Q&A: Yancy balances work and play

By Lexi Kennell / for The Pitt News

In between working as a non-profit hero in a children’s hospital and writing fiction, modern day Clark Kent, Melissa Yancy, became this year’s recipient of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize.

As a result, the University of Pittsburgh Press will publish Los Angeles resident Yancy’s manuscript “Dog Years” this year and award her a $15,000 cash prize.

Each year, the University of Pittsburgh Press selects collections of short fiction to publish under a standard contract and cash prize. Acclaimed author Richard Russo chose Yancy’s “Dog Years” out of nearly 300 entries.

“The smart, intricate, carefully crafted stories in Dog Years reminded me of Lauren Groff’s Delicate, Edible Birds for both their ambition and extraordinary beauty,” Russo said in a release.

The 37-year-old Phoenix native graduated from Linfield College in Oregon and went on to earn her MFA from the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern Carolina.

Through her time spent in pediatrics, Yancy has raised money for education, medical research and clinical programs by working with corporations and non-profit foundations. Her official title is Senior Director of Corporate, Foundation and Research Relations.

Yancy spoke with The Pitt News about how she balances two separate careers, why she chose to submit her collection and advice she has for young writers.

The Pitt News: Congratulations on winning the Drue Heinz Literature Prize! What made you enter your manuscript, “Dog Years?”

Melissa Yancy: I’ve entered before, as well as a number of other collection contests over the years, but each time the collections have changed based on new work. I think this particular group of stories was the first time I entered with that exact collection.

TPN: What are your favorite stories from your collection and why?

MY: I think my favorite is the title story, Dog Years. I like that story because it’s about this really over-the-top sort of modern subject. It’s about two geneticists who have a son who has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a genetic disorder, and they’re basically researching this genetic disease. It could be the premise of a bad B movie.

The story is about their day-to-day lives and the passage of time and I think the kinds of things that frustrate everybody, whether you’re a parent or not, the sort of speed at which time passes and your inability to control it. I think for their lives, because they’re in an extreme situation where their son is degenerating each year, it’s an experience in the maximum form. But on the day-to-day level, it’s really about the typical frustrations that everybody has with time.

TPN: What genre would you consider “Dog Years” to be?

MY: It’s pretty standard literary realism. There’s really no fantastic elements. It’s in a pretty traditional vein of short fiction.

TPN: Have you read Lauren Groff’s “Delicate, Edible Birds,” and if so, what do you think about Russo’s comparison?

MY: It’s a huge compliment. She’s a really amazing writer. I think her work is more textured and rich, and she works more comfortably in a wide variety of settings. I aspire to have that much ambition of scope. I don’t think my work has that yet, but I hope it does at some point.

TPN: What was the inspiration for the stories in the collection?

MY: I didn’t have to look very far. I worked at a fundraiser for health sciences, and I’ve worked in the medical field for about the last eight years. A lot of that has been in pediatric settings. This story was inspired by a few researchers I know and their son.

TPN: What does your writing, and perhaps rewriting, process look like?

MY: I guess it’s just like anybody’s. With short fiction, it’s really different than it is for a novel. A novel requires so much immersion, and I think it’s really hard to work on a long piece unless you’re writing every day. I tend to write a very messy first draft and then see what I’ve got. With short fiction, I guess I’ve been writing it long enough that it’s a little more controlled, depending on the type of stories.

I often only have these little 20 minute bursts of time that I might work on something. In terms of revision, it really depends on the story. There are stories in the collection that I basically had one really strong first draft and then totally minor little revisions. There were other stories that were structurally a little more ambitious or more complicated that I might’ve revised for five years.

When you’ve got two characters in a room and it’s very dialogue driven, there’s not a lot structurally that can really mess you up. But if there’s a story that is moving a lot through time, or has different points of view, there can be a lot more tinkering. One of the stories in particular I think I have probably worked on for a few years and I could still tinker with it more — it never stops.

TPN: How do you balance working full-time and writing?

MY: I have no idea. I have a really long commute. I worked full-time in the non-profit sector for many years: About 14 years. Fortunately, I’ve had a pretty short commute up until the last few years. Now I live in Los Angeles, notorious for traffic, and I have to drive across town for my job now, and that eats up my morning time when I’d like to write. But I think it’s one of those things that the busier you are, you don’t have any time to overthink it. It was much harder for me when I was a student: I had a lot of uninterrupted time.

TPN: Were you a medical student?

MY: My bachelor’s was one of those liberal arts, a little bit of everything, type degrees. My major was religious studies, and my minor was creative writing. But I took every kind of art class, like philosophy, all that stuff, and then I got my master’s in professional writing.

TPN: How did you get into the medical field?

MY: It’s interesting because I got a lot of advice when I was in graduate school from our instructors that I really shouldn’t go into academia. That was the kind of program I was in. They thought you should go join the military or do something interesting with your life, get interesting life experiences. A lot of them had not been academics themselves.

When I graduated, I knew I wanted to do something where I’d be exposed to interesting people. And I thought the nonprofit sector would be a good place to start, where I would encounter people from all walks of life in the city. And so I worked in a variety of nonprofits, but the last eight years I’ve been working in a children’s hospital. I never thought I’d be interested in medicine, but now it’s my day-to-day and it becomes great subject matter for my writing that I never expected to find.

TPN: What advice do you have to aspiring young writers attempting to make a career out of writing?

MY: Well, I think probably the first thing that most writers will tell you is that you’ll probably need another career in addition to your writing career. I know nobody wants to hear that— I know I didn’t want to hear that when I was a student.

I think the other thing that a lot of professors told me is that it’s about the process, not about the product. That’s also really hard to live that philosophy when you’re young, you want the product and the success. I think everyone I know that used to write fiction either in undergraduate or graduate school doesn’t write fiction anymore.

I have friends that are much more talented than I am, who just couldn’t keep doing it for whatever reason — other matters of life either got in the way or they just found the whole failure really frustrating, so it’s really not talent, it’s persistence. And everyone is going to tell it’s going to take a long time and there are exceptions, but they’re right. It took even longer than they told me it was going to take.

You have to at some point let it work itself. If you do it for long enough, you start to, even if you’re the kind of person who feels torture from it now, it won’t feel like torture anymore. I think the great thing about writing that I’ve realized now, is that regardless how it’s going in terms of your external success, just the fact that you’re applying that lens to the rest of your day to day life, whether that’s a boring office job or having children or a relationship, it just adds this richness to the rest of your experience.

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