2013 was a heck of a year with a lot of changes. I actually turned my back on writing, opting for a return to the technical services field. That year taught me a lesson I already knew: fixing computers is much more fun as a hobby than it is as a job. After some soul searching, I’m back to living by my motto, which is also the subtitle to this blog.
It feels good to embrace the writing life again. I’ve dusted off my style guides and reference books, reconnected with a few people. I even got TESOL certified and have started the journey to teaching others how to use this language that I love.
Part of the process has been digging through the old portfolio binders looking for reminders of success. Going back all the way to the spring of 1996, I came across this story that was published in The Coast in Halifax:
On the surface, small-town life is simple. The neighbourhood has changed very little in decades, high school sweethearts are now married and the general store up the street is still run by the same ageless old man. To city folk, the small town represents idyllic tranquility; everything seems peaceful… on the surface.
In his new book, Blood On Steel, Michael Melski breaks through the ice of rural life, delving into the turbulent waters beneath. Characters in the two plays published in Blood On Steel – Joyride and Heartspent and Black Silence – are at once chillingly real and too absurd to believe. Melski himself seems as unassuming as one of his rural Nova Scotian characters, hardly looking the part of the playwright (or playboy as he refers to himself).
“I never wanted to play a part in my own life,” he laughs over copious amounts of coffee.
Perhaps it’s that down-to-earth attitude that has allowed him to enjoy the success he has had, without losing his sense of self. Melski hails from Cape Breton, a place that he describes as “part Brigadoon, part Hell’s Kitchen… like a Roger Whittaker/Van Halen medley.” He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of King’s College, and has studied theatre at Dalhousie as well as film at the Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto. His first two plays performed in Halifax, Hello From Sirius and The Trout Fisher’s Companion, were produced at the 1993 Halifax Theatre Explosion, which he helped establish. Joyride was first staged as part of the 1994 Atlantic Fringe Festival and premiered in the US in 1995. Last year, Melski was accepted as a writer-in-residence at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake.
“I went to Shaw in July last year and worked on a new script called Burning Schoolhouse, which is about the investigation of a sex scandal in a small-town high school,” he remembers. “I had a wonderful time at Shaw. I met some of the best people in Canadian theatre. They were very supportive.
“I had a funny experience at Shaw,” Melski continues. “Perhaps it was due to exhaustion – this was my sixth play of 1995, and I was pretty burnt – I started to change Burning Schoolhouse to make it more Victorian. Big mistake. It was pointed out to me by a couple of people that, compared to my other work, it wasn’t my natural voice. I was being too polite. When I got back, I immediately got a grant to develop Joyride further, and haven’t had a chance to get back to Burning Schoolhouse. I’m dying to get back to finish it. It says some things that I’m quite proud of.”
Melski can pinpoint the night Joyride was conceived, linking it with a change in the community spawned by the murders at a Cape Breton McDonald’s restaurant. “Some people think it’s about the McDonald’s case, but it very specifically isn’t. It’s a similar account of a crime that’s similar in nature, but the facts are very different in this case.
“Joyride is by far the most popular thing I’ve written,” Melski continues, “but Heartspent is closest to my heart.” Heartspent and Black Silence was first produced by the Eastern Front Company as part of the On The Waterfront Festival in the spring of last year. It revolves around characters that hit close to home: a young couple struggling to make ends meet while dealing with a gambling addiction.
“I got the idea about a year and a half before I wrote it, when I was in Toronto. I picked up a Greenwood racing form, and I actually saw Heartspent in one race and Black Silence in another race. It all came to me, sitting there over one cup of coffee, the idea of these two characters, where the play would be set, the mood, the tone, even the governing metaphor of wild horses tearing these two apart.
“I interviewed a lot of addicts doing the research for this,” Melski recalls. “As dark as what happens at the end of Heartspent is, it’s not as dark as reality. When you hear people say it and it’s not fiction – it happened to this person sitting across from you – it really strikes home. We want to beat the system, we want to beat the man at his own game. The sad reality is that most times, we can’t.”
Currently, Melski has many projects in development. Among them are an adaptation of Hamlet for this summer’s Shakespeare By The Sea, and a short film production entitled Young Offenders Act, which was a runner-up for the National Film Institute’s 1996 Drama Prize. He will also be attending Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre in Toronto in June. With so much on his plate, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll see Michael Melski’s name soon on a stage, screen, or bookshelf near you.
This isn’t cutting-edge journalism by any means, but it was an important stepping stone in my career. The day this article was published, I was walking towards Halifax’s famous Pizza Corner for lunch when I saw some crazy dude almost kill himself trying to run across the street. Turns out that dude was Michael Melski himself. His impromptu game of human Frogger was sparked by his desire to shake my hand and thank me for being to first person to “not misquote” him in an article.
For me, that acknowledgement was a pretty big deal. I was 25 years old and had been struggling as a writer, being told by many people that I’d never make a living at it because nobody ever does. It was part of the reason why I up and moved to Halifax in the first place. Having a writer near my age who was actually making a living at it cross a busy street to thank me for a job well done was one hell of a confidence booster. Even now, it reminds me that while there are a lot of downs in this business, the ups are worth it.