In a conversation about her writing career, Melanie McGee Bianchi sees a distinct line between her work as a journalist and a fiction writer. Until recently, his imagination took precedence over the back seat.
“I’ve always felt a bit harassed to make a living and even at this age I’ve never had the space or the time to write…and I’m going to overwhelm myself if I think I have to support an entire novel,” says Bianchi. “And once you work for months, you get sick of these people in your story. I can’t even imagine sustaining an entire novel… but (the short story form) feels less overwhelming.
Bianchi makes a living editing three regional lifestyle magazines in western North Carolina. She recently published her first collection of short stories, titled “The Ballad of Cherrystoke”. She reads “The Ballad of Cherrystoke” on August 17 at Malaprop’s Books in Asheville and gives a talk about the book at the Brandy Bar in Hendersonville on September 14.
Bianchi said his experiences in Asheville in the 1990s inspired some of the stories.
“I have a lot of small digs with newcomers there. In the trailer for my book it says “Oh, that’s how Asheville was”, but that’s not why I wrote it or anything”, a- “But I wanted people to kind of know what it was like when things were more laid back and you could rent a cheap cabin in the woods and just kind of scratch, or capture the beauty of a swimming hole or what Lexington Ave. was like back then.
Bianchi grew up with a twin sister just south of Lake Ontario in western New York. She remembers writing from the age of 8 and publishing her first poem at 14.
“My sister and I were considered unsuitable for any kind of kindergarten. We were very strange little children and we only talked to each other. Even before kindergarten, we were considered slow in everyday speech, just because we didn’t speak,” she recalls. “But once we got into kindergarten, first grade, we were reading at such an advanced level that they created a special reading group just for us. They realized we were verbally advanced. That was our first goal, there was something else going on there.
Bianchi moved to western North Carolina 30 years ago without a big plan.
“I searched the library for places you could go to work in the summer,” she said. “I didn’t have a car. I didn’t know how to drive yet. I was very sheltered for 21 years. So you could work in national parks, and Pisgah Inn was the closest place I could find someone to drive me for the summer.
Shortly after moving to this area, Bianchi wrote his first collection of stories on a manual typewriter. Sassy Magazine gave Bianchi her first published story. But needing to earn a living, she reported on the arts for the Mountain Express and, within a year, became the paper’s arts editor.
“I was thrown in over my head pretty much overnight, but I pulled it off,” she said.
Bianchi settled into journalism, and she called raising her son, who is now 15, the best years of his life. His writing of fiction was a natural victim of his limited time.
“I think it took me a lot longer to find the voice of my short story than it would suggest from the time I’ve been in editing,” she said. “I still get countless subscriptions for countless magazines that rejected me, so I started reading more, writing more, and finding my voice more as I went. And I also made a point of reading more contemporary fiction to see what I didn’t like.
Bianchi said she relied more on Southern writers such as David Sedaris and Flannery O’Connor than writing from Appalachia. She said she was done writing her collection of stories during the pandemic, fueled by sustained adrenaline. Her stories read like conversational anecdotes passed over the garden hearth.
“I remember the minute a real voice came to me – it was like my voice – and it was writing ‘Antique Power Association’. It’s the shortest story in the book, it’s the last story,” she said. “It started out as an essay because it was actually based on a real event. But I changed all the names and made a new one.
With her paperback now in stores, Bianchi said she put a quick end to her publisher’s questions about a follow-up collection. So, for now, Bianchi is content to edit the work of other writers on the pages of three of the brightest magazines in our region.
“I had an energy during those years writing this that I don’t have now. I’m not a spring hen anymore,” she said. “To write another book, something would have to go, like a day job.”