Consider This Case: An Interview with Melissa Yancy

Luke Gobel

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This has been a tumultuous year for us all, and Melissa’s Yancy’s own life has seen its share of momentous changes. Her debut story collection, Dog Years, won the University of Pittsburgh Press’s Drue Heinz Literature Prize, she received a coveted NEA fellowship, and also gave birth to her first child.

In the midst of our disastrous election, I had the pleasure of chatting with the LA-based author about recalibrating when it rains all at once, healing rifts on the left in Trump’s America, keys to a successful workshop experience, amplifying marginalized voices, and more.


Luke B. Goebel: Congratulations on your recent NEA and Winning the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. And the baby! And being married! And your first book! What does it feel like to have it rain so hard all at once? Are you floating, drowning, swimming, or slogging?

Melissa Yancy: My friends are excited—I feel like I have dozens of parents rooting me on.

From the outside, it must look nice. A close friend recently told me how happy he was, how he didn’t feel any of the schadenfreude he might have if this had happened ten years ago (although he said schadenfreude—the joy in someone else’s misfortune—he meant the suffering in someone else’s joy, which some people call gluckschmerz, a word Charles Baxter made up). It’s yet another upside of failure, or should I say protracted apprenticeship—people are happier for you.

Let’s just say that in typical circumstances I’m the kind of person who can’t remember her phone number. I’ve heard that having a child can cause permanent neurological changes. I now get all my homonyms confused—is that normal? On the plus side, I have no mental space left for anxiety.

LG: I understand that feeling, the anxiety and the staying busy staving it off.  How about now with the election of Trump and everything else?

MY: I’ve joked that my son didn’t want to be born because I’d watched too much election coverage (I went to 42 weeks and he still wouldn’t come out), but of course, that’s deeply unfunny when you think about it. I was hospitalized for severe pre-eclampsia a few days after he was born—the treatment is a 24-hour magnesium drip—and I remember the fog of surgical recovery, the hormone bomb, the leaking milk, the ache from the magnesium and the thrum of television news in the background. I tried watching other channels, but anything unpredictable—an image of a baby, or violence, or a sentimental television commercial—was more than I could handle. I watched election coverage because I already knew what was happening and the punditry was all on repeat.

I read and watched an obscene amount of election coverage over an 18-month period, but as the election wore on, it started to feel like a Chinese finger trap—the harder we pulled, the tighter the trap became. That’s not a metaphor about coming to the middle. It was just easy to see that no arguments were hitting the mark. People couldn’t even sway their own spouses. I think Obama came closest to finding it the most effective critique when he said we don’t look to be ruled—I thought that, if nothing else, would appeal to the sense of self-reliance and individualism. But when some people heard I alone can fix this, they seemed to think, this is what it would be like if I got a shot to be President.


LG: Not to plug the house of tin, where we will run this conversation…but you attended the Tin House Summer Workshop a few years ago and studied with Anthony Doerr.  What was it like to work with him? Care to talk about workshopping as practice for writing, education as a writer, and as cultural phenomenon? Is social media just one great workshop?

MY: By all means, let’s plug the house of tin. I’ve often credited that workshop as a turning point in my work. The faculty are second-to-none, and the week is set up to maximize your experience—workshops, exceptional craft lectures, readings, partying. Even the food is good.

The funniest part—a story I don’t usually tell—is that in my workshop there was a guy from my graduate program, basically the guy who’d slept with all my female friends. On the first day when we did introductions around the room, he realized he knew me, said he thought he used to date my friend. I responded, I’m pretty sure you used to date all my friends. The class just looked at us like, ooh, drama! Not sure that got me off on the right start with Anthony Doerr, but he forgave me. And the guy ended up bedding the girl in the room next to mine, so not much had changed. That’s another plug—Tin House, you could get lucky.

Before that workshop, I’d been hunkered down writing (then trying to sell) a novel for about five years. I was publishing short fiction, but not taking the form as seriously as I could. It’d been years since I’d done a workshop and I didn’t have fond memories. Now I see that I just hadn’t taken the right workshops—almost every one I’ve done in the years since has been worth my time and money. In 2015, I went to the Lit Camp that the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto puts on, and the lecture by Adam Johnson alone was worth the trip. Perhaps not every aspect of writing can be taught, but I don’t know why you wouldn’t choose to put yourself if the room with our greatest working writers. If that doesn’t do something for your writing, what does that say? Workshops can be tedious and infuriating—your fellow students will be a crapshoot, by and large—but you have to be realistic. If there’s one astute reader you connect with, I’d consider that a success. But the idea that the voices of these other people leads to some bad, consensus-built, watered-down stuff, is an idea I reject. A really experienced workshop leader—Kevin McIlvoy comes to mind—can structure things in such a way that even students with  limited proficiency as writers can provide remarkable feedback as readers. He has a way of elevating the entire conversation. Generally, I do think there’s a tendency to be focused on the minutiae of craft before student writers are really ready for it. I think there’s a need to focus on authentic voice, subject matter, in-depth reading first. I think the pedagogy could be more effective.

As for workshop culture, social media would be a workshop if in a workshop you only read the first line of a story and got really pissed about it (Twitter) or if rather than writing anything at all, you just traveled to exotic locales with your laptop and posted photos of it (Facebook).

But I think I know what you mean about group-think, about the giant echo chamber. I see Twitter more as a curated public self, and Facebook as a curated private self. And it feels more appropriate to shape that public self. I don’t want my private self to be curated—I have other spheres for that. And I absolutely hate the way that knowing you might post something can shape the experience itself, in life. It becomes a lens, and I want my writing to be the lens, not social media. I’m so suspicious of my own impulses, and I want to be as authentic as I can be with those close to me. I mean, don’t get me wrong—self is a construct—but still.  I don’t know how to keep it real, I guess.

I enjoyed the Jon Ronson book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, and I thought about it a lot during the election season. Social media has become a haven for trolls, but it’s also become a place of public shaming, where one misguided tweet can get someone fired. Trump derived a lot of power from his refusal to be shamed in a time of public shaming. In light of this election, I’d recommend Ronson’s Them, too.

LG: That’s really interesting…the notion of Trump refusing to be shamed. I think you’re on to something. What about the public shaming of us by one another on the left? What do we do now?

MY: Part of it is the nature of academia—the need to posit new theories, invent new words, one-upmanship—and I think it can be easy for people to forget how incomprehensible that language can be to the uninitiated. I can’t say it better than Roxane Gay does in her essay “Peculiar Benefits,” when she talks about the fact that we need to stop playing the Privilege or Oppression Olympics. God, do we need her voice.

The day Obama was elected in 2008, Proposition 8, eliminating same-sex marriage, passed in the State of California. Some of the coverage seemed to blame the African-American community, since about 70 percent had supported it. I still felt we had gained much more in the election than we’d lost, but wish I’d felt unequivocal joy (I did later, on inauguration day). I went to work that morning and got yelled at by one of my colleagues for refilling a box of coffee in the kitchen—one of those ridiculous office politics/power scenarios—but the scene felt so fraught with subtext, like a bad scene from the movie Crash. I ended up having to leave work. I didn’t expect to feel so rattled, so devastated, but the fact that Prop 8 had won even in Los Angeles County made me see my colleagues, neighbors, in this different light. Magnify that times 1,000 and add the entire context and weight of our country’s history, and I can’t begin to imagine the betrayal people feel, especially about white women voters following this election.


In the days that have followed, “white shock” has been called out as a micro-aggression, and white tears as a way of being complicit in racism. The Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock election night skit on SNL was painfully true, the sentiment America: still shitty after all these years. And yet I wondered if this wasn’t also a way of normalizing, of comforting. White people did a lot of apologizing, and then quickly apologized for apologizing since the apologizing was offensive and decided it might be best to shut the hell up for a while. The shit was raw. It isn’t and wasn’t the job of anyone else to make white people feel better. I spent the last few days after the election in Portland, the nation’s capital of well-meaning white folk, and was reminded of how precious it can all get.

In the earnest offers of solidarity, the oppression Olympics were in full force, people explaining the degree to which they were personally threatened by Trump’s rhetoric and proposed policies before expressing their perspective. I’m a white woman in a multicultural gay marriage. But if I see one more “white straight gentile cis male” saying, in essence, that as a white male, he knows he’s not the one who “stands to lose” or is “under threat” in Trump’s America, I am going to scream. Let’s not get it twisted. You are under threat. Demagoguery is a threat.

Does that mean you shouldn’t acknowledge those that continue to be most in danger from violence, from direct threat to life and limb? I can hear the voice of Ta-Nehisi Coates in my head speaking of the way forces act with violence upon the black body. There’s no equivalence: threats on your life, your family, your home are not the same as abstract assaults on the press, on science, on religion, on our democracy itself. But they are threats. To you. Stop talking about the “people who are actually affected by this” versus the rest of us.

Maybe that’s my privilege talking and this is just same shit, different package—the new normal is the old normal, but with a bigger loudspeaker. But believing this is more of the same strikes me as its own kind of naïveté. Americans who emigrated from Europe should be a little extra-sensitive of the slide towards nationalism, to fascism. Calling outrage a micro-aggression seems to encourage silence, and I don’t think this is a time for silence. Is it possible to both listen and speak? I hope so. But maybe not. Maybe I’m taking up space with this very interview. That’s the kind of hand-wringing we get into.

LG: The stories in your new collection Dog Years feature several gay characters, including a father (closeted?) and his surgeon son in “Consider This Case” and a friend of one of the protagonists in “Go Forth.”  Even today, are we seeing a limited number of gay characters in literary fiction in short stories—is this true, or am I showing grave ignorance—and when central, they’re often shown in extremis, not leading ordinary lives as working professionals or attending dinner parties as they do in your work. Another writer who comes to mind is Adam Haslett. Are you familiar with his story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here and his new novel Imagine Me Gone? Are you two doing similar work in how you both incorporate gay characters into the larger canvas of your work? Am I even asking the question well enough?

MY: I’ve been waiting for someone to call me on the absence of gay characters. There’s really only one story that centers on a gay character, and there isn’t a lesbian in sight. But I think I understand the project you’re referring to, and it’s an important one. I’ve been excited about a slate of new shows and books that offered hope of moving beyond token representation or fetishism, but now that seems foolish. But I’m still glad those things are happening.

With the publication of Imagine Me Gone I recently picked up You Are Not a Stranger Here again–I read it when it first came out. Looking back, the opening story “Notes to My Biographer,” seems to have had a big influence on my work, even though it’s not one of those stories I’ve read and re-read, not a conscious influence. But I read it at a really formative time in my writing.

LG: And what are your thoughts on this scarcity of gay characters in contemporary American fiction? How has your identity informed the creation and inclusion of these characters in your fiction? Do you know other writers who are incorporating gay characters into their work in such a way?

MY: I’m cautious about the way “identity informs” anything in my life, as something outside of my totality. I don’t think being a lesbian (and I don’t think of it that way, as a state of being) informs things as much as the specific relationships I’ve had in my life, and I don’t think I’ve yet been able to capture the full richness of that. I’d like to. I think Lori Ostlund is someone who is doing what you describe well in her short and long fiction, with both male and female characters. The person I always think of who does this beautifully is Michael Cunningham. Do most people think of The Hours as a “gay” novel? But it centers on a lifelong intimacy between a lesbian and a gay man. The Clarissa Dalloway character is probably my single favorite lesbian character. The thing about Cunningham is that he writes about women so well, and women read. The female fantasy of the gay male is that he will understand and appreciate us in a way straight men do not—and Cunningham delivers. But any novel that is deeply interior—and I think interiority is one of the most interesting aspects of fiction—can take us beyond the identity of characters to their inner state. That very specific, interior state is where the deeply personal begins to become universal.

With fiction, I think of the imaginative impulse, the expressive impulse, and empathetic impulse. The imaginative impulse is how I imagine the child writer, the world builder, the dreamer, the maker of fables and tales. The expressive impulse—please understand me—arises later, maybe in the teenage years, and can take a long time to find a successful form. And the empathetic impulse is the curiosity about other people’s lives and the desire to inhabit them. My short fiction is definitely driven by the last impulse. It’s not that it doesn’t become expressive, in the telling—it always does—but my subconscious does that work for me. I don’t start with an expressive impulse. But a novel is different. A novel is something you have to live with for a lot longer, and there, I think the other impulses take center stage for me. I tend to write in first person in the long form, and feel a more direct connection with “what I want to say.” As a result, it’s been much, much harder to get it right.

LG: I like those three models. That’s a good way to look at it! I love interiority. That’s my JAM! I rarely want to leave it to bother with a plot—the imaginative impulse. How do you find time to write – do you schedule it? And how has the additional funding affected your writing career?  Are you feeling more pressure?

MY: Once upon a time, I wrote in the mornings, before I left for work. Then a long commute across town changed that, and I had to wake up early just to get to the office. So I wrote in little scraps of time and worked on weekend mornings when I could.  For the moment, book promotion has taken up the little scraps.

I have great ambitions for my lunch hour. In my dream lunch hour, I write, get some of my 10,000 steps in, run a errand, respond to a personal e-mail, eat something healthy. Lunchtime reality is more like a meeting, a conference call, or lunch with a colleague, or catching up on work emails. I telecommute most Fridays, so I try to get a couple of hours of writing in before diving into work.

I’m a big fan of the “writing vacation.” In the past, I’d take anywhere from a long weekend to a week to push through a big bunch of material. That’s when I’d get a lot on the page. My favorite spot for that is Joshua Tree. Living in Joshua Tree, teaching at UC Riverside Palm Desert—you’re living my dream right now.


LG: As a debut author (don’t you hate that category?), what’s the experience of publishing your first book been like? How do you intersect with the literary communities in LA? Nationwide? Worldwide?

MY: I’ve been writing and publishing in journals for so long that I think I have pretty realistic expectations, and so much of any experience is about that. A decade ago, I still had the big debut author fantasies. By comparison, now it just means a lot to me to publish my first book while my dad is still alive and well to enjoy it. I’m heading to Oregon this month to my alma mater (Linfield College) and one of my favorite undergrad writing professors—the poet Lex Runciman—is retiring this year. So that also feels special. In terms of community, today there are a lot more micro-communities. The lit world feels more like the music scene did in the mid-90s living up in the Northwest, tribes around K records or Kill Rock Stars or Matador or Sub-Pop. Literature isn’t quite there yet, but it’s come a long way. I think Tin House was and remains important in that movement. I was a senior in college in Oregon in 1999 when the first issue came out. I remember being so excited that people were trying to publish a journal that was attractive, that didn’t look like the typical university journal at the time. It was pretty novel back then. The first McSweeney’s had just been published. And then the internet took what could have remained localized and expanded the borders of those types of communities. And there’s been such a proliferation since.

Even though I’ve brushed up against many of those communities in the course of publishing short fiction and attending various workshops over the years, one of the things I hope to do in publishing a book is participate more. So far, the experience has made a few things about the industry less opaque for me, which I’m grateful for.

LG: Are you working on a new project?

MY: If I define the term “working” very loosely, then yes. A novel, a backup novel (which is just an idea at this point) and more short stories.

LG: What’s the novel?

MY: I got drunk and told a few friends and they’ve been making fun of me ever since. It’s kind of like Ferrante, only more gay, and set in the future. That’s why there’s supposed to be a backup novel. I really want to write about folie a deux and psychosomatic illness. But I’ve got more stories in the queue that play with the themes of Dog Years—illness, parenthood, and time—that material isn’t finished with me yet.

LG: How does your writing work to change this whole messed up nation/world?

MY: I spent a number of years writing a novel about whiteness that reflected my experiences growing up in a state like Arizona, then living in the Northwest (with the stark contrast between urban progressivism and rural militias)—then living in a segregated but diverse city like Los Angeles. I could feel something brewing, but it wasn’t really in the zeitgeist yet; unfortunately, it wasn’t a very good novel, and it still irks me that I couldn’t have given voice to it. The epigraph at the beginning of the book was the Chris Rock quote, “Ain’t nothing scarier than poor white people. Even white people are scared of poor white people.” There are people who might know privilege exists, but don’t feel they’ve experienced it in their lives. They don’t understand that it’s not the window dressing–it’s the bricks and mortar. They look around at their lives and think—this is privilege?

Obama’s presidency put on display what people of color have tried to explain—that a black man must be that much more intelligent, dignified and moral; he must never rise to anger, he must always go high; he may offer compromise, he may offer humor; but still he will be vilified, made out to be an enemy of the state. The standard for the black man is perfection. The standard for the white man is, apparently, a heartbeat. I think it was Obama’s presidency, not Trump’s election, that brought to light what some liberal white people could not acknowledge.

But to your question. Representation matters, the radical empathy art offers matters. But each of us has to think about what we can uniquely contribute. I don’t even want to think about narrative right this second. Narrative has too much shape. I need to read poetry (I’ve got Saeed Jones, Mark Doty and Solmaz Sharif on the nightstand). Then I’ll read the book of Marilynne Robinson essays, The Givenness of Things. Religion is the thing that eats at me. The contemplative voice, by its nature, is a quieter voice. And we need to amplify it. There are voices that need to emerge from within religious communities.

There’s changing the world, and then there’s changing politics. Already, the autopsy of the election concerns me. We can’t just scream louder. We need new language. I often wonder what politics could look like if abortion had not become the right’s most powerful tool. In the Huffington Post, Andy Schmookler put it well when he wrote, “When a political party can get millions of voters who care about moral values locked into seeing it as the defender of morality, it frees itself to engage in immoral conduct of all sorts without fear of losing those voters’ support.” In some sense, being pregnant radicalized me on this issue, made the war on women more deeply felt, and yet I hate the effect Schmookler describes. If social media contributed one good thing to the election this year, it was that women began to tell stories about painful and personal reproductive choices they’ve had to make.


Melissa Yancy is the author of the story collection Dog Years, winner of the University of Pittsburgh Press’s 2016 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Her short fiction has appeared in One Story, Glimmer Train, Zyzzyva, and other publications. She is the recipient of a 2016 NEA Literature Fellowship. Stories from Dog Years have won the Glimmer Train Fiction Open and The Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize and received special mention in the Pushcart Prize. Yancy lives in Los Angeles where she works as a fundraiser for healthcare causes.

Luke B. Goebel is the winner of the Ronald Sukenick Prize for Innovative Fiction for his first novel: FOURTEEN STORIES, NONE OF THEM ARE YOURS (FC2). He has work in places like Tin House and Electric Literature and LARB and The American Reader and AUTRE (where he is prose editor) and Catapult. He is finishing his second novel, PS WE’RE BLOWING UP LOS ANGELES. He lives in Snow Creek where John Lennon and Timothy Leary and Ginsberg and Leonard Cohen’s daughter and a bunch of people lived even though it’s only 40 houses and no one knows where it is.