I’m pleased to welcome Lois Ruskai Melina to the blog this week. Her collection of essays, The Grammar of Untold Stories, is available now.
Author Name: Lois Ruskai Melina
Book Title: The Grammar of Untold Stories
Book Genre: Essay Collection
Release Date: Out Now
Publisher: Shanti Arts
Please tell us about The Grammar of Untold Stories.
These are essays in which I reflect on life events, connecting my personal experience to more universal themes and questions—from the infertility I experienced as a young woman to my experience in a toxic workplace to the end-of-life decisions I faced with my mother.
Collectively, they convey the longing for agency, particularly among women.
What sparked the idea for the book?
The title essay began as my contribution to our annual holiday newsletter. Our family had a tradition of everyone writing a mini-essay on one experience or a reflection they’d had during the year. I decided to write about my visit to my grandmother’s village in Hungary. The more I wrote, the deeper I went into my relationship with my grandmother, the secrets she held, and the language barrier between us. Eventually it was March and I had written 5,000 words and had never sent a holiday greeting to anyone.
How long did it take for you to write it? Did you do have to do any research?
Most of the essays were written between the time I retired in 2015 and mid-2018, although a couple of them were pieces that I started earlier and revised in that time period. These are personal essays, but often the images or metaphors in them led me to digging into things like how semi-precious stones are formed or how animals migrate. My background is in journalism and higher education, so research is something I enjoy.
What drew you to the memoir/creative essays genre?
I had a long career as a journalist. I began as a newspaper reporter and then specialized in writing about adoption—I started a monthly newsletter for adoptive parents and wrote several books on adoption published by HarperCollins. But once my children were adults, I wanted to write about something else. My daughter was a competitive swimmer and I decided to follow nine of the top women swimmers in the United States for eighteen months leading up to the 2000 Olympic Trials. I was happy with that book in a lot of ways, but when I finished it, I said to myself “There was a better ways to tell these stories.” That’s when I began taking classes and writing memoir and personal essays. It was a natural transition from journalism.
For you, what’s the hardest thing about writing?
It’s always hard for me to know when something is finished. I have a writing group that meets every two weeks and gives me fabulous feedback. Without them I would either be sending messy drafts into the world or revising something to death.
What do you love most about it?
I love the surprise of writing. With nonfiction, I start a piece knowing what happened, so I think I know what I’m going to write, but inevitably, as I write the essay, an emotion or an image or theme shows up that I didn’t expect or I find myself understanding what happened in a new way. A couple of essays in this collection did not begin with me knowing the story, though. They began with free writing that had no direction or intention at first and then revealed some deep feelings about an event that I hadn’t realized I was carrying.
If you were speaking to someone who hasn’t read your writing before, why should they want to read The Grammar of Untold Stories?
Place is an important aspect of my writing. These essays reflect places that were instrumental in shaping me—the Midwest where I was born and where I spent my early adult years, the Mountain West, where I spent many of my growing up years, and the Northwest, where I lived for most of my adult life. The outdoors are also an essential part of my life, so the natural world is also present in many of these essays–as location and as a source of image and metaphor.
What are your interests outside of writing and reading?
I took up rowing about the same time I started writing this essay collection and got hooked. Being out on the water puts balance in my day and has gotten me through this pandemic. I particularly enjoy being part of a club that has rowers ranging in age from the early twenties into the seventies. One of my essays is about how rowing helped me heal from a toxic work environment and also what it was like for me to find this sport as a pre-Title IX woman who did not have sports opportunities growing up.
I’ve also become a huge fan of women’s soccer. I’ve really missed watching the Portland Thorns in person this year. I’m a season ticket holder. I went to France in 2019 and attended six of the World Cup games including the semifinals and final.
Are you working on a new project?
After writing these essays, I started writing fiction and had a few short stories published. One of my efforts at a short story has grown into a novel. There are three parallel narratives set in Iceland, France, and the Pacific Northwest—again, place is central to my writing. The novel deals with questions about visibility and identity as well as betrayal. I’ve been able to write during the pandemic, although I know a lot of other writers have had difficulty doing so. I’ve had other rough periods in my life where I’ve worked on major writing projects, so I think writing is one way I cope with difficulty around me.
Where can readers find you (website, blog, social media, etc.)? Feel free to include any upcoming, live/online events, too!
www.loisruskaimelina.com is my website where you can find out more about the book and find links to ordering it.
I’ll be doing a livestream reading and talking with Oregon Poet Laureate Emerita Paulann Petersen on Friday, Oct. 30 at 7 pm Pacific time, hosted by Annie Bloom’s bookstore:
You can connect with me on Instagram @lmelina1 and on Twitter @LoisMelina
Thank you, Lois! The Grammar of Untold Stories is out NOW.
Family. Work. Home.
In the sixteen essays in this collection, Lois Ruskai Melina reflects on life events in which the personal connects to the political—her grandmother’s immigration, her own effort to start a labor union, the end-of-life decisions she faced with her mother.
Ranging in style from lyrical to narrative journalism, these essays explore topics ranging from infertility and adoption to toxic workplaces. They convey the longing for agency, especially among women, and examine questions such as: How do we make sense of what we cannot know? How do we heal? How do we know when we are home?
Melina turns frequently to the natural world for metaphor and imagery, but centers the body as the site of longing, suffering, healing—and power.
Lois Ruskai Melina has been a journalist and an educator and an advocate for survivors of domestic violence. As an engaged citizen, she has worked on Get Out the Vote efforts since organizing for Sen. Frank Church in 1980.
After working as a newspaper reporter, Melina founded 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) Her writing helped change the way parents and adoption professionals understand the dynamics of families formed by adoption.
Melina drew on her interest as a swim team parent and triathlete by following nine elite women swimmers for eighteen months leading up to the 2000 Olympic Trials. She told their stories in the book By a Fraction of a Second (Sports Publications, Inc., 2000).
She began taking nonfiction and poetry classes as a nonmatriculating student at the University of Idaho, but it wasn’t until retiring in 2015 that she began to focus full-time on the essays that became this collection.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Melina received a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Toledo and an 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 the changes sought by social movements through the actions they take in their own lives.
Her work has appeared in literary, mass media, and academic publications. She is currently working on a novel set in Iceland, France, and the Pacific Northwest.
Melina lives with her husband and their two dogs in Portland, Oregon. She has a grown son and daughter and two grandchildren.