An Interview with Melissa Falcon Field

7 May
Melissa Falcon Field's debut novel, What Burns Away, explores the narrator's sudden isolation after having a child and finding her marriage in trouble.

Melissa Falcon Field’s debut novel, What Burns Away, explores the narrator’s choices after finding herself suddenly isolated after having a child and finding her marriage in trouble.

Melissa Falcon Field is the author of the novel, What Burns Away. She was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and earned her MFA in Fiction Writing from Texas State University. She has been the writer-in-residence at the Katherine Anne Porter and a Bread Loaf fellow, worked as an inner-city teacher with Teach for America and AmeriCorps, and helped develop and pioneer the YEAR UP writing curriculum used nationally. Her writing has appeared in various literary magazines and journals, including Hip Momma: The Parenting Zine, Kaliope Literary Journal, The Portland Phoenix, Across Curriculums, The Austin American Statesmen, The Ballantine Books Reader’s Circle, The Hartford Courant, and The Maine Scholar. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her young son, her husband, and four chickens.

To read an exercise on creating tension in a story and an excerpt from Falcon Field’s novel, What Burns Awayclick here.

In this interview, Falcon Field discusses her approach to space breaks, love triangles, and sex scenes.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in your use of space breaks, something that a lot of beginning writers struggle with. For instance, early in the novel, you begin a passage with the sound of the narrator’s son waking her and then move into a flashback about the narrator’s childhood. When the flashback ends and the scene returns to the present scene with the son, the move is punctuated with a space break. The next section uses a similar structure: son as window to something else—in this case, the narrator’s husband. What is your approach to space breaks? Is it about thematic structure? Is it to help the reader avoid confusion?  

Melissa Falcon Field

In the novel, I use space breaks for a variety of reasons, first and foremost, as a way of showing readers a normal break in the narrative, but here, in the sections you reference, because so much of this early part of the novel toggles between back story and the present timeline, space breaks work to clarify those shifts, and they also serve to re-direct the reader in and out of Claire’s reflections, helping to avoid reader confusion with those time shifts. At other times, later in the novel, space breaks serve as a breather from the continual present time narrative, and allow Claire’s reflection and internal world to stand alone, giving them weight, and a wink a their importance, when punctuated by the space break.

Michael Noll

One of the so-called rules promoted by writing workshop is to eschew adjectives. However, your use of the adjective “steadfast” in describing the narrator’s husband (“the steadfast Dr. Miles Bancroft”) is pretty sharp, in part because it comes from a first-person narrator. The description of the husband is pretty spare. Besides this line, there is only one other descriptive phrase early on: “a new breadbasket of weight pooled at his waist.” How did you approach this all-important description? Were you aiming for a particular attitude toward the husband?

Melissa Falcon Field

Great question, Michael. I would say that, in general, the eschewing of adjectives in a novel is to foster finer writing and to encourage streamlining of sentences, avoiding language that reads as clunky, or feels heavy. But when a confessional is being written, as it is here in What Burns Away, Claire is zooming in on her husband, observing him, and so those adjectives work to establish her voice and are the adjectives that she, as the narrator has chosen, thus giving the reader access to her perception of her husband, Miles, guiding the reader to view him within the portrait of their marriage. So, although I prefer to keep the use of adjectives relatively limited in my fiction, I do find them necessary in some places to invoke decisive descriptions in sections where the pacing needs to be slowed down, with intention, as it is in the sections you have pointed to here.

Michael Noll

The novel pretty quickly sets up the triangle between the narrator and her husband and her former boyfriend. Was it difficult to get both of those men into the novel quickly—to basically juxtapose them on the page? I’m curious how much revision was required to make that juxtaposition happen.

Melissa Falcon Field

That triangle was there in my earlier conception of the novel when I knew I wanted to write from the vantage point of a new mother, who feels like everything desirable about her has moved past. So it was my hope that by incorporating Dean, a former lover, juxtaposed with Miles, Claire’s absentee husband, I could better capture that moment in a woman’s life when she feels desperate to reclaim her girlhood-self, just as she realizes her youth is more behind her than it is in front of her, which in this case, forces Claire to decide what and who she must let go of, and what and whom she must hold close. Because the story is ultimately about the ways characters redefine themselves, I sketched out that triangle for the first draft very loosely. That said, it was Dean who I focused on first, as I worked to establish the backstory of the novel.  Later, in second, third and fourth drafts, I worked more specifically to redefine Claire inside her family dynamic and within her marriage, in relation to her husband Miles. And because the two male characters work in polar opposition, I was able to play-out Claire’s surrender, which is both brutal and transformative, and why I felt compelled to capture that tension of a love triangle in What Burns Away.

Michael Noll

I’m always curious how writers handle sex scenes, and so I was interested in the flashback about the narrator’s first time with Dean, her high-school boyfriend. Other than a reference to rough palms, there’s almost no physical description. Instead, the passage focuses on what the sex and intimacy meant to the narrator. Did you play around with other ways of writing this scene? Did you always keep the physical description spare? 

Melissa Falcon Field

What Burns Away, the debut novel by Melissa Falcon Field, has been called "thrilling" and "perceptive" by Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgren.

What Burns Away, the debut novel by Melissa Falcon Field, has been called “thrilling” and “perceptive” by Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgren.

Sex that is any good is characteristically over the top, so I have always been more interested in redirecting readers beyond the obvious, toward the more unique secrets of the act, focusing on the minutia of rough palms, a freckle at the curve of a lover’s hip, or the tiniest bead of sweat on the tip of a nose. I did experiment with how to write those scenes, and at first it all read a bit more like pornography, which don’t get me wrong, has its place, but it wasn’t in that moment. So, I stepped back and thought more about the importance of that scene, which for Claire is a memory about desire and intimacy, and what being wanted felt like, so I focused on that, which is, after all what she has been missing and yearning for and what, in the end, gets her into big trouble, leading to later sex scenes with a more physical quality to them—cast into another kind of heat.

Michael Noll

You’ve spent years working as a teacher and writing coach. How does this work inform your writing? Writers often complain that the time demands that teaching places on them takes away from their writing, but given how much teaching you’ve done, I’m curious if you feel differently.

Melissa Falcon Field

Teaching, if you do it well, requires a huge amount of creative energy. But I love it. And, I do believe that for the most part, excluding midterms and final papers, it feeds my writing life. Over the years, teaching the craft and working along with my students, writing and revising and remembering how it is to first read, or conceive of a character, plot, or setting has been a source of great joy, and has always driven me to better hone my work and my ability to talk about narrative. Selfishly, I gain as much from the fresh perspectives of my students, as I give them back. It’s a wonderful kind of relationship, and one of the most important roles I play. And, I should also say that I would never have written a word without those who taught me, and the idea of being that person for someone else motivates me to read and write harder for my students, and to continue to learn more to be the best version of reader, writer and teacher for my students, as we all do the hard work together.

May 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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One Response to “An Interview with Melissa Falcon Field”

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  1. An Interview with David James Poissant | Read to Write Stories - May 28, 2015

    […] previously asked David Gordon and Melissa Falcon Field about writing sex scenes. Gordon uses a lot of specific details. Falcon Field focuses on what the […]

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