June Melby’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s, LA Weekly, and National Lampoon Magazine, among other places. In 2011 she was a Writing Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and in 2003 received the International Artist Award and residency from the City of Hamburg Kulturbehorde (Cultural Affairs Department). In 2002 she was the winner of the Children’s Poetry Award at the Edinburgh International Poetry Festival. She lives in Decorah, Iowa. Visit her here. For an excerpt from her book, click here.
NAW- Tell us about your book, My Family and Other Hazards. How did you get the idea for it? How did you decide the title?
When my parents announced that they had to sell the mini golf course and the house, after 30 years of it being in our family, I freaked out. This was the summer of 2003. I hadn’t always loved Tom Thumb—we gave up family vacations to run it–but suddenly I realized what it had meant to me. It’s always impossible to let go of your childhood home, isn’t it? And ours included a mini golf. But I didn’t have the money to buy it so my parents could retire. So, as the days counted down to the very last day of our last summer at Tom Thumb, I took notes. I interviewed people on my tape recorder. This is what you do as an artist or writer when you are bewildered, you try to capture things. I realized then that I was going to have to write this book. When I attended the creative writing program at the University of Iowa, the story started coming out.
The title? There is a wonderful book called My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell, and I loved his book so much that I stole the title. I admit it! His book is about an eccentric English family that moves to Corfu, Greece, and according to him, they had no idea what they were doing. Well, my eccentric family moved to a mini golf course, which is not like a foreign country, but we had no idea what we were doing either. My parents had no idea how to run a business. And yet somehow we survived.
NAW- How long did you take to finish the book? How difficult is it to pen down a book on personal experiences? How did your family react to it?
I think the challenge is in selecting which stories to include, and how to transition between them, so that you can tell an overall story. Otherwise you just have a collection of funny anecdotes. I wanted this book to read like a novel, and make the narrative flow in a cohesive way. It spans thirty years of our lives, both the good times and the bad. So I spent six years writing it and rewriting it. I can’t even begin to tell you how many revisions I’ve made, but it was the right choice; I’m happy I took the time. I wanted to explore the ideas of success and failure. About generosity and sacrifice. About learning the big serious Lessons of Life—of course, in a completely ridiculous setting.
My family loves it. Am I grateful? You bet! They trusted me with this story! I don’t know if I would have been so trusting, because I understand how much power you have as a writer. But when they read it they laughed and they laughed. I had to scold them when they read a chapter without waiting for me to be there with them. I wanted to hear their responses! It has been the most rewarding thing—I can’t even begin to tell you. I think the book has brought us closer together, actually, because the stories are true. The best way to be funny—in my opinion—is to try to stick as close as possible to the truth. My mom did hide the money in the washing machine, and they did get laundered—literally. And my dad really did make increasingly complicated mini golf hazards, which were like Rube Goldberg devices, because he was an inventor at heart. And we did give nicknames to the tourists, so we could talk about them. And we did almost go bankrupt. But now we get to laugh. I’m grateful.
NAW- How difficult (or easy) is it running a family business?
I think that anyone who grew up with a family business will tell you the same thing: it’s hard to separate it from the family itself. A business needs so much tending, whether you are running a bed and breakfast, a family farm, or a storefront that deals with customers. You really are bonded together from working together, probably more than others would ever realize. Having a common foe—the customer!—sure does wonders for family togetherness. Ha.
NAW- Tell us about your other works.
I started writing humor in college, mostly sketch comedy to perform with a group. I probably spent more time doing that then actually studying – my major was engineering, so that might have been an issue! Then I moved to California and became a standup comedian, which was a blast. I did comedy for ten years, and drifted down from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Along the way, I was writing things in my notebook that I didn’t know what to do with. They weren’t jokes, but weren’t things I could perform. Well, as it turns out I was writing poetry and stories. So I had another career change and got involved in the poetry scene. Great fun! I formed a band and wrote music for them to accompany me as I performed poems. I released several cds, and I did a bunch of tours both in the U.S. and in Europe. That was not a bad time! The people who do performance poetry are just wonderful to hang out with! I have had several poetry books published, and some short fiction as well.
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
Well, that brings me to the next big change: these days I live with my husband in a log cabin in the woods in NE Iowa. We have a very log cabin life — the nearest neighbour is a half mile away. Between my husband and his father, we have about 60 acres. When I’m stuck on something that I’m writing, I take a walk in the woods. (Walking goes with writing like milk goes with cookies—that’s my opinion.) I also tend the baby trees we’ve planted—they are like my vegetable garden. I also really enjoy sewing my own clothes which I started doing when I was quite young. For me, cutting out a new pattern or sitting at my sewing machine is like meditating. It calms me. I’ve had a hard time whenever I’ve tried the “sit still and empty your mind” type of meditating. I’m better if my hands are busy. I enjoy travelling too. We spent several weeks in London this past year.
NAW- Please name your favourite writers. Are there any who you’d like to name as an inspiration?
I like the fun in Haven Kimmel’s, “A Girl Named Zippy.” The artistry of Marilynne Robinson, in “Housekeeping.” And the crazy focus of “The Mezzanine,” by Nicholson Baker.
NAW-What are you currently reading?
Middlemarch, by George Eliot. I bought an 1885 edition which is thick and old and lovely. I just finished the novel, “You’re Not You,” by Michelle Wildgen. I bought a book from each of the authors who kindly wrote a blurb for my book, and she was one of them. She is fantastic! I highly, highly recommend this book! My sister loves it too, and now her book group is reading it. Next on the nightstand is Kevin Brockmeier’s new memoir, “A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip.” He is always so imaginative and inspiring.
NAW- What will you be working on next?
My memoir has some fairytale elements, because that seems to come out of me whenever I write. So my next book will be a collection of short fiction, many of them fairytales or fabulist stories. I’ve also started work on the next memoir, which will be about my days pursuing comedy in California, called “Bombing.”