Interview with Nicole Melleby

Hello, Nicole, and thank you for joining us at MG Book Village today! Your new MG novel, IN THE ROLE OF BRIE HUTCHINS…, comes out on June 16th with Algonquin Young Readers. Can you please tell us about it?

I keep calling IN THE ROLE OF BRIE HUTCHENS… a middle grade Love, Simon meets Lady Bird. Brie is a soap opera loving Catholic school girl who has a complicated relationship with her mom, which is only further complicated by her mom’s strong faith and Brie’s first crush on another girl. Brie knows she’s gay, and is well aware of the Catholic church’s stance on that, so she doesn’t share her mom’s faith, nor does she really understand it. What Brie really wants is to get into the performing arts high school next year, but with her working-class family’s financial struggles (and the fact that Brie’s grades thus far are mediocre at best) she has to prove to her parents that she can—and should—be allowed to apply. Nothing seems to really go Brie’s way, however, when her mom walks in on Brie googling inappropriate photos of Brie’s favorite soap opera actress, and to divert her mom’s attention, Brie lies and says she’s been chosen to play the big role in her 8th grades religious May Crowning ceremony.

So, to make that actually happen, and to successfully attain her dreams (and to get her mom to really see her) Brie’s got a lot of work to do. 

How different was the process of writing your second book from your debut MG novel, HURRICANE SEASON?

I was lucky enough to have written a draft of my second book before I even sold my first, but still, there’s a reason everyone says book 2 is the hardest. You’re in the middle of getting reviews from readers on your first book, trying to block all that out to focus on the writing of your second without anything going to your head. You’re way more aware of the audience, because they’re already in contact with you in different ways while reading the first book. I had to get myself to focus on the book while blocking out the rest. 

How much of your own experience did you write into your story, or did you get your inspiration from other places?

Nicole: It’s actually funny–I said earlier that In the Role of Brie Hutchens could be comped to the movie Lady Bird. I actually walked out of the theater after seeing Lady Bird and said, “I want to write about a coming of age queer middle grade story based on my experience in Catholic school.” Only, when I sat down to write that story, I realized that the experiences of middle grade readers now are much different than when I was that age. In big part thanks to the internet (I sound about a thousand years old right now), today’s middle grade readers have access to and an understanding of queer identities and vocabulary that I had no idea existed until I was in my twenties. I had to find a way to tell the story I wanted to tell, but for today’s audience. Brie is exactly like I was: dramatic, confused, a little self-centered, questioning the idea of faith and religion. But Brie knows that she has feelings for girls and doesn’t really struggle with understanding what that means–just what to do about it. 

What 3 pieces of advice would you give to Brie if she was your younger cousin?

1. You have nothing to be ashamed of.

2. The longer you let a lie go, the worse the outcome is going to be when it inevitably comes to light.

3. If your mom refuses to see who you are, there are plenty of people who happily will; you’re not alone. 

What one thing did you learn in the process of writing this book that might surprise your readers?

As confident in myself and my writing as I’d like to think I am, I still sometimes hold back. Before I came out, I was writing queer stories, but because I was still so afraid and uncomfortable with my own identity, I couldn’t fully tell those stories. I realized while writing this book that I was holding back in another way: I grew up going to Catholic school, as a Catholic, and I no longer consider myself religious at all. There were many times when my editor would give me feedback where she’d say, “Explore these feelings of faith and religion with Brie and her mom more.” I had to push myself, because I was holding back from actually opening that door and letting myself go there. But once I did, once I went there…the story was stronger for it. 

What do you hope young readers will take away from your story?

I wanted to show that “coming out” isn’t one moment. It’s a lifetime of moments. And it sucks, it does. It’s frustrating for Brie as much as it is freeing. But I wanted to show that, despite the struggle and the pain, there is good, there is hope. The soap opera scene that Brie consistently goes back to, the one where the character Bianca comes out to her mom, Erica Kane, is this sweet, heartbreaking scene where Bianca begs her mom to see her. “Can’t you see who I am? I want you to see who I am.” That’s exactly what Brie wants throughout her whole process, too. She wants to be seen, she wants her mom to see her. I want my young readers to get from this story (and every story I write) is that *I* see them, regardless of the rest. 

I know many writers are finding it challenging to write these days. How does your writing routine today differ from what it was 6 months ago?

Nicole: I try to keep my routine the same, just with added anxiety! It’s hard, and I have to be forgiving with myself if I just can’t be creative as often or as well as I’m used to, but I’ve always treated writing like the job I consider it to be, and I still put in the time just as I do my dayjob. It’s not always great writing–sometimes I’ll try and fail miserably to write anything worthwhile. But, resilience is key, in almost everything right now. I have to keep giving it my best, and allowing my best to sometimes just be mediocre, if that’s what I need. 

Are you working on a new writing project right now, and where can we go to keep up-to-date about you and your writing?

I am currently working on my third book, which will come out Spring 2021, called HOW TO BECOME A PLANET. The story starts off with an 11-year-old girl named Pluto having just gotten a depression and anxiety diagnosis. Pluto and her mom are struggling to understand and deal with Pluto’s diagnosis and what that means for Pluto moving forward. 

My friend Josh Levy (who wrote a wonderful sci-fi MG book called SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY) actually told me that he called the Hayden Planetarium Question and Answer Hotline to ask them questions about traveling in space while writing his book. When he told me this, I had already written a first draft of Pluto’s story—and her mom’s love of outer space and how she gave that love to Pluto—and I knew immediately I wanted to write that into my story. So Pluto, while wondering why astronauts decided that Pluto (the dwarf planet) wasn’t a planet anymore, and wondering why she has depression and why her life is changing because of it, calls up the Hotline to ask all of the big questions that are on her mind. Even if they can’t exactly help her. 

I’m also co-editing a queer middle grade anthology with Katherine Locke called THIS IS OUR RAINBOW: SIXTEEN STORIES OF HER, HIM, THEM, AND US that has an absolutely WONDERFUL lineup of authors. You can keep up with me and my work either at my website or on Twitter, where you can find me @LadyNeeko (which, for the record, is a play off of Lady Gaga and the nickname Nico.) 

Thanks again for joining me today, and all the best with your book’s release.

Nicole Melleby is a born-and-bred Jersey girl with a passion for storytelling. She studied creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and currently teaches creative writing and literature courses with a handful of local universities. Her debut novel, HURRICANE SEASON was a Lambda Literary Award Finalist, and was awarded the Skipping Stones Honor Award for exceptional contribution to multicultural and ecological awareness in children’s literature. Her second novel, IN THE ROLE OF BRIE HUTCHENS… will be released April 21, 2020. When shes not writing, Nicole can be found browsing the shelves at her local comic shop or watching soap operas with a cup of tea.

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