Melanie Neale received her MFA in creative writing from FIU in 2006. Her poetry, fiction and nonfiction have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines. Boat Girl: A Memoir of Youth, Love, and Fiberglass (Beating Windward Press) was published in 2012, and has been adapted for Young Adult audiences in Boat Kid. Melanie lives in North Florida with her husband and daughter, but you can find her next week in Seattle at AWP. Gulf Stream’s Betty Jo Buro recently had the opportunity to interview Melanie via email.
BJB: The book spans your life from age four to age thirty-two. Tell us about the process of writing Boat Girl. I get the feeling you’ve been writing it your whole life. How did you mine your childhood memories for this book? Did you keep a journal or diary?
MN: I have a freakishly vivid memory, and I retain details and random pieces of dialogue very well. The book was written over a span of almost eight years, from the first rough pieces, which were more like personal essays, in a nonfiction class in 2004 to the final revisions for publication in 2012. I’m embarrassed to admit this sometimes, because that’s an awfully long time to take writing a 233-page book. But I took at five-year hiatus from writing anything creative (climbing the corporate ladder, getting married, having a kid, and publishing magazine articles), and had almost given up on the book. I figured it was good enough to get me out of grad school but not good enough to be published. I’d shopped it, collected some helpful rejections, and shelved it. Matt Peters of Beating Windward Press asked me for a draft of the book in 2012 for consideration for the small press he has just founded, so I dug it out and sent it to him without really expecting anything.
When Matt offered me a contract for the book, along with what I think has become his signature line of, “I’d rather see you publish it with someone bigger, but I’ll take it,” we jumped immediately into a six-month process of revisions. I think of the revisions as layers—each time I revised, the chapters, which still read like a series of personal essays, became more vivid and more detailed, and I talked with my sister and with my parents and people I’d known when growing up to try and fill in the blanks on things that I didn’t remember.
I had some journals and many old letters from various friends, but what helped me most was to simply listen to a song I’d liked at the time and try to imagine myself there.
With each layer of revisions, Matt pushed me outside of my comfort zone and encouraged me to really reach not only into my memory for detail but my memory of emotions. I am grateful to him as a publisher, editor, and, once the whole process was over, a friend, that he did this.
BJB: One of the overriding themes in Boat Girl is the concept of home. Although you often traveled each year to the same islands in the Bahamas, and spent summers on the east coast of the US, you were always on the move. You write about having many homes and no homes. How has that lifestyle influenced you? What is your concept of home now?
MN: It’s the obvious question, isn’t it? And I don’t think it’s really one that my parents ever thought of that much—home to them was Virginia, the state where they were born, and the Chesapeake Bay. It’s where they’ve settled now that they are no longer living aboard. My sister and I have both settled in Florida, mainly because it feels like that jumping-off point that it always was when we were kids. Florida was where we prepared to head to the Bahamas, and Florida was where we returned “home” to the states and where we both ended up in college. I’ve spent over two-thirds of my life living on boats, and to me “home” is simply freedom. The freedom to leave one place when you feel like the next place would be better and the freedom that life on a boat gives you.
I went through a weird streak of normalcy in my late twenties, during which I found myself desperate to own a house and do all the things that I thought were normal and would make me happy. I think it was just an exaggerated nesting streak, and it all resulted in the creation of an amazing human being—my daughter, Maryann. But it also took me out of the environment in which I am most at home, drove me to take a break from my writing and overachieve at a corporate job at a for-profit college, and drove me to make many decisions that would lead to a personal crisis that I am still kind of dealing with. Home is at the center of that crisis—home and identity, and whether you can live a non-traditional life and still be a good parent.
BJB: Your dad was a complicated character and you do such a beautiful job rendering his complexities on the page. He was unconventional, yet had a strict moral code, especially when it came to his daughters. This brought out rebellion in you at times. You managed, despite his best efforts, to experience many typical teenage issues: first love, struggles with body image, a broken heart. Do you think these adolescent experiences are universal?
MN: I absolutely think they are universal, and part of what I really wanted to convey in the book is that, no matter how unique the setting of a story or of a life, people and families all go through the same things. I can’t imagine that my father ever thought he would completely shelter my sister and me from the realities of growing up, and in a lot of ways we grew up faster than kids who lived conventional lives. We had a sense of reasonability and urgency when it came to doing things like boat maintenance, because if you didn’t, for example, replace a faulty bilge pump the boat could sink and you could die. As simple as that. We were exposed to alcohol and the drug culture very early, just because it was all there, in front of you, wherever you went. The joke, in the Bahamas, was always that if you were tall enough to reach the bar you’d be served. I saw a ten-year-old buy a rum drink once. And most of the parents were having their own parties and looking the other way—there were bonfires and sex and drugs and lots of general, wonderful craziness. Yet, my dad thought that by keeping us away from proms and high school drama we would remain untarnished and virginal, and he imposed very strict curfews and restrictions on us when he realized what the other kids were doing. We just, as any kids would, learned how to get into trouble within the parameters of these restrictions.
BJB: Your father was fierce in his determination to have an untraditional life for his family, to avoid “the rat race.” Now that you are living a more “ordinary” life, do you bring some of that non-traditional philosophy to your life on land, to your own parenting?
MN: What my dad never planned for was the fact that there are actually more freaks and people who live outside of the cultural norms out there on boats than there are on land. And because I grew up around them, and always gravitated to them (the weirder the better!), I am, as an adult, drawn to people with unique stories and backgrounds. The benefit of this, and what I thank my parents for the most, is that I don’t judge people. I meet people with an open mind, always try to empathize with them, and always try to understand their stories. I’m curious about people—I want to know who they are and why they do things. Which is probably why I’m a writer.
This is exactly what I want to pass on to my daughter—the ability to see people as individuals and not to categorize them based on race, sexuality, socio-economic status, gender or any of the other labels we place on people. And now that I am coming out of my numb-and-void phase of thinking that normal was what I wanted, I’m invigorated by any opportunity I get to show her how other people live. We recently bought a 33’ sailboat, and we just brought it to St. Augustine where we’re keeping it in a marina that seems to have an awesome community of boat people. I’m sure they have some great stories to tell, and I want my daughter to hear them.
BJB: Can you comment on the unique connection you feel towards boats—boatlove– and the ocean?
MN: There are just some people out there who get it and some who don’t. I talk to boats. I treat them like people. I’m weird and unapologetic about it. And the greatest thing in the world was seeing my daughter, when we first bought our boat, giving it a kiss and saying, in her toddler way, “I love you, sailboat.” Last weekend she stood there, three years and two weeks old, and picked up the main halyard where it was sitting on the deck. She coiled it over her elbow like she’d seen me to and hung it on a winch. It was awesome to see that. She was so natural. So I’m thinking that maybe she has this boatlove thing too.
I’ve always felt that there were certain people who are drawn to the ocean and who will be miserable if they aren’t around it or on it. And I’ve always bonded with these people because this is something that I share with them. It makes us happy. Personifying ships as women is an ancient phenomenon, so I have a feeling that this boatlove thing has been around forever. I just define it differently—and lately, since I’ve started thinking about gender so much, I’ve started to view boats as male AND/OR female, not just female. Maybe I’m just getting weirder?
BJB: What are you currently working on?
MN: I have so many projects. It’s a wonderful problem to have. I’m working on a second memoir, about the five years I spent as a single grad student living on my own 28’ sailboat in North Miami. Some of that story is in Boat Girl but it deserves its own book. I’m working on some shorter fiction too, trying to flex and retrain my fiction muscle, and being kind of brave with it. It’s my “fun” project, and I love what I’m doing. Gender and sexuality are two areas of fascination for me, and the fun project has to do with the latter. I’m also immersing myself as much as I can back into the world of the literary—sort of a cleanse from the desolate corporate culture where I earn my living. I’m reading nonfiction on a voluntary basis for Matt at Beating Windward Press, I’m traveling and promoting my book and attending conferences as much as I can. Plus I’m working on fixing up that 33’sailboat.
Make sure to come meet Melanie in Seattle at AWP (February 26-March 1). She’ll be signing books with Joe Clifford at the Gulf Stream booth (location C9) at the Book Fair from high noon until 1:00pm.