April 19, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

From childhood poems to literary Alaska: An alumna’s journey to authorship | WMU News

5 min read
Contact: Kayla Lambert

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Emotional short stories and melodramatic poems provided the childhood building blocks for Western Michigan University alumna and author Dr. Melinda Moustakis’s exceptional career. A writing journey that was launched crafting elementary school writing projects eventually led Moustakis to WMU, where she earned her Ph.D. in creative writing. 

Melinda Moustakis

Her work has attracted numerous accolades including the Flannery O’ Connor Award, the O. Henry Prize, a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 selection, and it has been positively reviewed by numerous media outlets, including NPR and the Sunday New York Times. 

“When I was a child, I wrote emotional and melodramatic poems,” says Moustakis. “I think my mother kept some of them. But I didn’t think of becoming a writer until I started writing about Alaska in creative writing classes in college. I was spending more time up there visiting and thinking about my family history there.” 

Moustakis received her B.A. from California Polytechnic State University and her M.A. from the University of California, Davis, before attending Western for her Ph.D. Moustakis’s intention was to teach at the college level. 

“Even then I applied to grad school mostly to become a professor—that was my main plan,” says Moustakis. “I was accepted into a few literature programs and also waitlisted at U.C. Davis for the M.A. program in creative writing and eventually a spot opened up for me. After U.C. Davis, I wanted to continue to learn about writing and so I applied to WMU.” 

Moustakis continues, “It was actually the only program I applied to because I decided quite late in the process and the application was still open. I ended up getting to work with the brilliant writer Jaimy Gordon, who was exactly the teacher I needed at the time.”

Moustakis’s passion for creative writing blossomed during her time at Western while working on her dissertation, which eventually became the collection of short stories titled “Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories,” published by the University of Georgia Press in 2011. The book received widespread acclaim, earning her the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Stories and the Maurice Prize while also being shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and selected as a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Moustakis’s journey continued with the publication of her second novel, “Homestead,” by Flatiron Books in 2023, fulfilMelinda Moustakisling her goal of sharing her work with the world. 

“Writing a book is like writing a very personal, and long, letter to the world, and to have it well received, to have it reach readers who fall into the story and are entirely transported to the particular Alaska I’ve portrayed is really wonderful,” says Moustakis. 

The inspiration behind “Homestead”

“Homestead” is a novel that follows characters based on Moustakis’s grandparents, who homesteaded in Point MacKenzie, Alaska in the 1950’s, living in an old school bus their first winter while waiting to build a cabin. Moustakis expanded upon her family’s story, creatively unfolding their journey in a new, untold way. 

“I had to let the fiction take over the family story or mythology and let these characters shape themselves,” says Moustakis. “My uncle, Sonny, had spent a lot of time on the homestead as a child and he shared a lot of memories with me. I was able to interview my grandmother some years ago, while walking around the homestead, and hear about her experiences as a homesteader.” 

Through the novel, Moustakis sought to tell a complicated story of people in Alaska, to avoid further perpetuating stereotypes and false narratives. 

“One of my goals in writing about Alaska is demythologizing the notion of it being ‘The Last Frontier’ and a pristine wilderness when Alaska Natives have lived there for thousands of years and to subvert the ‘lone man in the wilderness’ trope,” says Moustakis. 

Moustakis met her narrative goals, and “Homestead” received a rave review in the Sunday New York Times, an impressive accomplishment. Although Moustakis is proud of this, she is mindful that such achievements may be few and far between. 

“My agent told me publishing and launching a book was a roller coaster and year-long process which has been a helpful notion to hold onto,” says Moustakis. “You also hope for the best but cannot expect anything and wait and agonize. And you have to celebrate and be grateful for the wins as they come because that might be the last one.” 

The woman behind the words

Beyond writing, Moustakis enjoys a variety of pastimes, ranging from outdoor adventures to baking. 

“I was just visiting family in Alaska on the Kenai River where I went trout fishing, salmon fishing and kayaking,” says Moustakis. “Right now, I’m based in Denver and so I had to learn to ski and to paddleboard since this is a very sporty town. As a writer, I feel I need to have interests that take me away from my writing desk.” 

She continues, “My book launch was at the New York Public Library where I had the Cullman Fellowship, so I got to go to NYC in February and tried to see as many plays and musicals as I could afford. I could spend all my money on theater tickets. I also stress-bake quite frequently which is a challenge in the elevation of Denver.” 

Despite her success in publishing, part of Moustakis’ heart still belongs to teaching the subject she loves the most.

“I’m proud of all the years of teaching I’ve done all across the country,” says Moustakis. “I went on a short book tour this spring and one of the stops was in Seattle. Some students I had taught came out to the event. It was so wonderful to hear about their lives and it was a reminder that you might not get to see what impact you had on students, even as a visiting professor, until some years later.”

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.

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