by Pamme Boutselis
Mindy Mejia is the author is “The Dragon Keeper,” her debut novel, and her short stories have appeared in “rock, paper, scissors,” “Things Japanese: An Anthology of Short Stories” and “THIS Literary Magazine.” She lives in Minnesota and is busy writing a murder mystery set in rural southern region of the state. You can find out more about Mejia on her Ashland Creek Press author page.
The genesis of your first novel, “The Dragon Keeper,” began from a newspaper article about a Komodo dragon reproducing without a mate. What was it about that news story that resonated so deeply that you felt the need to create a story around it?
When I first read that article, I had no idea I was going to write anything about it. My initial reaction to the story was total surprise. I’d never heard of sexual animals reproducing without mates and it seemed incredible to me. I tore the article out of a hotel’s newspaper and took it home to read and re-read it. Over the next few weeks, the tone of the piece started to bother me. It was buried in the entertainment section, whereas I thought it should be significant biological news. There was also a certain dismissal of the phenomenon. It was published a week before Christmas with no other reason for the timing than to make amusing comparisons to the Virgin Mary. Again, I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of writing. I just kept wondering, “What’s going on here?”
A few weeks later, I was watching “The Daily Show” when they aired a clip of the Komodo dragons hatching at the Chester zoo. These were the same parthenogenic Komodos from the article, and the zookeeper being interviewed exclaimed that the hatching was the best moment of her life. John Stewart made a comment about how pathetic the woman was, and that’s when it hit me that I knew I had to write about this. It was the human connection that ultimately inspired the story, I suppose. I wanted to know this woman who had invested herself so completely in the life and legacy of a captive animal. That’s how Meg was born.
Writing your book while pursuing an MFA and working full-time, how did you keep the story flowing while working in small segments of time?
For me, as long as I can keep dreaming the story, I can work with relatively small bursts of time dedicated to actually writing. I have a number of strategies to keep my mind engaged in the story. I’ll create playlists of my characters’ favorite songs and listen to them on my commute, especially when I know a certain character will play a big role in the chapter or scene I’m writing that day. Just creating the playlist helps me understand a character’s roots and motivations and loves. Music is a way into their souls.
I also created a companion notebook for “The Dragon Keeper,” and that was a huge driver to keep the story flowing. Initially it was a way to keep track of my research. I knew nothing about Komodo dragons when I started writing the book and read every scientific study I could find, noting facts, anecdotes, and sources in this notebook. As friends heard about the novel, they began sending me newspaper articles about zoos and Komodos, so I kept those in the notebook, too. Then I started using it to map out timelines, diagram rooms, flesh out themes, conduct character interviews and more. Everything that I needed to know about the story was in this notebook, so whenever I was stuck in a scene I could generally find the answers or inspiration there. If I came home at night and was too tired to write, I could still sit down with the notebook and draw or cut and paste articles or make some notes. It was this wonderful, tactile way to be in the world of the story without the pressure of writing. In later drafts I tracked my revision notes and concerns there. It became infinitely more useful than I ever imagined. [click on picture to enlarge for detail]
How important was the revision/editing process and what did you learn as a result?
The revision process is my absolute favorite part of writing novels. All the hardest work is in the first draft. Once that’s done, you can take the deformed, half-baked results and actually make a novel out of it.
The first draft of “The Dragon Keeper” was all about discovering the story. It was about dreaming and exploring the world. I had a pretty good vision of where the story was going to end up, but I had no idea how to get there. So my first draft stumbled around a lot. Some characters that I thought would be important disappeared completely and others snuck into the action. The second and third drafts were where I really dug into the character arcs and the themes of the book. I fleshed out the pivotal scenes and cut the fat elsewhere. When I thought I’d gotten the book to a decent point, I started reading cover-to-cover for different elements. I read for suspense, for example, and audited each chapter based on the rate of revelation and rising action. That probably sounds tedious to some writers, but I loved it.
What I learned from the revision process was two things. One–the book is never done. You can edit and rework forever, but the novel itself will never exactly match the vision for it that you have in your mind. Two–what you write in the first draft is not the book. Beginning novelists might see that as a disheartening statement. I’ve spoken to students who want advice on how to not “waste time” writing the wrong story in their first draft. The truth is that you have to write the wrong story, or the flawed story, in order to figure out the right one. First draft work is critical, but the revisions are where the magic happens. This is also helpful to keep in mind if you’re facing writer’s block in that first draft. It’s freeing for me to know that the words I’m putting on the page don’t really matter yet. It’s about the ideas and characters and action; it’s about erecting a skeleton. Worrying about word choice in a first draft is like picking out lipstick for the skeleton.
Can you share the experience of finding a publisher for “The Dragon Keeper”?
I started querying agents in the fall of 2009. I got a few requests for a full manuscript, but no bites. After about a year, I decided that I needed to go back and do another full revision. Most of the feedback I’d gotten was general–”Great, but not for me”–but I’d heard from a few different agents that they couldn’t get into the characters. So I spent another few months revising and then began sending out queries again. In 2011, I decided to change my strategy and submit the book directly to smaller presses and book contests.
I found Ashland Creek Press through a call for submissions posted on NewPages. I remember the moment exactly. I was lounging in bed with my laptop, just trolling for publishers, when I read ACP’s call. They were looking for eco-lit submissions–compelling stories that featured an environmental or animal protection theme. I seriously jumped out of the bed. I’d never heard of the eco-lit genre, but knew instantly that “The Dragon Keeper” was part of it. I sent off my standard query and within a few days they asked for a full manuscript. A few weeks after that they contacted me to let me know they were interested in publishing my novel.
What is the best advice you’ve been given with regard to your writing?
The best advice I’ve ever received was from my mentor and friend, Sheila O’Connor She compared novel writing to being in a long tunnel. You have to just keep writing through the darkness. Don’t lose faith when you don’t know where you’re going. She also gave me some great publishing advice. She said if you haven’t sent your book to at least fifty agents, you haven’t even tried. I only sent “The Dragon Keeper” to about thirty, so I guess I didn’t try very hard.
Who are the writers that inspire your own work?
I love the worlds of Philip Roth and Neil Gaiman’s sense of magic and possibility. Audrey Niffenegger is a big influence. I admire how completely different her novels are from each other and have been inspired to tackle a new genre with every new project. I’m reading Louise Erdrich’s “The Round House” right now and it is phenomenal. I’ve actually photocopied pages and outlined how she accomplishes certain transcendent moments. I suppose that’s the type of writer I admire, the ones that make me want to dissect them.