Monday, October 30, 2017

My First Time: Melissa Fraterrigo

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Melissa Fraterrigo, author of the novel Glory Days, now out from the University of Nebraska Press. Melissa also wrote the short story collection The Longest Pregnancy. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in more than forty literary journals and anthologies from Shenandoah and The Massachusetts Review to storySouth, Notre Dame Review, and Prairie Schooner. She has been a finalist for awards from Glimmer Train on multiple occasions, twice nominated for Pushcart Awards, and was the winner of the Sam Adams/Zoetrope: All Story Short Fiction Contest. She is founder and executive director of the Lafayette Writers Studio, in Lafayette, Indiana, where she also teaches classes on the art and craft of writing. To learn more visit

The First Time I Read to My Dad

I was nervous the first time my dad came to a reading. It was for my first book, the short story collection, The Longest Pregnancy. The reading was held in my hometown library, in one of the meeting rooms with glass doors that I used to walk past on my way to the children’s section with its bright tables and mini stage and bathroom with a toilet that fit my child-sized bum perfectly.

My father brought me to the library most weeks when I was a child. We would enter the building together and he’d walk me to the children’s section, then send me off while he went upstairs to check out thick tomes with images of WWII bombers involved in firefights or a Civil War battlefield, with the close-up of two soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. Guns and flack jackets. Hardtack and government-issued cigarettes. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force.

Despite never serving his country, my dad has a great reverence for this sort of factual writing, as showcased by the books he selected. I, on the other hand, loved the imaginary world of fiction. Stories took me away from our small suburban town with its bland brick bungalows and staid expectations. At home, I had two choices: I could be a nurse like my mom, or a teacher. But inside the pages of a book, I could be a girl on the frontier or own a talking poodle with a scheme for getting rich.

My dad and I both loved books yet had vastly different tastes.

Alas, reading fiction was a fine past time for an eight-year-old, but it was not something to study in college and certainly not something to focus on during graduate school. So while I gave in to my father and earned the steady teaching degree he advised, the gnawing urge to write never left me and I decided to pursue an MFA in creative writing at Bowing Green State University.

“Fiction is not real,” my dad told me, the day before I left for Bowling Green, Ohio, where I would begin my graduate studies. Fortunately, by then, I had all but stopped listening to him.

So here we were back at the Lansing Public Library nearly a decade after I began graduate school, celebrating the release of my first book of short stories. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. My dad sat beside my mother in the front row. My nerves were frayed. One of my preschool teachers held her hands in her lap and next to her was the neighbor whose kids I used to babysit. One of the librarians introduced me and the reading started off like any other. I began to read “Scar Serum,” a story about a portly girl who becomes enamored with her neighbor, an inventor. Mr. Carpone’s latest invention is a serum that remedies wounds in an instant and in order to test the serum, Mr. Carpone must remove some of the protagonist’s clothes and place her in exceedingly challenging positions.

Now, nothing energizes me more than reading my work and experiencing the immediacy of the audience; only this time, as I read, I felt like I stood inside a sauna rather than the library. Sweat trickled down my armpits and along the backs of my thighs. I felt it pooling in the crevices behind my knees and I began to drift off. I felt otherworldly. I arrived at the place in the story where the protagonist is at her most vulnerable. And so was I, as I read the line “. . . her underpants were white and generous.”

Words still slid from my mouth, but I could not rid myself of the thought that my dad was sitting a few feet away, legs and arms crossed, while I rambled on about a character’s undergarments.

I tried not to look at him or my mom. I reminded myself to stay calm. I was almost finished. I could do this. But these entreaties were not enough. Soon my vision narrowed and grew dotty and someone brought me a chair—or did I simply walk into the audience and sit down? I do remember taking a seat and helping myself to a tissue from the little plastic packet my mother extended to me. I dabbed my face. Breathed. After a few moments, I again stood and finished reading the story and then as my preschool teacher and neighbor and other members of the audience applauded, I glanced at my dad. His grin was wide and unmistakable, the warmth of it so bright that I immediately matched it with my own. And as I stood there dopey faced with glee, I looked away. Later he hugged me and told me he was proud of me. He didn’t need to say it. I knew how he felt, but I thanked him regardless.

I no longer think I have as much to prove to my dad. He knows that I’ve spent much of my professional life writing and teaching others about the craft, and while I know what I create will never be as vivid to him as a battlefield, I’d like to think he respects my work. Regardless, readings can still be a little nerve-wracking for me and with the release of my new novel I don’t want to take any chances. The truth is I need to find a way a nice way to encourage my dad to stay home.