Breaking Blueprints is an interview series that showcases the unique journeys of Centre for Stories’ Writing Fellows. We gain insight into how each writer discovered their voice and found the tools they need to pursue their dreams of becoming published authors. This series is a testament to the power of community and the potential of every aspiring author to break through the barriers and achieve their dreams. By sharing their stories, these writers inspire others to pursue their passion for writing and explore the many paths available to them.
Melanie Hobbs discovered her passion for writing while teaching the craft to her students, and has since gone on to build a portfolio of short stories in tandem with a belief in her abilities. Melanie is inspired by the lives of young people who, like herself, must navigate the demands of a contemporary, multicultural Australia. In this interview we discuss writing as a millennial, the trope of friendship in fiction and the need to, at times, challenge cultural taboos.
Melanie Hobbs grew up in the northern suburbs of Perth. At thirty-five she still struggles to explain her complicated cultural heritage of Singaporean, Malaysian, Tamil and Christian roots. She teaches high school English and lives in the Perth hills with her husband, two kids and dog. Melanie is a recipient of the 2022 Centre for Stories’ Emerging Writer’s Fellowship. Her work has been published in Westerly, Portside Review, swim meet lit mag and kindling & sage magazine.
As a short story writer, you must constantly be on the look-out for new ideas. What’s the most unusual place or situation you’ve been in when inspiration struck for a story?
One of the very first stories I completed was called ‘How to Steal a Cat.’ It was inspired by one of my friends, whose mum basically stole her neighbour’s cat, because she liked it. I couldn’t get it out of my head. That’s where a lot of my stories come from, like conversations or things I see. I think, how does that happen? Or how might it have happened? While researching a story about friendship, I came across a Reddit discussion where someone said, ‘My best friend tried to steal my boyfriend. What she didn’t know was that it was actually me that she was messaging.’ And I was like, ‘You were cat fishing your best friend with your fake boyfriend?’ So I wrote a separate story about that. I tried to make it realistic by imagining what would drive a person to fake a boyfriend and what would drive their supposedly best friend to steal that boyfriend. So that was fun.
You sound very much like a discovery writer, or what George R. R. Martin calls a ‘gardener’. Does teaching English Literature to high school students have any effect on your ‘garden’?
That’s such a good question. I think it does feed into it. I can name some people who’ve inspired me like Maxine Beneba Clarke, Alice Pung, Norman Erickson Pasaribu. Writers who are very playful with their language, have a great sense of humour and pathos, who are also writing from an immigrant or a minority perspective. They make me feel like my own niche perspective is worthy of being explored. In the novel I’m currently reading, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, by Shankari Chandran, there’s a crisis in the temple room, and these older characters say, ‘Aiyo kadavule!’ I don’t speak Tamil myself, but that was something that I heard growing up. And I was like, ‘Ah!’ Firstly, I never knew how to spell it, and also I would love to use that in one of my stories. So you read stories that are from a similar perspective, and that sparks those memories.
I love that, it’s like the abstract becoming concrete. By the end of the program each fellow is expected to complete a major piece of creative writing. What are you working on and how is it going?
I am working on a collection of short stories. I can’t say that every single one of them fit into a particular theme, but a lot of them are inspired by my experiences growing up in Perth as a brown girl. I would like to think that I show the cool side of growing up in a multicultural Australia. I have finished writing them, but I’m still very much in the selection and editing phase. And it’s new for me because not that long ago even finishing a story was a big deal, I wouldn’t have felt confident to write a book. But then this fellowship opportunity came up and I thought, ‘I’m going to apply, and even if I don’t get it, I’m still going to write a book.’ And then I got it and that was awesome, because it gave me the time and space to work consistently, and to get feedback from other people. It made me realise, ‘You know what, I can keep going, I can produce a collection.’
That’s very cool. It’s a different kettle of fish, I suppose, when you’ve got a collection that you need to curate. In your writing, do you tend to revisit similar themes? What are they?
I tend to write about friendships. I’ve been thinking about that, because a lot of the stories in the collection are about friendship. It’s probably because I don’t have a long string of lovers to draw inspiration from. I write about diverse friendships, how friendships end and their importance in our lives. Something I find interesting about the way friendships are presented in a lot of our literature and popular culture, I just find those representations quite unrealistic. You’ll often see two best friends who have been best friends their entire life. For me, that hasn’t been the case. I think you have people who move in and out of your life, and that doesn’t mean that those friendships are of any less value. I think that complexity deserves to be explored in our stories.
The series My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, also examines the nuances of friendship, but in a way that isn’t sentimental. In this sense, fiction often challenges conventions. How do you navigate potentially controversial topics in your writing?
I am not sure my writing does that, but it would for certain readers. One of the stories I’m working on has been really hard to write because it is a personal story informed by my own experience with endometriosis. I think for a lot of people, at least, from my culture, talking about women’s reproductive health is not something that happens a lot. It’s probably a bit taboo, even in Western societies. So I think some readers might find that a bit confronting. And then, you know, the kind of people who say, ‘Oh, this is woke nonsense, this is #ownvoices rubbish,’ are always going to be offended. I have written a couple of stories exploring themes of racism, white fragility and the white saviour complex, and those stories may be uncomfortable reading for some. But I think my stories are human stories with universal themes about growing up and coping with life’s difficulties.
We all know the feeling of receiving negative or critical feedback on a piece of work. Tell me about a time you received some not-so-glowing feedback — how did you feel about it and what did you do with it?
I’ve got to say, in the past, I’ve definitely not been very good at receiving negative feedback, to the point where I’ve not looked at a story again. When a work is a first draft, and is quite rough, it’s like a foetus, it’s so delicate. But that’s been a lesson for me, to be a bit more explicit about what I need when asking for feedback. I was feeling nervous about sending some work to my mentor, Rashida Murphy, who is my absolute hero. The story was in its very early stages, and I knew that it wasn’t very good, but I thought, ‘I don’t want the author of The Historian’s Daughter to read this pile of rubbish.’ So I asked her to tell me if the story had any potential, or if I should just toss it. I thought it was a complete mess, but she read it, and she had some great feedback for me. It completely changed my perspective on it. Working with Rashida taught me how to be more discerning when sharing early versions of my stories with others.
Well it sounds like that story may be an important one. For the last question, where are you hoping to take your writing in the final months of the fellowship, and beyond?
I’ve still got a lot of editing to do on the manuscript, so I’m going to polish that up and approach some publishers. I will probably always write short stories, but I’m also interested in writing for children. It’s something that I set aside to focus on my short stories, but I think I might try that again. Even though my stories are aimed at adults, a lot of them are about young people and the experiences of being young. For a lot of children of immigrants and millennials, I feel like our adolescence is almost extended, because we weren’t allowed to do the normal things that teenagers do when they are kids. So you finish school and you’re given more freedoms, but you’re still questioned about where you’re going and what time you’re getting home. And then when you move out, you’re kind of like, ‘Oh, I’m an adult now. How did this happen?’ As a parent and teacher I’m surrounded by wonderful young people, so I would like to write something for them.
Melanie was interviewed by Andrew McGinn in April 2023.
Writing Change, Writing Inclusion is Centre for Stories’ signature writing program for 2021 to 2023. Generously funded by The Ian Potter Foundation, Australia Council for the Arts and Centre for Stories Founders Circle, this writing program features mentoring, hot desk, and publication opportunities for emerging writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and/or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.