This week’s interview is with Lois Ruskai Melina, whose book THE GRAMMAR OF UNTOLD STORIES is a collection of sixteen stories that connect the personal to the political by considering question such as How do we heal? and How do we know when we are home? Read below about Lois’s regular first reader, her close connection to the outdoors, and her favorite time of day.
Educated as a journalist, Lois Ruskai Melina worked as a newspaper reporter before starting Adopted Child, a subscription-based newsletter aimed at helping adoptive parents understand the ways infertility and adoption impact both parents and children. Her books Raising Adopted Children (HarperCollins, 1986, 1998), Making Sense of Adoption (HarperCollins, 1989), and The Open Adoption Experience (with Sharon Kaplan Roszia, HarperCollins, 1993) helped shift the way parents and adoption professionals understand the dynamics of families formed by adoption.
Wanting to explore other topics, Melina followed nine elite women swimmers for eighteen months leading up to the 2000 Olympic Trials and told their stories in the book By a Fraction of a Second (Sports Publications, Inc., 2000).
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Melina received a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Toledo and a M.A. in Journalism from The Ohio State University. She holds a PhD in Leadership Studies from Gonzaga University where her research focused on the way individuals create change sought by social movements through the actions they take in their own lives. Her work has appeared in literary, commercial, and academic publications. She is currently working on a novel set in Iceland, France, and the Pacific Northwest. Melina lives with her husband in Portland, Oregon where she enjoys rowing on the Willamette River and cheering on the Portland Thorns, a National Women’s Soccer League team. She has a grown son and daughter and two grandchildren.
Talk about one book that made an impact on you.
“The Chronology of Water” by Lidia Yuknavitch is a memoir that I read because I signed up to take a writing workshop with Lidia. I was blown away by the way she structured the book, by the way she conveyed emotion–just the beauty of her writing. Then I was in her workshop and found that reading her work gave me permission to take risks I might never have considered taking. I’m fortunate to live in Portland and be able to take her face-to-face workshops as well as the ones she offers online. They never fail to break something open in me.
Tell us about the title of your book. What is the story behind it?
The title is the title of one of the essays in which I’m trying to take bits of information about my grandmother’s life and piece them into a story–but I don’t have all the pieces. Grammar is what lets us make sense out of words. It’s a structure. In the absence of grammar, we have things that seem to go together, but we can’t quite figure out the order, the tense, the subject even. That’s how it felt to try to understand my grandmother’s story. The image on the cover is of Vaux’s swifts. Flying overhead at dusk, they are a huge cloud of birds and somehow they have to organize themselves to drop one at a time into the chimney where they’ll roost for the night. They have their own structure that allows them to make order out of chaos. I think that’s what we do when we tell stories.
Do you have a regular first reader? If so, who is it and why?
My husband is my first reader. We’ve been married since 1973, so he’s been reading my work for a long time. He reads voraciously–lots of literature but also philosophy and psychology–so he has credibility. He’s skilled at giving me responses like “you need more here,” or “this is confusing,” and knows that I don’t want him to suggest edits or tell me how to revise. If something I write makes him cry, I know I’ve succeeded.
What time of day do you love best?
I’m a morning person. I’m often awake at dawn, usually even before the dogs are ready to get up. Anything productive happens in the morning, including my writing. I’m also a rower. If conditions are right, I have a cup of coffee and head to the river to row. Because we row early, there’s plenty of morning left for writing.
What are your interests outside of writing and reading?
I love the outdoors. I love to hike and ski and row and go to the beach. We lived on a farm in Idaho for almost 20 years and raised elk. So the natural world is a big part of my life and shows up a lot in my writing–in metaphor and image and topics. This essay collection references my rowing as well as digging for garnets in North Idaho and uses the eruption of Mt St Helens in 1980 as a metaphor. I’m also a big fan of women’s soccer–I’m a season ticket holder for the Portland Thorns and went to six games in France for the 2019 World Cup. While in France one of the churches I went to inspired me to write a novel that is set in France, Iceland, and the Pacific Northwest. So that’s what I’m working on now.
WHAT REVIEWERS ARE SAYING
“ . . . brilliantly illuminates the stories buried underneath the surface of history, family, work and home . . . With dazzling form and mesmerizing content, Melina brings us to the edges of self passions and discoveries, revealing the secrets we carry in our bodies for a lifetime . . . Truth and beauty on every page.”
-Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Book of Joan
“From the opening words of this luminous book, Melina crafts prose so achingly beautiful, so touched with wonder. Each essay acts like the surface of water, inviting us to explore deeper. Family, children, infertility, and loss are just some of the issues explored in this brilliant book.”
-Rene Denfeld, bestselling author of The Butterfly Girl and The Enchanted
“An intimate, nuanced rumination on family, work, friendship, and home, delivered in bold prose that hums with the curiosity of a true seeker.”
– Kimberly King Parsons, author of Black Light
“Full of love, loss, longing, and hope, Melina’s collection is a poignant look at what it means to embark upon a quest for origins, identities, and meaning . . . Melina is intent upon tracing her own migration, and, in doing so, she offers us unflinching stories of resilience, redemption, and rebirth. Always, we are reminded of the threads of community, solidarity, and continuity that bind and keep us no matter where our journeys might lead.”
-Kim Barnes, author of In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country and A Country Called Home