Debut Novel Captures the Essence of a Town of Broken Dreams

Melissa Ann Peterson grew up in the small Washington logging town of Shelton. Her debut novel, “Vera Violet,” is a fierce and edgy novel about a rough group of teenagers in a working-class town in the Pacific Northwest, much like where Melissa grew up. It’s not an easy read: it deals with themes of history and class, violence, gentrification, drugs, deforestation, and environmental degradation.
Melissa is the guest author at the next Chuckanut Radio Hour, which takes place in a new venue this month– the Firehouse Arts and Events Center, 1314 Harris Ave., on Tuesday, Feb. 18. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. with music by Bellingham’s Louis Ledford and Kristin Allen-Zito. Taping for KMRE Radio 102.3 starts at 7 p.m. promptly.
Tickets are $5, available from Village Books, at Eventbrite.com, and at the door. Receive a free ticket with purchase of “Vera Violet” from Village Books.
Peterson received a BA and BS in writing and biology from The Evergreen State College and an MS from the University of Montana. She has worked in endangered species recovery in Washington and Montana for 12 years. Her writing has been published by Camas, Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, Oregon Quarterly, and Seal Press.
Here’s a revealing and honest email exchange I had with her.
Margaret: Your professional career path working with endangered species recovery seems to veer dramatically from your themes as a fiction writer. How do you envision yourself? What brings you joy and satisfaction about these two endeavors?
Melissa: I enjoy both careers, and I couldn’t have one without the other. I have a personal investment in both, and I think environmental problems usually stem from economic problems, so the two themes are interrelated in my mind.
Originally, I went to The Evergreen State College to study creative writing, but about midway through my degree, I got a scholarship to study science. After my first botany class, I was hooked, and I ended up staying an extra year to get a dual degree. There was so much to learn about nature. I felt like all the scientific knowledge uncovered a fascinating new world that kept unfolding. What was once a “green wall” of plants became shaped by individual species, habitat types, and potential uses. Rivers went from recreational areas to spawning habitat for salmon and steelhead as well as complicated matrices of benthic communities. Nature has always made me stop and think, which is also an important part of creative writing.
While I was still in school at Evergreen, I got a job working with endangered butterflies, and I ended up staying in the position for several years. I loved working outdoors, and I’ve always loved animals. I managed to balance both science and writing by choosing seasonal jobs so I could write during the off season. This was difficult financially sometimes, but it was also fun to travel and learn new things. Science has continued to influence my writing because it’s complex and always changing.
As I mentioned, I think poverty and environmental degradation are interrelated. As I continued my work in endangered species recovery, I realized that economic problems are often at the bottom of environmental problems. People and animals can both be vulnerable in sparse economies.
Margaret: I was struck by the many references to music in “Vera Violet,” — Peter Tosh, Dropkick Murphys, Dead Boys, Radiohead, Lou Reed — wide-ranging and eclectic, to be sure! How does music figure into the lives of your characters, and into your own life? Is there a metaphor here?
Melissa: I’ve always listened to a lot of music, and back when I had free time I used to play guitar and write songs. Music has definitely helped get me through some rough patches. It has a way of cushioning blows from breakups, being broke, or even adding to the pure joy of falling in love. Most importantly, music has a way of helping people feel like they’re not alone.
For this book, I used songs as a writing tool. When I was driving or working alone, songs often helped conjure certain scenes. I listened to songs or albums repeatedly until everything was clear. Sometimes the songs I wrote myself became chapters. The two art forms seemed to build off one another.
Margaret: I’m sure you’ve been asked this mundane question many times and will be in the future, but I’m really curious if life in Shelton is as dismal as you portray it. Is there such a lack of hope? And with all problems that stem from economic and education (and maybe even grey skies), how do you see getting some sense of relief from the systemic problems in a community like Shelton?
Melissa: This question isn’t mundane at all. The short answer is yes, life in rural logging towns (and mining towns, factory towns, and even farming communities) can be dismal. I wanted to write a story that could apply to rural towns around the country. The book is probably intense for a lot of people. Vera is our main source of information in this story, and as a character she is fierce, single-minded, and emotional. She is also a teenager from a small town. She has very little education and no reliable safety net. In this context, she’s struggling to process traumatic events. Her heart is in the right place, but she is also lonely and struggling to understand her world.
There are some parts in the book where Vera just doesn’t have the words. Communication and reaching out beyond her comfort zone are awkward and even scary. I think poverty itself is what destroys people’s bodies, but the isolation of poverty is what destroys people’s souls.
As far as getting relief goes, people need access to physical and mental healthcare, good schools, healthy food, and a supportive community. People need to feel safe.
I don’t have all the answers. But I think a good first step is to understand some of the structural problems and how they are related. It’s true that many people are depressed and they need help for that. But sometimes there are environmental and societal problems at the root of their depression that also need to be addressed.
I think the U.S. is changing. Our available natural resources are changing and our energy policy is changing. Right now there are a lot of community-based movements based on independence and finding new economic structures with a focus on taking control away from huge corporations and billionaires. These small and varied movements are struggling to get traction. I feel like they’re almost a new religion. It will be interesting to see what happens.
Margaret: How did your book reach publication?
Melissa: I did quite a bit of editing during the years when I was trying to get the book published. I had help from friends, and I also took chapters to the writing center at Evergreen while I was an undergraduate. Although he didn’t help with editing, Jonathan Evison championed the novel and helped get it published. I don’t have an MFA, and I didn’t always have the time or money or attend formal writing retreats or workshops, which is where a lot of writers make their connections to the publishing world. Jonathan’s help was an integral part of getting the book published. I’m not sure if it would have happened without him. He’s been incredibly supportive. Harry Kirchner helped with the bulk of the editing process and Mikayla Butchart and Jennifer Alton at Counterpoint Press helped with copy edits.
Margaret: Your characters seem so absolutely real!! As did the locations of Cota Street. Meadows Elementary School, and the others! What’s your magic?
Melissa: I think the “magic” of characterization and setting comes with knowing a place really well, and being sensitive and empathetic to people’s situations. I often feel haunted by my characters, like they are ghosts who live with me in my mind and bother my dreams until I get the story right. It’s not always a pleasant experience, but the results can be transformative. I can only hope that readers find Vera Violet developmental in positive ways.
For more about Peterson, go to https://www.melissaannepeterson.com/

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