Author profile: Tessa Mellas’ chilling stories feature severed arms, stitched lips and lots of birds

  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
By Hannah Stephenson
From the November 7, 2013 edition

The cover of Tessa Mellas’s collection of short fiction, “Lungs Full of Noise,” shows two girls in bird masks at the beach, blithely swinging a bird cage. Her stories are equally effortless, creepy and magical: Noisy girls’ mouths are stitched shut, a girl from Jupiter attends college and a woman cuddles the severed arm of her dead ex.

“Lungs Full of Noise” won the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award, and lucky for us, has just been released.

I’ve got a lot of imagery of birds and winged things throughout the collection, which, for me, is a metaphor for women who are fragile, but also strong. They can support themselves. But like birds with their hollow bones, they can be knocked around.

It takes me at least two years to write a story. I write magical realism, so I come up with a premise first. Like with “Mariposa Girls,” I just thought, “Let’s have these girls screw their skate blades into their feet!” Usually I write about a page or so, with the excitement of the premise in mind. And then I almost always just hit a wall. Most of my story ideas sit in my head for years while I come to the right set of characters and circumstances.

Skating continues to be the love of my life. I started figure skating around first grade. It fits in with the book … skating is like flying.

My love for skating and for being outside and playing in the snow are all tied together. I love the snow in Columbus, and have always preferred cold sports.

I’m patient but also impatient. I’m the type of writer who needs an outline, a blueprint.

For me, the excitement of writing comes from the surprises in the prose. Even if you know the plot elements, there’s still so much surprise in the details and dialogue. There’s always so much to invent.

Excerpt:

“At breakfast, Miss Jacqueline announces the rules of the camp. No speech. No sound. Silence is law. Offenders will be punished. If we think she is joking, we should visit the annex and see the cabinets that house her collection of pickled tongues.”

-- From “Quiet Camp” page 46