An Interview with Featured Writer Melissa Leilani Larson

March 21, 2017

Melissa Leilani Larson by Rick Stone

Set the scene for us with a brief character sketch: where you’ve been and where you are now with your writing and life.

I was born and raised in Hawai’i, moving to Utah just before my thirteenth birthday. I presently live and work in Salt Lake, but I’m always on the lookout for an excuse to move back to the islands. Silly jobs and making a living.

Where am I with my
life and with writing? Goodness. Well, I’m always writing. Can’t seem to stop. I’ve always been a writer. I think it was the second or third grade when I figured out that people wrote books for a living and summarily decided I would be one of those people. My present life is built around the hope that either the next play or film will put me over the top and I can actually say, “This is my life’s work.”

Tell us about your writing, why plays (is there anything else) and what lead you to it?

I found playwriting by accident. I had always planned to be a novelist. I was an English major at BYU. One day in the hall of the old Jesse Knight building, I saw a flyer advertising a playwriting contest for women. The prize was a staged reading (what was that?) and $500. I thought, I love going to the theatre and I’m a writer. I can write a play. So I went home and did it. No idea what I was doing, but two weeks later I had written and submitted a 119-page play. I didn’t win the contest, but something in my head was different.

Beginning Playwriting was easily the hardest writing class I took in my life at that point. The instructor was Elizabeth Hansen, a powerfully talented woman—actor, singer, writer—and she didn’t pull any punches. I had no idea what I was doing and Liz knew it. I didn’t realize what a big jump it was from prose to drama. Every assignment was a struggle. Liz would very kindly read my assignments and then say, “No, it’s wrong. Go try again.” Writing had always been easy for me, and suddenly it wasn’t. I couldn’t understand why it was so hard. And yet I couldn’t stop writing.

Somewhere over the course of that class, something changed. Whatever had opened in my head after that first contest opened further. The proverbial lightbulb switched on. For as long as I could remember I had leaned so heavily on the omniscience of narrative prose. Now I think through scenes and moments and plot points in spoken dialogue and action, with no narrator in sight. At the end of that class, Liz told me I was a playwright. I haven’t really looked back.

Three or four years later, I rewrote that first full-length play, a domestic drama about Anne Boleyn and her lady-in-waiting, Meg Wyatt. I re-entered that contest, and I won. A dozen plays and 1.75 graduate programs later, I have yet to write a novel. I should get going on that.

Why plays? Plays are an exercise in humanity. They are performed live, and that immediacy with an audience can’t really be duplicated in any other medium. You don’t really watch a play so much as experience it. It’s a little voyeuristic, but that’s why it works. As human beings, we are constantly searching out validation. In the theatre, watching a fictional someone’s life play out, we can seek out and find moments we relate to. People like us who succeed or fail. We feel a kinship that makes us go home and look at ourselves a little differently.

What writers inspire you to read? To want to write more and write better?

I read a lot of plays—plays from all over the map. The Greeks, Shakespeare, Lynn Nottage, David Lindsay-Abaire, Caryl Churchill, Lillian Hellman. I also see a lot of plays. Because as wonderful as plays are to read, that are meant to be seen. The best plays work literarily and dramatically.

My favorite playwright is a Brit, Helen Edmundson. She uses language like a muscle—she flexes it to fit what the story needs. And her words always fit the story she is telling; she writes lines that are beautiful, yet completely believable in the mouths of her characters. Some people will write beautiful words, but when the character says them, they’re wrong; they don’t fit the person or the situation. Edmundson doesn’t have that problem. She chooses and arranges her words so carefully. Everything is measured and necessary. And theatrical! That might not make sense to anyone but me, but basically it means that her stuff works on stage. It’s meant to be performed and experienced. She creates worlds, however small and pedestrian, that are real and honest and suck the reader in.

Aside from the work of Jane Austen (the fact that I love her work is a bit of a given) my favorite novel is Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I read it at least once a year. It’s an incredibly relatable female story—an American story. So hard in places and so funny in others. Complicated characters in complicated relationships. It never gets old.

What writing advice have you found helpful and what do you give yourself?

It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the more negative aspects of putting your work out in the world. Is anyone going to come? Is anyone going to like it? On the days that I let that happen, my productivity fizzles fast. And no matter how good your end product is, there will be people who just don’t like it. That was a hard lesson to learn, and some days I forget it. During the premiere run of Pride and Prejudice at BYU, I would sit in a variety of seats throughout the house to get a sense of the audience reaction. Usually it was pretty positive. But one night I was sitting beside two female students who barely cracked a smile through the whole first act. At the interval, one said to her friend, “It isn’t like the movie at all.” And they got up and left. You know, that play is pretty good. It’s faithful to the book at the same time that it stands independent from the book—it stands on its own as a work of drama. But that night, when the lights dimmed for Act Two, there were two empty seats next to me and I was wracking my brain trying to figure out what I could have done to win those women over. But you can’t think like that. There were another 450 people who did not leave at the halfway point, and the entire run was sold out. That’s got to mean something, doesn’t it?

I follow Lin-Manuel Miranda on Twitter, and he is often a great source of inspiration. He knows that he has a lot of fans in the world, and that they are looking to him for inspiration, and he does a pretty great job meeting that expectation. In the fall he tweeted, “Do not get stuck in the comments section of life today. Make, do, create the things.”

Number one bit of writing advice: write. You just have to do it. It’s tiring and hard and time-consuming. But it doesn’t happen unless you do it, so do it. It’s so old-school it’s cliché, but it’s also the simple truth: the secret of writing is writing.   

Tell me about your writing process. Is there a ritual, place or time that helps you write regularly and at your best?

It would be so cool if I had a ritual. But really it’s just whenever I can do it. My most productive time is from about 10:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. The closest thing I have to a ritual is requiring 5-10 pages a day. It’s amazing how productive you can be when you get in the habit of expecting pages every day.

I prefer to have quiet when I’m writing. I think that’s part of why I work best in the middle of the night; everything is dark and quiet. I can’t do music unless it’s instrumental and pretty low; I’m easily distracted. I like to hear the sound of my pen on the paper. For Christmas I got myself a wonderfully clicky external keyboard. I find a tactile joy in the act of writing. When I’m pounding away on my keyboard, it both feels and sounds like I’m accomplishing something. I love the shine of liquid ink on the page as I’m writing with a pen; that gleam is hugely satisfying.

Do you bribe yourself to meet a deadline? If so, how so?

Oh goodness, yes. I’m a snacker, so I’m all about the treats when I’m writing. Sometimes if I’m thinking about a favorite meal I’ll set a goal for the day. “If I finish revising this scene, I can get sushi for dinner.”

For a while I was addicted to Pinterest and I stuck a post-it on the edge of my computer monitor: “45 minutes of work = 15 minutes of Pinterest”. The internet is a fantastic thing, but goodness does it suck away your time. If I’m not careful, I can wheedle away a whole evening just messing around online. So I set limits. I like to write in sprints—try to go for 30 or 60 minutes without stopping. Sometimes I turn off the Wi-Fi altogether, which is very helpful.

I collect fountain pens. Finishing a script deserves a bigger reward, so I usually get myself a nice pen when a play premieres. That’s more of a longtime bribe, but it happens.

What is the easiest thing to write?

Dialogue. Conversation. Even if I end up throwing it out later, just letting characters talk for a while can be so useful. The more dialogue you crank out, the more you get to know who these people are. 

What do you struggle with?


Oh goodness. This is probably a longer list than I should admit.

I struggle with starting. I can be so excited about the possibility of a new play, but I will dance around actually starting—sitting down and working—for weeks. It’s like losing the key to your car and having to start every drive by hotwiring your starter. Such a pain. Once I get going, I’m good. But the blank page is not kind to me.

I also struggle with confidence. It’s like a roller coaster sometimes. As much as I say I shouldn’t worry about what other people will think, I constantly question it. Most of the time I say it as a reminder for myself. There are days when I wake up and I think, “Oh hey, I’m the best playwright ever and this is going to be the best day in my career.” And there are days when good stuff happens, and it’s just fine to feel that confident. But the next day can be completely opposite of that: bad news, rejection, non-constructive criticism. 

Melissa Leilani Larson by Rick Stone

In order to get your work produced, you need to be constantly putting it out there. Sending it off. Entering contests, submitting to theatre companies, schmoozing directors and producers, trying to land an agent. Rejection letters are the worst. Getting up and going back to the desk to write after getting a rejection letter is an incredibly hard thing for me. It’s so much easier to curl up in bed and weep. Naturally I get exponentially more rejections than acceptances. That’s the way of the world when you’re not Sarah Ruhl. But you have to find a way to get up and try again. You just do.

You specialize in tricky topics: gender, faith, etc. is there anything you won’t write about?

I have always tried very hard to focus my work on character and story. Tricky topics and themes are a bonus. I don’t want a message to get in the way of the story. If the story is interesting and the characters are honest, then I can make it work. I leave it to the audience to decide what message they pull from a show—and that can differ from person to person, which is just fine by me. But as far as themes and topics go, I don’t know that there is anything I won’t write about. 

I do prefer to focus on women’s stories. I know so many wonderful women who are actors, and they are always looking for good roles to play. There’s just not enough for them to do, so I want to add to that store.

How has your faith shaped your writing or vice versa? How do they challenge each other?

My faith is part of who I am and as such it naturally influences my work. No matter the piece, I begin a writing session with prayer. I firmly believe that God is present in art. He has spoken to me in the theatre, between the pages of books, in the airy halls of museums. The theatre is a sacred space. It requires open hearts and open minds, much like the gospel.

While I have told stories about Mormon characters, they aren’t the only stories I want to tell. Far from it. That’s why I resist the label “LDS playwright”. I’m not ashamed of my faith, not at all. But there is an expectation that comes with that label, and I have a lot of stories to tell. Some of them are Mormon, some of them are not.

What piece of writing or play garnered you the most attention?

Hmm. It’s hard to say. Freetown was seen by more people than anything I’ve ever worked on. But I wouldn’t say it garnered attention for me. People are always surprised to hear I was involved.

I guess the piece that has received the most acclaim would be Little Happy Secrets, which is the story of a recently returned missionary coming to terms with her sexuality. She doesn’t come out—she’s a very private person—but she figures things out. We did the first run of that play at New Play Project in Provo in 2009. It has been produced a few other times since. There was a podcast version online—an old school radio play—that was online for a while. It’s also been published in an anthology: Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project, available from Peculiar Pages.

Did you expect it or was it a surprise?

I was a little terrified of that play, and of doing it in Utah Valley. There is nothing in the show that is offensive or upsetting, but you just never know with a conservative LDS base. Are they going to take to it? Are they going to hate it? Are they going to tell their friends to stay away? But that initial production went well, as did the subsequent ones. A common response went like this: “I didn’t want to see the show. But I’m really glad I did.”

I still get the occasional message or email from someone who saw or heard or read the play and was affected by it. Many of those messages are from LDS youth who are gay or bi or trans; some are out, others or not. When someone tells you that experiencing your play probably saved their life… Wow. That stays with you. It means a lot. It’s a big part of why when I have that little itch to quit I don’t. 

What piece do you wish had more?

Anything. Everything! 

What are you working on right now?

For the past couple of years I’ve been drafting a play, Sweetheart Come, about a young mother dealing with the onset of schizophrenia, an illness that wasn’t named or defined at the time this woman was alive (the play is set in Germany in 1909). The play is an attempt on my part to make something that is simultaneously beautiful and devastating. I love letters–writing them and reading them. It’s a sad state that our culture has given up on letter-writing when we used to depend on it so completely. Letters show up rather regularly across my work, and Sweetheart is a play in which they can take center stage; the protagonist, Emma Hauck, wrote heartbreaking letters to her husband from a psychiatric hospital. Her letters were never actually mailed; they were found at the hospital after her death, and seeing images of them online is what triggered my interest in the story.

I’m also working on a contemporary piece about a lawyer whose career suddenly derails. Also looking at a 19th century pioneer romance… Hmm. That sounds sketchy. Jane Austen’s Emma. And a couple of films that I’m really excited to be working on.

Looking forward, what would you like to do creatively that you haven’t yet?

I would love to write for television. What fun it would be to spin out a story over not just hours but weeks and months. You can take the time to build the world and get to know the characters. TV drama actually has a stronger connection to theatre than it does to film. It’s driven by dialogue and by character interaction in a way that films don’t. I know, TV is getting better at the visual elements, and that’s awesome. But more often than not TV is better at balancing dialogue with the image because they have the luxury of time.

Oh, and hey—I haven’t given up completely on the idea of writing a novel.

Anything else you’d like to share with our audience of writers and readers?

Food is the most important thing. It shows up in every play I write. Every film. So naturally it must be the most important thing. I have a character who almost always speaks with her mouth full (Mary Musgrove in Persuasion). My most recent production was a children’s play, The Edible Complex, about a fifth grader who decides to stop eating for a day only to have her food rebel. The food becomes a character in that show—more like a dozen characters! Who needs a theme when you can have a cheeseburger?

March 21, 2017

Shelah

(Co-Editor-in-Chief) teaches English at BYU and French at a Salt Lake City middle school. She has an addiction to her Audible account, hates making dinner, and embraces the chaos of life with a husband, six kids, a dog, a lizard and four rabbits.

3 Comments

  1. Wm

    March 21, 2017

    I really enjoyed this interview. In particular, I totally agree on food being the most important thing. I also like Mel’s no nonsense approach to being an “LDS writer”. I can relate to the getting started thing. And this is both scary and exciting: “The play is an attempt on my part to make something that is simultaneously beautiful and devastating.”

  2. Alice

    March 21, 2017

    Great interview! I hope Mel continues to find success.

  3. Kim in Virginia

    March 22, 2017

    Melanie,

    Thank you oodles for sharing so much of yourself! I am inspired to keep up my writing. I love your confident honesty and your authentic nature!

Comments are closed.

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