Melinda Haynes, the writer, is extraordinary. Her first two novels (Mother
of Pearl and Chalktown) have sold more than 1.5 million copies.
Her debut novel was an Oprah Book Club Selection and her work has garnered
praise from critics, academics, readers, and her fellow writers. Sena Jeter
Naslund wrote, "Chalktown is brilliant, completely original,
transporting -- Melinda Haynes is the new powerhouse writer of the South.
Some day, people will say "Faulkner, O'Connor, Haynes."
Melinda Haynes, the interviewee, is equally extraordinary. She's
compassionate, kind-hearted, open, funny, and
empathetic. The tenderness in her characters seems to come from an equally
tender spot in her.
Willem's Field, her current release, is her most accomplished and
bravest novel to date.
Before you were a writer, you were a painter .......
I did portrait work for seventeen years to help support my family. My
clientele were from the Mobile/Spring Hill area (of Alabama). There came a
time when it all came to be too much. Everything was due and my paintings
were too gray. A client refused to pay for it and I went into a tailspin and
quit. Just walked away. I realized I wanted to write.
How did you make the move from painting to writing?
I got a job at a small, local newspaper, THE CATHOLIC WEEK. I'm a
Catholic convert. My father is a minister at a charismatic church. When I
was growing up, my dad, who was a Baptist preacher, moved around with his
churches and taught at Bible schools. There's great joy in the teachings of
the Catholic Church and suffering is accepted as part of life.
The editors sent me to Jamaica to write about the poverty there. I spent
five days in what felt like a garbage dump and just wrote about it. The
story was called "Food for the Poor."
A few days after I got back, Ray, the computer guy for the paper came by and
said, "You write like a tall woman." He was the first to recognize what I
wanted to do. When he stuck out his hand, I knew there was something special
He's a retired Marine. He did three tours of duty in Vietnam. He has a
degree in Computer Science. I started school at eighteen but married,
dropped out, and had three daughters, by the time I was twenty-three. He's
been my mentor in many ways. While he's all math and science, he has an
appreciation for literature, an appreciation for the South, and in a larger
way, an appreciation for the universal. On dates, he'd say, "Let's go to the
library and check out some books."
While I didn't go to college, I love to learn. Other writers have been my
teachers because I've been willing to hear other voices.
You married Ray .....
When I met him and when I look at him, I know there is a God. The way I feel
about Ray is in every book in some way.
MOTHER OF PEARL had its beginnings in your relationship with Ray.
I started writing the novel as Christmas gift for Ray. He found a section of
it. I was 117 pages into it. He took the manuscript, without my knowledge,
made a copy of it and found Wendy Weil. She's Alice Walker's agent and he
knew I loved her work.
One Tuesday afternoon, at 4:30, I got a call at work from Wendy Weil. I was
working with my daughter, who had the desk next to mine. She ran out into
the hall to find Ray. Wendy agreed to represent me.
The second phone call I got about the book was from an editor. I didn't even
know that editors buy books. We talked about the way the voice in the book
was literary rather than commercial. Hyperion bought the novel that week.
Photo Credit: Elizabeth K. Delamus
I didn't write "commercially." Commercial success was never my goal. I only
wanted to write in a way that pleased me.
Oprah chose Mother of Pearl as one of her Book Club Selections,
which insured the novel's "commercial" success.
When Oprah called, I didn't know her voice or how she got my phone number
because it was a private line. I told her the story of the book and the
story of my life. It was a healing experience.
I didn't realize that having Mother of Pearl selected as part of the
Book Club would be like winning the lottery and would allow me to do the one
thing -- writing -- that I wanted to do most and what I wanted to do best.
Once the book hit, I felt amazement and disbelief. When my editor called to
tell me about the additional printing and expanded book tour, I was
terrified. I thought, "I CAN NOT DO THIS." My husband worked with me,
encouraging me to take one step and then, stand alone long enough to take
Chalktown (Haynes' second novel) was completed before Oprah called.
While I felt suspended while I was writing Mother of Pearl, with
Chalktown, I had a lower key experience. I felt like I said all I had to
say and knew I couldn't think in terms of success. I felt more confident as
a writer with each sentence.
The Oprah experience allowed me to not be burdened by debt, to pay for
everything on a cash only basis, and I can spend my time writing.
Where did the ideas for your books come from?
Every book started with an image from a dream. Then the characters start
showing up, creating background music for the book.
Willem (from Willem's Field), came to me at a cafe in a restaurant in
Little Rock, Arkansas. I was on a book tour, I was the fourth person
reading, and I felt a panic attack coming on. (Haynes has agoraphobia.) I
fainted and Steve Yarbrough, (The Oxygen Man,) came forward to help
me. Considering the title of his book, the comedic side of me has always
thought fate's choice of a rescuer, ironic.
Afterwards, I couldn't face anybody. I didn't want to tell my agent or
publisher. While I was sitting in this restaurant, I projected all I felt on
to an older man sitting across from me. The image became very real for me.
Some of the other characters who came along are parts of the puzzle.
Bruno, in part, was based on some of Ray's experiences in Vietnam. I did sit
and watch footage from Ray's days in Vietnam and imagined what it was like
for Leah to contemplate her marriage to Bruno. I loved following Leah and
Bruno, watching their lives come together.
In the writing process, we're all the characters; and I am in every single
While you live in Alabama, your books have mostly been set in Mississippi
All of the places we lived while I was growing up were in Mississippi were
places where dad had a church. The state has given me a warm reception.
Describe your work day.
I have coffee. I go to work. (Laughing) I'm more comfortable in the world of
fiction than reality. It's such a comfort to do -- see what they (the
characters) are going to do and just write all day long.
I love the characters in my books. I like putting them in normal settings
and seeing what happens. I hope I don't follow any stereotypes, and I try to
What do you hope for when you write?
I want to touch the self.
I want to grow with each book.
Learning to listen.
Melinda Haynes at Simon & Schuster
- Willem's Field
- By Melinda Haynes
- The Free Press, 2003
- Hardcover, $24.00
Southern Scribe Review
Recommended Reading from Melinda Haynes
writers approach Melinda Haynes at book signings or readings to ask
her advice, her first question to them is always, "What are you
reading?" She graciously gave Southern Scribe a short list of her own
"suggested reading" for writers.
Rick Bass-- The Hermit's Story
Richard Flanagan-- Gould's Book of Fish, a Novel in Twelve Fish;
Death of a River Guide; and, The Sound of One Hand
Halldor Laxness-- Independent People
Anthony Doerr-- The Shell Collector
Cormac McCarthy-- Blood Meridian
William Gay-- The Long Home; Provinces of Night; and , I
Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down
Beth Ann Fennelly-- Open House
Jhumpa Lahiri-- Interpreter of Maladies
Chris Offutt-- The Good Brother
Peter Carey-- True History of the Kelly Gang
Michel Faber-- The Crimson Petal and the White
Jonathan Franzen-- The Corrections
Michael Chabon-- The Wonder Boys
Jamie O'Neill-- At Swim, Two Boys
Pam Kingsbury, All Rights