Author, musician, mom, traveller – these are just some of the many hats that Melanie Martin wears. A self-professed “history nerd” with a passion for writing historical fiction and a reverence for the province’s First World War story, Martin has a Master of Arts in Newfoundland and Irish history from Memorial University, and was previously the lead for the Honour 100 project, which commemorated Newfoundland and Labrador’s role in the First World War. Her first novel “A Splendid Boy,” a historical romance set during that time, was published by Flanker Press in 2016 and went on to become a regional bestseller.
Now, as the new Executive Director of ArtsNL (a role which she took on this past July), Martin is flexing her own creative muscles to help the province’s arts community thrive. She recently took some time out to chat with Business & Arts NL about what inspires her, the creative projects she’s working on, how embracing her own creativity has helped in her professional and personal life, and how she’s approaching her new role.
Business & Arts NL: I understand you’re an artist yourself, specifically a writer and musician. How has your artistic practice, and creativity, helped you with your other professional pursuits, and life in general?
Melanie Martin: That’s a great question. I mean, I have a boatload of education and training, and those are the tools in my toolbox, but I think it’s my creativity that has helped me in my professional career and to get to where I am today.
Being creative takes courage and energy—often self-directed energy. It takes confidence and the ability to communicate, collaborate, listen, problem solve, back yourself out of the corner you’ve written your character into or recover from that bad note you just hit. Allowing myself the time to be creative has made me adaptable, taught me to trust my instincts, and above else to remain curious, dig deep, and keep learning. There is always something else to learn, it’s how you apply it—that’s where the magic is.
Business & Arts NL: Is creativity something that was embraced and fostered in your family growing up?
MM: Yes, my mother saw my creativity from an early age, and she definitely fostered it because she was also creative and really identified with me. She was a creative enabler for sure. And I thank God for that every day. Her response was never why do you want do that? It was ok, how are you going to do it?
I was a total book worm from the get-go. I always preferred to read over watching television. I realize now that was probably because it still allowed me to employ my own imagination even when reading someone else’s work. I started writing poems and short stories when I was young. But something happened around age 11—I became infatuated with the piano. My teacher called my parents and said I had gotten in trouble for going into the music room to play on the piano at lunch time. My mom said, but she doesn’t play the piano. The teacher said, well actually she does… It was all by ear. So, my teacher sold us her old upright piano for $100 and I started lessons immediately. A few years later, my piano teacher said to me: Melanie you don’t believe in starting with anything easy, do you? You jump in the deep end and learn to swim your way out.
I think that’s become a metaphor for my life!
Business & Arts NL: Are you working on a creative project at the moment?
MM: Yes. I’m always picking away at something. I signed up to do Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) this past November. I sign up every year with varied results. The idea is to get a rough draft of your novel completed in a month, but people use it to start projects or edit existing work. It’s just an online platform where thousands of writers around the world are all working on projects at the same time, which is great. There are a number of folks in Newfoundland and Labrador who do it!
So, in November I managed to get 10,000 words of my next historical fiction novel. Historicals involve so much research and I go down the research rabbit hole a lot. That’s a curse. I also have two other full-length manuscripts completed. I need to start editing those or burn them. We’ll see.
Business & Arts NL: What is something you do to help you get inspired and into the creative zone when you might feel lacking in motivation?
MM: So, you mean the last two years of my life?! Kudos to all artists who have continued to create during COVID because it has sucked the creative life out of me. But I’m very thankful for my best friends, who are also writers, and every three or four months we book a place out of town for a writing retreat. It’s heaven. We talk about our WIPs, talk through plot issues, sometimes we sprint for word counts, drink some wine, and just inspire each other to keep going.
Business & Arts NL: What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
MM: I’m an avid reader and there’s a lot of great fiction out there. I am currently reading Such Miracles and Mischiefs—Book Two of the Cupids Trilogy by Trudy Morgan Cole. Trudy is a phenomenal writer, and she hits all the high points in historical fiction for me. This series focuses on the first women settlers to come to Newfoundland and is just brilliant.
Business & Arts NL: If you could sit and have a cup of tea with any historical figure, who would it be?
MM: That’s an easy one. Anyone who knows me well knows my passion for Newfoundland and Labrador’s First World War story. If I could sit and have a cup of tea with Francis (Fanny Cluett) from Belleoram, Fortune Bay, it would be like winning the lottery for this history nerd. Fanny joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (an organization of semi-trained nurses who provided auxiliary medical services) in 1916 and after only a few months in England served near the front lines in Rouen, France. She nursed German soldiers as well as Allied soldiers and later was shipped to Turkey. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to all these places, including Gallipoli, Turkey for my previous job. But I was a tourist, nobody was shooting at me, and I wasn’t nursing the wounded. I’ve read her letters, but I can’t imagine what an hour listening to her would be like.
Business & Arts NL: This past while has been tough for everyone, but the local arts community have been helping us to get through it by keeping us entertained, connected and inspired with online concerts, and new and innovative ways of producing and presenting plays and other productions. Is there anything that you’ve been particularly inspired by?
MM: I said in the early days of the pandemic, if anyone is going to figure this out, it’s going to be our folks, and they didn’t disappoint! Two projects really stood out in terms of their bold innovation: Perchance’s The Power of One, a video series capturing monologues from every Shakespeare play in the Canon, spearheaded by Artistic Director Danielle Irvine and using our finest actors and locations as a backdrop (click here to read our previous Spotlight on The Power of One), and Artistic Fraud’s The Other Side of This—seven plays, seven locations around St. John’s and delivered through your car’s radio. It was like a treasure hunt to get to each location. So well done.
Business & Arts NL: Perhaps one of the programs that ArtsNL is best known for is ArtsSmarts, which brings artists and students together and integrates arts activities into the curriculum. What would you say is the greatest strength of this program?
MM: This is one of our most competitive programs.
There’s so much emphasis on physical education for kids in school, and yes, of course we want our kids to be active and healthy. I just wish the arts could get ¼ of that recognition. There is so much value in connecting young people to the arts and the earlier the better. Sydney Gurewitz Clemens, a consultant in early childhood education once said, “Art has the role in education of helping children become like themselves instead of more like everyone else.” I can identify with this statement. And for all those kids who aren’t going to be the captain of the volleyball team, finding yourself through creative expression can lead you to places you never thought possible.
The ArtsSmarts Program, through the generous support of Equinor, allows our young people to be exposed to and explore various artistic mediums at an early age. Not only can they learn to express themselves artistically, but they get to see firsthand that they can have a profession in the arts and agencies like ArtsNL are here to invest in them and help grow their career.
Business & Arts NL: What’s one of the biggest things you hope to accomplish in your role as Executive Director of ArtsNL?
MM: I’m going to approach my role as Executive Director at ArtsNL the same way I do writing a novel. I don’t sit down and say I’m going to write 80,000 words and publish a novel—that would paralyze me. We have an incredible team at ArtsNL and there’s some very new and exciting things in the works.
But right now, I’m taking it scene by scene.