For our final entry of Beneath the Needle framed by The Needle Drops... Volume One, we chat to Melissa Bobe about Bits, surrealism, Word Magic Chat and are blessed with a deep dive into Melissa's incredible selection of fictitious works, both upcoming and already released into the wider world.
Melissa Bobe is a speculative fiction writer living in New York. After several years of teaching college writing and literature, she now works as a librarian. She is also a Municipal Liaison for the New York City region of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and enjoys cheering on the writers of her local communities as they attempt their own creative feats.
Melissa has short fiction in Wyldblood Magazine and the steampunk fairytale anthology Clockwork, Curses, and Coal. She is currently at work on the sequel to her debut novel, Nascent Witch, as well as more short stories to thrill and chill her readers.
So, Melissa - Bits is appropriately unsettling, weaving a lingering, memorable and unusual terror into a short narrative that reflects on our social surroundings. We adore it. Would you mind sharing a little on the origin of the story, and how it formed into a final piece?
Bits was actually written for a competition that I didn’t win! The prompt for horror flash fiction was “inanimate beings,” and I can’t quite remember what made me choose the bits in the story—it’s entirely possible I walked around with a bit of tissue stuck on my own shoe! (Let’s get the embarrassing stuff out early in the interview, right?) But I’ve also been that woman coming home alone so many times; I’ve been that friend who stays on the line with the woman going home alone to make sure she makes it through her own front door. It occurs to me that not giving Charlotte such a friend might be the worst thing I did to her, in a way. Even as she’s thinking, “I just want to be left alone,” having to experience what she does all by herself with the reader as her only witness seems especially cruel.
Bits includes such vivid, decadent imagery that - to myself - evoked a Lynchian atmosphere, a subtle yet all-consuming horror where the true impact is firmly grounded in an unfortunate reality. Is surrealism something you enjoy exploring in your fiction as well as others?
First of all, thank you for that—I’m a huge Twin Peaks fan, so it’s quite the compliment! Surrealist works have undeniably had an impact on my life and art. Years ago, I actually dragged my mother clear across the country so I could see Las Dos Fridas in person at an exhibition called In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States. I’ve immersed myself in the work of writers like Shirley Jackson, Banana Yoshimoto, Rosario Ferré, among others, and I also like to read the writing of those visual artists I admire: Frida Kahlo, certainly, but also Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Remedios Varo. Surrealism isn’t my sole influence, or even necessarily my strongest, but it’s certainly a persistent one.
Building on this, what’s another shorter story of yours you’d position as an ‘opposite’; something you feel expresses an entirely different side of your creative output?
My shorter work always seems to tend towards the strange (although “strange” is in and of itself a huge and varied house in which to create, of course). I guess the emotional register of one particular story is so markedly different from Bits that I think it could probably serve as an appropriate opposite: it’s called All of His Loved Ones, and in the story, an elephant attends a funeral. Somebody called it heart-warming, and Bits gets pretty chilly, so the contrast is apt.
"It occurs to me that not giving Charlotte such a friend might be the worst thing I did to her, in a way. Even as she’s thinking, “I just want to be left alone,” having to experience what she does all by herself with the reader as her only witness seems especially cruel."
You released Sibyls and Nascent Witch in 2020, and Electric Trees this year, all met with fantastic reception. How did your process change or evolve between releases - especially considering Electric Trees’ anthology format - and did you develop each independently?
You always hear how the process of writing each book teaches you something, that you grow every time you create a new story or world. And while that’s true, creating a book—meaning the physical/digital object, not just the narrative contained within—also does this, but in a very different way. Sibyls was published first, and it was really a stab in the dark; I’d only ever written one other novella at that point, and I had never created a book before. I don’t mind learning as I go, even if there’s an audience present—I was a violin kid, so I was on a stage from the age of four, and that gives you a little perspective about falling on your face in public and the show always needing to go on, with or without you. I did think I might be stumbling with Sibyls. It had taken about a month to draft—I stopped midway through to give what I had to my critique partners, because I really couldn’t tell whether or not it was utter crap. I think that impulse to seek the approval of others is probably something that never fully goes away, but publishing Sibyls taught me to temper it with a recognition of when you know what a project needs, enough to put it out in the world.
Nascent Witch was actually drafted years before Sibyls; then it was drafted again; then revised; then I queried a good seventy or so agents with it, and I started feeling a certain way about what the book might need. I had an agent interested a few months before I put the novel out, and I pulled the manuscript from consideration and chose to do it myself instead. There was some instinct involved in that decision, but I also wanted to make sure I didn’t end up with a conventional high fantasy, computer-generated cover. As a librarian, I can tell you: covers matter; layout matters; fonts matter. People will avoid your book if it doesn’t look appealing, or even if it doesn’t match their expectations, and they’ll never make it to your back-cover blurb. I really wanted something hand-drawn, kind of L.A.-inspired, and I knew I needed that striking, millennial pink background no matter what. The overall look had to scream: witches + romance + millennial humour. And I also knew that I could teach myself to make a cover much faster than I could teach myself to negotiate a contract where I’d maintain creative control of a debut novel, at least enough to get that millennial pink. So, I did the cover, and learned more about layout than I’d known when I put Sibyls together, and I started to really sit in the book-making process, from drafts of initial chapters right down to the size of the letters on the book’s spine.
By the time I reached Electric Trees, I felt like I knew what I was doing, at least to the extent that anyone does! I was confident about half of the stories in the collection (and no one will ever know which stories I wasn’t confident about, because people have been saying rather nice things about them!). I felt good about the form because I’d already written a short story collection that I’m a little in love with (though I haven’t published it yet). I was also confident about the concept, but I knew that for my vision to be executed and for me to give the book what it needed, I really had to get the design right. Something like font selection was excruciating, both in terms of making a final decision and the cost of licenses, but well worth it because every little visual detail in Electric Trees matters.
Building on this, could you share a little insight into the construction of Electric Trees, and its intriguing play on structure by categorising individual stories beneath either LIGHT, FISSURES or OUTAGES?
The reason I say that visual details mattered so much with this particular book is because the concept for Electric Trees is visual. If you give the term “electric treeing” a Google, you’ll find what are called Lichtenberg figures or electric trees. In the most basic terms, electric trees are formations that occur within a piece of insulation as the result of some sort of fault. When the electricity makes it through that tiny flaw, the structure it forms resembles a tree. The images of this phenomenon are incredibly striking, and I found myself fixated with this idea that a fault in something manmade could result in the resemblance of something we conjure up whenever we think of nature.
At the same time, I’d been experimenting with these manipulated photographs that would come to serve as the cover, and as interior color plates for each of the book’s three sections in the ebook edition. I was photographing trees, but altering them so that they took on that neon, electric aspect I wanted the book to have. And there was this parallel that sort of formed for me: electric trees, as electricity treeing within manmade insulation, and electric trees, as photographs of trees manipulated to look electric.
Now, the stories in the collection at first felt really disparate to me. On the one hand, I was working with some narratives that had been rejected by editors who made a point of telling me that my submission had created dissent: “half of us loved this story, half of us don’t know what to do with it,” that sort of thing. I wanted to do something with them, and I felt like this collection could be a sort of home for my misfit narrative children. I also had what might have been B-sides for the unpublished collection I mentioned earlier, except I felt there were additional degrees of separation between the two books, so in my head and in my project journal, I started calling them C-sides, and there is so much water imagery in Electric Trees that sometimes they were seaside C-sides (I try to keep things playful on the back end, which helps when you’re in revisions and getting sick to death of rereading your own book a dozen or so times).
But there was also this taxonomy that began to happen almost organically, and that’s when the collection really started to take a cohesive form for me. So, when you read the stories in LIGHT, you realize that there are not only more light-hearted stories, but also: iterations of water and ice as they exist in their reflective capacities, glimmering with light; characters who have what I will call a light step or touch; and a structural lightness, as the stories are themselves shorter or “lighter” than many of those in the latter two sections. FISSURES is where you start to find cracks: in the characters, in their motivations, in what’s happening around them. That’s where things start to get a little uncomfortable, but of course there’s a play between the darkness rising and the humour that occurs when things in life get a little uncomfortable. And by the time you reach OUTAGES, you should probably be reading in the morning, or at least with all the lights on.
"I wanted to do something with them, and I felt like this collection could be a sort of home for my misfit narrative children."
In the wide berth of horror media readily available across the many formats of modern entertainment, what’s a particularly memorable experience with the genre from your childhood, if any?
I’m always amazed when I realize I’m writing horror—or really, that I’ve written it, since this realization always seems to happen after the fact. I was such a tremendous chickenshit as a kid. If someone said “scary movie,” I was already in the next room before they could finish their sentence. And yet, as I reflect on what I consumed as a child, almost all of my favorites were steeped in the gothic, and many had really incredible horror elements, as well. To be more specific: I remember being around eight years old and reading aloud with friends from the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark collections. I mean, I couldn’t walk past the Goosebumps books in the school library because I was scared I’d glimpse one of the covers, but there we were, reading horrific urban legends from around the world to each other during lunch.
I was also very into the Bunnicula books, which are hilarious to reread now but which I took completely at face value as a kid. And there were some truly great films that I watched with phenomenal horror in them: Little Nemo, for example, which is based on the old comic (and shouldn’t be confused with the fish movie that came almost fifteen years later). The invasion of Slumberland by the Nightmare and subsequent abduction of King Morpheus was probably far more frightening than any of those Goosebumps books I was so afraid to touch! Also, Nutcracker: The Motion Picture, with amazing set and costume design by none other than Maurice Sendak, and a battle with a completely terrifying rat king—I watched that so many times and from such a young age that to this day, I can hum the entire score from memory. I think it was the first thing I ever watched, actually. My mom’s co-worker had given her the VHS as a gift for me before I was even two years old. My earliest nightmares—at least the ones I can remember—are of a hideous rat puppet hovering above the side of my crib.
As an active member of the larger New York writing community, you co-host Word Magic Chat, a weekly Twitter event for writers and fans. Could you share a little more about the project, and perhaps some insight into your other community-driven interests, such as National Novel Writing Month?
One of the best lessons I’ve had in writing is that, despite the archetype of the eccentric and reclusive author, it’s something that should be done in good company. My critique partners and I created Word Magic Chat as a way of connecting with other writers on Twitter who have an interest in discussing the writing process, along with fantasy and other speculative fiction. Twitter is fascinating to me as a sort of unintentional equalizer: where gatekeeping is still very much in place within the writing industry at large, social media allows for open discussion that helps to keep writers safe. I learned about literary agents with histories of unsavoury practices, scammers posing as legitimate agencies, and other similar dangers through Twitter long before official channels began reporting them. This is why I always tell writers who don’t have social media that it’s as much about the circulation of crucial information as it is about connecting with other writers. And why not connect with others? We have delightful folks who come through Word Magic Chat each week. We offer one another support, enthusiasm, and helpful information, all while enjoying fun conversation and adorable animal GIFs.
My critique partners and I are also Municipal Liaisons for the New York City region of National Novel Writing Month, as you mention. NaNoWriMo is a really wonderful and enriching organization to be a part of, and our community is vibrant and amazingly supportive. Last year, we were fully remote, as we are going to be this coming year; in spite of this, we have thousands of Wrimos signed up to participate, and the conversation in the Discord happens all year long. It’s truly humbling to get to plan out each November for so many hopeful writers, to know that they trust us to put together events that they’re going to enjoy and use to fuel their creativity.
In three words or less - what can our readers expect from Bits?
Bring a coat.
Thank you for partaking in our Beneath the Needle series, Melissa - it was a pleasure to piece together. Bits will be available ready for Halloween 2021, releasing October 12th in The Needle Drops… Volume One.
Thank you so much for this interview, and for the chance to be part of The Needle Drops…Volume One. I’m looking forward to it!
You can keep up with Melissa on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest @abookbumble. You can find out more about her books Nascent Witch, Electric Trees, and Sibyls at abookbumble.com.