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Interview with Melanie Thorne, Author of Hand Me Down

Melanie Thorne

Melanie Thorne

 

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Melanie, for letting me ask you these questions. Hand Me Down is so incredibly powerful and provocative.

 

Melanie Thorne: Thank you, Jaime, for taking the time to ask such insightful questions!

 

JB: Did you always want to be a writer?

 

MT: It didn’t even occur to me that I could make a career as a writer until I was in my early twenties and Pam Houston suggested I apply to creative writing graduate programs. For most of my youth, I wanted to be a rock star or an actress/singer.

 

JB: How would you describe Hand Me Down in ten words or less?

 

MT: OMG, this is so hard! Here goes: A tough, tender novel about sisters searching for home.

 

JB: Hand Me Down is semi-autobiographical.  Can you explain?

 

MT: The basic outline of events in the novel—Liz’s mother choosing her sex-offender husband over her daughters, the sisters’ separation and subsequent journey—is based on my childhood experience. But in writing and revising this book over the years, real people turned into characters, timelines and places and exact details were altered and adjusted to better serve the story, so the result is a mix of truth and fiction.

 

JB: Why did you want to write a novel instead of a memoir?

 

MT: When I first started writing Hand Me Down, I had images of a “based on a true story” line on the eventual cover. There was a part of me that wanted the world to know that these events had really happened, but as I got deeper into the project, there was a bigger part of me that wanted the freedom to shape the truth of what happened in order to tell the truth of the story. In a novel, I could make stuff up without worrying about the limitations of “what really happened” so I could get at the larger emotional truths more easily. There is also an aspect of protection in writing a novel. No one knows which parts are pulled directly from my teenage journals and which parts I made up completely, and I appreciate that little bit of shelter.

 

JB: The title Hand Me Down has so many meanings to me in this story: sisters Liz and Jaime are passed from relative to relative almost like an old garment yet abuse is also passed down like eye color and diabetes in your story.  What does the title mean to you?

 

MT: Very close to what you said, actually, which is great to hear. I tried so hard to come up with a title that would encompass the idea of Liz and Jaime literally moving from place to place, and also the idea of qualities and behaviors—both genetic and learned traits—being passed down through generations. I had pages and pages of possible title lists in my journals and then one morning I woke up and Hand Me Down had appeared in my brain like a little present from the writing fairy.

 

JB: Hand Me Down is told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old Liz.  Why did you choose to tell the story in this way?  Do you think the story would have the same deeply moving effect on the reader if you had not used the first-person point of view?

 

MT: Part of the motivation for writing this story was hearing my angry and hurt teenage self in my head, begging at first, and then demanding that I let her tell her story. She needed to be heard, that part of me needed to be heard, so I thought I’d give her a voice retroactively, on the page. First person was the only way for me to truly let Liz tell this story, and I’m not sure it would have been as powerful without access to Liz’s emotions and inner thoughts. There is so much she doesn’t say for so long that having insight into her mind allows readers to connect with her more.

 

JB: I know you have a younger sister.  Is the character of Jaime based on her?  What has been her reaction to your novel?  What has been the reaction of other family members?

 

MT: Jaime is indeed based on my sister, and much of Liz and Jaime’s dynamic is the same as my and my sister’s. The first thing she said after she read Hand Me Down was, “I forgot what a jerk Dad was.” The book brought up a lot of memories for her, but it was also gratifying to hear that the one other person who’d lived some of these experiences felt I’d gotten them right. My sister has been incredibly supportive, as have the rest of my family members. I think it’s been difficult to have so much of this stuff stirred up and put out in the public, and they have been so understanding and supportive, and best of all, proud of me for this accomplishment. I’m so lucky to have them.

 

JB: Liz is based on you.  How are you alike and how are you different?

 

MT: Liz and I were both fighters; both of us skeptical and cautious, slow to trust but fiercely loyal. We were both independent, but acted tougher than we felt; both driven and determined to succeed beyond what the world expected given our circumstances. But Liz is braver than I was at fourteen, says the things I wish I’d said, takes action when I would have retreated. I like to think of her as a stronger version of my teenage self; me with the benefit of ten years of hindsight.

 

JB: How does Hand Me Down differ from what really happened to you? 

 

MT: It’s hard to separate out all the little exaggerations or adjustments I made in the process of fictionalizing my experiences. I can tell you that one of the few entirely made-up scenes in the novel is the big climax scene with all involved parties near the end. There wasn’t a big blow out fight like that in real life, but the book needed to hit a peak, and I thought bringing everyone together would cause sparks to fly.

 

JB: What was the most difficult part about writing Hand Me Down?  Was it hard recalling painful events and issues?  Did you ever just stop writing and leave it for a while?  Or even cry and rage at the past?

 

MT: There were definitely issues that were difficult to confront and moments that hurt to relive, but it was worth the uncomfortable trips down memory lane. The initial planning and research—which mainly involved reading old journals from when I was fourteen—made me cry a lot. I did rage some, too, but most of that was in the early stages of the project, the personal steps I needed to take towards healing that made it possible for me to write a three-dimensional story that was bigger than just me.

 

I did take long breaks while working on it because I was too busy working the jobs that paid the bills to write much, but I think those pockets of time away really helped me to process the events and gave me (and the book) a better perspective.

 

JB: The paperback version of Hand Me Down, published March 26, has an epilogue.  Why did you choose to add an epilogue to the paperback edition?

 

MT: The epilogue, “Word Association” was originally a story I wrote in grad school that features Liz and Jaime about ten years after the events in Hand Me Down. My agent and editor thought it would be a nice addition to the paperback as a glimpse into the futures of the characters, and I agreed. Many readers have written to me asking for a sequel, so I think they are really going to like this extra bonus material. I also love the way we’ve added it: as an essay Liz writes for a creative writing class in school, just like I did in real life.

 

JB: Hand Me Down was originally your thesis.  Writing it, did you have any idea that one day it would be a successful and compelling novel?

 

MT: I hoped that it would be both those things, but at that point, mostly just enough for me to satisfy my degree requirements and not make a fool of myself at my thesis defense. I never really thought it would become a real book until it did, and sometimes it still seems unreal.

 

JB: How has writing this book helped you overcome your own neglect and abuse?

 

MT: One of the biggest things I realized while writing Liz’s journey was that the mistakes her parents made—the mistakes my parents made—were not about her or me, but rather results of their own childhood traumas. For a long time I wondered what I had done wrong, as so many kids in these situations do, and I beat myself up over the ways I could have tried harder to be good enough to keep.

 

Writing Hand Me Down helped me see that my parents’ choices were influenced by their own abusive childhoods, and I learned to accept that their errors were not my burden or responsibility. What is my responsibility is how I choose to move forward.

 

JB: Have you heard from readers who shared a similar childhood as you did?  Is the novel helping them come to terms with their own pasts?

 

MT: Yes, many readers have written or told me their stories of abuse and family betrayals, of separation from parents and siblings, of being forced to move out at young ages, or bouncing between friends’ couches and guest beds to avoid unsafe households.

 

A woman in her late sixties wrote to me and told me she’d been abused as a child and had never told anyone until now. My book had given her the strength to say out loud the unspeakable things she’d experienced. It made me cry. There seems to be a sense of freedom in these readers in finally expressing their private tragedies, and it’s amazing for me to be able to witness their first steps toward recovering.

 

JB: What was it like working with Pam Houston and Lynn Freed at UC Davis?  What advice did they give you?

 

MT: Pam and Lynn are tremendously talented writers and teachers, and I learned so much from both of them. I think the greatest advice I got from Pam was to resist the urge to write the lines that say, “Look, reader, at how bad it was.” She taught me to earn the emotions, to show them by focusing on the concrete physical world. From Lynn, “Smother your darlings” and “Less is more” are the two bits of advice that stand out the most. I am so grateful to have been able to work with such amazing women.

 

JB: What advice do you have for anyone writing a debut novel?  Or for anyone writing about trauma in his or her own life?

 

MT: In writing about a personal trauma, I think it’s important to try to look at the events from multiple angles. That might not happen in the first draft, and it’s normal to write your side first. But in revisions, shift your perspective and do your best to see through the eyes of multiple people involved. Don’t be afraid to admit the hardest thing about your characters, especially if one of them is you. Writing the difficult truths makes the best stories.

 

For all writers, I’d say just keep going. That is the only thing you can do.

 

JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

 

MT: Reading, of course, gardening, watching smart TV, going to the beach, walking in pretty places, crafting, singing, cooking, and having good conversations with friends.

 

JB: What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite authors?

 

MT: Oh, boy. There are so many, and so many ways to classify favorites. But here are a few off the top of my head in no particular order. Books: Kindred, Animal Dreams, The Beach, Good in Bed, Alice in Wonderland, The God of Animals. Authors: Pam Houston, Christopher Pike, Barbara Kingsolver, Dorothy Allison, Amy Bloom.

 

JB: What are you currently reading?

 

MT: I just finished The Fault in Our Stars. Talk about heart-breaking.

 

JB: Who has influenced your writing the most?

 

MT: Nancy Drew and Christopher Pike books were my earliest major influences, and then when I began to study the craft of writing, Pam Houston, Toni Morrison, and Dorothy Allison inspired me with the strength of their writing and the power of their stories.

 

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Hand Me Down?

 

MT: I think the biggest lesson Liz learns is to speak up, which is a lesson I also learned in writing this story, and something I hope anyone else who has caged a secret in their chest will take away from the book. It’s so important to unearth the betrayals and abuse that often get buried in embarrassment or fear or shame. It’s necessary to discuss those uncomfortable truths, to release the pent-up emotions in order to begin to heal. I hope that’s another take-away: hardship doesn’t have to mean destruction; getting the truth out in the open is the first step in moving on.

 

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

 

MT: I’m currently in the early stages of writing my next novel. I’m fascinated by family dynamics and, like Hand Me Down, this next book will ask questions about what it means to be a family. I love the contradictions in people, the complexities of what people try to hide and why. The dysfunctional family I’m brewing in my head should be interesting to live with for the foreseeable future and fun to introduce to the world when I’m ready.

 

JB: Thanks for a wonderful interview, Melanie, and best of luck.

 

MT: Thank you, Jaime! It’s been a pleasure.

handmedown_cvf_ppk

 

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Book Review: Hand Me Down by Melanie Thorne

Hand Me Down by Melanie Thorne (Plume; 336 pages; $16).

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A child’s first providers and protectors are his or her parents.  Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.  In her powerful, provocative, and semi-autobiographical debut novel, Hand Me Down, Melanie Thorne chronicles the epic struggle of a teenage girl suffering from neglect and abuse,  determined to protect her sister at any cost.  Hand Me Down feels so real that it reads like a memoir.  Thorne’s story left me indignant and emotionally spent, which is proof of the author’s skilled writing and adept characterizations.

Sometimes family can let us down and hurt us more than anyone else can.  The people who are supposed to be taking care of 14-year-old Elizabeth “Liz” Reid and her younger sister, Jaime, have failed miserably.  The girls’ parents are divorced.  Their father, who used to beat their mother, is a drunk.

Their mother, Linda, has been a refuge for her daughters, loving them and supporting them and providing a safe haven.  As Liz tells us in her mature and sage voice, Linda “saved us from bad dreams, left the light on in our room, let us snuggle into her bed.  She rescued us from the neighbors’ fighting, sang songs loud enough to drown out the woman across the landing screaming with her head out the window until her husband jerked her back inside.”  Linda “protected us from our drunken father, stood her ground in the face of hurled beer cans and TV remotes, steered us through broken dishes on the kitchen floor and shattered windows in the carpet.  She carried us past his sleeping body in bloody slippers, pulled us out of range of his raised fists more than once, and her bruises proved her loyalty.”  Liz and Jaime “didn’t need anyone else.”

The above passage is just a sample of the abuse described in Hand Me Down.  Most, if not all, of the parts are gut-wrenching and very difficult to read, as well they should be.

When Terrance comes in their mother’s life, everything changes.   Terrance has a history of criminal behavior, but Linda is not deterred.  Linda and Terrance marry and have a son together.  Terrance ends up in prison, offering Liz and Jaime a brief reprieve.  After serving his sentence, though, Terrance returns—worse than ever.   Linda aims to please her husband and casts aside her daughters.  Like old garments, the sisters are handed down to relatives, some of whom only continue the cycle of neglect and abuse.

More than anything else, Liz worries for Jaime, especially after the sisters are separated.  She has tried to shield Jaime, but she is unable to protect her after they are split.

This upsetting novel is narrated from Liz’s first-person perspective, which elicited a visceral reaction from this reader.  This story unsettled and upset me from the very beginning.  Everyone who reads Hand Me Down will ache all over for Liz and will feel beaten and hurt just as she is.

Yet, not all of Hand Me Down is morose.  Thorne introduces beacons of hope through many characters, most notably Tammy, Liz’s aunt, and Rachel, her best friend.  Elements of humor also echo throughout the novel, just as they do in life, no matter how dire the situation.

Liz is only 14, but she seems so much older given what has happened to her.  Her voice calls to mind other teen heroines, like Ava Bigtree in Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and Susie Salmon in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.  Thorne leaves readers with white knuckles as they wait to see if Liz and Jaime survive and even thrive.

The paperback version of Hand Me Down has a brand new epilogue not included in the hardcover edition.   If you enjoy books narrated by strong teen girls, wise beyond their years, then Hand Me Down is a must read.  I do warn you, though, you will become so invested in this tale that the adults in the story will infuriate you but the kids will inspire you.  This is a survivor’s story perfect for fans of Janet Fitch and Dorothy Allison.

Melanie Thorne

Melanie Thorne

 

 

 

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Book Review: The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell (HarperCollins; 336 pages; $25.99).

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            Lisa O’Donnell opens her brilliant, stunning debut The Death of Bees with the birth and death dates of a man and woman, the same kinds of information you would expect on gravestones.  Except this man and woman do not have headstones; they are buried in their own backyard.

“Today is Christmas Eve,” O’Donnell writes in her intriguing and explosive opening.  “Today is my birthday.  Today I am fifteen.  Today I buried my parents in the backyard.  Neither of them were beloved.”

Immediately, she grabs you by the throat and does not let go until the very last page as she tells the story of fifteen-year-old Marnie and twelve-year-old Nelly, sisters who have just lost their parents and find themselves alone.

Marnie is the tough, practical, and protective one, the typical elder sister.  Marnie is fifteen going on thirty, though, and as cynical as a sixty-year-old.  Nelly is her complete opposite, charming and so obsessed with Harry Potter that she wears glasses just like his.  “Another little foible of Nelly’s is how she talks.  She sounds like the queen of England most of the time.”  Nelly, fond of words like “hullabaloo,” “confounded,” and “good golly” seems so young next to Marnie.  Their three-year age difference feels more like three decades.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the girls, namely Marnie, killed their parents.  Marnie confesses as she buries them: “I was on autopilot.  I wanted them buried and gone.  I didn’t have time for tears, I knew we had a job to do and mostly I was wishing we’d got rid of them sooner and, to be honest, I don’t know why we didn’t.”

Neither sister misses her mother nor her father.  Most of the time, Izzy and Gene were too stoned to care about their daughters, often leaving the girls to fend for themselves.  Marnie practically raised herself, and now she is raising Nelly.  Their lives are not that much different than they were before…except for the bodies in the backyard, of course.

Marnie knows the upturned dirt will be a tell-tale sign of something untoward.  Ever pragmatic, Marie has a solution.  “When all was done we covered Izzy with two sacks of coal and planted lavender on top of Gene, not out of sentiment you understand, but to better hide what was buried in the earth.”

The girls keep mum about their parents’ deaths.  All the sisters really have is each other.  In just a short year, Marnie will turn sixteen, the age when she will be considered an adult and can legally take care of herself and Nelly.

Things do not go as planned when Lennie, their elderly next-door neighbor, notices the sisters are alone and takes an interest in them.  He is concerned about their parents’ whereabouts and invites them into his home and into his heart.

The reluctant Marnie calls Lennie a pervert and keeps him at arms’ length.  However, Lennie is lonely and loving, and both sisters warm to him when he shows them more understanding and affection than their parents ever did.  But he knows something is not quite right next door.

Gene’s drug dealer knows it, too.  When he begins asking questions and when a long-lost family member turns up, the girls’ scheme begins to unravel.  The girls’ home, the haven they constructed for themselves, is threatened.  Their struggle to stay together and away from foster care seems doomed.  But Marnie, ever resourceful, should never be counted out.

The Death of Bees is an unflinching portrait of how so many young people are forced to rear themselves.  They are forgotten and slip through the cracks of the urban landscape, lost in the sprawl and even lost in their own families.  Lennie is the girls’ savior; without him, the story and their fates would have been very different.

The distinctive voices of Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie alternately narrate The Death of Bees. O’Donnell writes this coming-of-age story in pitch-perfect prose.    Both Marnie and Nelly join the elite club of young girls who literally come of age on the page, a group that includes Ava Bigtree (Swamplandia!) and Lily Owens (The Secret Life of Bees).

Coming-of-age can sting, just like a bee.  O’Donnell gives us painful instances of violence, abuse, and molestation that are achingly real but difficult to read.  The Death of Bees is a grim and, at times, depressing tale, tempered by sisterly affection, humor, hope, and, above all, love.

The author

The author

 

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