Our very own Luisa recently got to a chance to talk to the very talented Cathy Mellett. Some of Cathy’s most recent fiction we know you’ll love includes “The Green Bridge” (Atlas and Alice) and “A Road Disappearing” (BULL: Men’s Fiction).
Luisa: So, do you write full-time now?
Cathy: Well I retired. I took an early retirement. And I do write full-time now. It’s been wonderful.
L: That’s such a dream. I wish!
C: Yeah, it was worth it to do that. First of all, for my own sanity. And then, for my own writing. I’ve just been getting so much more done. And it took me a long time to realize too, that you know, even though I have more time, sometimes when you have more time you just worry about how you’re using it in terms of your writing.
L: Yeah, and if there’s money involved it slows you down even more. And it puts you in a rut.
C: Yeah and it took me a long time to realize that I just had to make the best use of the time I had. You know, even if it’s fifteen or twenty minutes. Sometimes you can really write something in that time period.
L: You know, that’s true. And you know what? I’m actually very slow to publish. And I write a lot, collectively. Well, I don’t actually write as much as I should. I’m not an organized writer, which is something that I’ve been working on. Which is probably why I’m slow to publish. But what I tend to do is binge write, which I have to change. So, I’ll take like a whole day where I’ll only write, and then not write for maybe two weeks. And that’s really not good.
C: You know what? I don’t think that’s bad, at all. I mean I think those times when you’re not writing are really rejuvenating. And I think sometimes as writers we beat ourselves up too much.
L: That’s true.
C: That whole thing about, “you should write every day.” You know, I think, every time we hear the word “should” in regard to writing, maybe we need to balk at that a little bit.
L: Yeah that’s true, that’s true. And I do struggle with that also, but for me it’s more of… I know that I can push myself a little bit further than I have been pushing myself. And so, while I definitely don’t think I would write every day, because I tried that for about two months and it while I liked the results I was seeing, I wasn’t really getting out of the house much. And I was like, this is not, like you should really, you need to go grab a beer with somebody. You can’t just live off your imagination.
C: No. It can be really isolating.
L: It can.
C: Yeah, if you don’t watch.
L: And I’m already a homebody, you know what I mean? I’m already armed with the fluffiest of sweatpants and sweaters.
C: Oh yeah, me too. I definitely think it goes with the writing territory.
L: It does, it does.
C: So, I was curious as to which story you folks saw which prompted you to write to me.
L: Exactly, so I’m in my car, and so I’m using my phone’s internet, so it took a while to load the Atlas and Alice page, but I finally got here to author archives, and I’m going to Google your name. So, it was the story of, I forget the title, the story of a little girl with her mom.
C: That was The Green Bridge.
L: Yeah, so that was the one that I really liked because it was such an introspective piece from the point of view of a child. And I love reading things like that. And I think it’s just very cool to be able to channel that perspective. I think it can be very difficult past a certain point when you’re not a little kid anymore, and you’re like no if I write fiction, I have to write from the point of view of an adult. I don’t know, some people are kind of crazy and they try to do something like a film noir, or something like that. Which is like an odd cliché that a lot of people fall back on. But I really enjoyed that perspective of the child who just wants to be sort of loved. Which at the end of the day, is something we all want. And I just thought it was very cool because she’s such a strong little girl.
C: Oh, that’s good.
L: Yeah! And she bites back, you know what I mean? Me as a kid, I was a very easygoing little girl. And I was taught to say: yes, ok. So, I always love when I find characters, especially little girls who, think, well, you’re an adult but I don’t really care, because I don’t think what you’re doing is right.
C: Oh, that’s neat. Well, thanks!
L: Yeah! So, I have a couple of questions here. And I’ll just start off with the regular first question. What got you started as a writer?
C: Well, I think as with a lot of writers, I think it was reading. You know, I read so much as a child. I was an only child until I was eighteen, really. And it just gave me a lot of solaces, and it was just so interesting, and I think it grew out of that. Not that I thought I could do what these amazing writers were doing, but it certainly prompted me to try. And I started writing poetry, as a lot of people do.
Well in high school, the last two years of school I went to a really good high school, it was the city high school, and they had a lot of writing contests that they were involved in, and I started winning those and it just showed me that there was something I was good at, maybe. That there was something I could do.
L: I know the feeling. In my family, languages have always been really, important. Especially because, even though we’re Latino we’re very, very white, so no one believes that you speak Spanish or Portuguese or anything like that. And so your only claim to that sort of thing is language, and also, creatively that was the one thing where I’m like, you know, maybe I’m scatterbrained, but at the very least I’ve got my foot in the door with this and I can keep working on this.
C: Yeah, yeah. Well, I was very scatterbrained as a child too. It used to be pretty annoying to the adults. I don’t know, maybe we were just both dreamers—it’s how we ended up as writers.
L: Exactly! You create your other space where all of that can just fall away.
C: Yeah! So, a big day in my life as a little kid was the day that I was able to go with my grandmother to go get a library card. This was like the biggest thing. And you know, it was like a big event in the family too, you get your own library card. And I think I was about seven, and in the summer, every Monday, I would go and get the limit of library books I could get. And I would beg the librarian for more and she would always say: “No, this is all you can take out for a week. Bring them back next Monday and you can have seven more”.
L: So, she was negotiating, that’s funny.
C: And I really think that’s what did it, you know? Starting with poetry, and then doing essays and just you know, it ended almost, like I felt that was, in some ways the only thing I was good at. But it just sort of grew from there.
L: Oh, but it’s a beautiful skill. It’s one of those things where honestly, I used to think that as a writer, or as someone who just loves the humanities, just because you know, people are always pushing you—oh STEM is better—oh this is better—or you know, what are you going to do, write a letter for the rest of your life? And it’s like oh my God, wow, you’re so callous, and on top of that don’t realize that somebody has to keep the language going and somebody has to give it a heart. And people don’t really realize how important that is—besides all the other applications that writing can have in any aspect of any professional discipline. It’s very necessary to be able to properly communicate and tell a story.
C: It really is. I remember one time when I was working in a corporate environment, I had to interview one of the higher-ups, and he was lamenting, isn’t this terrible—his son wanted to be an English major. And I was sitting there just thinking, well what do you think I was?
L: And were you a copywriter?
C: Um, no, I did corporate communications for years. So, I did everything from writing brochures and newsletters and magazines to writing speeches for executives.
L: Yeah, I’ve met a lot of writers who have turned to that. It honestly tends to be a very good foothold if you can find it. And it doesn’t take up as much time—maybe if you work freelance it doesn’t take as much time, because if you work for an agency you can even end up working weekends.
C: Yeah, very much that way. Then I moved and ended up working for a university, and that was still really time-consuming. And eventually, I went out on my own as a freelancer, and then I was able to write more because then I could make my own schedule, and that was hugely helpful.
L: That’s excellent. And so, two things that I’m curious about—you said that you were an only child until you were eighteen?
L: And was that a stepsibling?
C: It was.
L: And originally where are you from?
C: Pittsburgh, PA.
L: So then, you said you moved to a different high school. But in the same city?
C: Yeah, it was in the same city.
L: And why did you move, if you don’t mind my asking?
C: Oh no, I was going to an all-girl Catholic high school. It was supposed to be very academic, and it wasn’t. You know, it was a matter of money, they just had very old textbooks, and I just felt like I didn’t fit in, so after two years I finally convinced my family to let me move.
L: Like, it’s time to book it. That’s funny. That sounds tough, a Catholic high school. That sounds very strict.
C: Yeah, and we weren’t even Catholic, so it was even more of a mess.
L: Oh no! So why did they put you in there in the first place? Like it’s ok, you’re Protestant, it’ll work itself out somehow.
C: Yeah, I went there because it was supposed to be such a good school, but public school ended up being so much better for me.
L: That’s good, I’m glad those last two years were good for you. And so then, my next question is: Do you feel closer to a certain genre or style? Why? And how does this inform the way you see or experience the world around you?
C: I’ve never been a big genre writer, like science fiction, or anything like that, or mystery. But what I really like is literary fiction. And I don’t know, the people who are in that camp, like Elizabeth Strout, people like Donna Tart, they’re all writing about things that are really important in the world. And I think, you read them, and people like them, and you just are exposed so closely to another person’s point of view, and the life of these characters that you would never see otherwise. It’s definitely not formulaic writing. It’s just really in touch, I think, with humanity.
L: I agree, I agree. And I think that’s also the power of storytelling, which is to sort of connect stories to one another, and connect people in general.
C: It does. And language is so important and that’s such an important connection for people.
L: Language, yes! I’m still very much wanting to take a linguistics course. I feel like that would be very beneficial for writing.
C: Mhmm, and I took a lot of sociology and anthropology in college and I also felt that that really informed my writing.
L: Oh, that’s very interesting. And why do you feel that? Because I mean, I feel the same way, I’m just curious.
C: I think it just taught me a lot about people and different cultures. Trends that were going on in different countries and different groups of people. And the writer Zora Neale Hurston for example, she wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God. She was actually an anthropology major at Columbia. And I think you can see her interest in anthropology.
L: Yeah, what I think is interesting about sociology and anthropology; it wasn’t that I had, let’s say, any predisposed notions of “this is how the world is” sort of thing. I didn’t really think that there was a structure to it, or I didn’t think that that was how things were any longer, which is naïve. And it just sort of opened a door when I started taking sociology courses, and I thought this is very interesting, because this is sort of the dynamics of my society or my city or my country, and look how different it is in other countries. Which is why I also think comparative literature is very, very interesting.
C: It really is. I got my bachelor’s and my MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. And they started offering comparative literature classes around that time, and that was really eye-opening to me. There were things from different cultures, like China and India that I’d never been exposed to before, and that was really eye-opening. In terms of not only what the world’s like, but what you can do with language and what you can do with story.
Cathy Mellett’s fiction has appeared in Atlas and Alice, BULL: Men’s Fiction, Confrontation, The Literary Review, The Yale Review, and elsewhere. She was just named a Saturday Evening Post 2020 Great American Short Story recipient. Her short story collection, “All I’ve Ever Done is Love You,” is shortlisted for both the CR 2020 Fiction Awards and the Santa Fe Writers Project 2020 Fiction Awards.
Check out Cathy’s website www.cathymellett.com. You can find her on Twitter @CathyMellett.