melissa-cAfter studying law Melissa Chadburn obtained an MFA from Antioch University.  As a committed reader and intern at dzancbooks she is familiar with the slush pile.  She is a lover and a fighter, a union rep, a social arsonist, a writer, a lesbian, of color, smart, edgy and fun. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in Guernica, PANK Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Splinter Generation, Northville Review and elsewhere. She is of African, Asian, Hispanic, Filipina, and Irish descent, and was raised by Dutch/Indonesian and British foster parents. Her mixed background has made her aware of racial and cultural differences and similarities which influence her writing. She loves pit bulls and cheese. Reach her at fictiongrrrl(at) or follow her on twitter or get ripped open at xoxo she loves you very very much.

As a reader, which writers do you feel closest to?

Holy moly this is the hardest question of my entire life. I feel compelled to cheat and say whoever I read last.  I guess that’s kind of true.  I’m a hungry voracious reader and I love something gritty and I love being surprised. Someone recently said that whenever you think you know where you’re going in your writing turn left. Joyce Carol Oates sucks my breath away, Benjamin Percy surprised me in a way that was tragic and tough and tender, there were a couple of stories that popped up in the New Yorker recently that pissed me off enough to read a second time and deconstruct because of their fierce beauty, specifically, Lauren Groff’s Above and Below and Justin Torres’ Reverting to a Wild State.  So yeah basically the last thing I read.

At different points as a writer, have you had mentors? Do you mentor?

I’ve had a ton of mentors.  Both formal and informal. I got an MFA and studied with some very generous writers like Leonard Chang, Susan Taylor Chehak, Tananarive Due, Rob Roberge then there were those I had in a workshop like Steve Almond, and those incredibly generous editors of print and online journals that have given me feedback but I’ve learned the most from two types of people.

1) Those that make mistakes.  I intern at dzancbooks and I learn far more from the people that make mistakes and stuff I don’t dig than those that are perfect the whole way through.

2) The next group of people are the people that can’t.  Whether it’s the people of no voice or just the people that have a specific No in their life.   So now I get to tell a story. I love this story.

I had two jobs in Berkley in the late nineties.  In the morning I was an attendant to a quadriplegic and in the afternoons I was a barista at a café.  The quadriplegic was a woman named Toy. I got her ready for her day. I washed her body, I shaved her legs, sometimes the clippers would bump up against her catheter and the small sensation she got caused her legs to spasm.  She told me not to stop them. She liked it.  It was the only movements she had.  I emptied the bag that held her urine.  I cleaned out her rectum.  I parted her hair.  I dressed her.  I picked her up and put her in her wheelchair.  We gossiped.  I served her breakfast.  And then I would leave. Or attempt to leave. But she always thought of something else. One more thing.  She wanted me to stay.  Eventually I left to my next job. I ran.  If anyone asked me why I ran I said, “Because I can.”  So my largest mentors are people that can’t, poor people-(really poor not the working poor), people in the Philippines that are stuck with only a small plot of dirt and their dreams, kids in foster care that are slowly being shuffled down an endless long tunnel of few opportunities and no joy and many beuracratic barriers.  Sorry to be so depressing but those are the people that motivate me; people stuck under ceilings of No.

How do you stay creative? What are your tricks to get “unstuck?”

Reading makes me creative if I feel stuck I re-read something great. Also I’m pretty competitive but in a loving Capricorn sort of way.  So I build a lot of checks and balances into my work.  I make myself accountable.  I’ve invented a fake boss. My ego needs to see my name in print at least once a month.  After a little while I start getting itchy and I submit like crazy.  I think my experience as a labor and community organizer helps me with this.  I know how to play numbers games.  Also this is where places like fictionaut come in handy writing is a lonely solitary thing for me but I’m a really social person so places like fictionaut help me get feedback and commune with people. Community is such an important part of living to me.

Favorite writing exercises you would like to share?

I don’t know basically I like any writing exercise where someone else is bossing me. I’ll do whatever you tell me to do. I guess I’m a submissive like that. I’ll do anything to be your darling. I do like playing with different POVs.  If I write something I might try it again in another POV. That was probably the most common feedback I’ve gotten in workshops before as well.

Suggestions for making characters live? Do you know who they are before you write or do you find out who they are in the writing?

It varies. Some characters bug the crap out of me so I know who they are before I write them.  They inform my writing more than my writing informs them.  Other characters I get to know throughout the process.  The best way to make a character come to life is to meet them on the streets.  If I’m not describing someone accurately it’s because I don’t have a clue.  I’ve found that too often in other people’s work as well, the writer shying away from describing or naming a character, because they too can not see them. I like to go people watching. My favorite place to people watch is Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Go to a train station or any place of arrivals and departures and you’ll be shocked at the people– their fashion choices their display of emotions their contrived state of being. People are wild. But some people make it so that you HAVE to write about them.

Plot: how it evolves for YOU… anything on this subject.

Oh this is easy. I don’t know about you but I am always planning for my demise.  I can run for a very long time on worry.  I’ve been wondering exactly how all this worrying serves me and I guess this is the answer.  I always wonder ‘What if?’ and then a plot is born. What if I drove through this red light and got hit by a truck or hit a small child or a cart of berries flew in front of me or there was a blackout at that same instance. What if? What if? What if?  You get it I’m sure.

Please tell us about what you’ve most recently completed…  and what is happening now….

I just finished the first draft of a story about the Chilean miners.  I find it fascinating that it is one year later and they are all a stone’s throw away from homelessness unable to work, never compensated, and there is gonna be a movie coming out about them.  But even more from a story telling perspective there was that whole Alfred Hitchcock ‘bomb under the table’thing happening, where we (the world) all had more information about their fate than the miners and it seemed like life’s cruelest joke. Then even moreso five of them got busted for having affairs while they were stuck underground! But that story ended up being about more than that it also ended up being about a woman that suffered the condition of “m0re” and was never sated no matter what she got.

I am currently working on (dare I say) a novel.  Aaahh!  That was scary. Anywho I thought it was shorts and then linked shorts and it turns out it’s a novel and it is currently entertaining and scaring the crap out of me at the same time.  I call it the book of old wounds because it’s about a character that feels unloveable yet suffers from repetition compulsion and keeps on revisiting old wounds and the novel chronicles these wounds.

The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs at

  1. Polly Dugan

    Fuck this shit Melissa! Way to go! xoxo

  2. Courtney Maum

    Fantastic news for Word Riot, Melissa! Post Tin House success is just one of many coming your way, I’m sure.

  3. Khadija

    Wow, really interesting interview! Love your response to the why were you running question = >

    The story about the Chilean miners sounds compelling…let us know where it lands!

  4. Shelagh Chopra

    Great interview, Melissa. Really impressed with your work at RL!

  5. Elaine Ahmad

    So great to meet you at Tin House. Love to hear about your recent work. Keep me posted if you have any local readings.

  6. Heather Luby

    Love the interview Melissa. I’m continually impressed with your writing, your wit and your energy. I really look forward to seeing more from you and following your journey.

  7. Diane Sherlock

    Great interview, especially can relate to “What if…” leading into plot. I do that all the time.

  8. James Lloyd Davis

    “Social arsonist.” Is there a certificate that goes with that? Fascinating interview.

  9. Melissa Chadburn

    Wow TinHouse is in the hizzy! @Polly yes totally fuck this shit! @Courtney thanks so much you’re a really rad tweeter @Shelagh so nice there’s so much love at RedLemonade when writing can be so damn lonely @Elaine my next reading is all the way in December but it’s at Rhapsodomancy a lovely reading curated at Good Luck Bar and it should be fun and I’m going to this Nervous Breakdown thingie in San Diego tomorrow night and slake magazine is celebrating their third issue in my ‘hood in Atwater on friday night you should totes check it out @James yes lots of certificates I have a tattoo in my lip that says ‘head bitch’ and a drawer full of poorly fitting union made T-shirts with slogans on them like ‘Rebel with a Cause’ and ‘People before Profits’ or union logos. I don’t have the heart to cut them up into cleaning rags so that’s the certificate.

  10. Tina

    You are awesome. So alive and right there and inspiring!

  11. Gill Hoffs

    Fascinating interview – and what wonderful tattoos!

  12. kelly

    Great news, Capricorn sister! And OWWW! What an author photo.

  13. Jason

    Can’t wait to read the Chilean miners story.

  14. MaryAnne Kolton

    Exactly what I always hoped my daughters would be. Intelligent, loving, kind, caring and independent. You are one fascinating woman. Great interview!

  15. Ian

    Props, Melissa. Love to see that the piece on the miners. What a story. Keep up the fight.

  16. Ian

    Props, Melissa. Love to see that piece on the miners. What a story. Keep up the fight.

  17. susan tepper

    I’ve always found Melissa’s stories intriguing, so it was with great pleasure that I read her interview. Also she’s beautiful with her ink.

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