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D.C. is waking up after a long pandemic year, cautiously but surely, and local writers are eager to connect—both with each other and with their readers, who they’ve often struggled to reach during such an isolating time.
Melissa Scholes Young, a D.C. area author and associate professor in literature at American University, has found herself facing these challenges at both ends of the COVID wave. On May 1, 2020, her Furious Gravity anthology was published—the most recent book in a series of anthologies by D.C. women writers that she edits and publishes. The timing was rough, but Young adapted and led the book tour into the virtual world, planning events everywhere Zoom allowed, from Politics and Prose to the Writer’s Center and beyond.
Now Young is preparing for another release: Her second novel, The Hive, came out on June 8, creating a buzz. It’s already been optioned by Sony Entertainment. Like in her first novel, Flood, Young revisits rural, working-class Missouri in her new book. “I’ve always written about my working-class roots and feminism in rural communities,” Young says. And she similarly explores identity, family, and the idea of home—this time through the lives and voices of five women grappling with the loss of the complicated, sometimes problematic patriarch of their family, along with their own evolving goals and dreams.
Never one to lecture (outside of her university classroom), Young invites us into these women’s lives with the warmth of a true storyteller. Each character’s personality shines, from fierce prepper Grace, who reels from the loss of her husband, to the various daughters, all of whom loved their dad deeply even as they fought against traditional expectations within the family and community.
The title is a fitting metaphor, combining the family-run pest control company and “the hive” of the Fehler ladies, and the book is a fun, fast-paced read. Young is a masterful writer who keeps us hooked, delicately balancing tough dilemmas with humor and lighter family moments.
But getting The Hive to its launch date wasn’t easy. Before the pandemic, Young had hoped that Flood’s success would pave the way for this new novel. Her editor at Hachette Books was gone by early spring of 2020, when she and her agent sent the The Hive out on submission, and publishing houses were nervous about the coming year. She knew she wanted to work with a team that focused on the new places that publishing could go. She found that opportunity with Keylight Books, a new imprint of the independent Turner Publishing Company.
Big houses were pulling back contracts, cutting publicity budgets, and delaying publication dates. But Keylight seemed different to Young. She liked how they were pivoting to reach readers and thinking creatively about marketing.
“My experience with Keylight Books at Turner has been more boutique and specialized than my first novel with Center Street at Hachette,” Young says. “I’ve felt autonomous as an author at Keylight. Every decision we’ve made from the art, cover design, editing, and publicity campaign has been cooperative.”
One interesting shift has been a new approach to getting the word out. With The Hive, Young has put out video content and an audio advance reader copy for reviewers and booksellers. ARCs help promote early sales via those reviews and bookstore advertising. Presale figures mean everything to publishers and help them determine how much time and money they’ll continue to spend on that book as it launches. It’s been difficult to get physical review copies out to people during COVID, and many bookstores are only now beginning to open to browsing customers, so digital tools have been a way that Young’s team could keep promoting the book.
“We need to meet readers where they are,” she says. “The Hive audiobook, podcasts, craft workshops, and a postcard preorder campaign at thehivenovel.com have been essential.”
The new directions Young has taken are paying off, despite the disruptions of the pandemic. The Hive was picked up by Sony Entertainment immediately after she signed the contract to publish with Turner—Keylight specifically focuses on publishing books that have the potential for screen adaptation—and it’s now being shopped as both a series and a film.
Readers (and writers) often wonder about the mysterious page-to-screen process, which Young discusses in a recent article for Literary Hub: “When a story is authentic on the page, it translates well to screen. I write about working-class populations, which often include a conversation about the aestheticization of poverty.” That conversation with film and television professionals is ongoing.
“Poverty, for example, is sometimes portrayed in an unrealistic, stereotypical way to sanitize it for viewers with less experience with class struggle. I’m interested in truth rather than digestibility,” she says.
And while many writers dream of their book getting optioned for the screen, Young doesn’t write her novels with the screen in mind.
“I’ve never started a writing project thinking about the screen. I’m a storyteller and a novelist, so I do my work on the page,” Young says. Despite this, her books practically demand to be made into visual form. She says she has loved working with the screenwriters, who also have Midwestern and/or rural backgrounds.
As a new challenge, Young is also writing a screenplay adaptation for Flood herself, hoping to see it join The Hive in visual form.
As her fans impatiently wait for her stories, both on screen and off, she’s also hard at work planning her summer book tour. Amy Freeman is the development director at the Writer’s Center, as well as a writer herself, and she’s excited to see and hear Young read from The Hive in person.
“I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for in-person readings! I’ve seen Melissa read on Zoom, and it’s always great, but I want to watch her sign books, including my copy, to have those little moments of warmth we just don’t get on Zoom,” she says.
Young and other local writers continue to make the most of primarily virtual book tours; on June 8, she spoke to an online crowd via Politics and Prose. Bookstores schedule authors for readings and panels well in advance, and they’re still facing the unknown with in-person gatherings. So most of The Hive’s summer PR events will continue to be online, and even if in-person events resume in the fall, Young hopes to keep those virtual options open in order to stay accessible to her readers. She’s also been able to attend more events than usual because there’s no travel involved, which is a perk.
Leslie Pietrzyk is another established area author whose new book is facing a circuitous path to its readers. Her new short story collection, Admit This to No One, comes out in October, and like Young, Pietrzyk appreciates what virtual events offer both writers and readers.
“While I’m definitely looking forward to live book events, I can’t deny that my literary world definitely widened with Zoom readings and workshops,” she says. “Everywhere we turn lately, there’s a new way of doing things, and I expect that book events are also evolving. Right now, I don’t think anyone can predict exactly how.”
Whether the venue is virtual or brick-and-mortar, it seems that readers will show up.
“Fostering and helping the literary community is so important and Melissa tries to do so much to support writers,” says Morgan Bluma, a student of Young’s at AU. “Her work motivates, inspires, and improves my own work.”