Melissa Fischer (Ghana) interviewed — THE ADVOCACY
Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Steven Boyd Saum (Ukraine 1994–96)
by Walter Rutter-Bowman
“I had a sense as a very young child,” says Melissa Fischer (Ghana 1992-94), debut author of The Advocacy, “that I would grow up and write a novel. That was just a form that I loved.”
The Advocacy is set in Ghana, where the author served in the Peace Corps. While there, Fischer kept three journals. “One was my personal journal,” they say. “One was a professional journal. And then I kept a journal as if I was speaking to my family and friends—as if I was telling them the story.” That third journal became the first draft of the novel.
Fischer, who now lives in Los Angeles and works for the LA County Sanitation Districts, lived in Ghana for two years. A civil engineer, they worked for a water and sanitation agency in a gold mining region. The experience was formative and overwhelming—exactly the reason Fischer started writing about it. “There was something big that needed to be expressed,” they say. “Intuitively, the form of a novel felt big enough, and open enough, and free enough.”
In The Advocacy, Louisa “Lou” Lehmann is a civil engineer and Peace Corps volunteer stationed in a mining region of Ghana. Lou runs the Advocacy, an organization founded by Lynn Lubic, another volunteer whose research uncovered signs of water contamination. Now Lou is tasked with monitoring the water supply. Kirkus Reviews praises the book for the depth of its protagonist: “The strength of Fischer’s novel rests on Lehmann—a delightful, complicated character—and the keen attention that the character gives to even the most subtle observations.”
Any similarities between the author and Lou aren’t incidental. “At the beginning…there’s no question that Louisa was Melissa,” Fischer says. But they did make some changes. “A lot of the last decade has been learning to preen and cut out the pieces of myself that were in the way of the story.”
While they modified Lou’s character, Fischer objects to the notion that protagonists should be totally original creations—or that a character resembling its author demonstrates a lack of creativity. “She’s German Lebanese,” Fischer says of Lou. “I’m German Lebanese. And I want to read her story. Do I have to wait for someone else to write it?”
In the end, Fischer doesn’t even think such features are as relevant as others. “I really believed this story was in the telling. It’s not in those facts; it’s how it’s told,” they say.
As a feat of design and a vessel of style, Fischer’s novel equally demonstrates the author’s civil engineering background and their facility with language. At times in The Advocacy, Lou meditates on the relationship between engineering and poetry. Sometimes the two are in conflict; sometimes they work in tandem. “I am an engineer,” she tells herself. “I know the world that can be measured and predicted.” But Lou feels a pull toward the less measured and predictive—toward more emotionally evocative methods of rendering the world. Early on, she says:
“If I were a poet, I could speak of souls. The truth is I am my father’s daughter. He is a geologist and can tell you the truth of rocks. He lives in the empirical world and does not concede the existence of any other. ”
“There is a relationship,” Fischer says of engineering and literature, the rational and the poetic. “One feeds the other. Structure is needed to have a foundation from which to spring into the unknown. If you don’t have that solid ground under you, you can’t make that leap.”
Though the engineering background and literary affections make a fruitful combination, Fischer initially had trouble writing The Advocacy. “The way I went about writing this novel is not the way anyone should go about writing a novel,” Fischer says. “It really was 25 years.”
The author’s first attempt was typing up that third journal from Ghana, then sending it to some trusted readers. “Word came back that it wasn’t a novel,” Fischer says. Next came storyboarding and pulling out main events and details. “I had to let go of the journals.” Fischer admits it was a difficult step to let go of something so honest. “You get caught [up] in what you felt in the moment. Nothing could be more authentic than that.”
After Ghana, Fischer worked in Rwandan refugee camps and attended graduate school. They moved to Los Angeles, got a job in construction. The hours were long. “I realized I was never going to write in that life,” Fischer recalls. “So I took a job with a public agency. Guaranteed eight-hour day. It felt like I had time for two lives.” They wrote in the evenings and on weekends.
Fischer got helpful feedback from friends along the way and also credits the Southern California Writers’ Conference for introducing them to acute, sensitive readers. “These were people writing in genres I don’t even read, but they know good writing,” Fischer says. “They sliced and diced my stuff.”
As the novel neared completion, Fischer began checking details for accuracy. “I wanted to get it right,” they say. They spoke with a Ghanaian who holds a Ph.D. in linguistics. They spoke to a Ghanaian civil engineer who knew the mine and now lives in the U.S. “It was a gift to be able to have those conversations,” Fischer says. “I know that I’m blind to so much in this culture. It felt really loving that these people would take the time to share with me and help me make this a better story.”
Though they have ideas, and even drafts, for future Louisa Lehmann projects, Fischer is focused on poetry at the moment. They’ve also been pursuing another interest: neonatal care. Fischer has 10 years of training in prenatal health; they volunteer in a neonatal intensive care unit. “This is beautiful work to me,” they say.
Fischer brings a novelist’s sensitivities to this work. “A crying baby is something to listen to,” they say. “A sentient being with a story.” But Fischer can’t help approaching this work, as any other, as a problem to be solved.
“I am an engineer, through and through,” Fischer says.
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I was a young Ghana hand once when age twenty-four in the Brong-Ahafo rain forest west of Kumasi and near to the border of the Ivory Coiast east. I have lived as far west of the North American continent as you can get being here for fifty years in San Francisco at the edge of the Pacific rim facing in the direction of Asia. I was born in Niagara Falls overlooking the Canadian border north and when age eleven went south to north Texas to live until I went northeast to graduate school in Boston. It was after that I went to west Africa and was there until my father Jack was dying in Dallas. I got a job travelling all over the southwest USA the five states of Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas for the next three years when I went north and east again for another three years in Washington, D.C. when I left for another three years east to western Europe writing and working off and on on the docks of Rotterdam, the vineyards of Languedoc in southern France, tutoring in Denmark and then back “home” that was to be this far west in the USA here in California at the edge of it ending my days in the northwest section of San Francisco imagining Asia, and New Zealand (where I anticipated and dreamed of going in 1958 and even wrote a verse that never erased itself…. (C) Copyright Edward Mycue 9 July 2020