Melanie Ansley‘s book, Theo and the Forbidden Language, recently won Best “Young Adult” at the IndieReader Discovery Awards. Melanie is an award- winning Film/TV producer, has written several screenplays, and is currently writing the next two novels in her series.
Having read Theo and the Forbidden Language, I noticed some subtle Chinese influences such as the use of Oracle Bones made from tortoise shells. How have Chinese legends, myths, and your upbringing in two countries influenced your stories?
Being a Chinese Canadian who grew up in China and Taiwan, I had to learn a second language very early and very quickly. Learning Chinese was my first lesson in the importance of language, and how it’s the key to cultures and whole other worlds. Theo and the Forbidden Language is essentially about the power of communication, of words.
You have spent quite some time in the film industry. How is the publishing industry different from the film industry, or is it?
The main difference for me so far is how much more a team sport the film industry is. There are so many moving parts and crucial artists in getting a film made, whereas with publishing the book stands and falls mainly on the author’s storytelling craft. Not to mention, making a film is much more expensive than writing a book!
Not since Watership Down have I read a story about rabbits. Why did you make them your main characters in Theo?
Theo came into my head years ago and never really left. Thinking back on why he’s a rabbit, I believe it’s because this was always an underdog story, about what constitutes bravery. Theo is someone small trying to do big things with what little he has. Which to me, is the definition of bravery.
Will Theo be translated into Mandarin, or is it already translated?
It isn’t currently translated, though I’d love to see it in Mandarin one day. Hopefully when the series is finished.
To write fantasy, one has to have a passion for it. What steered you in that direction?
I’ve always been drawn to fantasy. I believe what Albert Camus said: “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” And fantasy feels to me like the most elaborate fiction, so I guess instinctively I feel it allows us to reflect the most truth.
What is it about writing that makes you write?
The fear of how I’d feel if I don’t write.
Tell me about your passion for film as opposed to writing?
Film is a medium that involves almost all the arts: writing, sound, sight, fashion/costuming, editing, interior decorating, painting and animation for backdrops and storyboards. It’s a relatively new art form, but it combines all the old ones into one symphony of sight, music, sound, and story. With writing, you are focused on the one art form: the written word. You pare everything away, and you’re left with one of humankind’s oldest forms of communication. You don’t have the special effects and the editing and the pretty images that films use to dazzle their audiences. It’s just you, and the word. That’s very exciting, and freeing.
How do you define success for yourself as a writer?
This will sound trite, but really as long as I keep writing and getting better, I’m winning. It’s too easy to give up.
Some writers outline. Some writers simply write, and let the story unfold. Can you describe your writing process?
I started out as a pure pantser*, someone who just wrote and then tried to shape the story out of the resulting mass. Now, I try to outline more, even if it doesn’t seem to change my writing speed and I end up deviating. It may be psychological, but I feel that if I at least try to plan, I may save myself time in the end.
What do you consider the most challenging aspect of being an author?
I think discipline, and making my own deadlines, are my own biggest challenges when it comes to writing. For an independent author though, I’d say marketing and finding your audience are the biggest hurdles.
What advice would you give to anyone who aspires to be a writer?
Make sure you know why you want to be a writer. Understanding the motivation for anything you do is all-important.
What about being a writer has surprised you?
How it never really gets any easier.
What do you do when you find that you have painted yourself into a corner plot-wise and have no idea how to extract yourself? Has that ever happened to you?
Absolutely. I find that there is always a solution, I just have to be patient and give myself enough space and time to think it through. If a solution really never materializes, then it’s time to examine whether the plot problem is something deeper and more structural.
*Someone who, “flies by the seat of their pants,” meaning they don’t plan out anything, or plan very little.