Interview with Melanie Dobson
Beth: Tell us about your writing journey.
Melanie: I’ve been a bit obsessive (some would say a lot obsessive) about writing since I was a child. When I was seven, I journaled about pizza nights, visits with Grandpa and Grandma, and my friends at school. When I was nine, I plucked out my “autobiography” on my dad’s old typewriter. And when I was eleven, I handwrote fifty pages of a mystery novel before I lost interest in the story. Even though this story ended abruptly, I fell in love with the creative process and loved imagining what would happen to my characters.
In high school and college, I wrote articles and essays for the yearbook, school newspaper, and local weekly paper, but when I graduated, I pursued public relations as a career and spent almost a decade writing press releases in lieu of creative writing. I had always dreamed about writing fiction but intended to start when I was “older.”
Months before my thirtieth birthday it hit me that I was, in fact, “older,” and if I was going to pursue this dream, I had been better start soon. It took me years, and three completed manuscripts, to learn how to write fiction. Eight years after I started, Together for Good was published.
Beth: When do you feel like it all began to come together for you as a writer—was there a particular moment?
Melanie: Most days I still don’t feel like a “real” writer, but God has opened up the doors for me to pursue this dream of mine, so I keep writing in spite of my doubts. Probably the time, though, that it felt the most real was when I received book contracts for my first and second books at the same time. Not only did my family believe I could write, but two publishers were willing to pay me for my work! I was blown away. One contract was for a book already written, and the other was for a book where I had only written three chapters. I was excited, overwhelmed, and terrified.
Beth: Who has influenced you most as a writer and why?
Melanie: A few years after I started writing fiction, I hit a wall. My manuscripts had been considered at multiple publishers, but they were always rejected and I had no idea how to make them any better. Then I attended the Mount Hermon writer’s conference and sat in Davis Bunn’s fiction writing class. Davis succinctly explained the nuts and bolts of a well-written novel, and as I frantically scribbled notes, I soaked in his many words of wisdom. Using what I learned from him, my writing was revitalized, and next time I came to Mount Hermon, I had a book contract.
Beth: Tell us about the writing process for you? Does it begin with a character, setting, or plot?
Melanie: It usually begins with an idea sparked from a setting that I love or a story that I’ve read or heard. From this initial idea, I begin developing my characters and see how they fit within my loose plot idea. I’ve always been intrigued by stories of the Underground Railroad, for example, and I’m working on a novel right now about a woman who hid slaves in her house.
Beth: Tell us about your latest book.
Melanie: The Black Cloister is a fast-paced suspense novel about two young women—one who is traveling across Germany in search of answers about her past and another who is trapped in an abusive religious cult and doesn’t know how to break free. In the story, Elise Friedman’s mother has committed suicide so Elise travels to Germany to find out why her mother would never talk about her past or her family. Elise discovers her mother’s dark secret inside the walls of a medieval abbey, and when the man who destroyed her mother threatens to destroy her as well, Elise fights for a way out before she is consumed.
Beth: What inspired you to write this particular story?
Melanie: The idea for The Black Cloister was sparked by hearing two similar stories from two very different time periods. My family and I lived for a season in the former East Berlin. Our flat was a block from the remains of the Berlin Wall, and my life was changed as I roamed the back streets of the city, visited Martin Luther’s Wittenberg, and learned about both the triumph of the Reformation and the terrifying days of Communist rule. At an old monastery, I also learned the story of Martin Luther’s wife (Katharina von Bora) and her daring escape from a German abbey. A story began to form in my mind for a novel, but it was still missing a thread until we came back to the States and I met a woman who had been raised overseas in an abusive cult. She shared her stories about growing up in a commune, and with her help, I wove together the history of Katharina’s escape from the abbey with the contemporary suspense story of a woman trapped in a religious cult.
Beth: Interesting stuff! What is the message you hope to get across in this story?
Melanie: As a Christian, I’ve learned that I must listen to the direction of the Holy Spirit and measure any spiritual instruction with God’s Word. My hope is that this novel will offer healing to those who have been ensnared by a toxic religious group that twists God’s truth, and after reading this story, I also hope readers will be sympathetic toward those who have been born into a cult as well as intolerant of spiritual leaders who abuse their followers.
Beth: What do you think is the hardest part of writing a suspense?
Melanie: Comparing myself with all the great novelists who write Christian suspense! I studied many other suspense novels before I delved into creating the conflict and tension in The Black Cloister.
Beth: Tell us about your experience in Germany exploring all things medieval.
Melanie: I am completely enchanted by Germany’s medieval villages, abbeys, churches, and castles! My husband and I backpacked across Germany and Austria in 2003 (pre-kids), and then we spent five months living in Berlin and exploring the countryside in 2006. We toured the hilltop Wartburg Castle where Martin Luther translated the New Testament, stumbled through the ruins of a castle on the Rhine, and basked inside churches and abbeys that had been built in the 15th and 16th centuries. Standing inside these old musty buildings, some of which had survived wars and political tension for a thousand years, I couldn’t help but be inspired to write a story of my own.
Beth: What are your future writing plans?
Melanie: I’m working to complete a romantic suspense novel called Crescent Hill that will be released next year, and I also just found out today that I’ve had another proposal accepted for a June 2009 release (pending the contract, of course). So, to answer your question, my future writing plans are to begin writing (checking watch)…right about now. ☺
Beth: What is the best advice you ever received?
Melanie: A bestselling author once said she was a horrible writer but a fabulous re-writer. When I watched her interview, I was thinking and talking about writing all the time but not actually DOING much writing because I was terrified I would fail. And if I failed, I would be devastated…
Once I realized that my first draft would stink, I let go of my fears and began spewing random thoughts onto my computer. After I had my first draft on paper, I polished and reworked and rewrote until I had a coherent draft that I liked. Even though I get anxious each time I start a new book, I’m no longer scared of the process.
Thanks for the wonderful interview, Melanie!
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