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Ogdensburg native Tessa Mellas, with “Lungs Full of Noise,” wins prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award

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Magic and writing have always gone hand in hand for Tessa A. Mellas.

Magical worlds opened up to her on the lap of her parents as a toddler.

“From a very young age, my parents always read to me a lot,” the Ogdensburg native, daughter of Christ and Celeste Mellas, said.

But it was the world of “magical realism” that landed her one of the most prestigious literary prizes in America. Her collection of 12 short stories contained in her first book, “Lungs Full of Noise,” has received the Iowa Short Fiction Award, presented by University of Iowa Press.

The subjects in “Lungs Full of Noise” are bizarre and, at times, frightening:

n Figure skaters screw skate blades into the bones of their feet to master elusive jumps.

n A divorcee steals the severed arm of her ex-husband from a hospital to reclaim a fragment of their dissolved marriage.

n A college freshman wages war on her roommate from Jupiter, who has seduced all the boys in her dorm with her exotic anatomy.

n Young girls eat gallons of grapes to dye their skin in order to snag prom dates.

They are tales that are worlds away from Ms. Mellas’s native Ogdensburg. She graduated in 1997 from Ogdensburg Free Academy and in 2001 from St. Lawrence University, Canton. She earned a master’s degree from Bowling Green State University in Ohio and a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati.

Magical realism is a literary genre that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.

“It’s a realistic setting with a touch of magic woven in,” Ms. Mellas said from her home in Columbus, Ohio, where she lives with her husband, Matthew McBride, a poet and a senior lecturer at Ohio State University, where Ms. Mellas taught during the 2012-13 academic year.

“Some of the stories are more traditional magical realism, like the mother with the green baby and the girls who dye their skin purple,” Ms. Mellas said. “Those ones have a pretty coherent narrative. It’s easy to figure out what’s going on.”

Other stories in the book are more experimental in language and form.

It was eye-opening when Ms. Mellas discovered the magical realism genre in her 20s. She became a fan of authors of the genre such as Aimee Bender, Julia Slavin and Kevin Brockmeier.

“Lungs Full of Noise” opens with “Mariposa Girls,” the tale of the overly dedicated skaters who screw the skate blades into their feet. The story is based on some personal realism: Ms. Mellas has competed nationally in synchronized figure skating, once on Potsdam’s Rainbow Connection Team and once on Bowling Green’s collegiate team.

“The premise of that story didn’t come to me until I was in graduate school,” Ms. Mellas said. “I just had the idea that it would be interesting if you didn’t have to take your skates off and you could just permanently wear them. Just like any sport, there’s a lot of pain associated with the sport. I had a lot of foot issues and really struggled with the pain.”

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Ms. Mellas said there are certain writing techniques she promotes in her classes.

“One of the biggest things beginning fiction writers, and poets, need to learn is to focus on the details and to move away from detractions and cliches,” she said. “We communicate in daily life quite a bit with cliches and recycled ideas that are familiar to everybody, but when you’re writing, that’s not really going to cut it.”

She also urges students to notice details and to get away from “driver’s license descriptions” of characters.

“They have a really hard time doing that at first — picking quirky characteristics that will be interesting to a reader,” Ms. Mellas said.

To spark creativity, she urges writers to focus on the physical writing process. That could include “getting away from the computer, writing on a pad of paper or listing words before you start creating sentences.”

“I try to get students to try to imagine more than one way to write,” Ms. Mellas said. “Writing will be more enjoyable for them. Even if they don’t become professional writers, they will have to write in every career.”

And as Ms. Mellas learned, encouragement goes a long way.

“When we started doing creative writing in elementary school, especially in the fifth grade, I did a lot of that type of writing with Mrs. (Barbara) King. I really enjoyed it and my mom was excited to see that I was so creative. She encouraged me to do more of it.”

Ms. Mellas is working on a novel and a collection of essays, both with environmental themes. In the spring semester, she will return to Bowling Green as the distinguished visiting writer.

Her father retired in 2006 as superintendent of Watertown Correctional Facility. Her mother is a retired resource teacher in the Ogdensburg City School District. Her parents now live in South Carolina. Her grandmother, Helen Mellas, lives in Canton.

“Lungs Full of Noise” by Tessa A. Mellas (University of Iowa Press, www.uiowapress.org, 150 pages, paperback, $17)
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