnecessary. The title happened because they were all really taking on the texture of dreams. The dictionary definition of phantasmagoria is “a series of brief, dreamlike images,” and I really wanted to capture the nature of dreams, how everything makes sense within the context of the dream, but when you wake up it makes no sense at all, or how there’s such a sense of urgency…because you can’t find the cheesecloth, or how a dream can bring such a powerful sense of someone’s presence that you’re still struggling to hold on to it after you wake up.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book? It was a really fun challenge to strip down everything to the bare bones. A few times I thought, “Oh, I’ll make this one a little longer.” But then it just wasn’t working. Inevitably, once I cut it down, it just had more impact, more power. They always tell you in writers’ workshops to cut out the excess, make the writing sharper…this was like that on steroids. There are a few fairy tale retellings in the book, and those were especially fun. I loved fairy tales as a child, but even then some of the decisions made by the characters really bothered me. So here they choose differently. Also, working with Traci, the illustrator, was a constant joy. She’s such a brilliant artist, and just a lovely person to work with. I would send her several pieces at a time, and then wait in suspense to see what she would come up with. I very seldom gave her any sort of guideline about what I thought a particular image should be…it was just so fun to see her unique take on the text of what I had sent her. Sometimes it was like she’d read my mind, and other times I would look at it and think, “Wow, I never thought of it that way, but it’s perfect.” And now all the pieces feel inseparable from her illustrations.
Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from? I blame Shakespeare, really, and my aunt. When my sister and I were quite young, our aunt gave us a beautiful edition of Midsummer Night’s Dream, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. In the beginning I was definitely more enthralled by the illustrations than anything else, but that eventually led to wanting to know more about the story. Working my way through the actual text was tricky at eight years old, but eventually I got my hands on a copy of Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare, and started reading through those and following up with the plays themselves once I already had a grasp of the basic story. I also started writing some highly theatrical stories of my own. And of course Shakespeare led to other authors. My aunt (the same one) is a Professor of English Literature, and she fed my addiction from the beginning. She always had book recommendations for me, and was curious about what I’d been reading, and in spite of being infinitely more well-read than I was she never talked down to me. Once, as a teenager, I ended up in the hospital with a dangerously low white blood cell count, which meant visitors had to be very careful, and couldn’t bring me flowers. My aunt and uncle brought me a book bouquet.
What inspires you? I’m very inspired by the beauty of the natural world, and I’m fortunate enough to live an absolutely gorgeous place. I pretty much step out of my door into paradise. I’ve found that movement releases my creativity, and I get inspired when I’m out walking or working in my garden, so I have to have pen and paper handy at all times. I’m also a dancer, and I get some of my best ideas driving home after rehearsals and end up pulling off on the side of the road to jot things down. The actual act of writing is such a stationary thing, and I feel like that combination helps balance me…the physicality of dance, of losing myself in the movement and the music, informs my writing, and the quiet introspection of the writing process makes me a better dancer.
What do you like to read in your free time? A charitable person might call my library eclectic. I always find myself returning to the classics, but I have a growing number of contemporary authors whose work I collect, and I love fantasy. My fiction bookshelf is arranged alphabetically, so Lloyd Alexander’s myth-inspired fantasies are sandwiched between Louisa M. Alcott and Jane Austen, John Campbell’s fabulous historical fiction is keeping company with the Brontes and Capote, Wilkie Collins and Suzanne Collins are having a good laugh about sharing a last name, Intisar Khanani’s Sunbolt Chronicles are wedged in by Kipling, and on the bottom shelf Heidi thinks Dracula should keep his hands to himself and they’re both jealous of Tolkien for taking so much shelf space. In the non-fiction realm, I love history, biography, and memoir especially. My first two novels were WWII-era historical fiction, so that era is especially well-represented.
What do your plans for future projects include? Every time I finish a project and start looking for the next thing, I end up starting several projects at once, and then there’s a bit of a race to see which one comes out ahead. At this point, I have the beginnings of two novels, as well as a memoir of sorts. It’s a bit too early to give details, but I’m rather fond of all three of them and curious to see which one takes the lead.