Sunday, April 1, 2012

I Need to MakePromises: A Novella and Stories by Melissa Brown Levine: Interview & Excerpt

 Fiction / Womens Fiction

I Need to Make Promises: a Novella and Stories is a collection of fiction writing about women overcoming childhood trauma and the tragic relationships of their adult lives to become their true selves.

The book opens with four short stories. In "The Break Up," Mena faces the collapse of an intimate relationship due to jealousy and on-going conflict. Meghan, the woman-child in "The Good Day," turns once again to her parents to save her from financial ruin. But this time she is held accountable for her poor choices and challenged to change.

"I Belong to Me" is the story of Marigold, a wife and mother of three who takes off on her own the day before New Year's Day for solitude and soul searching. In between manic calls from her husband, Marigold uses her time alone to wrestle with old pain and to re-gain possession of herself. In "You Were Supposed to Love Me," Andy - a young successful, yet troubled artist--is led out of one of a series of bad relationships by her therapist, Davis, who has his own reasons for wanting to terminate their professional relationship as quickly as possible.

The novella, "I Need to Make Promises," is the story of three times divorced Viva who has decided that change is the only way she can live her best life. Viva finds the courage to confront long held fears of being alone. She faces conflicts in her relationships with her mother and all three of her husbands. And she finally allows herself to surrender to the love she has long carried for the man who has been a constant in her volatile life.

“When did you start letting Janella dress you?”
Viva dropped the menu on the table and finally looked deep into Reginald’s smiling eyes.
“I don’t. I didn’t…the three of them broke into my house… they forced me into the shower… and into this dress and these shoes that I would never pick for myself.”
Reginald laughed. Viva had gone quickly from shy and uncomfortable to bubbling over with the drama that had placed her there, wrapped in a sexy package, just for him.
“Don’t laugh, Reggie. They drive me crazy.”
“You love them, and you know they love you.” Reginald took one of Viva’s hands and held it in both of his. “Lori was the spokesman for the group. She said you were really bad off, and they were so worried because you hadn’t called me.  It’s already been a year since you kicked H-3 to the curb. They all thought I could help pull you back into the world. I was promised they could get you here. I just had to show up and be—how’d she put it?—my amazing self. She was very convincing.  Are you amazed by me, Viva?”
Indeed she was. The warmth from his hands eased up her arm and lit a soft, non-anxiety causing flame inside her chest that spread quickly throughout her body. Viva remembered Reginald’s touch in a way that she never could recall the caress of each of her husbands. Within a month of ending her last marriage, Viva couldn’t recall what it felt like when her husband kissed the backs of her hands. It was one of his ways that she had loved; it was something Viva thought she would miss terribly after the end came. But the feeling was lost to her.
“Haven’t I always been?”
“I don’t know. You haven’t called me. Does that mean you’ve divorced me, too?”
He said it with a smile, but Viva perceived a bite in Reginald’s words. This was the dance they always swayed to after her break ups. Viva never knew what to say in response to Reginald’s subtle, but still hurtful swipes. Her girlfriends would say she was being silly, that he was simply being funny. Viva had always been hyper-sensitive to tone, tempo, and cadence in a way that most people were not. She could identify happiness, disappointment, love, anger, lust, and hurt that manifested in whispers around the edges of words, in the twitch of the corners of mouths, and the dead space in eyes that pretended to smile.
“I’m trying to do things differently this time, Reggie. Making the same mistakes has gotten really old and I just feel like I need to find a new way. So…”
“So, you put me down like the others?” Reginald released Viva’s hand and folded both of his hands in front of him on the table. “What exactly did this guy do to you, Viva?”
She didn’t know why he always had to know the story. Janella had said in the past that he needed to make sure he was better than the men Viva married. “That way he can work on his game in between divorces and be ready to knock you off your feet that one good time so he can have you forever and you will stop taking him through all this foolishness.”  
Viva took a deep breath and made solid eye contact with Reginald.
“The answer to your first question is no. You’ve always been a part of my life, Reggie, and you always will be. You’re my best friend,” Viva placed her hands on top of Reginald’s then gave him a sly smile, “with benefits.” They shared a comfortable laugh. It thinned the heaviness in the air that had settled between them.
“And as far as your second question…it wasn’t him. It was me. Ernest did everything right. But I married him for the wrong reasons. I wasn’t good to him.”
“I can’t believe that, Viva. You’ve invested so much into finding the right man. And you seemed really happy at the wedding.”
Viva stared at Reginald for a long time trying to find sarcasm in his words that was not there. She knew he was sincere. Viva lowered her eyes and steadied herself to fight with the shame that had been her constant companion since forever.
“Didn’t I seem happy at each of my weddings, Reggie? I don’t have problems with beginnings, just the middles.”
“And the endings.”
“No, by the time I get to the end all I can see is my freedom. So, endings are actually great.” Viva released a sigh in response to the jab shame slammed into her ribcage. It was one of those things she had vowed to work on: letting go of the embarrassment that she felt about her life. Viva had acknowledged one night while she was walking the rooms of her house with insomnia, her nightly visitor, that harboring regret and shame had done nothing to alter her life in the direction that would make her into who she was supposed to be. “At the end of each of my marriages, I had been running in place for so long that divorce was like a savior. Only problem is that I would get lonely for marriage again almost as soon as I stepped out of one.
“Ernest loved me, Reggie. He loved me from day one and he still does. He didn’t want the divorce. And to be honest, I didn’t love him the way he loved me. Not from the start of it, and certainly not in the end,” Viva took a long drink from the glass of chardonnay the waiter had quietly placed in front of her. At some point while she had pretended to study the menu, Reginald had agreed to a bread basket and placed orders for shrimp scampi for Viva and an omelet with Italian sausage and onions for himself. “I married Ernest because I felt I was owed.”
Reginald sat down his own glass and stared at Viva. Their relationship had survived over two decades from their first meeting when she was a freshman at Clark College and Reginald was a law student at Emory University, through his stellar legal career, and Viva’s revolving vocations and three marriages. He had waited for her. Discarded what could have been enduring relationships with wonderful women, hunkered down and readied himself for when, finally, Viva would come to him. Reginald had never forced himself on Viva, just waited for her to call. And he had always let her go when she became infatuated with the latest physical manifestation of her fantasies. He sat through the agony of three weddings each more elaborate and impossible to live up to than the one before.
“You felt owed?” Reginald had held his emotions tight for so many years, he went easily into that mode whenever Viva was before him; which, as he recalled in that moment, was only when she was single or so distraught that she broke her own rule and called him while she was married.
Beating shame back became harder when stupidity pushed against it from behind. This was why Viva needed her time alone. She was trying to sort through all of the crap accumulated over the last twenty years. The point of being alone was to purge, and because Viva had only been inspired to do so three months ago, she wasn’t empty or cleansed or even a little dizzy from the process of regurgitating her negative thoughts. She wanted to answer Reginald’s question by running out of the restaurant. Instead, she emptied her glass, took a deep breath then exhaled.
“After Tommy, I felt like I had given so much of myself away for nothing. I never got back even a small amount of what I gave him. Ernest loved me. He wanted me, which was a big change from Tommy who only wanted what he could get out of me, and I had given him all of me by the time I realized what was happening.”
“So, you gave and he took, and poor Ernest paid for the whole mess?”
“By the time Ernest came around with his compassion, open heart and generosity—all of the things I’ve always wanted in a man—I was only after what I could get out of him. Money. Attention. Security. I wanted a baby, but that didn’t happen.”
Reginald held back the words he was warming up to throw at Viva, a lecture on selfishness and gold-digging. She didn’t know he knew about her miscarriages. He remained silent out of respect and to keep his contact secret.
“So, they told you? Lori?” The break in eye contact and the sudden interest in his still very full wine glass announced the betrayal. That was what Viva would call it very loudly and dramatically when she confronted her friend after she survived what was becoming a heavy and difficult reunion.

Tell us about your current release.

I Need to Make Promises is a collection of short stories and a novella. Each of the stories features a woman trying to overcome some type of personal hardship. Viva is the lead character in the title piece. She has been married and divorced three times, and for the first time in her adult life, she is attempting to live her life without a man. Viva does the hard work of confronting her short comings as she strives to becoming a better person. This involves looking at her relationships with her parents, with men and with her friends.

Confrontation is the theme that runs throughout the stories. One woman admits to the jealousy she feels towards her developing teenage daughter.  Another woman uses therapy to learn how to stand up to the men in her life who have hurt her, including her father. Not every character gets the lessons that the various events in their lives bring to their doorsteps, but each woman is forced to at least acknowledge the problems in their behaviors and decision making.

The title of my next book (which will be released in early May) is Small. It is the story of nineteen-year-old Ansar and his dysfunctional family. Ansar’s parents fight constantly, which leads to unresolved tension in the home. To cope, Ansar cuts himself. His parents are aware of this behavior, but it quickly becomes apparent that both of Ansar’s parents need their son to be “sick” for their own reasons. This is a story of generational abuse that ends in a revelation for one of the parents.

Who is your favorite author?

J. California Cooper is my favorite author. Her writing is simple on the surface, but underneath, Cooper digs deep into matters of love, pain and disappointment. She focuses on the lives of women, their relationships with their men and their children. The women in Cooper’s books discover who they are as individuals by absorbing the lessons of their environments and the people who make their way into their lives. One of my favorite lines in Cooper’s book, Some People, Some Other Place, is “You have to make the decisions that will decide and control your life.” It is symbolic of the life lessons that are abundant in all of Cooper’s writings.

What is the hardest part of writing your books?

Getting started with the actual writing is the most difficult part of creating a book. I love conducting research and coming up with plot scenes. I can have the idea for a book running through my head for years, but when the time comes to sit at my desk, (or on the couch with my laptop) there is always a lot of fear that comes with facing that blank screen. The fear stems from my doubts of being able to recreate what is in my head on paper. Fortunately, I’ve learned that once I start writing, the fear dissipates quickly and I easily get lost in the process (which is sometimes joyful and often painful) of telling the story.

How do you develop your plots and your characters? Do you use any set formula?

My stories generally begin with a topic I want to write about, such as domestic violence, mental illness, or dysfunctional relationships. I spend a lot of time thinking about a story before I write anything down. By the time I start outlining the story, I will have the general idea for the plot, the name and image of the lead character.

I have discovered that I need a visual component when developing a story. So, I have taken to finding images that represent the characters in my stories. Once I have a solid storyline, I conduct research on the prominent topics in the story. I love the research part of writing because there is so much information available on any topic one can imagine, thanks to the Internet. I generally have to make myself stop researching so I can get down to the business of writing the book.

What are you passionate about these days?

The politics surrounding the new birth control requirements established by the Obama Administration’s healthcare bill has my full attention lately. Access to healthcare for women is significant not only to individual women, but to their families, as well. Women are the anchors of most families and should have access to services and medications that allow them to make informed decisions about their health and the number of children they want to give birth to.

What are the most important attributes for remaining sane as a writer?

Patience. Determination. Focus. Courage.

Do you have a Website or Blog?
Yes. My website address is I maintain a weekly blog on the site. I have also posted short stories and examples of my non-fiction writing on the site that are available as free downloads.

Melissa Brown Levine has published novels, contributed to magazines, and reviewed books for several years. Levine's primary writing focus is women's fiction. She explores the lives of women by creating dynamic characters that are open, vulnerable, and eager to grow.

As an essayist, Levine writes personal accounts of her own life experiences; experiences that have the potential to educate other women. Her work reveals the pain she has endured in many of her relationships, the joys and frustrations of motherhood, and the growth she has experienced as a woman through struggle, hard work and faith.

Learn more about Melissa Brown Levine at

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