Q: Why the title, Miss Wyoming?
A: The main character's mother is a driven stage mother who moves the family to Cheyenne, Wyoming so that her daughter, Susan, has less competition in representing an entire state in national competitions. (Note: Wyoming's population is 435,000.)
Q: What was the start of Miss Wyoming?
A: Oddly, it was last summer's 4-day marriage of 1980's TV soap queen Catherine Oxenberg to film producer Robert Evans. When I read about it my brain turned inside out like a T-shirt. I thought to myself, God, here you have these two Hollywood types who've been around the block collectively maybe ten dozen times, yet they still found something in each other (albeit for only four days) that made the other feel . . . clean. Miss Wyoming isn't a roman à clef, but reading about that marriage was certainly the seed crystal.
Q: What's the story about?
A: It starts out with these two characters, John and Susan, who meet and really click with each other like crazy. Susan's 27, an ex-pageant queen, a faded child TV star in an empty marriage to a rock star. John's a decadent action movie producer. And then Susan goes and disappears. Where to? The book becomes a mystery. Where did she go? Why did she go? The book also becomes an examination of how these two people reached such extreme and bizarre life situations. It examines why the two end up being somehow fated for each other.
Q: Your character, John Johnson seems to be a familiar Hollywood type . . . thirty-seven . . . seedy.
A: Yes and no. I think we're all a bit seedy in the end. But in Hollywood any proclivity toward seediness is certainly indulged as long as you're profitable.
Q: The two characters seem pretty desperate to reinvent themselves. It seems to be what binds them together. Is this an accurate assessment?
A: Very much so. They both have the sensation that many people get, that this is as far as they're ever going to go, that the remainder of their lives has been mapped out for them and they can't, won't stand for it. Like that Talking Heads song "This is not my beautiful wife. This is not my beautiful house. My God, what have I done?"
Q:The pageant world is portrayed in part of the book. It's pretty big, right? What led you to use this as a backdrop in Miss Wyoming?
A: Big? It's staggering. It's a huge sub-industry--a vast style tribe--women who try and wear gowns to ten different events a month. It's that whole JonBenet Ramsey culture. I found out about it by accident. A friend of mine is a seamstress and I saw a corner of this magazine peeking out from under a stack of others. I went to reach for it and she lunged at me, but I got it in time. It's called Pageantry and it's like a September Vogue-sized quarterly style bible for pageant goers. It turns out my friend is a secret pageant addict! It was slightly shocking to discover, like finding out she had a Vanilla Ice tattoo. There's this tainted allure to the whole pageant scene--this eerie netherworld between the trailer park, the suburbs, and the Marriott ballroom--an uncomfortable gap between the body and the way we're taught to idealize it.
Q: You first hit the literary radar with Generation X--which was published in 1991--pre-grunge, even. Why does this book still hit home for readers?
A: Because it's a novel, and novels hopefully tap into something eternal, which is what X did, and which is what all my novels do to some level or other.
Q: How do you cope with being attached to a generation that you've long-since outgrown?
A: Outgrown? Not at all. Everybody grows old together. No one escapes.
Q: . . . But the "X" label?
A: It's a part of my life. It's my Campbell Soup can. It's no big deal to me.
Q: How is this book different than some of your previous novels?
A: I hope that it shows a few evolutionary jumps in terms of narrative construction and creation of character. But in the end it's a subjective judgment for a reader to make. All my novels have been different from the others. This is the biggest break, yet it's also the most "Mel." After a point you just have to go with it.
Q: You've just left your long time editor, Judith Regan, yet some say this is your best work yet. What was the sequence of events here?
A: I'm 37, I write for a living--and for that matter, writing is my "life"--and I want to get better and deeper at it. To do this I had to make some large changes in the way I do things. Switching editors and houses isn't something done lightly--ask any writer. But mine and Judith's lives are so extraordinarily different than what they were in 1991 when I began with her--a change seemed very natural eight years later.
Q: How did your new editor alter your writing process?
A: With a finickiness and intensity I never quite believed existed in the publishing world. Jenny Minton and Pantheon challenged almost every syllable I wrote--not changed, but challenged. Any changes were left to my discretion, but most of their challenges were smart, and many were met. The learning curve was like an Alp on this one.
Q: How did you start writing?
A: By accident. I was working as a sculptor and began writing about art. It was a cheap and quick way of paying studio bills. And then I realized I got more out of writing than I did sculpture. So at the age of 28 I started everything over from square one--going from sculpture into fiction. Talk about a career decision calculated to freak out one's family. . . .
Q: You have a degree in Japanese Business Science?
A: I studied sculpture in Sapporo, Japan in the early 1980s and very much wanted to return and work inside the Japanese creative world which was, and remains, I'm convinced, about 20 years ahead of North American media But without a degree and friends within Japanese industry it's, well . . . good luck. So I went and got the degree. It's a speed bump in an otherwise all-arts life. A happy speed bump, but a bump regardless. I think everybody should live in Japan at least once.