I like to consider myself a cheerleader for my friends: rooting for their success, impressed by their achievements, by their sides to lend an ear and toast their efforts. But some friends have such extraordinary talent, it boggles my mind.
Melissa Unger, Mel, was my soul sister from Day 1 in Paris. She’s the friendliest, brightest, most outgoing person you’ll ever meet—one of those people who makes you feel at ease, talking the day or night away, all the while, passersby stopping to say hello because she’s friends with seemingly everyone in the neighborhood. She’s that person: remarkably smart, witty, thoughtful, curious, gracious, with a keen sense of smile and a wicked laugh.
Turns out, she’s a kickass writer, too. One day when I was still living in Paris, she shared the manuscript for a novella she had written, and it blew me away. I’ve always been in awe of fiction-writers: Where do their stories come from? How do they let go of their minds and trust their instincts to create these characters that draw us in? With Gag, Melissa did just that. She created this world that felt so real and alive. It was surreal but poignant, charming but crazy—I loved it from start to finish.
This summer, Gag was finally published. I read it again, I still love it, and I want to share it with someone. To receive a copy of this offbeat love story, a mind trip set in Paris, answer this question in the comments box before Friday, August 22:
What activity is the most transporting for you and/or makes you loose track of time?
In the meantime, learn more about Melissa’s mission with Seymour Projects, the organization she founded to help individuals cultivate and express their own creativity and authentic voice and get to know her a little bit here…
What inspired you to write Gag?
Well, it’s kind of a wild story. I had never written a book before but in 2004, while on a walk around Paris, soon after I had arrived in town, a single sentence popped into my head: Peter never ate. Insistent, it kept coming back again and again; in an effort to dissipate it, I put it to paper.
The three words called out to me from the page. The short sentence was like some sort of motor, of magnet, I touched my pen back to the paper and let it lead me over the course of a few months, sentence by sentence until many pages had been written. I didn’t have a plot or outline, characters sketched or any idea at all what I was going to write about. I would just get myself to a quiet place, read the last paragraph I had written and then just pick up where I had left off and keep writing until it felt natural to stop; sometimes it was an hour, sometimes it was 8 hours.
It was a strange, invigorating, and somewhat frightening experience. It was as if my conscious had brain clicked off and something else clicked on. I tried to explain the sensation to a friend, and the closest I came to expressing it correctly was by saying that it felt like I was driving in a car on a dark road with no idea where I was or where I was going, but I had the headlights on and could just see enough to stay on the road. I would look ahead into the little illuminated patch of ground and keep inching forward. My sense of time was completely altered when I was writing, a whole day could go by in what felt like an hour. Words gushed out of me like an open faucet. I eventually realized that I had experienced the elusive ‘flow’; that I now believe is an innate source of creativity that exists in us all.
Both main characters have specific reasons for moving to Paris. What about you - what brought you to the City of Light?
I was 36, recently single, living in New York City and leading a perfectly normal and generally happy life. And yet, something deep inside me kept flashing: is this all there is?
One day, I got a call from the friend whom I had been renting my apartment from, telling me that she wanted to put it on the market for sale. It was like a window opened into other possibilities. Once I started gazing into those possibilities my eye was drawn to ever-increasingly distant horizon lines…new apartment, new neighborhood, new city, new state, new…. country?
I eventually chose Paris because my mother is French, and I had gone there regularly as a child. It felt challenging and yet not totally terrifying.
I suppose that on a conscious level, one could say that my coming to Paris was fueled by a desire to explore something outside the confines of my everyday existence. On a subconscious level, I think it might have been a search for self.
Do you think you have to be a certain kind of person to have the faith to move to a foreign city, or do you think anyone with enough moxie can do it?
Well, I still have stuff in storage in the states so you could say, that a decade later, I still haven’t actually ‘moved’ here! I personally have a huge issue with commitment (obviously!) so I just took it step by step, day by day, week by week and year by year… sometimes that is less daunting than making a drastic, seemingly irrevocable decision.
I tell people who are considering moving abroad or doing anything that feels ‘scary’ to them, that action, activity, motion – no matter how minor, is the key component to accomplishing everything. There’s a train metaphor that I like to use: Just “get on the train”—any train. I mean, you can always switch trains at the next station. You can even take a train back to where you started. But standing still on the platform gets you nowhere in life.
As for faith or moxie, in my case, I didn’t consider myself particularly brave at the time, though now I do feel that I have gained in confidence. And that added confidence is perhaps a direct result of the adventure of having had to adapt to a new culture, to push past certain social boundaries, to stand up for what I believe in—I’m not sure those traits would have developed in me if I had remained in more comfortable/familiar surroundings where most people did things the same way I did.
Living abroad is a great opportunity for lifting the veil off your rote behaviors and engrained reflexes. Being exposed to opposing perspectives and new ways of doing things really helps you to explore and ultimately define what makes you, you.
What books have inspired you?
These days, I mostly read non-fiction on a variety of topics related to Seymour’s mission (psychology, neuroscience, consciousness, etc). That said, I love autobiographical texts: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Patti Smith’s Just Kids stayed with me a long time.
I also love fiction that makes the ordinary extraordinary—John Irving, J.D. Salinger—and am also very inspired by poetry: Walt Whitman, T.S Eliot, ee cummings, Sylvia Plath. I also enjoy historical fiction or books of a philosophical nature like the writings of Hermann Hesse, Peter Matthiessen, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
This is tough question to ask an English major and an only child to boot!! Impossible to pick just a few! Books have always been a huge part of my life!
Do you think you’ll write another book?
Indeed. I eagerly await the whisper of its first sentence.
What’s your favorite journey?
Into the unknown.