An Interview with My Collaborator (and Me):
Melissa Goodrich and Dana Diehl on Collaboration, Control, and Writing The Classroom Together

The Classroom is a book of stories written collaboratively by Melissa Goodrich and Dana Diehl. Newly published by Gold Wake Press, the book delivers fresh magic and strange realities where a mother learns how to love her android son, a teacher travels through time, children turn into animals, and so much more. In the spirit of their jointly-owned book, here is a two-headed interview between Goodrich and Diehl about their partnership in story writing. We couldn’t help but throw a few questions into the mix too.

I. Melissa Goodrich Has Questions for Dana Diehl

Melissa Goodrich: Where did you first get the idea to collaborate?

Dana Diehl: I remember the time, but I don’t remember the moment. In 2016, we were both working at the same primary school, both feeling like we weren’t writing enough. We started giving each other prompts to respond to in the brief moments before classes. At some point, this evolved into us writing stories together (the first one was “The Classroom Beneath the Classroom”), and soon after that we knew it’d be a collection. But who suggested it first? When did the idea plant itself? I don’t know.

Melissa: Be honest. The worst part of collaboration is …

Dana: The loss of control! Collaborating is an exercise in letting go, in trusting your partner, in not thinking of anything you do as “precious” or unchangeable. Letting go of control does not come naturally to me, but absolutely makes me a better artist.

Waxwing: Can you elaborate on the loss of control? How does it make you a better artist?

Dana: At AWP in Portland this year, I went to an incredible panel on alternatives to plot, featuring panelists Matt Bell, Joseph Scapellato, Allegra Hyde, Thirii Myint, and Ling Ma. During the panel, I was really interested in what Allegra Hyde had to say about randomness yielding discovery, about opening up your writing process to chance. I believe writing is a process of discovery. But you can’t truly explore or discover if you have everything mapped out. Collaboration forced me to react, not to chance or randomness, but to elements that I didn’t expect to find. I’d send a story to Melissa with an idea of how it was going, and when she sent it back, I’d be in a new world that I’d have to find a way to navigate. This process made me more creative, a better problem solver, a more intuitive writer.

Waxwing: Can you give us an example? What was one cool thing Melissa did to take control away and allow you to discover something unexpected in the writing process?

Dana: Melissa did so many cool things! One of our stories, “How to Unvanish a Boy,” is about the mothers of boy-magicians. In the first draft I sent Melissa, the magic was pretend. But when Melissa got her hands on it, she made the magic real. Suddenly, the boys were actually able to vanish. The mothers were fighting back with spell books and enchanted rains. Working with Melissa has taught me to write into all of a story’s possibilities, to write fearlessly.

Melissa: Who would you love to see collaborate?

Dana: Can I be part of this dream pair? I would love to collaborate with an indie video game creator. One of my all-time favorite games is What Remains of Edith Finch, written by Ian Dallas and developed by Giant Sparrow. The game is described as a collection of short stories, and playing it made me think — what would my stories look like in video game form? How would I write differently if I could play out multiple scenarios and courses of action, instead of just one?

Waxwing: What story from The Classroom showed you something new about writing through your collaboration? Something about writing or fiction, and/or about the writing process.

Dana: I remember that we wrestled with “The End of Amber” for a long time. It’s a story about a janitor who drops mysterious crystals that the students soon realize have magical powers. This story changed the most from draft to draft. There’s actually a published version of this story at Sundog Lit that’s only a couple of pages long, but we kept playing with it for the book, and it transformed into an eight-page story with more developed characters. Writing this story taught me that sometimes you have to make dramatic changes to a story and start over to get it where you want it to be.

Melissa: Which character in our collection do you most / least relate to? Why?

Dana: I have a really soft spot for our Spy Girl. She was inspired by a student in my first year of teaching primary who was misunderstood by a lot of people, but who I always felt I understood completely. Spy Girl is a young version of me, or a current-but-secret version of me. She is the part of me that makes up fantasies about myself. The part of me that picks up bird feathers and acorns and buttons I find on the sidewalk. The part of me that is always looking for a conspiracy.

The character I least relate to is the adult teacher in that story: the confident liar.

Melissa: If you could take a class in anything, what would you take?

Dana: A class on surviving the apocalypse, any version of the apocalypse. There’d be a unit on self-defense, on finding water in the desert, on reading people’s facial expressions to tell if they’re friends or foes.

Every story I’ve ever written feels a little bit like walking into the apocalypse. Some thoughts that apply both to writing a story and surviving the apocalypse:

1. No one tells you the rules. You learn the rules as you go. Sometimes you make the rules yourself.

2. You start from nothing. Whatever past experience you have doesn’t help you as much as you think it should.

3. Anything can be a weapon.

Melissa: Who even is Dana?

Dana: Dana is nervous, likes to plan trips to northern places, likes to pet animals, likes to rent private karaoke rooms with friends.

Melissa: Are we actually the same person with different hair?

Dana: As I was adding our names to this interview, I accidentally typed that I asked this question and you answered. So yes. I’m afraid we are. I can think of one other notable difference, though. Melissa is all about the buns, Dana is all about the pooches. (Does that sound dirty? I hope everyone gets I mean rabbits and dogs).

Melissa: What’s one or two sentences from a work-in-progress you’re writing now?

Dana: “All winter, my ex-wife has been flying around the countryside, cursing people and farms.” Bonus points if you can guess what inspired this line.

Melissa: What’s something you’ve been reading or watching or playing that’s giving your heart air?

Dana: I’ve been watching the TV-show version of What We Do in the Shadows on FX, and it is my new favorite show. If you’ve never seen it (or the movie it’s based on), it’s a documentary-style show that follows four vampire roommates on Staten Island. It’s dark and hilarious, full of both gloom and joy. I love when artists are able to place these feelings side by side. Watching this show reminds me to be both fully committed to and confident in the worlds I create, no matter how strange they are.

Waxwing: What story from The Classroom do you think would make a good movie, and why? Who would play the lead? Supporting cast?

Dana: I think “The Boy Who Arrives in a Box” would make a great movie. In my dream world, I’d cast Frances McDormand as the lead, Timothée Chalamet as the angsty android-son, and Winston Duke as the concerned and good-natured husband.

Melissa: Will we ever collaborate again?

Dana: I hope we never retire from collaborating!

II. Dana Diehl Has Questions for Melissa Goodrich

Dana: What advice do you have for someone who wants to collaborate?

Melissa: First, find the right someone to work with. Find someone you admire, someone you trust, someone fun, someone you can be vulnerable with. Those feelings should be mutual. Then, trust them, admire them, be totally, happily vulnerable. Have fun! The second piece of advice I have is start your project together — come up with the ideas, the parameters for what you’re comfortable with — start small and work out the style that works best for you. For Dana and me, we gave each other full permission to alter, tinker, add, and delete. It was liberating!

Waxwing: How was Dana the right someone to collaborate with on the stories in The Classroom? What is an example of something cool she made happen in one of your stories as a result of the permission you give each other and yourselves?

Melissa: My God, what cool things didn’t Dana do! One of my favorites was her revisions in our time traveling substitute teacher story. I wrote the first draft of this piece before we started collaborating, and I wasn’t satisfied with it as a piece. When Dana got her hands on it, she didn’t just make our incompetent substitute narrator use his time machine for teaching, but for his personal qualms. She gave him a complicated home life with his husband, and the time machine became the vehicle (Literally! Figuratively!) to find himself.

Dana: If you could collaborate with any non-writer, who would it be?

Melissa: It would be amazing to collaborate with Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone, who designed Stardew Valley. Or with the talented team at Matt Makes Games, who designed Celeste. I would be delighted to be a part of the storytelling magic of video games.

Dana: Melissa, if your writing was a video game, what would it look like?

Melissa: Oh it would 100% be retro-cute, a little goofy, have good music, include puzzles and magic, and give you all the feels.

Waxwing: Why all this video game talk? What is it about them that has you thinking about collaborating with a game designer?

Melissa: Short answer — I love video games! I love wrestling with a challenging sequence, the problem-solving and planning nature, the music. And I love how games like Gris feel like poems, and how vivid the characters in The Last of Us are, or how bright and silly, how dark and grim, how quick or slow. And it’s a little bit of a fantasy to think about collaborating with a designer — and I would adore the chance.

Dana: Are there limits to what counts as collaboration? For example, is ekphrasis collaboration? Is erasure poetry collaboration?

Melissa: Definitely! In fact, it’s kind of hard not to collaborate. Don’t we learn about sentence structure and story arc from reading? Aren’t we influenced by music and movies and podcasts and the kid I saw just yesterday walking home from school wearing a unicorn mask and carrying a fake chainsaw in his hand? For myself, I define collaboration as the direct and intentional cooperation with another artist to create something new. For me, that includes ekphrasis and erasure. The other stuff – the unicorn boy, the riff on repeat in my headphones – is influence. Is a garden I get to walk through. Are burrs clinging to my socks. It’s the whole, huge world passing through me and is part of me, that I pass through and am part of too.

Dana: If you could be best friends with a character from our collection, who would it be?

Melissa: Ooh. This is a good question. I feel like the mother of our android boy and I could really confide in one another. I feel like when she returns from Ireland I would hug her, hard.

Dana: Which of the stories in The Classroom was hardest for you to write? Which was the easiest?

Melissa: The hardest? Probably our time-traveling substitute. It was a story I first drafted before we began collaborating, and actually before my first week of teaching fourth grade (an anxiety-riddled draft, a draft of the worst what-ifs). That meant it was a little harder to crack apart and rework together. But I have to say, it’s a thousand times better now (thanks, Dana!). The easiest? The girl-who-turned-to-rabbits, one of those stories that came out all at once in a first draft. It is also a deeply personal story for me, since my rabbits-girl is the closest autobiographical character I’ve created, which feels risky as a fiction writer, because it’s scary to say, This is me. This is what it feels like.

Waxwing: What makes an autobiographical character so scary and how do you navigate that scariness? What was it like placing the girl who turned to rabbits in the hands of another writer? What was the risk and what was the gain?

Melissa: Autobiographical characters are scary because … I’m not comfortable writing nonfiction. I like the gauze, the fogginess of having permission to tell as much or as little truth as I want to. Although, if I’m being honest, I’ll say fiction writing feels like the most natural way to explore what’s true to me. But I navigate that scariness with metaphor, with fabulism — with sentences which are my favorite tools.

When I gave Dana my girl-who-turned-to-rabbits, she extended the world into one that included a boy who turned to toads, and a girl who turned to ants. In fact, Kelly Magee shared these pieces with her class, and a few of her students expanded the world further to include girls who turned to boxelders and snakes and such. It was actually really wonderful — it felt authentic to write and felt validating that the world only grew and grew — outside of my control.

Waxwing: What story from The Classroom showed you something new about writing through your collaboration? Something about writing or fiction, and/or about the writing process.

Melissa: I learned more about how stories can shape-shift, particularly when you allow yourself, or your collaborator, to really go for it — to take a long piece and slice it down to three pages. To add a character, take a character overseas, jump ahead ten years, and end in the dark with a body under the bed. It made me feel like I had permission to try riskier things — I learned a collaborator is a little like a parachute, making sure the other never crashes to the ground.

Dana: Who the heck is Melissa?

Melissa: Um … a weird sweetheart? A sweet weirdheart? A girl who turns to rabbits?

Dana: Melissa and Dana are like _____ and ______.

Melissa: This question is hard! Like wind and open windows. Like lakes and toads at the bottom. Like mountaintops and mountain goats. Like heavy anvil heartbeats and deep, deliberate breathing.

Dana: List three items that appear in one of your works-in-progress.

Melissa: Lava floors. A realtor. An avalanche.

Waxwing: What story from this book do you think would make a good movie, and why? Who would play the lead? Supporting cast?

Melissa: I think “The Classroom Beneath the Classroom” would be something Netflix would recommend you watch if you liked Stranger Things. I feel like we wrote the creepy pilot to at least a four-season show.

Dana: If you had to pick a song that captures who you are as a writer right now, what would it be?

Melissa: Is it cheating a little to say I’m two songs back-to-back? I’m two songs back to back: “Little Goth” and “Reach for the Summit,” by Lena Raine, from the Celeste soundtrack. Slow-to-fast, soft-to-wild, these are my modes.

Waxwing: Slow-to-fast, soft-to-wild — how does this translate into writing, and into collaborating with Dana?

Melissa: Part of Dana’s influence was anticipating her as an audience. As the audience. I was so eager to write something that would amaze or excite her — I wanted to create dynamics that would intrigue her and give her something to enjoy — and something to work with. Because that’s what I felt when I received her pieces — I was both reading and enjoying and looking for ways to expand or continue or process the energy I was receiving from her.

Dana: Will we ever collaborate again?

Melissa: Oh, 1000%. Let’s write a novel next.


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