Interviewed by Valerie Waterhouse
Read Melanie Whyte’s fiction piece, The Coldness Between Us
Valerie: The most striking thing about this story is its formal aspect: that black line dividing the centre of the page. Was the black line there from the outset? Or did it emerge as part of a later draft?
Melanie: From the beginning I knew I wanted to write about a mother and daughter in an emotionally abusive relationship and how that dynamic affects regular life. I’ve always been fascinated with family dynamics. How you’re bound by to each other in some way or another whether you want to be or not. After a few frustrating drafts I realized I wanted the reader to see directly what was in the mother’s and daughter’s heads at the same time. That’s where the line came in.
What does the black line represent? Is it ever cross-able?
The line started as a simple tool to separate the two characters’ thoughts, but as I continued to write I realized it symbolized the divide between them and how every time they considered crossing it, they stopped short. Without encouragement, no relationship will grow. The daughter is torn over how to comfort her mother, who is torn about how to comfort her mother. More than that I wanted to make it clear how an emotionally abusive relationship can work without the abuser knowing what they’re doing: how an abuser can mean no harm yet commit so much harm. Which is why it was important for both thoughts to be heard at the same time.
Separateness and duality are important themes in this story. The inability to know what is inside another’s head. And how misunderstandings arise as a consequence. Are these themes you plan to develop in other work? And would you use the same formal arrangement if you did?
I have never thought about reusing the line but think it’s an interesting idea. I do tend to write with multiple perspectives. Fiction allows us to understand why someone says or does something. It allows us to practice empathy. In this story, for instance, I aimed to put the reader in the shoes of both characters showing them as a product of their personal history. There is no ‘bad guy’; we are all bent and shaped by our experiences.
When I undergo a frustrating interaction with someone I often write out what their thoughts might’ve been during the disagreement to understand their perspective. The Devil’s Advocate is my best friend.
Duality is also very much a part of your own identity. You are both American and Irish and are about to set off in search of ‘your next home’. Can you tell us a little more about your future plans?
I am actually answering these questions in an airport. I plan to travel around the world until I run out of savings. I graduated in December and am using the next year to discover where I want my home base to be. When I need money, I hope to teach English to Chinese students online, or pick up odd jobs through freelancing. Wherever I have my laptop I’ll be fine.
Does being a ‘double’ American-Irish citizen predispose you psychologically towards ‘duality’ as a theme? Is there something in this? Or am I stretching the point a little too far?
I am a dual citizen because of my parents, who are Irish citizens. I was born in America but granted citizenship in Ireland. My parents and two siblings currently live in Ireland with my extended family. Growing up I was aware of the subtle cultural contrasts between me and my American peers as well as my Irish family. This awareness of how people’s upbringing and background affects them drew me to writing fiction. Sometimes fictional characters can help us understand each other better. We tend to see ourselves in the stories we read. It gives us the flexibility to be open-minded.
This is your first published fictional story. How does it feel?
“I can actually do this!”