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Literary Dreams

An Interview with Melinda Haynes

By Pam Kingsbury


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 about him.

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 another."

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 character.

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 create diversity.

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 (384 pages)
ISBN: 0-7432-3849-4

      Southern Scribe Review




Recommended Reading from Melinda Haynes

When unpublished 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 Clapping

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


2003, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved