Melody Mansfield: An Interview



Daniel M. Jaffe

Melody Mansfield is author of the novel, The Life Stone of Singing Bird (Faber and Faber, 1996), published under the name Melody Henion Stevenson. In its review, Booklist captures the essence of the novel’s plot and style: “The funeral procession of India Walker is a solemn affair, attended . . . by a trickster spirit, a guardian angel, and India herself. Thus begins a small gem of a book that celebrates life in all its joy, pain, and messiness. As India tells her story, we learn how the destinies of two unhappy young women came to be entwined, and the consequences for themselves and their children.” The character of  “Singing Bird has been disfigured, banished from her tribe, and burdened with the Life Stone, a talisman that will allow her no peace . . . After giving birth alone in the woods, Singing Bird” gives up her son, whom she “haunts . . . as a mockingbird, as a vulture, or as an ugly old woman . . . watching, mocking, setting impossible events into motion.” Mansfield’s “homespun magical realism is at once bracing and enchanting.”


During our conversation, Melody explained how the novel began: “My  initial inspiration for Life Stone grew out of a writing exercise by Dr. Kate Haake in a CSUN (California State University, Northridge) classroom, in which she asked us to play around with some meta-fictional techniques. More specifically, she asked us to write a scene, and then to reflect on the writing of that scene in the scene itself. The result for me was the opening of the novel, in which I saw an Indian woman named Singing Bird, who was burdened by something called a Life Stone. And then another voice entered—herself a character, apparently—who saw Singing Bird and the Life Stone from an entirely different perspective. Most of those initial elements just fell from the sky for me, and I wrote them down without having any idea what I was talking about. And then I wrote another sentence. And another.”

The novel is particularly notable for its lyrical prose. “To be honest,” said Melody, “the story of Life Stone came out of the prose itself, at least initially. And this is sometimes the way it works for me—a phrase will tug at me, just because I’m interested in the sound of it, or in the way it evokes emotion or character or scene, and then I’ll keep building on that phrase until I uncover that emotion, character or scene. I love to play with the movement in language itself—the way certain words bump into others and make sentences swirl and ricochet into something else. I’ve always been interested in both the muscularity and the musicality of language. Once the language has thrown my characters into situations that none of us had anticipated, I get to polish and hone the words until we can all see exactly where we are.”

In its review, Publisher’s Weekly lauded “the scrupulously researched setting”—the world of mid-nineteenth century Kansas—as well as “the deft melding of the rational and spiritual worlds.” In preparing the novel, Melody “did a LOT of research to keep those sentences coming. The research,” she added, “was also a lot of fun. I found that I became a magnet for the information I needed, and it kept presenting itself everywhere I turned—in magazines, newspapers, overheard conversations. I had one really wonderfully serendipitous find that shaped, and kept on shaping, the story itself. I stumbled on a book sale that supplied me with a whole slew of books about the flora and fauna, Indians, and other details of the Old West period for 25-50 cents each. Each volume had been lovingly covered in brown paper and had annotations/illustrations by two gentlemen—Henry F. Salkeld and Brewster A. Ruggles.  (I gave them each a cameo role in Life Stone, in gratitude.)  

“Research not only brings authenticity to a text, but it can even help create the text itself. For instance, while researching birds indigenous to the heartland area, I came across specific birds—mockingbirds and killdeers in particular—whose attributes and peculiarities made them real players in the story and actually helped shape the plot and characters. Research is the single most generative activity I’ve found.” For Melody, the interaction between research and writing, “is a chicken-and-egg thing—impossible to determine which comes first. The only cautionary caveat I would add about research, however, is that we have to be vigilant in preventing the  ‘factual truth’ we uncover from overpowering the ‘emotional/fictional truth’ that we are constantly discovering as we write. To become word-bound in a slavish devotion to one narrow aspect of the ‘truth’ in fiction can be, I think, fatal.  In a young adult novel I recently finished, Tobey and the Green Bicycle or The Amazing Tales of Mad Dr. May Day, the research absolutely came first. I read some poetry from a survivor of the Chernobyl disaster, and my subsequent research into the incident led me to Tobey.”

Melody’s also been working on a series of “bug” stories, which are serious social commentaries. For example, “Victoria’s Secret,” published in Ascent Aspirations, offers commentary on social roles imposed on females. Melody explained some of the challenges and freedoms in writing “bug” protagonists. “When I think of my bug stories, I always smile. They have allowed me to explore, from different perspectives, many of the mysteries and miseries that we, as humans, struggle with and against—disabilities, depression, love, death, duty, bad choices . . . And yes, there are very definite challenges when exploring the worlds of bug protagonists, but as is so often the case, these constrictions lead to new discoveries as well. I set out a couple of hard and fast rules for myself.  Most importantly, nothing ‘cute’ allowed. Every bug has to live and work in his/her natural environment—no top hats or canes or conversing with humans. But I do allow my protagonists to have consciousnesses, and to be fairly articulate in their expression.  Oh yeah, and some of them are very well read.”

A number of Melody’s short stories have been published in newer, online literary journals. “I have mixed feelings about the online publishing development. There’s the good, the bad, and of course, the ugly.  The good part is, online journals make it a lot easier to access quality fiction—stories I would have missed had I waited until I had time (and money) to go to a book store, pick out one or two literary journals, and take them home. Another good part is that it saves a lot of time and postage to be able to electronically submit work, and to receive rejections and acceptances electronically as well. The bad part is that good writing may get similarly lost in the vastness of the online landscape itself. And because so many of the online sources are new and so beautifully professional looking, that it is difficult to know which ones to trust to contain really wonderful fiction. And the ugly part is that now, writers have very little control over what happens to their work after it is published online. It is very easy to take a story and publish it somewhere else without a writer’s permission—which is what happened to ‘Mantis Prayers,’ one  of my published online bug stories at Nthposition. It turned up on some kind of a porn site. I can only guess because it had the word ‘sex’ in it—though we are talking about buggy sex here—how kinky is that? But that was a little embarrassing, as I am a high school teacher and high school kids like nothing better than to prowl the Internet for juicy tidbits on their teachers.”

Melody’s “human” short stories also address serious issues.  “Black-out,” for example, published in Magaera, tells the story of a woman, newly recovering from a mastectomy and other surgery, whose husband leaves her to go on a fishing trip. (“She knew what he was fishing for,” says the text.) The story bristles with the harsh realism of post-surgery details—drains, sutures, severed abdominal muscles. “‘Black-out’ is the closest I’ve ever come to writing autobiographically,” said Melody. “To stay away from my personal, literal, life is another rule I’ve made for myself. In general, I much prefer to be surprised by the predicaments my characters find themselves in, and to be surprised by the ways they find their ways out again. But in this case, I’d gone through such a dark time—cancer, divorce, new digs, new town, new job, financial devastation—that I eventually found that I needed to shape parts of that experience into some kind of an artifact—in order to put it away and move on.  

The new life I’d created for myself—with a different, fully present man—was getting buried in old resentments. And I’d become strangely paralyzed as a writer as well. I’d somehow lost the strength to muster up Graham Greene’s ‘splinter of ice’ about my own work. I think I was trying so hard to create happy endings in my real life that I allowed an inauthentic brightness to infect my work.  And, as a result, my writing really sucked. I mean a lot.  So I decided to try to come back to writing from a different angle. I wrote ‘The Bulk of Men’s Brains’ (published in Spillway Review, about the terrors of opening up to the uncertainties of life and love again, and that gave me the strength to delve back into the muck and write ‘Black-out.’ I had to tap into the ‘harsh realism of post-surgery details’ as you say, in order to really bring it back.  But I also wanted to shape it into something that had its own integrity, apart from my life. I think of it as my ‘depressing divorce story’ but it allowed me to begin to see the world again. And to own it again.”

As part of her re-engagement with the world, Melody began doing readings for cancer patients. Does she see fiction as playing a potential role in recovery from serious illness or in coping? She answered by touching on a current novel-in-progress, one that she’s not ready to discuss in detail because it continues to change. “I’ll say only that there is a section in that work that I wrote while still struggling back toward life again, that tells of a woman in the wheat fields of Kansas, ‘caught in a fold of the field, lying still in the crease where her life folded up . . . it lay half to the left of her, half to the right’ that I often read for cancer patients. In this section, the protagonist is essentially trying to figure out whether or not her life is over. She eventually concludes that she ‘wasn’t done yet. She was just resting, there, in the fold of the field, waiting for the second half to show itself.’ Writing that section had been a turning point for me, I realized, and it seemed to resonate with other cancer patients as well. Which is not to suggest that we really have any control over whether we get to stay on this earth a little longer or not—it is a crapshoot, at best, and I am fully aware of how ridiculously lucky I am. But so many others—stronger people than me, kinder, better—were done with this world, and forced and/or ready to move to a different one. And I’d like to think—presumptuously, probably—that I might have helped them as well, if only in seeing the ‘second half’ as something other than this physical world. But to return to your question about seeing ‘fiction as playing a potential role in recovery,’ I can only say that the writing of fiction definitely helped me recover, though I can’t really know if the hearing or reading of it helped anyone else. And I do know that working with cancer patients helped me understand that ‘recovery’ is not always an option; sometimes it is ‘acceptance’ that is the real triumph.”   

Dan is the author of
The Limits of Pleasure, a rather controversial novel nominated by some for awards and by others for public burning (well, almost).  A former corporate lawyer, he shed his suits to become a rebel with a cause—creative freedom in life and art. Dan frequently publishes short stories and personal essays in literary journals and newspapers such as The Forward, Green Mountains Review and The Florida Review. He compiled and edited With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction, and translated Here Comes the Messiah!, a Russian-Israeli novel by Dina Rubina. He also teaches fiction writing for UCLA Extension. Dan can be reached at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and his web site is here.

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