It was 2006, the year before she moved to Blount County and the same year she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, when Melanie K. Hutsell began planting the literary seeds.
Next month, those seeds will bear fruit in the form of ‘The Book of Susan’, her second novel and first since diagnosis and treatment put her condition in control instead of the other way around. Today, she lives in Oak Ridge, and ‘The Book of Susan,’ slated for release May 10, is loosely based on her own journey, she recently told the Daily Times.
“Susan isn’t exactly me, obviously, because she’s fictional, but I knew before I even started that I wanted (the book) to be about Saul and bipolar disorder, and I wanted it to be a novel at the first person,” she said. “I don’t remember exactly when the idea came to me – around the time I was diagnosed – but it’s actually a reimagining of a story from the Hebrew Bible about King Saul and the King David, except they are both women; it is set in East Tennessee; and instead of David being the hero, Saul is the protagonist.
“I remember reading the story in the Bible, and I felt like Saul was totally bipolar and he was getting a raw deal in the story, and I remember thinking that one day I would like to write a version of this story where Saul is the protagonist. So I had this idea floating around in my head for a while; there was just no flesh on the bones, so to speak.
Originally from Kingsport, Hutsell has been writing, she added, since she was old enough to put letters into words. Throughout middle school and high school she wrote, and after graduating from high school she went to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, at which time she began working on a manuscript which slowly coalesced into a few vibrant chapters during his graduate studies in Indiana. University. Building on her childhood love of fairy tales and a kinship with the shadowy Southern Appalachians she grew up in, they would eventually become the cornerstone of her debut novel, “The Dead Shall Rise,” but at around the same time, his illness began to manifest.
“There was definitely a period when I had left graduate school where I was less than stable,” she said. “I’ve had many different jobs in many different industries in many different places – Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Kingsport; North Carolina; Virginia.”
However, throughout it all, she retained these chapters, and for a period in East Tennessee, they won first place in the Tennessee Writers Alliance’s novel competition, awarded at the Southern Festival of Books in 2001 .finishing it was like trying to catch a handful of smoke.
“A lot of my life plans were derailed because of bipolar disorder, even though I didn’t know at first it was happening with me,” she said. “There were definitely times when I was writing ‘The Dead Shall Rise’ that I struggled to write.”
Finally, a formal diagnosis in 2006 led to stability. She moved back to the greater Knoxville area to be closer to her family, eventually finding a job and moving to Maryville in 2007, where she started writing again and stayed until 2019. It was, she said. Says, a slow emergence from the fog, but treatment, support group meetings and the Knoxville Writers Guild encouraged her to keep plugging in.
“In the process of being diagnosed, it took a few years for the writing to come back. Not that I don’t write; it just wasn’t as targeted,” she said. “But one thing led to another, and I submitted a short story for a Knoxville Writers Guild anthology, joined a writing group, started writing short stories and reusing old ones, and that’s when I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll grab this half-finished novel off the shelf and see what I can do with it.
In 2016, independent Knoxville publisher Celtic Cat Publishing published “The Dead Shall Rise”, which received accolades from acclaimed Southern novelist Silas House, who described it as “the highest caliber of storytelling in the tradition of Thomas Hardy or Lee Smith, but quite original too.
In the years that followed, her short fiction was published in a number of journals and anthologies, and one of those submissions, she said, led to a connection with an agent who asked to read. anything she might have in the works. Although her literary pantry was empty, the idea of adapting the story of Saul and David into a work of fiction struck her as an idea that needed to become a reality.
“I remembered that I had this idea on the shelf, and I thought it might be a really good project to take on because it’s based on an already existing story,” she said. “At one point when I considered writing about it and telling it from Saul’s point of view, I had only a vague idea of what it might look like, including decisions about point of view in the story. When I started planning “The Book of Susan” in response to the agent’s interest, I decided to tell the story in first person from Susan’s point of view for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it would give the reader an opportunity to see bipolar disorder “from the inside”.
“Now it’s hard to imagine telling his story any other way, because it’s such an intrinsic part of the book. It was very important to me to give readers as authentic and sympathetic a portrayal of the disorder as possible. bipolar, something I’ve seen in creative non-fiction on the subject, but haven’t encountered in fiction; at least, not from the perspective of the person diagnosed.
Although the agent eventually passed on the proposal, the smoldering coals of her story had turned into a veritable conflagration, and she couldn’t have stopped writing it if she had wanted to. She completed the first draft in 2019, the same year she moved to Oak Ridge, and during the COVID pandemic she began doing revisions, eventually discovering a call for submissions by RAVEN, a recently launched fictional imprint. from Paraclete Press.
The rest, as they say, is history. She can’t wait to bring ‘The Book of Susan’ to the world — she’ll be speaking at a Knoxville Writers Guild event at 7 p.m. on May 7 and at the same time June 1 at Union Avenue Books downtown of Knoxville – but it’s so much more than a vanity project. It’s a glimpse into the minds of so many struggling with illness beyond their control, as well as a glimmer of hope that there is a way to live with it.
“Coming out of the pandemic, mental health has become a huge topic in a way that it wasn’t even before,” she said. “It’s a story that’s not afraid to go to dark places, but also has a bit of hope.”