Melissa Anne Peterson grew up in a rainy logging town in Washington State. She received a BA/BS degree in writing and biology from The Evergreen State College and an MS degree in Environmental Writing from the University of Montana. She has worked in endangered species recovery and pollution monitoring in Washington and Montana for 12 years. Her writing has been published by Camas Magazine, Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, Oregon Quarterly, and Seal Press. Her first novel, Vera Violet, was published by Counterpoint Press in February of this year.
For our third installment of Five By 5×5, we hit up Melissa and she threw some knowledge our way. Here’s her take on five, semi-randomly selected questions that our frighteningly gorgeous editors have crafted:
1. Finish the sentence: At the end of the day, it’s a good story if…
MP: …It helped you grow.
2. What was the last animal that inspired your writing?
MP: Steelhead trout, the anadromous form of rainbow trout. My next novel is about love, murder, and extinction. The story is told by working-class, nature loving ghosts who are obsessed with removing a fish killing bridge. Steelhead are dynamic, responsive, and mysterious. I’ve been researching them for years and they keep blowing my mind. I’m in awe of their fearless independence. These fish are fighters, and they inspire me to fight for them.
3. Whose writing do you think is under-appreciated?
MP: Anyone who is trying to write and work a crappy job, raise a family, give back to their community, and process their own trauma on a budget. These are the writers scribbling in a notebook while breastfeeding, writers who didn’t just “get out” of their old neighborhood, but came back to save everything they love. There isn’t a lot of space for them in the current market, and they don’t always have the time and means to get their work out there. My first novel might never have made it through the publication process without help from other writers like Jonathon Evison who literally put it into the hands of the right people. So, I’m always conscious of the fact that writing a book is a privilege most people don’t get to experience. I think there’s a big difference between writing a book because you want to and writing a book because you have to. The scale of loss is different. Writers who are willing to make monumental sacrifices for their craft have something they feel compelled to express, and if they’re good, they’re going to challenge you, and add something really unique to this global conversation we’re having.
4. Do you have any rituals set up for when you write?
MP: I’m a working single-mother, so for me there is no such thing as a writing ritual. My son was 6 months old when I started graduate school for environmental writing, and we lived in a 280 square foot studio apartment in Missoula. Since the bathroom was the only private place, I had my “office” set up in there. I would get up in the middle of the night, balance my laptop on the toilet seat and write until he woke up. These days, the “ritual” is grabbing any spare minute I have to myself and jotting down all the thoughts that have been zooming through my head. Sometimes, I drag myself out of bed at 3am, drink way too much coffee, and write until I have to get ready for work. COVID-19 has changed this quite a bit since I’m not commuting, but my son is with me 24/7 now, so I have to be creative in how I carve out time to write.
5. What’s the name of the brick wall you’ve run your writerly head into most?
MP: I have a personal compulsion to tell all sides of a story. Generally, this impulse takes me in circles, and every time I reach the spot where I started, my understanding of a situation is even more complicated. This process of inner devil’s advocate can be torturous, but I think people, societies, and places are layered and complex, so stories should be intricate as well. A tangled reality is difficult to communicate, and coherence is important. What saves me from the whirlpool of my own thoughts are the archetypes of stories that tend to develop over time. These archetypes are where the clarity lies. Right now, I feel like people are searching for the narrative, the “real story.” The range in current viewpoints is astounding. There is divisiveness. We have powerful technology that allows us instant access to information, but some of the information only shows part of the truth. That’s why we’re having trouble finding justice. We keep missing one another. But the things that will bring us together are the things we have in common, and our differences are what make us strong. Before solutions to big problems can be worked out over time, people first have to agree on what the problem is. A good thing that’s happening now with the BLM demonstrations, is people are openly acknowledging problems, and we’re processing a toxic history on a deeper level. Maybe the only way to define problems is to open your heart to them. So, I think we should keep seeing, keep learning, keep listening, and we can find the bigger, overarching stories that exist both within and outside the things that seem small. This will change us. Books are testimonies, and all the testimonies add up to the story, not of our lives, but of our time. That’s why they’re important. Good books capture archetypes, bigger truths, and this will last longer than partial or surface information. They’re the stories we’re telling our grandchildren, and they have to be complete. So that’s what drives me. That’s what keeps my thoughts circling.
Get your hands on a copy of Melissa’s unforgettable, ridiculously good Vera Violet here.