Interview: M Dressler
Mylene Dressler’s Book Pipeline winning novel, The Last to See Me, has seen an array of critical acclaim since its publication in 2017. The unique literary horror effectively reimagines the genre, and its cinematic hallmarks thoroughly impressed Book Pipeline’s execs, who instantly saw its appeal as a film. Both a college professor and a writer, Mylene’s sophisticated-yet-accessible narrative style speaks volumes about her approach to storytelling.
You’ve been writing fiction for years, and there’s no better evidence of such seasoned experience than The Last to See Me. One of the most immersive books we’ve read, and a story that screams cinematic. But was this the novel that finally “clicked,” in a sense? Both critically and personally?
It was, and my readers and fans, and especially new readers, seem to feel the same “click” as I do. As soon as I started writing the book, I marveled that I’d never tried a literary ghost story before. The genre brings together all the elements of writing I love and in my work love to luxuriate in: rich setting, the haunting music I want in a novel’s language, characters that literally and figuratively linger on, psychological puzzles, a page-turning tension. Up until now, I’ve written realist fiction, which I still love, but the joy of a good ghost story is that you get all the realistic elements—human emotion, psychology, history, the tactile qualities of the real world—and then, layered on to them, the possibilities of the imagined, the unseen, the wild. The Last To See Me let me use every muscle in my writer’s hand, and push the work to the limit. I felt so—get this—alive, writing the book.
Did you always see it as a potential film? What were some of the books or movies that steered you toward this genre?
I tend to think cinematically as well as novelistically when I’m writing, partly because I adore both books and films, partly because I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about how the art form of the novel and the art form of film are intertwined, historically and structurally speaking, and partly because I’m a visual thinker, as well as a writer who thinks in terms of scenes. But this book, from the moment Emma Rose Finnis showed up, struck me as something different from my others. Like the ghost she is, she seemed on the page to be throwing off shackles, moving around and commanding a stage, demanding to be seen. So I paid attention to that, and tried to honor it, and gave her the best sets and direction and dialogue and cast that I could. And absolutely, I drew for inspiration on some great sources, especially the film, The Others, and Shirley Jackson’s book, The Haunting of Hill House (this was before the series came out). They had the combination of realistic psychology and visual chills I wanted.
New novelists learn one thing sooner or later: finding their voice takes time. And let’s be honest—sometimes it takes years. Perhaps decades. Can that process be accelerated? How have you grown as a writer, and what steps were crucial to your development?
I think I got lucky and found my voice fairly early on. It probably helped that I had an entire career as a professional ballet dancer before I turned to writing novels. The voice in my head was the same one as in my body: musical, lyrical, strong, with a particular kind of accent and rhythm. I didn’t have to go hunting for a voice. It was just there. Arriving at your voice is different for everyone, and the only thing, I believe, that can accelerate it is lots of and lots of writing and paying attention to what feels forced or unnatural versus what feels like it’s humming inside your own chest. And then, you start playing with that tone.
My earliest work, mostly short stories, when I look back at them, are very lyrical and pretty—and there’s only so much you can do with lyrical and pretty. You need mud and knives and lightning bolts, too. So you learn to deepen the voice, not jettison things, but add in. Crucial to that process, for me, in addition to spending a whole lot of time reading and studying literature, has been paying attention to when I’m just repeating myself, going for the easy, hitting the same notes because they’re safe and they worked before. Every time I’ve caught myself doing that, or being tempted to do that, I’ve pushed myself to take my voice and try to do something new with it—preferably something I don’t know how to do and preferably something that scares me. As long as I keep doing that, I know I’ll go on growing as an artist.
You’re a professor, and thus acclimated to a more formal environment of education. But if you’re asked advice from someone who’s never written a word of fiction before and harbors a wholehearted desire to learn, where do you recommend they start? With a surplus of advice (good and bad and indifferent) available now, how does one know if a college or academic setting is right for them?
I say this to everybody, everybody, everybody, inside of academe and out—there is no one right way to become a writer. You’re absolutely right that there is a surplus of advice out there, some of it good, some of it not so good. The only way to steer through it all is to consider what kind of person you are and what you need around you to help you write and learn about writing. Are you an avid and wide and curious reader, or do you need encouragement and help finding books and ideas and styles of writing? Are you good at setting deadlines, or do you need help with that? Do you like being around a community of people all pushing toward the same thing, or do you like to row alone? You’re likely going to need knowledgeable feedback on your work—do you have a way of getting that?
When I started out, the only thing I knew about was ballet and the books I’d read in high school. I knew that wasn’t anywhere near enough; I needed a full-on education to have a solid sense of what I was doing and to catch up to my writing peers. So I went the academic route, and I highly recommend it if the writer can afford it and it offers you what you need. But there are also writing workshops all over the country you can attend, some of them free. There are books on writing. There are writing clubs and groups you can join in nearly every city, as well as online. What I tend to say to emerging writers is: whatever you do, the number one thing you have to do is take reading and writing seriously. This job looks easy. It isn’t. It’s a craft. It’s an intense practice. It takes will and patience and a tenacity beyond what you imagine now. Find the support you need. Find the teachers you need. And keep this in mind: teachers are great because they save you time, by which I mean they can help you can get you to where you want to go faster than you trying to each yourself everything. But also be aware that, on some level, every writer—even one like me, with a PhD—is self-taught. The work is heavily internal, personal, and unique to you, even if you are writing in a recognizable genre (like a ghost story). Do whatever you can in support of that internal work and discovery.
What struck us with Last is how expertly you weaved in so many layers. On the surface, it’s a fun ghost story. A straight drama/horror. But underneath the surface, one could raise discussions on mortality, of the philosophy behind life and death, even modes of feminism and empowerment between two distinct eras. . . . Did you consciously integrate all these commentaries? Or did they emerge organically from the structure and plot you imagined?
Organically. Like a lot of writers, I can’t sit down and say to myself, “I shall now write a ghost story that explores mortality and notions of empowerment in two distinct eras . . .” It would be a total buzz-kill, and the writing would very likely be awful. I ended up writing about a lot of things that matter to me, as I usually do and as most writers do, because stories tend to reflect your values and the way you see the world. But as I’m writing, my main concern is, honestly, just to write one good sentence that will keep the reader reading. . . and then another one, and another one. Good sentences, in the aggregate, tend to go to good and interesting places. It also helped, in Last, that my narrator is smart, even wise (though not completely so), and very observant—haunting is nothing if not watching, right?—so the sentences she is thinking and speaking in tend to lead to interesting places. The plot helped, too. The entire engine of the story is that you’re a ghost and someone wants to erase you and hey, in order to survive, all you have to do is erase yourself, stay invisible—but you are sick and tired of being invisible in two eras, and now you’re going to fight back, and claim what’s yours. That sentence already has so many layers in it, so much possibility, both for action and for underlying meaning.
What I love about this book is you can totally enjoy it as a ride—a good, spooky ghost story. But if you want more, it’s there for you, on the other side.
It doesn’t seem you’re quite finished exploring Last, as you’re writing a sequel. Which says a lot about the book’s success, but also about you as the author—there must be a deeper-rooted investment into the narrative, yes? What do you feel was left unresolved?
Without giving too much away, the ending is deliberately provocative, because one thing I wanted to do in this book was undo all the standard tropes and endings of the traditional ghost story. Once I’d done that, I realized I’d left myself room to keep going, exploring this alternate universe I’ve created which looks just like ours but in which ghosts are simultaneously very real and completely unwelcome. Why is that? Why do we love stories about ghosts getting “put down” (as Last describes it), conquered, vanquished, put away, if we’re all going to end up dead one day? Wouldn’t you want to go on, if you could? All this ghost-bashing. . . what’s in it for the living? Themes of power and control and resistance fascinate me.
And then there’s this: I’ve never tried to write a sequel before. As I’ve said, I love doing things I don’t know how to do, and that it would thrill and scare me to try. Just because a story or a theme has more in it to explore doesn’t mean there’s one obvious way to write the next book, or obvious place to take characters, or obvious plot or action, or one thing the book is definitely going to be about. So I’m getting a huge kick out of writing the sequel, because I get to discover and explore material only hinted at in the first book, while coming up with a whole slew of surprising things I had no idea would arrive until they did. One sentence at a time, of course. It’s marvelous.
M Dressler is the nom de plume of novelist, essayist, and professor Mylene Dressler. Following a successful career as a professional ballet dancer, she earned her PhD at Rice University, where she wrote and finished her first novel, The Medusa Tree, about a young dancer struggling against war and the myths of beauty and power entangling her family. Praised for this debut work as “a natural born storyteller” (Library Journal), she followed it with her “splendid” (The New York Times) second novel, The Deadwood Beetle,the story of an aging entomologist haunted by his harrowing, war-time past. Her stories often explore characters battling their ghosts, including her comic third novel, The Floodmakers (“a hilariously poisonous, devilish little tale” – Booklist), about a playwright who must decide whether to live or die among his obsessive family.
In her most recent book, the genre-bending The Last To See Me,she chose to reinvent the classic ghost story, creating “a seamless, gothic tale with a modern twist” (Publishers Weekly) praised as a “bewitching, gorgeous mystery” by Kirkus Reviews and as “chilling” and “unforgettable” by Booklist. She is currently at work on her fifth novel, another genre-bending gothic. In addition, her short stories and essays can be read in Literary Hub, the Kenyon Review, Creative Nonfiction, Readers Digest, The Massachusetts Review, and The Washington Post, among others.
She lives and writes in North Carolina, and in the canyon country of southern Utah.