Growing up queer is not for the faint of heart, and for 16-year-old Anna Stern, that stress is compounded by the pressure she feels as a musical prodigy. She was three when she first sat down at a piano and transported herself to a world beyond her living room; but a decade later, as school concerts loom and she tries to navigate a complicated relationships with her parents and best friend, music has begun to feel more like a burden than an escape.
Told in scenes spread across Anna’s young life, Chasing Harmony captures the messy, imperfect process of growing up, and asks: what does it take to create the life you want, when the people around you, like your parents, have watched their own dreams wither with time? I spoke to author (and former Autostraddle contributor!) Melanie Bell about Anna’s journey, about her writing process, and about what might be on Anna’s Spotify playlist these days.
Darcy: The queer YA scene has flourished in the past decade, particularly in the past five years, and Chasing Harmony is a really fresh addition to the genre! Your other work thus far has been a bit different — together with Kacie Berghoef, you wrote a nonfiction work, The Modern Enneagram. What drew you to YA? How did you end up wanting to tell Anna’s story?
Melanie: I got the idea for this coming-of-age story while traveling across Canada and reading two books, Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing and Leonard Cohen’s The Favourite Game. Both spoke to me about the messiness of growing up. One thing I got out of Bank’s book was the idea of life not turning out how you think it will, and from Cohen’s, I got the concept that people’s idealizations of art or beauty can blind them to the person they’re looking at. So I started writing about a character with immense talent, and the friction between the expectations that creates and the realities and difficulties of growing up. When I was younger, successes and failures felt huge, and this is the case for Anna.
In your novel, we have a main character whose feelings of otherness are tethered not only to queerness, and to a fraught family life, but also to the specter of having been a musical prodigy, and to feelings around the need to escape the preordained path that her potential has set her on. I’m curious what relationship you have to music (if any!), and what led you to choose musical genius as one of Anna’s defining opponents in her fight to grow up and become an individual.
Music was an important part of growing up for me. My mother is musical and often had some kind of music playing. I sang in choirs, competed a bit in music festivals, and played clarinet and saxophone in bands, so music was a great social context. I wrote some terrible songs and briefly played piano. When writing about Anna’s musical background, I assigned her the three instruments I was familiar with.
I could get very immersed in listening to music, but I didn’t have a particular knack for it. There’s an element of wish fulfillment in writing about a musical prodigy! More so, I was inspired by the lived experiences of people I met who were identified as musical prodigies and had long journeys involving conflict between their abilities and personal needs and finding who they were beyond the weight of expectations. It’s hard for performance to live up to identified potential. As a former academic high achiever, I could relate to this gap.
The structure of Chasing Harmony has a bit of dream-like quality; the narrative moves between ages, and from scene to scene within those sections, very fluidly. The structure helps us embody the make-believe that helps Anna through her parents’ anger and her own perfectionism. Did you begin writing with that structure in mind, or was it a choice you made later on in the process?
I began writing with that structure. I wanted to explore different times within Anna’s life. Anna is fascinated by time: how it passes, how it changes things, and how things stay the same. I had a bare-bones outline that went back and forth between time periods, deliberately contrasting what happened, though some parts changed in writing and revisions.
In the novel, Anna and her best friend, Liss, have a relationship that’s fraught in ways Anna can’t face head-on as a young teen. Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that it was nice to see Anna and Liss get some closure in the last few chapters. I think a lot of queer folks are familiar with that sort of loaded-friendship-that-could-be-more, the gray areas that exist as a teen because you’re not really ready to fully pull back the curtain and shed light on things. It was cathartic, getting that closure for Anna and Liss! Was it cathartic writing it?
Yes, it was cathartic to write. I think it was important for Anna to get closure in order to move on and define a direction for herself.
I wanted to ask you about your journey to get Chasing Harmony published. While it feels like there are now more LGBTQ+ YA titles out there than ever before, it’s also a very troubling cultural (political) time for diverse books, at least here in the States. You live in the UK, but Chasing Harmony has a US publisher — what’s your sense of the current moment in publishing?
It’s a bit of a paradox. More queer content is being published — but also banned and censored. Maybe it’s reached a tipping point of being visible enough for a backlash? As you mentioned, I’m not in the US, so I’m removed enough from things that I’m just speculating. But I’m definitely enjoying the diverse and exciting titles that are being published!
It’s so exciting, by the way, to be talking with someone who’s also written for Autostraddle! I’m always curious to speak to writers who are making sustainable careers out of writing in 2022, “in this economy,” as Twitter would say. You write at your day job, and you also publish. Chasing Harmony was published through an indie publisher, Read Furiously. I’m curious about your day-to-day writing process, and how you stave off burnout, which Chasing Harmony’s Anna dealt with in a very real way before she even hit age 18.
Thanks! I stave off burnout by writing at a pace I can handle. My day job involves a combination of writing and editing, and it places a high value on work-life balance, so the rate of production is reasonable. In my own writing, I like trying different projects and genres. I work well with deadlines when I’m writing for someone, but personal work proceeds at its own speed.
I’d describe my writing process as careful. I don’t keep set hours, but I’m usually chipping away at an ongoing project. I often self-edit lightly as I write. All writers are different in what works for them. The key is to get the writing done.
Final question: What music do you think is on twenty-something Anna’s Spotify playlist these days?
Anna is always on the lookout for innovative sounds. She’d probably like Caroline Shaw and Angélica Negrón, for example. I think Anna would relate a lot to Encanto, with its themes of family expectations and the burdens that “having a gift” can create. In particular, “Surface Pressure” and “What Else Can I Do?” might feature on her playlist. I like to imagine her reconnecting with her mother through music, such as both of them listening to 2021’s inaugural recording of Salieri’s opera Armida. Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” was survival music for Anna, and she probably still listens to it for old times’ sake. Oh, and I should add that there’s a Spotify playlist for Chasing Harmony, featuring songs from the book!