WIPs Conversation: Melissa Duclos on her work in progress

Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon

Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon

Melissa Duclos was awarded the Guston Fellowship from Columbia University, where she received her MFA in fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in Pound of Flash, Blue Skirt Productions, Scéal, and Bodega Magazine. She is the founder of The Clovers Project, which provides mentoring for writers at various stages of their careers, and a regular contributor to the online magazines BookTrib, Bustle, and Mommyish. Her non-fiction has also appeared in Salon, Electric Literature, Fiction Advocate, Cleaver Magazine, Full Grown People, and English Kills Review, and has been discussed on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s popular “Think Out Loud” program. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she runs a successful freelance editing business, working primarily with authors of fiction. 

Melissa, in “Expats,” adapted from your novel Besotted, Sasha recounts her experience in Shanghai when she met Liz and “Love” came along. While it tells the story of their evolving relationship from co-workers to roommates to lovers, a broader theme centers on expats like themselves who “willingly settle in a place where they will always be viewed as outsiders?” How does this fact affect their relationship? What role does it play with regards to each woman’s relationship with Dorian?

A place where you are always seen as an outsider is a place that’s very easy to leave. Expat lives, then, are temporary ones. In the novel, Dorian fights against this by trying to buy an apartment, though it’s not easy for a foreigner to do. Sasha fights against it by trying to build a stable relationship with Liz. But Liz, who is new to Shanghai, doesn’t really understand Dorian’s and Sasha’s urges to create something permanent for themselves. It’s too easy for her to mistake her life in Shanghai for a game, and to treat others as though her actions have no consequences. This ultimately leads to her betrayal of Sasha, which Dorian helps set into motion.

The story gives an insider’s sense of expat life with fine detail about the motivations of the Westerners who’ve chosen to live abroad, and the peculiarities of the city and Chinese culture as seen through their eyes: “Why do the Chinese squat on the edges of the sidewalks? … Why do they walk backward through the parks? Why do cabdrivers have one long fingernail?” How did you choose Shanghai as the story’s/novel’s setting? Did you yourself live abroad there?

I lived in Shanghai teaching English for about 6 months back in 2004. That tells you a little bit about how long I’ve been working on this novel! The city, as a character, came to me first, before any of the rest of the novel, because I found it such a fascinating and overwhelming place to live. Like Liz, I arrived there without knowing much about the culture or speaking any of the language. I lived with my sister, who did speak Mandarin, but still it was a lonely place to be, and yet a place where it was almost impossible for me to be alone. The novel was born out of my feelings of alienation living in a place I didn’t understand, where I felt that I was playing a temporary role rather than living my “real” life.

Because Shanghai is a city where it is easy for foreigners to reinvent themselves, or to try on new personas, the setting also fit very well with the themes of sexuality and identity that I was interested in exploring.

In the adaptation, Love is described as an ever-present character (at least when Liz is nearby) that watches intently and waits for Sasha to satisfy her. Was Love introduced this way in the novel, or was this something you developed uniquely for the story?

Love plays a similar role in the novel that she does here, appearing in the apartment when Sasha realizes her feelings for Liz, and popping up occasionally throughout the book. She is, of course, a figment of Sasha’s imagination, an embodiment of the feeling that Sasha is trying to capture. Capture is the key word there, as Sasha treats Liz’s love throughout the book as something she must lure, trap, and then control. The character of Love also represents then how little Sasha understands about healthy relationships.

This is the first WIPs publication (of nearly 50) that’s actually an adaptation of a longer novel rather than an excerpt. How did you find the process of condensing the novel into story form? What aspects of the novel do you feel might be missing in the shorter form?

The adaptation was a challenge, but I wanted to do it so that the piece would provide a kind of resolution. At the same time, I don’t exactly see this as a stand alone short story, because it hints at a lot of things that don’t get resolved or explained here. For this to really stand on its own, I’d probably have to cut all of Dorian and focus exclusively on Sasha and Liz, but in the novel Dorian adds so much great tension between the two women that I wanted to keep him here. There are, though, a lot of aspects of the book that don’t make it into these pages. In the novel Liz has a lot of difficulties with her job—she’s a terrible teacher, and needs to be frequently bailed out by Sasha—which adds tension to their relationship. Liz also takes Mandarin lessons in the novel, and her language partner Sam is an important secondary character. And there’s a sub-plot in the book about the Chinese bureaucracy that stands between Dorian and his dream of owning an apartment. Finally, what’s missing from the adaptation is the full arc of Liz and Sasha’s relationship. This story shows how things start, and it suggests how they end, but all the good stuff is in the middle.

What is the current status of Besotted? Are you still reworking it, or have you taken the next step in seeking representation or a publisher?

I’ve finished re-working the novel and am in the process of submitting it to literary agents and indie publishers. It’s a very slow-moving process, but it feels good to be sending the book out into the world.

What other creative projects have you got going these days?

Recently I’ve been writing and publishing some essays, which is new territory for me having spent so long working on this novel. I’m also beginning to draft ideas for my next novel. I am most excited, though, about a new mentoring project that I’ve just launched for writers called The Clovers Project. It matches writers in three-person groups (Clovers) consisting of an established, emerging, and undergraduate student writer with the goal of fostering conversation about what it means to be a writer today. I had an excellent response this fall from established and emerging writers and am now accepting applications from students.

Thanks, Melissa. Is there anything else you’d like to share with or explain to readers?

I’m very grateful for the opportunity to share this piece of the novel here and to talk about the work. Thank you so much for your wonderful questions. I will just add here that in addition to my writing, I also work as a freelance editor, primarily with first-time novelists, and I am set to launch a new blog in January devoted entirely to demystifying the agent submission process. You can learn more about my writing and editing work on my website.



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