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Q&A with Nonfiction Contributor Melissa Stephenson

Melissa Stephenson’s writing has appeared in publications such as The Mid-American ReviewNew LettersThe Rumpus, and ZYZZYVA. Her memoir, Driven, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2018. Though she misses Texas, she's happy to be raising her two kids in Missoula, Montana. Her essay "Autophagia" is featured in the Spring 2017 Premium Edition of CarvePreorder or subscribe by Sunday, April 2, for special savings and discounts.

We like to explore modern Texas at Carve, and Melissa's essay caught our eye for its ties to Texas and the funky ink shops of Austin. This essay peeks into the dark corners and characters that exist around our unique capital. Using a mixture of personal experience anchored in literature, "Autophagia" takes us from Montana to Austin and back. — Nonfiction Editor Cameron Maynard

What initially attracted us to this essay was its unique storyline and visuals. What was the process of creating this story like for you? Had you thought about past moments for a while and needed a striking image to get you moving forward? Did it all come together at once when you took the trip to Austin? Did it spring forth from other work?

The first draft of the piece came very quickly my first morning back in Montana, after the Austin trip. I have a habit of keeping notes, especially when I travel, on hotel notepads that I keep in my bag. The whole story came from notes I jotted down during the day I spent with my friend T (or Tyson). I started with the first note and fit all of them in as I banged out the simple narrative about getting tattoos. I'd been working on my full-length manuscript for so long that it felt indulgent and fulfilling to get caught up in a shorter piece.

The setting for the story is Austin, Texas, and has mention of Montana, as well as the work of Jim Harrison. Altogether, this gives the piece a sense of range and scope. How has living in open spaces informed your writing? 

Perhaps because I live in Montana, where a weekend getaway might mean driving four hours each way to a "local" hot springs, I get overwhelmed by city visits. When I lived in Austin off and on for a decade, I don't think I saw it as clearly as I did when I returned as a visitor. Being able to see my old haunts from an outsider's perspective inspired me, as city visits usually do. As far as range and scope are concerned, those things are in constant focus in the West, where you can spot a snowstorm moving in from miles away, and the Rocky Mountains loom large on dark mornings as I walk my kids to school. The scale of the landscape puts humans in their place, in a good way. I think that's part of what Jim Harrison loved about this area.

Because of the reflective nature of the essay, there is a sense that everything has happened the way it had to, or life happens to us rather than the other way around. How does the man who hypothetically eats his own skin relate to this?

That story floored me, about the Phoenix carving on the back and the self-consumption. That's what the story became about, really, how the things that happened in the past happened to someone who's not gone but no longer here. I'm not the person I was when I lived in Austin, but part of her is inside me, consumed, in a way, by the person I grew into. We're constructed out of parts of our past selves. Whether life is a series of random events, whether we control those events or not, what we take with is the ever-evolving self. As Jim Harrison said, "We are each the only world we are going to get."