She too wrote a character who works in the funeral industry, so we talk a bit about that, too! The talk about different burial options and discussion of the funeral industry starts at 14 minutes in.
We also touch on burnout in the publishing industry, and grieving the professional relationships that are lost.
Stay tuned for a future episode, because Melonie is going to join me to take a deep dive into a book we coincidentally were both reading, a nonfiction called All the Living and the Dead by Hayley Campbell.
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Here are the books we discuss in this podcast:
You can find Melonie Johnson at her website, MelonieJohnson.com, and on most social media @TheWritingLush.
We also discussed:
- 349. Keeping the Audience in Mind Always: An Interview with Melonie Johnson
- 440: Laziness Does Not Exist with Dr. Devon Price
- Publish and Thrive
- Becca Syme’s YouTube channel
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Sarah Wendell: Hello and welcome to episode number 552 of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books. I’m Sarah Wendell, and my guest this week is Melonie Johnson. Her new book, Too Wrong to Be Right, is out this week, and we are going to talk about the difference between contemporary romance and rom-coms and writing about characters who work in the funeral industry, which we have both done.
I want to give you a HEADS UP that we start talking about different burial options and the funeral industry at about fourteen minutes in [14:00ish], so if that’s not something that you want to listen to, you want to skip ahead probably about four minutes [to 18:00ish]. We also talk about burnout in the publishing industry and grieving the professional relationships that are lost.
Now, stay tuned for a future episode, because Melonie is going to join me again to take a deep dive into a book, coincidentally, that we were both reading when I recorded this interview. This is a nonfiction book called All the Living and the Dead by Hayley Campbell, so we will be talking about that in a future episode.
Hello and thank you to our Patreon community. I have a compliment this week, and would you believe I have given out more than three hundred compliments? How cool is that?
This compliment is for Amealia [Uh-me-lia] B., unless it’s [Uh-mah-lia] – I hope I’m saying that right: Currently a graphic designer is working on billboards about people who inspire kindness and make the world better each day, and you feature on every single one of them.
If you would like a compliment of your own or if you would like to support this show, please have a look at our Patreon at patreon.com/SmartBitches. Monthly pledges start at a dollar, and each pledge keeps me going each week and makes sure that every episode has a transcript. Hello, garlicknitter! [Hello, Sarah and all the transcript fans! – gk] The accessibility of the show is very important to me and to many readers and listeners as well. Plus, if you join the Patreon you get bonus episodes; a really wonderful, fun, and welcoming Discord; and lots of other cool stuff, so have a look: patreon.com/SmartBitches.
And hello to Daphne, who is the newest member of our Patreon!
I will have links to all of the books that we discuss in this episode and links to a lot of the things that we talk about: we talk about online courses; we talk about previous podcast episodes; we talk about a lot of things. We will have links to all of those things in the show notes at smartbitchestrashybooks.com/podcast.
But without further ado, on with the conversation with me and Melonie Johnson.
Melonie Johnson: Hi! My name is Melonie Johnson. I am a contemporary romance author and rom-com author; I guess that we now have that distinction. I also go by the Writing Lush, which has kind of become a, a, a theme or brand for me because drinking while editing seems to be my go-to. And, yeah, my next romantic comedy comes out at the end of this month, end of February, and –
Sarah: Congratulations! First of all, I thought all editing had to be done with some kind of assistive substance?
Melonie: Well, this is how that whole thing came about, because there’s the phrase, you know, Write drunk; edit sober, and there was some conversation on a social media site that we, we dare not name any more –
Melonie: – that, you know, I forget how it went, and I kind of like, Well, I write drunk, edit drunker!
Sarah: I mean, if you get out of your own way, that’s how it works, right?
Melonie: [Laughs] So it kind of just became this thing, and then, you know, we started the Boozy Book Broads that we did during the panini with Angelina M. Lopez and Danielle Jackson, which was very much focused on, you know, books and booze, so it really kind of became a brand that I leaned hard into, and, and about, like, lush living isn’t just about drinking: it’s about indulging in things that make you happy, pleasures without thinking that they’re guilty –
Melonie: – which romance is part of!
Sarah: Absolutely, and lush is, lush has many meanings.
Melonie: Yes! [Laughs]
Sarah: Now, you mentioned, you, you mentioned the distinction between rom-com and contemporary romance and that those are slightly different signifiers, which I agree with, but I wanted to ask you to talk more about that if you could. Like, what do you see is the difference between those two, and why do we have the terms? Was – is it because contemporary romance was just too broad and we needed to be more specific? Like, why, what, what do you think is going on there, and how do you define each one?
Melonie: Well, I think there are several layers to this, so I’m going to kind of go backwards. So you, the one thing you just mentioned was, is contemporary romance just too broad? And I would say yes.
Sarah: Oh, absolutely.
Melonie: I’m actually – [laughs] – I’m actually listening to, or I’m partaking in a publishing course called publishing, Publish and Thrive by Sarra Cannon –
Melonie: – who is fantastic, and she just talked about, ‘cause she’s talking about, you know, when you pick your categories or whatnot, you know, when you’re loading your, your metadata, and that for a lot of genres there’s lots and lots of niche subgenres that you can kind of, really kind of drill down to and what your book is, but she’s, she, she noted specifically contemporary romance just doesn’t seem to have as many options when you’re putting in your metadata, and she’s like, that’s so bizarre because there is so much, and so she’s kind of showing the authors kind of how you can, like, you know, if you’re talking about mafia romance, it’s very different from, like – so all of these different subgenres within the umbrella of contemporary romance. So yes, to answer your question there, one hundred percent there are –
Sarah: Too many!
Melonie: It is too broad.
Sarah: Right! ‘Cause if I say I like contemporary romance and you say you like contemporary romance, you could be talking about a very dark, angsty, extremely sexual mafia romance, and I could be talking about Debbie Macomber and Susan Mallery. Those are two totally different –
Melonie: Right. Small town romances, beach-y romances, like, there’s, like, I mean, we could, we could go on and on and on, like you said. You know, when I signed up for this course – I know I’m kind of segueing here for a second, but when I signed up for this course, a lot of it, I’m like, I knew there was going to be a lot of stuff that I was already aware of tangentially at least from, from my experiences, but it’s only the second week, and I’ve definitely been learning things that I hadn’t considered, and that was one of the pieces that, those light bulb moments.
But for the other part of the question, what differentiates rom-com versus contemporary romance, I’ve had to talk about this a lot, and I think because having recently written books that are very much rom-com, the problem is we’re having all contemporary – and this is a publishing problem across the board –
Sarah: I’m going to just hold my lighter while you talk. I’m just going to hold the lighter and sway back and forth.
Melonie: How do we market books? How do we get them in bookstores? How do we get them on shelves? And that’s what happens is you get everything from Colleen Hoover to, you know, to Nicholas Sparks to, to, like, all these other authors, you know, being, one, lumped in as romance even when they’re not necessarily romance, but then, two, all getting slapped with, you know, cartoon covers, illustrated covers, and that becomes an assumption of what’s inside –
Melonie: – and, you know, again, you can get a, you’re going to get a Tessa Bailey, you know, super steamy, versus contemporary romances that have, are closed door. So I think that the delineation – and that’s frustrating for readers. When they’re, when, when I, when I want a rom-com, I want something that’s going to make me laugh. I mean, that’s a rom- –
Sarah: That’s, it’s in the name! The com –
Melonie: – with the rom-com!
Sarah: – com, comedy!
Melonie: I –
Sarah: Yes! [Laughs]
Melonie: I want light, I want fluffy, I want – yeah, I just want to escape into something that’s, that’s honestly a bit silly. And unfortunately, you know, again, it’s, it’s part of the whole, like, trying to get these books in front of as many eyeballs as possible, that they get looped, you know, lumped together. You know, Abby Jimenez –
Melonie: – fantastic books, you know, but there, there’s a lot, there’s, there’s deeper themes, darker themes. You know, and we can have content warnings, and that helps, but at the same time, again, if I’m picking up a romantic comedy, I just kind of want to know that’s what I’m getting, and so I think the biggest part for me, and I think is, is the, is the com; that we have, that there are comedic elements and, and the fact that it’s a romantic comedy is if you take those comedic elements out of the story?
Melonie: Then, then the story doesn’t, doesn’t play out the way it should.
Sarah: That’s a very good point.
Melonie: So that they’re actually integral – just, again, because, like, a romance can’t be a romance unless the romance is integral to the story.
Melonie: And I think romantic comedy can’t really function as a rom-com unless there’s certain things about the, the comedic elements that are integral to the story, from the meet-cute to the conflicts to the complications that, that, like, are humorous in and of themselves.
Sarah: Yeah. And the humor can come from both the situations that the characters are in and the things the characters say about those situations. Like, for example, I would look at early, so there are some early Kristan Higgins novels that I can reread, and I’ve read them twenty times, and I will still crack up.
Melonie: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
Sarah: And there are some books where the sense of humor of the characters is – and Jill Shalvis is the same way; there are some early Jill Shalvis books that I still laugh at – and it’s the things that the characters say about the situations that they’re in. And when you talked about, you can’t extract the comedy? Well, that’s extracting dialogue. That’s not, that’s not going to work; that’s going to make your book really jumpy – [laughs] – you take out all the talking!
Melonie: And there’s plenty – and not to say that, like, like I mentioned Abby Jimenez; not to say she – incredibly funny, you know, very funny things that she can do in a – and that becomes a very subjective thing. What I find funny is definitely different from what the next person may find funny –
Melonie: – and – yeah, so that, so that’s, you know, so maybe that’s part of it too, but, you know, I do think we are in this weird place of everything being called a rom-com, and – [laughs] –
Sarah: Well, marketing is, is, the more something is marketed within a particular publishing trend, the more flat that term gets.
Melonie: Ooh, that’s, yes, yes!
Sarah: Because everyone’s using it, it cease to, it ceases to have meaning. It’s like when you write the same word thirty times? All of a sudden that word doesn’t look like a real word anymore? It’s like that.
Now, I want to talk to you about your new book!
Melonie: Oh, which is definitely a rom-com. It is definitely very fluffy and very silly – [laughs] – but takes place in a funeral home.
Sarah: As you do! Please tell me everything! Tell me all about this book. Just start at chapter one; you can start reading; that’s fine.
Melonie: [Laughs] So I will tell you about the meet-cute ‘cause this is, for me, my way into a story often is the, the, the moment when the two characters meet. My, it’s usually my way in; it’s usually the, the spark that kind of gets the story rolling? And for me, for this story, I already knew my heroine Kat because she was from the, the last rom-com I did, Too Good to Be Real, and she was kind of the, the, one of the trio of besties who hasn’t found her one. And Kat is a bit of a Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” song; she is a bit of the problem. She’s very, she is kind of one of those people that, she wants these things that she wants so much. Like, she can kind of, you know, and to see her two best friends having it, it’s a very hard thing for her. And so she’s very happy for them, she’s excited for them, but, you know, it’s this, it’s this moment that all friendships face, you know; you know, they’re out of, five, six years out of college; they’re, her two best friends are finding their SOs, their significant others, and, and possibly moving in with them, and, and so that, this, this sense that they’re moving on without her is kind of a central theme of this story.
But she’s always been attracted, she’s very honest about this, that she is an asshole magnet: she’s attracted to guys who are jerks. She’s –
Sarah: She’s an asshole magnet!
Melonie: She’s just –
Melonie: You know someone, you’ve got to know someone like that. You know, the story opens with her having a breakup with the latest asshole.
Melonie: And, and so she’s kind of stuck – who ends up ditching her with his pet hedgehog. That’s how the hedgehog comes into play with the story. So she ends up having, she’s, she ends up having to go do a, do a, a last-minute delivery to a funeral home; there’s very explicit instructions about this boutonniere that needs to be on, on the, the body –
Melonie: – and she is not really fond of funeral homes to begin with for personal reasons that the book gets into a little bit, but she’s just like – and no one’s around; she can’t find anybody and she just wants to get in and get out. She does not want to be in this place, so she just goes into the, to the, to the, the room where the service is going to be held, and she’s like, she’s like, I, I do weddings. I don’t do funerals, but I’m going to do this –
Melonie: – and I’m going to stick this – I’m going to just pretend that he is a groom that’s stiff with nerves and just, just get it done! And of course that’s when the hero walks in, wants to know what the F are you doing?
Sarah: Why are you pinning a flower on this dead guy?
Melonie: Yes, and, and, and shenanigans ensue. So, so that’s how the two meet. The hero, Mick, his fam-, family owns a funeral home in Chicago, and they’re an Irish family so they do a lot of wakes. [Laughs]
Sarah: Yeah. Many.
Melonie: And it, he is very much my ode to Nick Miller from New Girl? Very tenderhearted person who’s, in his own way, also a hot mess, so these two hot messes get together, and, you know, kind of – he’s, he’s a very, you know, kind of loving and understanding person and is that in, in a way that Kat really needs.
Sarah: I’m all about mortician heroes; I wrote one too. So I, I –
Melonie: That’s –
Sarah: I’m a, I’m a big fan of the mort- –
Melonie: I do want to hear more about this a little bit. [Laughs]
Sarah: One of the things that set up the, the novella that I wrote was that the hero, Jeremy, is a very goofy person? He’s a big, giant, goofy, loud, silly person. But he’s also part of a funeral home family, and I’m assuming that you learned this as well as I did: that in, in the States, a lot of funeral homes are inherited, and they stay in a family, and so you have this weird-ass problem of inheritance and a business, but also you have to go to school to be licensed in a lot of states. The idea that you’re guiding people through, as you said, the worst parts of their life was something that really attracted, attracted me. Also, I was writing to read, and I was like, screw it, he’s a mortician! And they’re Jewish, and it’s at camp, and – I was writing all my own tropes anyway. That was – if you would like to read Sarah’s self-service fanfic that was just for herself, that’s what that is; it’s all of my favorite things.
Melonie: Well, give us the title again.
Sarah: It’s called Lighting the Flames: A Hanukkah Story.
So let us, let us, let’s talk about this! What were some of the things that you learned as you were researching this book? ‘Cause you mentioned when we were emailing about mortuary makeup and services and alternative burials – there are so many burial options now that I’d never seen before!
Melonie: And it’s the things that you don’t want to think about that maybe you should think about? Like, how do you want, you know, when it’s your time, like, how do you, you know, you know, want to have – you know, if you don’t answer these questions, someone’s going to have to do it for you. But, the kinds where they have the, the composting bins –
Melonie: – that they basically put the body inside a composting bin, and then family members will decorate the bins, often with lots of pictures –
Melonie: – and things like that, because it goes through a process of how long it takes –
Melonie: – and then they get, like, these bags, if they want them, they get these bags and bags of, of compost material –
Melonie: – that you can then, your garden or where, you know, whatever, and then it’s kind of like that that is, that lives on, you know, and
feel very morbid, but in some ways it could also be very comforting. Like, I find it –
Sarah: Oh, absolutely!
Melonie: – I find the idea of that more comforting than embalming.
Sarah: But it’s really interesting to me to, to think about how this technology has changed substantially in the last few years, that humans are very creative. What can we do to create a place for the living to remember a person, but also not make the negative impact of that person’s burial so arduous for the environment.
Melonie: Yes. And negative in general is something so – I don’t know if it’s – because it does seem to be kind of moving faster in how things, things seem to be more opportunities, more – the ideas, like, have, so long have kind of been like this is what happens; this is what we do; this is the process. And all of these other options that are opening up in more states that are starting to allow these things, many states that, that don’t allow them are starting to.
Melonie: The rules are changing in, in some regards, and I think maybe it’s like once the idea is out there it sets off, you know, people begin to think and, you know, kind of, the, it, it starts to grow as to what the possibilities could be, because we are seeing more of that and seeing more companies that are providing it, so, you know, I think it just starts to take off faster and faster.
Melonie: And then also the idea that being a negative experience, not just for the environment but for, but for the family –
Melonie: – is something that we’re seeing shift as well, and that’s another thing that’s kind of tackled in the story is, Mick, he, you know, kind of, how can I contribute to my family business? How can – ‘cause he originally, like you said, when it’s an inherited business and you’re kind of like, okay, I’m doing this – you know, his sister, she knew she wanted to do it; she went to mortuary school; she got all that stuff, the licensing. She was one hundred percent in.
Melonie: His brother knew as the oldest he would be taking over, you know, kind of running the business, doing the books, all of that stuff. He was in. Mick was kind of like, he went to school to be a psychologist. He wasn’t planning to, you know, to do, to be part of the business.
Melonie: His sister and his brother had it covered, that was great, but then his parents, who are kind of, again, are kind of my Moira and Johnny Rose?
Melonie: ‘Cause his parents decide that they’re, they, you know, having worked in the industry and having kind of gone through so much death and, and everything, and, and what you hear often, you know, when you work with families is regret: like, what they didn’t do, the things they didn’t get to do. And so they’re like, Well, we’re done. We’re going to, we’re buying an RV and we are traveling the country. We are giving the business to you. And so they pass the business to their three children and split it equally among the three of them and say, you know, all right, it’s yours! And so Mick is kind of like pulled into this, you know, as, as a partner in the business, and being the kind of person he is, can’t just walk away. He’s like –
Melonie: – he, he will help; he will be there; he will – you know, he wasn’t expecting his parents to retire for another twenty years, and here they are. [Laughs]
Melonie: You know, like, See ya! So, so yeah, so he kind of, so for what he wants to do is he wants to build a bar –
Melonie: – in the funeral home
have a reception space, and –
Sarah: I mean, it is a wake!
Melonie: [Laughs] Well, again, they already have wakes –
Melonie: – but usually it’s, it’s, that’s more of a separate thing.
Melonie: So, but he’s like, why, why not make it, you know, you know, like a celebration? And this is something that is happening more and more.
Melonie: Chicago, there was a whole story, and it’s like one of those kind of kismet moments where I was already working through this, and of course you start googling –
Melonie: – and sure enough there is –
Melonie: – a local Chicago funeral home who is opening, opening a bar and, and getting the licensing and doing the things required, so this is happening! [Laughs]
Sarah: That’s so cool!
Sarah: You must have been like, I am predicting the future.
Melonie: [Laughs] Exactly! You do have that moment of, Ah-ha!
Melonie: But again, also, and again, because, like, I know, like, for me, like, I want, like, have a party; have fun.
Melonie: Celebrate all the good memories, and I think that that, we’re starting to see, see more people that are like, yes, I want to treat this as a moment of celebration. You know, it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom and, you know.
Sarah: Yep. Yep. Exactly! And if you’re re-, reframing what the funeral is doing and you’re making it a celebration for people, who have the option to add the bar. I mean, I’m sure it’s not, like, required; you can just add it or not add it to your –
Melonie: Exactly, yes.
Sarah: – to, to what you’re doing, but, like, having the option would be like, it’s, it’s very much part of tradition to, to, to toast to people, to raise a glass to someone. That’s a very common funeral element as well.
Now, you mentioned that you are writing all the things this year. What is going on with your publication schedule? What do you have in the pipeline?
Melonie: [Laughs] So what I have in the pipeline, like, as far as like what actually comes out, let’s see, so I kind of went through this weird moment of – again, and, and the, the panini definitely played into this…kind of like –
Sarah: [Laughs] Panini!
Melonie: – the frustration of, of, of, you know, there’s all this, like, exhaustion and, mental exhaustion, emotional exhaustion, not just for myself but, you know, for my children, who, you know, it’s, this was a really tough time if you had kids and, and getting them through this. You have kids, you know, and I think your children –
Sarah: Oh yeah.
Melonie: – are not too off the ages of mine and, you know –
Sarah: Yeah, they’re fifteen and seventeen, and they’re still feeling the effects –
Sarah: – of having gone through –
Melonie: Oh yeah.
Sarah: – the pandemic. Oh yeah.
Melonie: Four-, fourteen and nineteen, and so really in this kind of time of where the social connections and that social interaction is so integral to, to, to, to everything for them, and had missed out on so much of that, and, you know, so just a lot of working through stuff with them, and I just like, within a day I wasn’t like, I just couldn’t sit down and write, especially write funny. It was really hard, and so, you had talked about how, you know, your novella was kind of like your, your id book or your, like –
Sarah: Oh yeah.
Melonie: – the things that you wanted to –
Sarah: Yeah, just –
Melonie: – just having fun.
Sarah: – fan service, party of one.
Melonie: [Laughs] Exactly! So I just, you know, stepped away from the book that I had a deadline kind of like hovering over my head that I wasn’t going anywhere with, and just started just kind of drafting stuff for fun, things that made me happy, that I enjoyed, and it, it helped me kind of get back into the groove and get back to writing again, and so I – it was, it’s, it’s paranormal. [Laughs] It’s like Celt, modern-day Celtic fae, completely different from anything –
Melonie: – that I, that I write, but stuff that I loved reading. I loved reading the Karen Marie, Karen Marie Moning Highland books; like, I just, those were such an escape for me, and so kind of like letting myself just play in this completely separate world, and so I just kind of like, I’m going to invest in myself. I commissioned covers, and I’m, you know, they’ll be under a pen name, so I feel like it’s a safe place to play –
Melonie: – when it’s not my own name?
Sarah: Oh, I completely understand.
Melonie: And, and so yeah. So hopefully, if everything goes the way I’m hoping it will – and again, that’s part of why I took that class I mentioned, the Sarra Cannon class is – yeah, that the first one should be out in August, around the time of Lughnasa I believe is – it’s one of the, they’re all on like these Celtic, these pagan celebrations. So –
Melonie: – we’ll see, and then I also, as a, I am someone who needs external motivation?
Melonie: To do things? [Laughs]
Sarah: Yes, I understand.
Melonie: So I, I signed up for some anthologies that helped me kind of, again, have, have deadlines, lots of people counting on you. So I wrote my very first seasoned romance, which is –
Melonie: – characters in their forties and up. Yeah, so we are, we are seasoned, or I think Karen –
Sarah: What is the seasoning? What is the seas-, is it old, is it Old Bay?
Melonie: Yeah, I do not know, but Karen Booth –
Sarah: Is it –
Melonie: – who writes some great, she calls it Later in Life, which I’m still like, I mean, forty is, okay, fine, yeah, it’s later in life, whatever.
Sarah: Poultry seasoning. That’s – no.
Melonie: [Laughs] I don’t know. It’s, I think it’s salt from all the margaritas. That’s the seasoning.
Sarah: Or maybe some Herbes de Provence. What seasoning is it?! [Laughs] Now I’m just going to be, maybe it is Old Bay. I mean, I live in Maryland, and there’s Old Bay every- – like, you can get literally any solid piece of matter with a Maryland flag or the Old Bay logo on it. It’s kind of incredible, but I think, I’m going to say all seasoned romance is Old Bay. As you were. Anyway. [Laughs]
Melonie: Yeah, so Later in Life, what have you, but with characters in their, in their forties –
Melonie: – and into their early fifties, and I called the series the MILFs Just Wanna Have Fun series –
Melonie: – and it was a group of teachers who met kind of like having, they all were stuck doing cafeteria duty, observation duty. I was a teacher, so I was really pulling on a lot of my experience as a teacher –
Melonie: – and just, again, like, to just write someone my own age?
Melonie: Was like – [laughs] –
Melonie: – you know? I could make references to certain songs and bands and whatever and not worry like, Oh my God, how will this thirty-year-old or twenty-something-year-old have any clue? I mean, my, my fourteen-year-old is listening to, everything she listens to is stuff that was popular when we were teenagers, so I mean I – [laughs]. But so that part I, I think doesn’t matter anymore.
Sarah: I don’t get that either. My seventeen-year-old has an entire playlist? He’s like, Mom, do you know this song? I’m like, That’s En Vogue; of course I know that song. I know all of their songs.
Melonie: Yes! En Vogue!
Sarah: He’s listening to En Vogue – he has like a ‘90s R&B playlist, and he’s like, Have you heard this before? I’m like, Like literally once a day when I was seventeen? Like, what is happening right now?
Melonie: It’s just fascinating to me, ‘cause she, my fourteen-year-old, she, she went through all – I kept everything; I’m such a packrat – she went through all my old CDs, and she likes to listen to them like actual – I’m like, You have everything you need at like the, we have a Spotify account! Whatever you want, just click! And she’s, which she knows. She wants to put the CD in the CD player and –
Melonie: – like – [laughs] –
Sarah: No, Mom, this is a, this is a no-skips album. We’re not skipping around. This is a no-skip; we’re going front to back.
Melonie: And so, yeah, writing these characters who were, you know, women in their forties and fifties, and obviously the heroes as well, that was just fun for me, and so I –
Melonie: – I’ve written, we have three of them so far, and I, I plan to do two more, and, you know, one of them’s divorced, one of them has never been married, one of them wants to get married but the guy is dragging his feet, so kind of all in different kind of stages.
Sarah: And you know, the, the, the ominous, ever-present, looming eventuality of menopause and all the little ways it starts to trickle into your life.
Sarah: Because you’re not there yet, but somehow you’re feeling some of it? It grows forward into your timeline, and you don’t know what it is, but maybe it’s something about menopause? I don’t know. Yeah, mm-hmm. The looming tentacles of menopause.
Melonie: [Laughs more] Yes, the, and that is the, yeah, and talking about those experiences and the, yeah, just having heroines who are like, My period might show up this month; it might not. I don’t know!
Sarah: Who knows?! I’m having all the normal symptoms, but maybe it’ll visit; maybe it won’t. I don’t know! It’s up in the air. Makes life fun and exciting and annoying.
Melonie: And I know there is like an entire genre or subgenre that has popped up: the midlife magical kind of series? Like, there’s a lot of –
Sarah: Yes! Women coming into menopause and then magical powers? I am all about that metaphor? Because if you think about it, in the portrayal of media, women who are in that age where we’re expected to just disappear – you know? Our kids are graduating; they’re now the main characters of their lives. The portrayal in media, we just disappear and recede into the background in a lot of ways.
Melonie: Yeah. And I mean I think maybe having very kind of like in-the-spotlight women who are now in their fifties –
Melonie: – we can’t all be Jennifer Lopez, but you know, like – [laughs] – but we’re redefining that, you know, like, fifty, sixty, whatever doesn’t mean, like, a specific thing anymore. Like –
Sarah: Yeah! It, it doesn’t.
When we were emailing, you mentioned that your muse flew away and that you reconnected, and I know you said part of that was, I’m just going to write something under a completely different name in a completely different world and do whatever I want, but also, you know, mad, mad props for recognizing that you need an external motivator. That’s a really important thing to know about yourself. What was the experience like of reconnecting with your desire to write and the sense of fun of writing?
Melonie: I think that that’s exactly it: the sense of fun –
Melonie: – and it can be – I mean, I don’t want to be like, Oh, woe is me, you know, like, being a traditional, being traditionally published, you know, it’s a dream! It was a dream that I had, and to, and to have that dream come true – everything has, you know, its pros and cons, and, and certain elements of traditional publishing can – like, I’ll just be very blunt – can feel like, can be like soul crushing –
Sarah: Oh, very!
Melonie: – in terms of –
Melonie: – [laughs] – in, in term, in terms of, of, of a lot of things! Of, you know, you know, ‘cause you give up so much control over certain elements, and, and in some ways it, you know, they know what they’re doing and they’re making good calls; in other ways it’s just incredibly frustrating; you feel like you have to let go pieces of things that you, you know, were important to you. So, so I felt like, for me, moving forward, you know, looking at – and Becca Syme, who’s another kind of like author coach, she –
Melonie: – talks a lot about, you know, you know, you need just kind of figuring out what you want. What is your, what, what do you want your career to look like? What do you want your writing life to look like? And so kind of taking that really hard look at what I wanted and, you know, I do enjoy certain aspects of traditional publishing; I do really enjoy, you know, the connections I’ve made with readers through it, and I’ve been very blessed with some great editors.
Melonie: And that’s part of the frustrating process as well, and everyone in publishing is going through this. You know, losing people that work, I worked with, you know, who just leave the industry, and then it’s just, it’s just heartbreaking over and over again to lose, you know, my, my first copyeditor who, she was fantastic. You know, she left; my first publicist, she left.
Sarah: It’s so disheartening, right?
Melonie: Yeah, and then my developmental editor who acquired me, like, I was one of her first acquisitions. It was very exciting, we really worked well together, and then in January of last year, you know, she just, she, she announced that she was leaving, leaving publishing. And this was like right after one of my close friends who also is at a big house had announced that her editor was leaving, and I was like, Oh my God, that’s terrible! And I was like, Thank God it’s not me! And then like two weeks later – [laughs] –
Sarah: Two weeks later. And you have to look at an industry that is bleeding talent and go, What the hell? Why are you not –
Sarah: What, what is happening, and how do you make it stop? Because –
Sarah: – the people that I have worked with, being edited by someone who can sort of see the big picture and – like, that’s a real skill, and to watch talent like that leave is just so awful!
Melonie: Yeah, and I know the union, the HarperCollins union, they, they just, I think they just ratified the contract. But the fact that they had to go through that in the first place, and the fact that it took so freaking long –
Sarah: Two months!
Melonie: It is an industry that I think expects a lot out of those who work in it, because it, like, they’re kind of
off this fact that it’s an art and that you, you love what you do, and so that should somehow excuse all of the extra time and effort and whatnot that you put into it, and, and so, and so I think, I think burnout is incredibly high, and, and it’s, you know, it definitely – and it is a business, but I, I know for me, those relationships I form with the people within the business feel very personal. It can become ver-, it, it just can kind of like, you kind of go through a mourning process, like I went through a mourning process when my editor left. And my new one, who was assigned to the book that I was currently working on – and part of it, too, there’s an incredible amount of guilt for me because my book should have been done –
Melonie: – by the time that she left. If I had been on schedule it would have been done. It would have been in post-production, and I just couldn’t get that book done. I couldn’t do it, and so when she, when she – and it wasn’t, I wasn’t the reason, you know – [laughs] – but when she announced she was leaving, there was this incredible sense of guilt that we couldn’t get this across the finish line together –
Melonie: – and, and, and I think, but, like, for, there was so much guilt in not meeting my deadline, but the more authors I talked to, the more authors who I respect incredibly, I talked to, they have also been missing deadlines right and left. I think we’re just all, we’re all tapped out, and, and, and figuring out how to move forward and still produce quality work, you know, it’s, it’s, it takes, it’s, right – so, so how you get to that, back to that place of joy, how you get back to that place of, of feeling like you can be productive.
One, I was very lucky with the new editor that, that came on; she was, she’s been fantastic. She, like, kind of in a sense breathed new life into the story, so I was able, you know, getting back to it that way helped me a lot, but then also, it was, this having to step away and work on something else, and I know for some people it is refilling the well? Like, just, and I’m trying to think of the book. It’s something about, like, laziness or anti-lazy or something like, you know, like, they, it’s not about being lazy.
Sarah: Laziness Does Not Exist.
Melonie: Thank you! Yeah.
Sarah: Laziness Does Not Exist by Dr. Devon Price. I –
Melonie: Thank you!
Sarah: – love that book. I did an interview with Dr. Price because I love that book so much. It’s, yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about, that you need to step away –
Melonie: Is that anywhere that I can, can hear that?
Sarah: Of course! I’ll send you a link!
Melonie: Part of it is probably this American productivity, you know. I don’t know – Puritan –
Sarah: The productivity narrative, yeah. Prod-, productivity gospel, which is such terrible.
Melonie: But the sense that, you know, to take a step back and to read for pleasure, to watch something for pleasure, to let, you know, do – like, that’s
refill your well, and –
Melonie: – and I think when you’re on, on that kind of like – and it could be traditional or indie publishing that you feel like you’re on that treadmill. I don’t think, I think, especially when you’re your own boss and, and all that, it can be sometimes even more difficult, but at least the person you have to answer to is yourself.
Sarah: When you make your job out of something that you love doing that wasn’t paying you that now is paying you, that has a financial compensation to, to, attached, it, it becomes a different thing; it feels different.
Melonie: It does feel different, and also, like, your sense of worth, like, it really, it can all mess with your head. Like, how much your book sells or how much was your advance, and, like, all of those different pieces really start to mess with your sense of worth?
Melonie: And again, Becca Syme has some great YouTube videos about, like, that, you know, your, your productivity is not your worth; your – you know, so, so just kind of refiguring all that stuff out too. Yeah, allowing myself to write for fun is like giving myself permission! [Laughs]
Sarah: Yeah! Write whatever you want; it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to listen. And I think that’s true for a lot of writers, that the first book is a lot easier than the second one, because the second one you know who’s reading. You know there are people who’ve looked at it and responded to it; it wasn’t just in your head.
Melonie: So I got to – you, you were wonderful and invited me onto the podcast back when I first debuted in 2019 –
Melonie: – and I had that really weird experience of being a triple release. So they put three books out in the space of three months –
Melonie: – so I went from a debut author with nothing out there to an author with three books out. So all three of those books were done, finished –
Melonie: – before they hit the market, so I had – and I didn’t know it was a luxury at the time, because I felt like I was just, you know, spinning plates and, and going bananas, but having written all those in the safe bubble of my own world –
Melonie: – without, like, anything outside coming into it?
Sarah: Yep. Yep.
Melonie: That, you never get that back again, because yes, even when you don’t want it, every voice outside of your, is, is, can be in your head, and –
Melonie: – and blocking that stuff out is, is a skill. [Laughs]
Sarah: So I always ask this question: what books are you reading right now that you might want to tell people about?
Melonie: Oh goodness. Okay, so let’s see here. So I just got Take the Lead by Alexis Daria, which is a re-release, and –
Sarah: Yes! I remember the original cover, and I like this one very much!
Melonie: This is gorg- – well, I still have the original cover, and my, my, when my daught-, when that came out, my oldest was, youngest I think was maybe eight at the time? And she, like, drew a shirt on him –
Melonie: – ‘cause he didn’t have a shirt! She gave him a shirt. But Alexis and I were, back when Golden Heart existed, we were Golden Heart sisters together –
Melonie: – her with Take the Lead, and me with Getting Hot with the Scot, and so it was so, you know, ‘cause I, so I was kind of part of her journey when it was first published as digital-first, back when that was, traditional publishing was pushing that as a thing, and to see this get a second chance, to see it come back and get kind of like the spotlight it deserves –
Melonie: – it’s been so thrilling and exciting. So I’m having fun with that, having fun with kind of like seeing the little changes and the things she added. That’s really fun, and then I’m also reading The Vibrant Years –
Melonie: – by Sonali Dev –
Melonie: – and that one, again, ‘cause it’s, I’m having fun with how she’s playing with the three-person narrative and having it kind of be this – ‘cause I love stories of sisterhood and friendship, like strong, strong ties like that?
Melonie: And, which she does very well, and that, so that book is a lot of fun.
And then, as far as serious stuff, I’ve been reading All the Living and the Dead, which I think you’ve been reading too.
Melonie: – more later. I’ve been reading that at night, and I know I feel like, I said I feel like Wednesday Addams. Like, this is my nighttime reading. [Laughs]
Sarah: Yeah, and we are going to record an episode just about that book, because it was completely serendipitous that we were both reading it at the same time, and I was like, Oh my gosh, if I ask her about it this episode is going to be like two hours long ‘cause we’re going to spend so much time on this book. So we’re going to do another episode about All the Living and the Dead as a nonfiction book. It is so good. It is – like, I have to, like, warn people about some of the things that are in the book, but it is so good! So good, and it is very Wednesday Addams bedtime reading.
Melonie: [Laughs] It is, but, and I, I think part of it too, like, nonfiction, sometimes you don’t think about, you don’t think narrative voice in nonfiction, but there is, and she – I don’t remember her name right off the top of my head, but, ‘cause we’ll, we’ll get into this when we talk about the book later.
Melonie: I think that that, that all plays into, into how, how you can go about enjoying this book that touches on some very dark topics.
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah, very dark.
Where can people find you on the internet if you wish to be found?
Melonie: I’m pretty easy to find because my mom spelled my name the way she did. [Laughs] So Melonie, M-E-L-O, with an O, N-I-E Johnson. You’re either going to come across me or a woman who runs casinos?
Melonie: I am not the casino person. She is lovely, but that’s not me. That seems to be like the top two Google, Google searches are me or the Melonie Johnson who runs casinos. So Melonie Johnson the redhead, that’s me. You’ll find me on Instagram; you’ll find me on, oh God, TikTok. I – [laughs] – I have moved over there very, like, tiptoe over there, I should say. And, and @thewritinglush, #TheWritingLush, that will be me pretty much on all the socials as well.
Sarah: Fabulous! Thank you so much for doing this interview!
Melonie: Thank you! It’s always fun to talk to you.
Sarah: All right. We will connect again in a couple weeks and talk about that book, but until then, thank you!
Sarah: And that brings us to the end of this week’s episode. Thank you to Melonie for hanging out with me to talk about all of the things, and thank you to Melonie for scheduling another interview so we can take a deep dive into a book that we happen to both be reading.
This book is so cool, and I want to recommend it, but I also want to be very clear that it is about death and grieving and dying, and there are a lot of really painful things inside the book, so if that’s not something that you want to put into your brain, I completely understand, but if you would like to read the book in anticipation of our discussion of it, it is called All the Living and the Dead by Hayley Campbell.
I end each episode with a bad joke, and this week is no exception. This joke comes from Clay, who is a member of the podcast Patreon, and Clay’s nine-year-old. Hello, Clay, and hello to the nine-year-old! Are you ready for this wonderful joke? Okay.
Why do bees have such sticky hair?
Give up? Why do bees have such sticky hair?
They use honeycombs.
[Laughs] Given that spring is showing up way, way early – like, it’s the end of February and my neighbors’ daffodils are blooming, which is very weird for this time of year – I was very excited to have a bee joke. Bee jokes!
On behalf of everyone here, we wish you the very best of reading. We hope you have a wonderful weekend, and we will see you back here next week!
Smart Podcast, Trashy Books is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. You can find outstanding shows to subscribe to at frolic.media/podcasts.
[Laughs] Honeycombs. That’s a really good cereal; now I want a bowl of Honeycombs. [Damn it, now I do too – gk]
[end of music]
This podcast transcript was handcrafted with meticulous skill by Garlic Knitter. Many thanks.
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Hello, garlicknitter, and thank you for your fine transcription work!
Thank you, Sarah and Melonie, for sharing your conversation.