Interview With Dr. Mel Caudle
Well, I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and we lived there until I was fifteen. Then we moved to Memphis for a year, and then we moved to Houston, Texas. I loved Houston. In fact, I loved Texas, always have. But Dad got moved to New Orleans, and that’s where I graduated from high school. Well, on the West Bank anyway. I went to West Jefferson High School; you may have heard of it.
I come from a long line of farmers and railroad people, strictly blue-collar.
I started college at Louisiana Tech, and when money got really tight, I dropped out and went to Parris Island. I can tell you my mother was not happy with that career move. Vietnam was still a thing, you know, so I spent six years in the Marine Corps Reserve and worked at a couple of jobs. I had a small plumbing and electrical business where I learned—the hard way—that I didn’t know enough about business. So, I went to work as a contract manager for a glass company and moved to Panama City, Florida.
Along the way, I got married, had two terrific children, and tried to get ahead in life. Sometimes I was trying to get ahead when I should have been spending more time with my children, I fear. To steal a phrase from a friend, I was sometimes a “distracted father.” I was called to the ministry and went back to college, and then, to seminary at Emory University in Atlanta.
I had a heart transplant in September of 2000, and that was, to say the least, a big turning point in my life. How many heart transplant recipients do you know? Quite frankly, life as I had known it was over.
So, I spent a few years teaching both math and English—I’m kind of right-brained/left-brained—and I retired in 2019. That’s when I thought to myself, “I am finally going to start writing those novels I’ve been threatening for so long.
I have always been a writer. I wrote newsletters, house organs, investment proposals, and a little bit of everything at several different jobs over the years. I even wrote several federal grant requests for nonprofits.
But I had this . . . need, I guess you could say, to write a book. I think I have some things to say, and I want to say them before I’m dead. So, I wrote a novel—one not yet published; it’ll be out later this year—and just started the job of editing it when a very close friend approached me with a story concept. He asked if I thought I could do something with it, and I was off. He’s a business partner now, and he helped me to edit and refine Send in the Clowns as I wrote it. I write, and he handles all the important stuff.
For me, a story is kind of there in my mind, but making it into something readable is the hard part. And to steal a quote from Stephen King, I have to write the story to see how it all comes out, but I also want the reader to be part of it. I am sometimes quite surprised to find out what happened along the way of the story.
How was I to portray someone with a terminal illness or in a wheelchair and not make them into either a caricature or merely an object of pity? I didn’t want that for my characters or my readers. And even the antagonists have to be human. The protagonists definitely have to be human, you know, sometimes silly or foolish or thoughtless or just human! But they also have to be someone we love and care about.
I also worked hard to make sure the story was not clichéd. This is not a romance, a Hallmark movie where you know the ending from the start. There have to be some surprises and little tidbits of subtlety along the way. And I want the readers to be both satisfied with the ending and yet wanting more when they close the book.
The story will lead you somewhere you probably haven’t been. By that, I mean it delves into emotions and thoughts that we don’t see every day, but we might want to think about. We tend to hide from these thoughts and emotions.
And it’s a good story.
My history, my faith, and my love for people. Sitting in a sophomore English class, I listened to a professor I adored lecture on Ernest Hemingway, telling how he was a successful newspaper man who wanted to write novels. “But he knew that he hadn’t been around enough,” she said. So, he quit his job and joined the Spanish revolution. How’s that for a stupid, romantic gesture!
Shortly after that, I dropped out of school and went to Parris Island. Believe me, the Marine Corps will take you around and show you things you didn’t even know existed.
Anyone who reads the book will “get” the cover. There is a music box that figures in the story, and its figure is on the cover of the book. I chose the starry night background because it is not only beautiful, but it also reminds me of the star-crossed nature of life, love, and the affairs of all human beings which I hope if reflected in the story.
This is the story of two people, Gio and Gina, who both have a terminal illness, who meet by chance, and who find each other extremely attractive, though they are quite different from each other. And both have careers and families or friends who want to take care of them. But Gio and Gina want to focus on living the life they have left and not focus on some impending death. You know, spend time living instead of dying.
It is also the story of the people around these two who try to care for them and even become . . . jealous? angry? unhappy? Or maybe just concerned with the romance as it develops. There is a good bit of miscommunication because there always is miscommunication in life.
I have two, actually. The first is younger readers who will read an adult-level novel and think about life choices, reactions, living and dying, and even how to deal with others who are sick or crippled or dying. We insulate our children in the modern world far too much, I think, from the very certain vicissitudes of life. I do not write a lot of foul language or gratuitous sex into my books because I want my fourteen-year-old granddaughter to read this without being embarrassed.
And then, I want to target people who read a lot and appreciate a good story, thinking readers. I want someone who might ordinarily read a romance novel to read my book and think, “you know, that’s better than most of the romance novels I read,” because it’s not a romance novel by the definition of the genre. This might make for a good movie, but maybe not a Hallmark movie.
I try to challenge readers with a liberal sprinkling of literary allusions and a bit of foreign language or even arcane jazz numbers, not because I am trying to befuddle or show out, but because that’s how I think, and I will not write down to anyone. My paternal grandmother only went through the third grade, but she was one of the best-read women I even knew. She taught me that people—young, old, well-educated or not—are intelligent and thoughtful. I want to write for those people.
I keep writing, usually throwing out the trash that I write, but I keep writing. I also look through my old notebooks trying to find an idea or a phrase that will stimulate an idea or lead me in a direction I hadn’t thought of before. I’ve started several stories with one line that opened a whole vista of possibilities. For example, my next novel starts out with the line, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”
Let’s do as a writer first:
I think one of the very best writers of the last one hundred years was Pat Conroy. The opening lines of some of his books are the stuff of genius:
- “I wear the ring” from The Lords of Discipline;
- “My wound is geography” from The Prince of Tides;
- “I was born to be a point guard. Just not a very good one” from My Losing Season.
Even if you don’t like his stories, those lines alone are worth buying the book for. In fact, when I peruse a bookstore—and God help us, those are few anymore—I usually read the first line of any book I consider.
As an avid reader, I am always impressed, no, stricken with good language. And those Conroy openings rank up there with ole Bill Shakespeare himself. So, I try to make the language I use come alive and strike a chord with the reader.
I also love the understatement of Mark Twain, and the over-the-top stories of Kurt Vonnegut.
At a personal level, the most significant influence may have been my maternal grandfather. He would come get me when I was a boy, and we would ride around and just talk. . . about family, and life, and things a man should know and be. He never lectured, he just talked. But I remember those talks. And when he got old, I would go and get him, and we would drive around, smoking cigars, and talking.
He thought I was a lot smarter than I am because I got the education that was not available to him when he was a kid. I showed him some shop drawings I had done for a construction job, and he just thought I was a genius.
Having two children who are healthy and happy and good, upstanding people in spite of their paternal genes. Ha. Both my son and daughter, both in their forties now, live productive lives and make me proud, even when I don’t get to see them as often as I should like to. My son has proven to be a great father to his children. My daughter helped raise her stepson and her husband’s nephew as her own, and she did a fine job with both of them. I consider my part in raising them to be proof of a successful life.
Life is short. I spent almost two months in one hospital room at the age of forty-seven where I was either going to die or get a heart transplant. I thought about a lot of things and had a few regrets, but not once did I regret not spending more time at the office. Not spending more time with my family? Yes. But the office got too much of me as it was.
Life is good, but sometimes you have to make it beautiful by choosing to ignore the ugly or find the beauty that lies within the ugly. One should, I think, refuse to be unhappy and miserable because, like the apostle Paul, we can find contentment whatever the circumstances.
Don’t listen to the advice of writers, including me. We’re all different, and there are no Six Secrets to a Successful Writing Career or The Certain Way to Craft a Story. Some great writers outline the whole thing to begin with and others just write. I would advise anyone who wants to write to do it: write—and keep writing. And have a thick skin because most of what most of us write is junk!
But you can make a living writing for others if you don’t want to or can’t write fiction. Writing grants, technical writing, and newsletters and be satisfying and financially rewarding. Most people either can’t or won’t write at all, so if you write at all, that alone sets you apart from the herd.
IF—and this is important—you can structure a complete sentence, and do the punctuation correctly, and carry the thoughts through, you can outdo most people. That is basic writing, not great literature, and most folks can’t do it at all, certainly not well.
You probably won’t be the next Stephen King or J. K. Rowling or Pat Conroy. But you may be, and if you feel the need to write, nothing will scratch that itch but writing. Write in your spare time. Make time for writing. Find a sponsor (if there really is such a thing). Get your thoughts on paper. Do whatever it takes to write.
The worst thing that will come from writing is that no one will read your work. (Yes, I know, Shakespeare pointed out that not understanding a man’s verse kills hi like a reckoning in a little room.) But no one, and I mean no one, should reach the end of their days regretting that they didn’t go for it, whatever “it” is.
Dr. Melissa Caudle, AKA Dr. Mel, is an American author of more than a dozen books, both fiction and non-fiction and numerous articles in magazines as a freelance writer. You can find this interview and book recommendation on her website.