Diverse, Realistic, and Resilient Love Stories: Unquietly Me talks with Melanie Hansen, M/M Romance Author of UNQUIET

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Diverse, Realistic, and Resilient Love Stories:
Unquietly Me talks with Melanie Hansen,
M/M Romance Author of Unquiet

 

Mel 2 In September 2015, after reading Signs of Life, Resilient Love Stories Book 2, I emailed Melanie Hansen about interviewing her on my blog. I felt we had many things in common, and wanted to know more about her and why she writes about characters who “find love amidst real-life struggles.”

First, our fathers were both in the military. In her debut novel Everything Changes, a gay-for-you romance between two former soldiers, she portrayed military culture as if she had firsthand knowledge. I felt nostalgic while reading her novel because when I was a kid my father had been stationed in San Diego, where much of the novel takes place.

Second, as a person of color, I thought it was interesting that one of the main characters in Signs of Life was Latino. I once had dated a Filipino gang member, so I was familiar with some of the situations described in her book. Seeing people of color represented in novels by white authors believably and authentically is important to me.

Finally, when I found out that one of the main characters in Melanie’s new novel Unquiet suffered from Bipolar Disorder, I couldn’t wait to read it and talk to Melanie about why she wrote it. Like Eliot, I had been diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder, and I wanted to see how accurately Melanie had portrayed his illness. It wasn’t a coincidence that Melanie had named her novel after the same memoir that inspired the title of my blog.

What got to me the most about her Resilient Love Stories is that many of her characters all suffered from a mental illness: in Everything Changes, Jase suffered from PTSD; in Signs of Life, Jeremy’s husband suffered from depression; and as I mentioned above, in Unquiet, Eliot suffered from Bipolar Disorder. Melanie writes about marginalized or diverse characters, because reading and writing “realistic” romance is what she enjoys most.

    To me, writing diverse characters also means writing about a disabled man, or a mentally ill man. I want to include characters of all races and walks of life in my books.
    Basically it comes down to wanting to show normal people in real-life situations finding their own happily ever afters.

*

Melanie Hansen’s journey to writing M/M romance was long and painful. She grew up an Evangelical Christian, and her immediate family has no knowledge of her current writing career. In a blog post on her website, Melanie talked about why she writes M/M romance, which her family would consider “a terrible sin.”

She was raised to believe “being gay is a lifestyle choice made in order to indulge in filthy, disgusting sex, and it can only end with burning in hell.” Her family didn’t talk about her uncle and his “roommate,” but prayed for his redemption.

Her worldview changed when her uncle’s partner died of AIDS and her uncle was diagnosed with AIDS as well. She wondered how being gay could be a choice preferable to gay bashing and watching a loved one die from such a terrifying disease.

    These events rocked my belief system, and caused cracks to open up in the rock-solid certainty I’d had up to then that being gay was wrong. I didn’t dump my lesbian friend, although my family urged me to, and I grieved with and supported my uncle through his partner’s death and his own diagnosis. How could a loving human being not do that?

Melanie’s journey to writing M/M romance came “from bigotry and intolerance to celebrating love through the art of writing about it.” Though the journey was long and painful, it resulted in some of the most rewarding experiences in her life and her very first publishing contract.

In June 2013, on the Archive of Our Own fanworks site, AO3, under the username MelJoyAZ, Melanie began writing fanfic that was well-received by fans and gave her the confidence to write M/M fanfic. The turning point came in October 2013, when she attended GayRomLit in Atlanta, which she describes as a life-changing experience.

    Several of my online friends were going, and it was a last-minute decision to go too. Talk about feeling at home, and finding your people! To be around those who loved what I loved, M/M romance, to see acceptance and tolerance practiced the way it should be everywhere… it was amazing. I clicked with these girls immediately, and we had an absolute blast—the night at the gay strip club will never be forgotten! Best. Night. Ever.
    A week or so after getting home from Atlanta, it was time for NaNoWriMo 2013, and I was still riding the high of having connected with authors and readers at GRL. I had a vague story idea of two combat veterans falling in love after one of them was seriously wounded, the intense experience helping to turn their friendship into love.
    A single line from the song Everything Changes by Stain’d wouldn’t leave me alone: “When it’s just me and you, who knows what we could do—if we can just make it through the toughest part of the day.” Wow, the toughest part of the day indeed… one man lying on the ground, grievously wounded, clinging to life by a thread, his friend and teammate feverishly trying to save his life, begging him to hold on. They both make it through the toughest part of the day, and it takes time, but eventually they find their love and happiness together.
    It still amazes me that I was able to actually write 64K words of a story during that NaNoWriMo month, when I had no idea what I was actually doing. Finally, the following May, after it had been beta read and polished to the best of my ability, I sent it off to Dreamspinner, and seven of the longest weeks of my life later I had my very first publishing contract!

Everything Changes went on to place in the Top 10 in two categories of the 2015 Rainbow Awards. Though Melanie’s family might never appreciate her accomplishments, her husband and sons are fully supportive and proud of her. It makes her happy that her boys brag about her to everyone they meet, because it’s their opinions that matter. She’s thrilled and humbled by what she considers “modest success,” as she has never taken a writing class or had any formal training.

    Every time I sit down to write, I feel lost, and inadequate, but from that first blank page and blinking cursor to a completed novel, somehow I’m able to pull it off. I will never know for sure how that happens… instinct, passion… whatever you want to call it, but as long as the ideas keep flowing, I will keep writing.

I would call it perseverance… and resilience.

*

While persistence guides a writer, Melanie’s rich imagination, work experience, and meticulous research and observations bring her characters and their stories to life. Even their sex lives express the diversity of their real-life struggles and their identities.

When Melanie decided to write Everything Changes, she felt that she couldn’t write a war veteran story without including some of the real-life struggles a combat veteran would face. In Everything Changes, Carey is an amputee who wears a prosthetic leg, and Jase suffers with PTSD due to a mission in Afghanistan.

    My research for Everything Changes was quite extensive. I watched a lot of YouTube videos about prosthetic and stump care so I could get a feel for what Carey’s everyday life would be like. I didn’t want to just allude to his amputation, I wanted to detail what it would be like to actually wear a prosthetic leg and how he took care of it. I also wanted to go a little bit into the psychological effects of it, like having to learn to walk again and how it changed his life.
    The Afghanistan part of it, I had to research how to describe the terrain and things like that, but my husband knows quite a few Navy docs who serve with Marine units, including one bad-ass woman! I was able to talk to them, and I think I was able to capture the sense of brotherhood and camaraderie that exists among military people because I’ve lived around it my entire life.

This camaraderie enabled a straight man, Carey, to fall in love with his gay friend, Jase. Melanie felt that a gay-for-you romance would work in Everything Changes because “combat relationships are very intense and can be as intense as a romance even if there’s no sex involved.”

    Trusting someone with your life, being willing to die for someone in return… the bond is unbelievably strong. The foundation for the feelings is there already, and Carey’s injury and the aftermath, what they both went through separately and together, all worked in tandem to tip those feelings over the edge into romantic love. Carey fell in love with Jase, not because of or in spite of Jase’s gender, but simply because Jase as a person is the one who completes Carey, fills his empty spaces, gives him what he needs.

*

Signs of Life opens with a heartbreaking chapter describing how one man lost everything nearly all at once. Jeremy’s backstory was inspired by a newspaper article Melanie had read about how a man’s pregnant wife was killed instantly in a car accident.

    They were able to deliver the baby alive, but he too died a day or so later. They were just going to lunch, and then the man’s entire family was wiped out in the blink of an eye. How does someone ever recover from that, much less trust his heart again?
    I think we all know at least one person who’s had life throw curveball after curveball at them. They don’t deserve it. They haven’t done anything to warrant it, but yet they just can’t catch a break. That’s Jeremy from Signs of Life. He’s a good man, a loving man, yet through no fault of his own everything he loves is taken from him.

Melanie says that she wrote Jeremy’s character from pure imagination. She imagined what it would feel like to lose everything and how he’d react. For instance, while Jeremy is still recovering from his losses, he meets his future love interest, Kai, at a gay club. The attraction is instant, and the sex brings out an intense, physical aggression Jeremy never knew he had.

    Jeremy and Kai are two out-and-proud experienced gay men who know what they like and what they want, and both have been in love before. Since all Jeremy wanted from Kai initially was sex, the story supported it being plentiful, hot and dirty.
    I felt the only way Jeremy could go on to love someone else after Brent died was if that someone else was about as different from Brent as you could get, and that included sexually. Jeremy loved Brent’s fragility, his beauty, his soft gentleness, his kindness. He loved being there for him for better or for worse.
    But Kai is a force of nature. He’s strong and confident, a survivor, yet with that compassion and kindness that Jeremy loved in Brent. Kai is different from Brent in many ways but the underlying feelings he engenders in Jeremy are exactly the same—trust, respect, a deep and abiding love.

When Melanie was planning Signs of Life, she knew that she wanted to have a Latino main character. “They’re such a vibrant part of the gay community and of course underrepresented in a lot of fiction, especially fiction written by a white author,” Melanie says.

“My personal feeling is that M/M writers, in choosing to write about a marginalized group such as LGBTQ in the first place, are just as likely to care about diverse populations as well and want to see them represented.”

Since it’s important to Melanie, as a white author who is aware of her privilege, to portray diverse characters authentically, she relies on her POC friends to read her stories and provide feedback. She also consults a Tumblr blog called “Writing with Color,” curated by a female African-American writer.

While imagining Kai’s work teaching at a second-chance school, Melanie drew on her former work in juvenile court, her current work with teenagers, and her brother’s stories of being a juvenile detention officer. She also worked with Gang Unit cases during the course of her court reporting career.

    Since I was making Kai’s diverse students a significant part of the story, I wanted him to be a role model they could see themselves in. Kai knows what it’s like to grow up in a marginalized environment. He knows what it’s like to be swept up in gang life, in criminal acts. He knows what it’s like to spend time behind bars, what can happen to you while you’re behind bars, and he’s taken all of that and he uses that to relate to marginalized kids who need to see that someone made it out.
    When I was fleshing out his backstory, someone I knew in my past came to mind, and I modeled Kai’s mom after her. My ex-boyfriend’s sister was a gang groupie, getting involved with one gang member after another. She never married any of them, but she had a couple of children by them. I lost touch with her when my boyfriend and I went our separate ways, but I always wondered what happened to her children, what kind of lives they had with a mom so attracted to that environment. All of that went into Kai’s characterization, and of course as a white author it concerned me to write a Latino man as a former gang member, but I felt his story was ultimately a positive one, an empowering one.

As a prison rape survivor, Kai healed with the help of his best friend and former lover Loren. Kai’s reliance on Loren was a source of conflict in his relationship with Jeremy. Melanie says it was so easy to write Kai and Loren together that she ended up falling in love with Loren and “had to fight with every ounce of [her] being not to turn it into a ménage story.” In fact, Loren was never supposed to have as much page time as he did, much less his own story.

*

Loren’s stormy romance with Eliot Devlin, who suffers from Bipolar Disorder, is told in Melanie’s new novel, Unquiet. Of the three Resilient Love Stories, Unquiet was the most personal and challenging for Melanie to write.

    The research I undertook for this story was daunting, first gathering the “facts” about bipolar disorder, then trying to find sources that would help me understand what it was like to live with this illness. One of my best friends in real-life works as a medical professional at the county jail psych ward caring for inmates with all sorts of mental disorders. She gave me glimpses into what life on the ward was like, shared with me some stories of her interactions with patients.

Melanie was very concerned about telling Eliot’s story with dignity, respect, and realism. “He deserved a voice of his own, a glimpse into his mind, because he’s worthy of getting to know,” Melanie says, “but finding Eliot’s ‘voice’ to write in his POV was very, very intimidating to me.”

    If I’m going to have Eliot struggle with a mental illness, it’s going to have to be realistic, or else I feel I do a disservice to everyone who struggles. Mental illness isn’t a plot device, or a cheap way to add drama or angst. It’s painful and messy and heartbreaking, but so many people do struggle with it, why shouldn’t they have a love story too?

In order to find Eliot’s voice and write in his point-of-view, Melanie immersed herself in blogs and autobiographies. It was important for Melanie to tell Eliot’s story as accurately as she could, because she wrote Unquiet as a tribute to her cousin, who lost her battle with Bipolar Disorder and took her own life.

    She talked many times about not being able to find someone to love her, and like Eliot, went through a series of men who valued her more for being manic than for being well. She was stunningly beautiful, a Doctor of Pharmacy, one of the youngest students ever admitted to the pharmacy program at her university. Accomplished, smart, funny and beloved by her family… she still struggled with feeling worthless. She used to tell me that each morning when she woke up, she felt like she was standing at the edge of a cliff, and she never knew if that day would be the day she stepped off that cliff.
    One day I got the call that she was gone. Sadly, it was a September 16, which happens to be my wedding anniversary. I know she didn’t remember that as the date, and it’s just a tragic coincidence. But when I remember the fun and joy of my wedding day, how we drank wine and danced, those memories are now inextricably intertwined with the pain of knowing she hurt so much that all she wanted was for it to end. Sometimes it’s almost unbearable. So I wrote Unquiet for her, poured as much of my heart and soul into it as I could, because not every Eliot finds his Loren. I wanted to show Loren and Eliot complementing each other, as gifts to each other.

Her cousin’s story brought tears to my eyes, especially when I think about how all her potential was lost to her illness and how sad it is that she never found a love like Loren’s. Though I read a beta of Unquiet all in one night, I couldn’t stop crying and had to take little breaks from it. It took me awhile to recover from the novel, because I felt everything Eliot and Loren went through.

I’ve read blogs by individuals who suffer from Bipolar Disorder, as well as a range of severe, stigmatized, and misunderstood mental illnesses. (I also maintain a mental health blog of my own.) I’ve seen comments from people who sympathize but admit they don’t think they could ever understand what it feels like to have a mental illness.

It seems that for people to understand they have to feel it. Fiction has a way of bringing out those universal feelings that people can relate to. From the reviews I’ve read of Unquiet, readers have expressed that the novel made them cry also, that it was heartbreaking, brutal, painful, raw, and emotionally exhausting, while many others found the compassion at the heart of the story that enabled Loren and Eliot to find hope and unconditional love and makes their relationship succeed. Melanie shows in Unquiet that love might not conquer all, but love is what makes people try.

    Some reviewers have said they’ve come away from reading the book with a deeper understanding of what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder, and what’s it like to love someone with it. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear, that readers found it realistic but yet hopeful, and in a small way educating.
    I think that’s what I wanted to tackle in each book in this series, as in Everything Changes, to address such things as PTSD—the stigma and shame that our military men and women feel for being ‘weak’—and what it’s like to live with a disability. In Signs of Life, it was the difficulty of recovering from savage, crippling grief and how many times it’s a take-one-step-forward-two-steps-back kind of situation. And in Unquiet, how love doesn’t cure all, but it can still be some damn good medicine.

From my own personal experience, I believe that Melanie’s portray of Bipolar Disorder is indeed realistic and insightful. I know how hard it is to love and stay with a person who suffers from a severe mental illness. Since the challenges Loren and Eliot faced in their relationship were so trying, Melanie felt that it was necessary for Loren and Eliot to have a deep, rich backstory of childhood friends to lovers.

    I didn’t think it would be believable that Loren would stay with Eliot if they didn’t have that history. If I wanted to write a story portraying bipolar disorder realistically and not gloss over it, then I felt I needed to have the foundation for their relationship already in place so I could spend the story focusing on how the two of them built a life together despite the challenges.
    The sex here had to be more carefully considered. It would have been easy, and cheap, for me to use the hypersexuality that comes with bipolar disorder as a ‘reason’ to write plentiful hot sex. I absolutely did not want that, to focus on that. That seemed to me like making the illness into a stereotype. Of course it had to be alluded to, and addressed within the story, but I wanted something else to impact their actual sex life—Eliot’s medication, the medication so necessary to Eliot’s overall quality of life.
    The fact that it causes performance issues, and that some people in Eliot’s life valued his sexual prowess more than his wellbeing, has such an impact on his self-esteem, not to mention affects his compliance with his treatment regimen. That, to me, had much more of a powerful punch to portraying living with the challenges of the illness than writing some hot smut because Eliot was hypersexual.

Melanie found writing Loren’s character a challenge as well because she wanted to avoid portraying him as a martyr and making Eliot’s character seem defined by his illness. She credits her beta readers for seeing the flaws in her story and “shining a bright light on those flaws in order to be able to correct them.”

    Once I got Loren’s character straightened out, to where he was a supportive and loving partner, interested in educating himself on the realities of being with Eliot instead of the smug ‘I’m here now and everything will be okay’ martyr, the rest of the story fell into place.

From her research, she learned that the earlier the onset of symptoms means the more severe the illness has the potential of being, and that the earlier the correct treatment starts the slower the progression of the illness. She learned that treating and diagnosing early-onset Bipolar Disorder is a challenge, because the wrong medication can be disastrous. For instance, in Unquiet, when Eliot was prescribed an antidepressant, his mania escalated.

In Unquiet, Melanie stresses the importance of being vigilant and informed. In our interview, she candidly recalled her own vigilance in helping her son who was tentatively diagnosed with a mood disorder five years ago.

    There were some troubling signs: suicidal ideation at five years old, inappropriate hypersexuality at that age, and some rage episodes. He spent some time on mood stabilizers, until we decided to wean him off and take a watch-and-wait approach while under a psychiatrist’s care. If I hadn’t known my cousin’s diagnosis, and lost her so recently, I wouldn’t have done research into early-onset bipolar and been informed enough to request that my son be put on mood stabilizers along with the anti-anxiety and depression meds the doctor was recommending.

Melanie’s own vigilance is a powerful example of why a book like Unquiet is important. Though some readers may have found the ending bittersweet, after I took a step back from the novel and thought it over, I believe that there is hope for Eliot’s future and the future of those who suffer from mental illness in general. From Melanie’s example, being educated and informed is the first step in recognizing symptoms and taking proactive steps in early diagnosis, prevention of symptoms, and effective treatment.

A severe mental illness like Bipolar Disorder is a lifelong diagnosis. Eliot will always have ups and downs and never be fully functional. But I choose to believe that he will experience periods of stability, perhaps years between episodes, especially if he’s medically compliant. This is our “normal.” It’s sad and painful, but with treatment, we can experience more frequently a normal range of emotions. We can have happy and good times, smiles and laughter, and periods of productivity. There are worse outcomes, such as homelessness and conservatorship, so Eliot’s happy ever after is truly one of the best book and series endings ever. Eliot will never be alone with strong, social support from his family and friends in the Resilient Love Stories, and with Loren forever by his side.

“Eliot will still have bumps in the road,” Melanie says, “even severe ones, but he DESERVES to be happy and Loren WILL stay with him, even after the worst almost happens.”

    It’s easy to find bipolar ‘facts’ to spout, but finding the humanity at the heart of it, the tribute I wanted to pay to my cousin and her lost battle, was like brushing the sand away from a fossil: patience, bit by bit, little by little. I know I didn’t get it all right. I know I only scratched the surface. But I can sleep at night knowing I did my best and I gave Eliot his voice.

I believe that Melanie DID get Eliot’s voice and HIS experience right. Though the criteria for diagnosing Bipolar Disorder are very specific, individuals experience, imagine, and cope with their symptoms and illnesses in their own ways. For instance, I have never experienced rapid cycling and am more prone to mixed episodes, and when I’m manic or hypomanic I don’t bake cakes. But I know what it feels like to drown in that psychological pain and yearn to escape it, how when it’s at its worst it feels like a physical pain.

I like to think that Melanie’s cousin would believe that Melanie got it right, too, and would be proud of her accomplishment.

*

After a long and painful journey to writing M/M romance, Melanie feels very lucky in her career choices and truly blessed for the friends she has met through her writing, whether through correspondence or book fandoms and conventions. Melanie appreciates it when people reach out to her, because it’s not in her nature to make the first move. She doesn’t seek or crave attention, even when promoting her books.

    I’ve met some awesome people who have reached out to me after reading my books. I have a lovely correspondence going with a lady in the UK, and she’s actually started a little email group consisting of her favorite authors. I’ve gotten to know some wonderful, encouraging people that way. We do light promo for each other, mainly tweeting or posting about new releases.
    I think it says a lot about my personality that my two main career paths, both court reporting and the transcribing I do for my student, are similar in that I’m one of the most important people in the room—responsible for making a record—but yet I’m totally behind the scenes, an impartial observer, never called on to speak. I like it that way. I like being integral to everything but never the center of attention. Some of that spills over into my author life in that I’m content to put my books out there and just… let them be.

Even though Melanie has been married for over fifteen years, she’s essentially a single mom right now. Since Melanie’s husband is stationed in another state and Melanie works with a fifteen-year-old deaf student, they decided for Melanie and their two boys, ages 10 and 12, to stay in Arizona.

    I’m the only one in the state qualified to do what I do, and if I leave, it will be another six-months-plus search to find a replacement, or else she has to do with another type of service, one that’s not as effective as the in-person work that I do. So I’m the lucky, lucky middle-aged woman who gets to relive every single day of her junior high years. I accompany her to each of her classes, and because most of the kids see me as furniture by now and pay no attention to me, I’m privy to all sorts of gossip, drama and private conversations.
    I have to say that with all the negativity spouted toward teenagers these days—how worldly they are, how entitled, how spoiled—this is a very good group of kids I get to spend six hours a day with. There are two out gay boys in the eighth grade, and nobody bats an eyelash. My student is a bright, engaging, kind and polite young woman, and honestly, most of the other kids are too. There are definitely worse ways to spend my days.

Melanie’s resolution in 2016 is to be better at blogging and maintaining her website. As a “single” working mom, her time is pretty limited, so she’s started getting up at 3:30 every morning to ensure that she has a couple of quiet hours to write before she hits the ground running.

She also wants to thank Natasha Snow of Natasha Snow Designs, who designed all three of the Resilient Love covers. She loved each and every one.

Melanie is currently working on three writing projects: a May/Dec military story, a Navy SEAL story, and a stepbrother story, any of which may or may not turn into a series 🙂

*

I want to thank Melanie for entrusting me with a beta of Unquiet, and being honest, willing, and open in taking on this interview.

Mel–I wish you all the best in your writing career and as always look forward to reading your future books. Thank you for writing this very important, soulful, heartfelt, and hopeful, gift of a novel, Unquiet!

*

We all build internal sea walls to keep at bay the sadnesses of life and the often overwhelming forces within our minds… But love is, to me, the ultimately more extraordinary part of the breakwater wall: it helps to shut out the terror and awfulness, while, at the same time, allowing in life and beauty and vitality.

–Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness


 

References:

Why I Write M/M Romance by Melanie Hansen

GayRomLit Retreat

Archive of Our Own (AO3)

NAMI.org > Learn More about Bipolar Disorder

 

NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness website



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