If you google Melissa Keil, you’ll find a link to her site describing her as a writer, editor, nerd.
I think I might have heard harps playing when I heard that because it’s wonderful to see a writer embracing their inner nerd like that.
Melissa’s day job is as a children’s book editor, while her secret identity — or rather not-so secret identity — is an acclaimed YA author. Life in outer space is the kind of book I wish I had growing up — one that celebrates being a geek. Yes, I’m old aren’t I? However, becoming a writer wasn’t all that easy: she’s worked as a high school teacher, Middle Eastern tour guide and IT Help desk person, to name a few of her eclectic jobs in her career.
Her most recent book is The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl, a story about a comic-drawing Alba facing change — it’s about growing up and embracing it the best way you can.
Read on to learn more Melissa about her writing, how she became a writer and why YA is where she wants to be.
Who was your favourite author as a child?
The earliest author I remember reading obsessively was Enid Blyton (The Wishing Chair and The Faraway Tree books were particular early favs), and a little bit later, LM Montgomery. I was given The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy when I was about eight or nine, and Douglas Adams is still on the top of my favourite ever author list. I think he was probably the most influential in terms of steering my reading tastes to this day.
After everything you’ve done in your life, how did you become a writer? Was it something you expected, or hoped for in the back of your mind?
It was something I dreamed about when I was young, but thought was completely out of my reach. Books always seemed like these magical things, and the idea that they actually had mere mortals as creators never really crossed my mind. I think lots of writers have pretty similar stories – I was always book obsessed and always wrote stories for myself, but it took a long time to even contemplate pursuing that in a serious way. Getting a job in publishing, being trained as an editor, and working with other writers helped give me a push to start writing seriously – seeing other ‘normal’ people who wrote books for a living suddenly opened up a world that always felt quite remote and exclusive.
You’ve written for ‘older readers’ and YA – what is about this age range that appeals to you as a writer?
It’s such an amazing time to write about – the nebulous space between childhood and adulthood that is really rich with possibilities for characters and stories. It’s a huge time of transition, of so many firsts, and of intense, powerful emotions – I think one of the reasons YA is so appealing to people of all ages is because those experiences leave pretty indelible marks, even on adult psyches (or as Joss Whedon said, no one ever really gets over high school).
Have you considered venturing out into writing for an older genre?
Right now, YA is where my heart is – apart from the fact that I adore writing stories with teen protagonists, I feel like I’m part of a really warm and supportive community of readers and writers, and I love being part of that world. And, a huge number of YA readers are in fact adults – I don’t feel the need for any sort of ‘legitimacy’ in saying I write specifically for ‘grown ups’ (whatever that means!)
What is the most important thing to keep in mind for you as a writer as you work?
When I started writing I wrote without any expectation or mindfulness that anyone was going to read my work. It’s incredibly freeing to write just for yourself, and so I suppose the hardest thing to maintain is that creative ‘openness’ when suddenly deadlines are involved, and other people are reading and commenting on your work too. It’s a nice problem to have – but I still want to write stories that resonate with me, characters who I love and whose worlds I want to be immersed in for the year or so it takes to finish a novel.
Has being a children’s book editor and your experiences there negatively influenced you as a writer? Or has it always been a positive?
If anything, being a children’s editor has been incredibly positive and beneficial to my writing. Learning how to evaluate a book through editorial eyes – how to pull it apart and look at the components, how to make decisions on what’s working and what’s not, and more importantly, how to solve (or suggest solutions) to problems, was all invaluable when I started writing my own manuscripts. Though, knowing all the pitfalls that writers make still didn’t make me less precious with pulling apart my own work (just ask my editor!)
What do you wish children’s authors did more of/wrote more of?
Diversity is the big push at the moment, and rightly so – there is so much scope in the children’s and young adult world for stories featuring all sorts of writers, and all sorts of protagonists in all kinds of stories, and it’s great that this is actively being discussed at the moment. Personally, I want to see more books for kids of all ages that defy ‘gender segregation’ – less marketing of ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’, and more great stories that are open to all readers, regardless of the genre or gender of the protagonists. One of the loveliest surprises with my books is that they seem to be equally popular with both girls and boys (at least, judging from the gorgeous letters that I receive and the kids that I talk to at schools), even though as ‘romantic comedies’ they’re part of a genre typically kept out of the hands of boys.
Both Alba and Sam are such wonderful geeks in your books – are they you? Speaking as a fellow geek, I can only wish I’d had such books growing up, telling me I was cool in my own way! What inspired you to create them?
Thank you! Neither of the characters are entirely me – they both felt like very real, independent people in my own mind while I was writing them – but of course, there are little pieces of me in both of them. Both characters are somewhat inhibited creative people, whose way of interacting with or understanding the world is primarily through their respective fandoms (Sam wants to be a horror movie screenwriter, Alba is a comic book artist). I’ve always had a soft spot for geeks, nerds and outsiders, especially the creative kids with rich internal lives, who don’t necessarily have the easiest time in the real world, at least in the small fishbowl of high school. And both of my books allowed me to be immersed in geek culture for research, which was nice!
What unexpected differences did you find in writing Alba and Sam?
If they were to meet, I like to think that Sam and Alba would be good, if sometimes querulous friends – I think they would get along well, but would also confound each other on a fairly regular basis! While Sam approaches the world with a kind of naïve, world-weary cynicism, Alba has a positive and generally cheerful outlook on life. While Sam is quite internal and fairly repressed, Alba is full of bubbling energy and is confident in her own skin. They were such fun, interesting characters to write back-to-back!
What is up next for you in 2015?
I’m working on my third novel at the moment, as well as juggling all the wonderful stuff that comes with having a few books out in the world – talking to kids at schools and appearing at writers festivals and so forth. I’m looking forward to having my new manuscript completed by the end of the year (all things going well). And both Life in Outer Space and The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl are venturing out into various places around the world this year and next, so I’m looking forward to seeing some overseas editions (and hopefully some fabulous new covers, which is always super exciting!)
To learn more about Melissa, check out her website .
What do you think of Melissa’s books? Is your inner geek envious of such gorgeous tales that you didn’t have growing up?! I am!