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For Melissa Scholes Young, Writing About Small-Town Missouri Is A Path To Empathy

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Melissa Scholes Young is an associate professor of literature at American University.

Melissa Scholes Young’s new novel, her second, focuses on a family-run pest control business in small-town Missouri. Young knows of what she writes: She was raised in small-town Missouri — by a family that ran a pest control business.

She still had to do her research.

“That territory is very familiar to me,” she explained on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “But this isn’t my family’s story.”

A native of Hannibal, Young is now an associate professor of literature at American University in Washington, D.C., and her book, “The Hive,” introduces us to the Fehler family of Cape Girardeau: mom, dad and four sisters, struggling to find their place in a rapidly changing world, even as the 2008 recession puts Fehler Family Exterminating in jeopardy.

For Young, the date came even before the setting.

“I knew I wanted to write about 2008. I wanted to talk about the recession in middle America and the idea of growing fear and how that line of fear really impacts us,” she said. “I wanted to be able to look back to 2008 in order to wrestle with and think about how we move forward from that fear and resentment that I know so well in the Midwest.”

For her characters, that includes grappling with the election of President Barack Obama, and also seeing second-born Jules fall in love with a Black man. For the family’s matriarch, Grace Fehler, it means becoming a survivalist, or prepper, stocking up and planning for disaster.

Young joined a three-day prepper camp as research for the book, and said she came away both respecting the survivalists’ back-to-the-land strategies and troubled by their eagerness for an apocalypse.

Melissa Scholes Young On 'The Hive'
Listen as the Missouri native talks with host Sarah Fenske.

Seeing their glee at the nation’s capital being wiped out in a disaster simulation, she acknowledged, was disconcerting. But she used the moment to dig deeper.

“For me as a writer, my job is to ask those kinds of questions: What would lead someone to have so little compassion or empathy for someone else that they would actually want it destroyed? That to me is a fascinating line that is incredibly dangerous as a human to cross over,” she said.

And she could see the flip side, the positives in the preppers’ preparation: “It really did surprise me that so many of the values of preserving the land, of wanting self-sustainability, and taking care of yourself and working hard, those foundational roots make a lot of sense to me, growing up in a place like Missouri.”

After spending 25 years in the Midwest, followed by more than a decade on the East Coast, Young said she hopes to facilitate “more nuanced conversations” within a divided country. She’s the first person in her family to earn a college degree, and now she teaches at a university.

From where she lives today near Washington, she acknowledged, “the distance from that rural road — outside Hannibal, I must admit, in the New London territory; we lived way out in the country — the distance is pretty vast. And I hope stories can help bridge that distance.”

Of the country as a whole, she added: “I think we often misunderstand each other. And that we are not spending as much time as perhaps we could be, being curious and having compassion.”

For her, writing is a path to empathy, just as she hopes her writing will generate empathy in her readers.

“I don’t know that any of us really know what it’s like in someone else’s shoes,” she said. “But the question is, do we have compassion, and do we have curiosity about what someone else’s experience is like.”

With a good novel, she said, “We can have access to worlds we might not otherwise spend time in.”

Related Event
What: Melissa Scholes Young with Joy Castro
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 9
Where: Left Bank Books via Facebook Live or YouTube

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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