Today I introduce an author who has had a wealth of experience in many creative areas - Melissa Jo Peltier. Melissa Jo has been honored for her film and television writing, producing and directing with two Emmys, a Peabody, Humanitas and more than 50 other awards and nominations.
An executive producer of the thrice Emmy-nominated and People’s Choice-winning reality series Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan, she co-authored five New York Times best-selling books with its star, along with two more non-fiction titles. Melissa is a co-founder of Burbank-based MPH Entertainment, Inc, which has created over 350 hours of original non-fiction and reality programming.
Welcome, Melissa Jo ...
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR WRITING JOURNEY … AND WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME A WRITER?
My mother loved the book Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. She wanted to name me after one of the characters in the book. My parents settled on “Amy Veronica” for a girl. But when I was born, the story goes, my mother looked into my eyes and said, “She’s going to be a writer.” So my name was changed to Melissa Jo – the Jo for Jo March, the writer in the March family and Alcott’s avatar in her novel. My mother died very young when I was 22, but my middle name reminds me how well she knew me and how deeply she loved me, from the moment I arrived.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
I have a sort of Jungian world view, so I would say it’s the connection with the Collective Unconscious that is possible when you are in the flow. It’s the feeling that the words and images are coming from somewhere else and just pouring through you; you’re just writing what is dictated. This happens less frequently that I’d like, but it does happen, and it’s the closest thing to understanding what the universe is all about that I ever get to come.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
Being disciplined. Because I have horrible, hateful critical voices that scream at me that what I write is junk and no one wants to read it and my craft is terrible and I’m not as good as so and so, etc. etc. etc…it’s often hard to get started. Once I do get started and into a project, it begins to flow, but I have to put my blinders on and leave all judgment behind until I’m finished, which is very, very difficult for me, since I’m more comfortable as a natural editor and rewriter.
WHAT WERE YOU IN A PAST LIFE, BEFORE YOU BECAME A WRITER?
I was always a writer, but I also love directing and my work allowed me to do both of those as well as producing non-fiction television.
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST WRITING ACHIEVEMENT?
Finishing my novel Reality Boulevard http://apostrophebooks.com/realityboulevard and letting the characters take me on a journey.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
I am experimenting with the thriller genre, which is a challenge but a good one. I love reading/watching thrillers and though it’s not the form that all the stories in my head take, I thought I’d try and tackle it for one particular story about four suburban guys who share a terrible secret from their high school years that comes back to haunt them.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Reading great literature, seeing well-made films, gazing at a brilliant painting or sculpture or architecture…as well as experiencing God’s three-dimensional paintings in nature. Whenever I see something done well and far better than I could ever have done it, I’m inspired.
WHAT GENRE DO YOU WRITE?
I am genre-hopping at the moment. Reality Boulevard is an odd genre – a social novel, a Hollywood novel, contemporary fiction. My current piece of work is a thriller. In the queue are some other genres. I haven’t written enough longform fiction to know if I’ll settle into a niche. I always thought I’d be a “literary” novelist but I don’t know yet if I have the chops.
DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR NEW WRITERS?
Read. Read everything. Realize that you did not invent the wheel, you won’t be inventing the wheel, and you are beholden to all who came before you. Then write as honestly as humanly possible with your own unique voice. And just write the next word.
DO YOU SUFFER FROM WRITER’S BLOCK?
Not writer’s block per-se as in “I don’t know what to write.” I have too many things I want to write. I suffer from fear, horribly mean critical voices in my head, and other symptoms that tend to cause avoidance and procrastination.
DO YOU HAVE A PREFERRED WRITING SCHEDULE?
Once I get over the avoidance/procrastination hump, I prefer writing when I roll out of bed while the subconscious is most active. I revise in the afternoons, and sometimes the writing calls me back for a couple hours at night.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE WRITING PLACE?
I go through phases. I have a lovely office that looks out on the Hudson River but often I prefer my laptop, in front of the fireplace, on the patio in nice weather, and at the Art Café in downtown Nyack, which is just a really conducive environment for creativity but also with incredible coffee, tea and vegetarian food. I wrote the last half of Reality Boulevard sitting at an outside table at the Art Café. I travel with my husband to his movie locations and I actually rewrote all of Reality Boulevard in a coffee shop on St. Philips St. in the French Quarter of New Orleans! I like finding new places to write. As long as I can be comfy.
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST JOY IN WRITING?
When I’m in “the flow” – when I’ve somehow shut off all those critical voices and I’m allowing the work to flow through me as if it were coming from somewhere else. When that happens – not often enough, but it does happen – writing is a spiritual experience.
WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE AUTHOR AND WHY?
I have a hard time having a ‘favourite’ anything, and there are so many authors to whom I look up. I’d have to say Charles Dickens, who not only pioneered the social novel as entertainment, but who created some of the most unforgettable characters in all of literature. One of the things I admire most about Dickens is, it’s clear that he loved all of his characters. Even the bad ones are somehow infused with a kind of creator’s love. I aspire to that.
WHAT’S THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT YOU EVER RECEIVED FROM A READER?
“Couldn’t put it down.” Every time someone tells me that, I feel I succeeded.
WHAT WAS THE WORST COMMENT FROM A READER?
Well, I had a reader from a publishing company say that “The characters are too sympathetic, which makes the satire fail.” Personally I think that’s a ridiculous concept – who says you can’t have sympathetic characters in satire? And the truth is, although Reality Boulevard reads like satire, I didn’t intend it that way. Most of what reads like satire is actually the “gawdawful truth.”
WRITERS ARE SOMETIMES INFLUENCED BY THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THEIR OWN LIVES. ARE YOU?
Always. I tend to believe that the writing comes from somewhere else and is filtered through the individual writer and his/her experience before it lands on earth. I also know that though I was a good writer technically in college, my writing now has a depth of understanding I couldn’t possibly have had then.
OTHER THAN WRITING, WHAT ELSE DO YOU LOVE?
I adore my wonderful writer-director husband John Gray, and love traveling with him to locations. We call our life “the moveable feast” for that reason. I love love LOVE directing both documentary and dramatic films; my speciality is directing children and directing people who aren’t actors and making them look like actors. I love great films and classic films; I love supporting indie films. I love the theatre – both plays and musicals. I love top-notch television drama like Mad Men or The Sopranos…to me, that’s where the great drama has gone, not to studio movies. I love reading and I love an eclectic assortment of music. I love art and architecture – especially decorating. I love working out and listening to books on tape while doing it. Lately this winter, my thing is birding. I am currently obsessed with the feeder birds in our backyard.
DID YOU HAVE YOUR BOOK / BOOKS PROFESSIONALLY EDITED BEFORE PUBLICATION?
My publishers at Apostrophe Books did the editing on Reality Boulevard. I was fortunate to get Apostrophe’s founder, Martyn Forrester, to personally do my book. My non-fiction books at Random House, Simon and Schuster and Capo Press all had professional editors and copyeditors. I worked very closely with some excellent editors on the Cesar Millan Books and the Mommy Docs book. A great editor is a blessing. He or she wants the best for the book, just like you do, but can see it from a less biased perspective.
DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY.
My perfect day would have to be at the beach, either in my happy place on the Outer Cape of Massachusetts or our favourite vacation spot, on Isle of Palms near Charleston South Carolina. Wake up to a beautiful, hot (but not too muggy) sunny day; drink a mug of hand-mixed loose-leaf tea with almond milk and honey and have a small breakfast, then head out for a long bike ride and a workout at the gym. Get back before noon in time to go down to the beach with a book. Read until “magic hour,” have a hot shower, then go for a romantic dinner and a walk around town. Before bed, watch an episode of great TV like House of Cards or Breaking Bad. Read myself to sleep.
I know, pretty dull. Fifteen years ago it would’ve been different. But dull is really where it’s at for me these days.
IF YOU WERE STUCK ON A DESERT ISLAND WITH ONE PERSON, WHO WOULD IT BE? WHY?
My husband, John Gray. Ten years and I’m still never tired of him. He’s one of the most interesting, funny, compassionate people I’ve ever met with a fascinating life story that I never get enough of; and he’s also a great listener and sounding board for ideas. I do the same for him; we call it “Musing.”
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IF YOU HAD THE CHANCE TO SPEAK TO WORLD LEADERS?
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but come on, people. Stop with the game playing and chest thumping already and do something. Make some change. Politics be damned! Do the right thing for the people who elected you!
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
On my immediate list is to write and direct a short film that gets on the festival circuit, and to produce more indie features with my husband, John Gray. I have several novels “in the queue” to write. I would kill to direct and write a feature documentary, but raising money was never my forte.
WHAT FIVE BOOKS WOULD YOU TAKE TO HEAVEN?
Robert Penn Warren’s ALL THE KINGS MEN
Charles Dicken’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY
Hillary Mantel’s WOLF HALL
Toni Morrison’s BELOVED
DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN ANY OF YOUR CHARACTERS?
Because of my Jungian worldview, I see myself in all of the characters, just as I believe we represent all of the characters in our dreams. I think if a writer is honest, he or she will admit this. Even the darkest characters in my novel represent aspects of me – and writing them into life is a way to exorcise their power. The character of Hunter is most like me in a superficial way – she has the same job I had for many years in the business, as a field director for television (though I’m a writer and she is not); and her tunnel-vision drive and ambition definitely represents aspects of me at a certain time in my life. I see myself in Marty Maltzman in my frustration over how television has changed; I see myself in Jackie Rosen, the guidance counsellor who is both shocked and cynical at how money has warped the parents and kids at her school; and I even have to admit seeing myself in Garret “The World Hasn’t Recognized My Genius!” Shaw.
DOES THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY FRUSTRATE YOU?
When I first started writing the Cesar Millan books for Random House, I was blown away at how much better the publishing world was than television, for a writer, at least. My editor (Julia Pastore) was so in tune with what I was doing, so pleasant to work with and so intelligent, her notes actually made the book better. What’s more, I got far fewer notes from her in a whole 90,000 word book than I would get from television executives at certain unnamed networks on a fifteen minute segment for a one hour show. The same with my editor on the Mommy Docs book. They were a delight to work with and it felt like a collaboration rather than a dictatorship, as often is the case in television. So my experience in non-fiction was wonderful, especially compared to the similar process I underwent hundreds of times in television.
However, the rejections I got for REALITY BOULEVARD were confusing. Almost every publisher who rejected the book said he or she liked it very much. I got the sense that the reasons given for rejection were things that, possibly a decade ago, a publisher might have taken on as a challenge. I have learned from my agent that the only surefire way to sell a book these days is to have a “platform” for promotion. That’s difficult if you’re not an established author or a celebrity of some kind. The eBook thing is new to me, and it seems like a very vast sea in which to try and get noticed. But I’m very happy with my publisher, Apostrophe Books, and they are holding my hand throughout.
DID YOU EVER THINK OF QUITTING?
When I was in college, my senior year, I wrote a poem in a creative writing class. I can’t recall its title right now, but it was about conformity in suburbia and how little girls dream of growing up to look like Barbie. (My work had a lot of feminist subtext back then.) When it came time to discuss in class, the writing professor tore the poem apart. Not the style or craft, but the subject matter. He actually laughed at it, saying “Who cares?” Later I heard from a freshman who had this particular professor as an advisor. She told me he often used my poems as examples of what not to write about. Naturally I was devastated, but I had an angel on my side.
The National Book-winning poet and essayist, Adrienne Rich. That same semester, Rich – then my hero as a writer; I’d read all her books – came to the consortium of colleges that included mine and offered a select writing workshop open to only ten students in all the colleges. I was chosen as one of the ten. After my other professor’s ridicule, I remember running all the way to across three campuses to have a meeting with Ms. Rich. She was outraged at the behaviour of the other professor and told me I had real talent, a real voice, and I must never, ever let anyone tell me what I should or shouldn’t be writing. She was a powerful woman and she passionately convinced me to keep writing. We stayed in touch for several years after the class and I feel so blessed and honoured to have known and studied under her. Not to mention having her save my writing from certain death.
WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE MANUSCRIPT TO WRITE? WHY?
Definitely Reality Boulevard. First, because it taught me that yes, I can write a novel! I was tired of writing in someone else’s voice. Second, because it was a transformative experience for me. I learned life lessons right alongside my characters. That makes me hungry to write more novels.
HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE ‘SUCCESS’ AS A WRITER.
I suppose to feel good about one’s writing and to have that reflected back from your audience’s reaction. On another level, I would love to be able to make a living purely with my own writing, and not writing for hire, which has been my life in the past.
WHAT SHOULD READERS WALK AWAY FROM YOUR BOOKS KNOWING? HOW SHOULD THEY FEEL?
I would like readers to walk away from Reality Boulevard feeling as if they are getting off a wonderful carnival ride that they wished had gone on a little longer. I want them to feel like they met “people” they were happy (or at least fascinated!) to know, and that they grew up a little right alongside them. I’d also like them to come away thinking a little more critically about television and the media, but that’s secondary to the characters and story.
HOW MUCH THOUGHT GOES INTO DESIGNING A BOOK COVER?
Jamie Downham designed four potential covers for Reality Boulevard and they were all spot on.
WHAT’S YOUR ULTIMATE DREAM?
My ultimate dream is to leave this earth knowing I did all I could do with the gifts I was given, including the ability to love and be loved in return.
WRITING IS ONE THING. WHAT ABOUT MARKETING YOU, YOUR BOOKS AND YOUR BRAND? ANY THOUGHTS?
In 2009, I produced an indie film with my husband (which he wrote and directed) called White Irish Drinkers. We did have a distributor and got a small theatrical release, and we spent a whole year on the festival circuit, but after opening weekend, all the publicity and promotion went to me. So in 2010, I learned Twitter and started working the social media platforms to build an audience. Because we planned to do more movies, I made myself the touchstone instead of the film itself. So far that has worked and I’ve begun to build a little ‘brand’ around myself that way. I’m writing a lot here but truth be told, I’d rather not talk about myself as much as I have to in promotion. But Reality Boulevard is my baby and I’d do anything to see it succeed.
ANYTHING YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?
Exert from Reality Boulevard, Chapter 2 “Opus Ludius” ...
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Jerry asked “What did I tell you about getting serious with actresses?”
“Look,” Marty began, “Crimson’s different – “
“Crimson!” Jerry spluttered. “Oh, Marty. The name alone.”
“Jerry. She’s a serious, working actress. “
Jerry sighed. After all, it had been Jerry himself who, twenty-five years earlier, had schooled Marty on the industry distinction between a working actor and a common wanabee actor: genus and species Opus Ludius versus the ubiquitous Vacuus Ludius. According to Jerry and those jaded above-the-liners who subscribed to his philosophy, the second type could be found at any time of day or night: at the gym, sculpting their impossibly flawless physiques; at Starbucks, pecking out star vehicle screenplays on their laptops; at clubs and industry parties, seeking access to the plush lifestyles to which they aspired. Some of the more industrious among them were waiting tables in Santa Monica and West Hollywood, ushering at the Arclight Hollywood or Sherman Oaks, or guiding tour busses though the Universal Studios back lot, hoping to make an impression in a more productive way. There were many, however, who always seemed to be just scraping by; living off the largess of parents, roommates, lovers, sugar daddies or mommies. Most of them were extremely good looking, young, and famously flighty.
Working actors, Opus Ludii, were a different species altogether. They had real agents and managers who didn’t work out of their apartments. They were known by at least a couple of the major casting agents in town. Working actors had the training to prove that they viewed their careers as art and craft rather than as fame vehicle. They spent more of their free time in classes and workshops than in gyms and plastic surgeon’s offices, haunted the new play section at the Samuel French bookshop, and earned at least enough income from acting in a given year to qualify for the Screen Actor’s Guild health insurance program. Some of them even had homes, families, and relatively normal lives outside of work. "
- www.goodreads.com/book/show/17364636-reality-boulevard www.pinterest.com/apostrophebooks/reality-boulevard-by-melissa-jo-peltier
- My website www.melissajopeltier.com which is hosted through The Author’s Guild, protecting the rights of writers and content creators since 1912.
- Twitter: @apostrophebooks and @MelissaJPeltier
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/apostrophebooksltd
Clancy's comment: Well done, Melissa Jo. Thanks for making the time to be interviewed. Keep going ...