Magazine Feature / People

Alum balances social work, fiction writing

Melonie Tem

Melanie Tem (MSW ’75) is a social worker by day, fiction writer by night. Photo: Courtesy of Melanie Tem

Authors and spouses Melanie and Steve Tem met at a creative writing workshop, so it’s only fitting that their relationship has resulted in a number of literary collaborations. Their new book, In Concert (Centipede Press, 2010), compiles the stories the couple has written together over 30 years for publications such as Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and Starshore Magazine.

“There are ideas and stories that are collaborations — there needs to be somebody else working with me, and I usually can tell that,” says Melanie (MSW ’75), who was known as Melanie Livengood when she went to DU. “A lot of the time when Steve and I collaborate, our intention is for it to end up being a third voice, a voice that neither one of us would have used before. It’s particularly gratifying when people say, ‘I tried to look and see where you were writing and where Steve was writing, and I couldn’t tell.’”

But collaborations with her husband are just part of Tem’s oeuvre. On her own she has published nine novels — including Wilding (Dell, 1992) and Blood Moon (Women’s Press, 1992) — and two story collections. Though she hates to be pigeonholed, much of her work falls into the dark fantasy genre she shares with authors such as Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker. Her first book, the horror-tinged Prodigal (Dell, 1991), won the Bram Stoker Award for best first novel.

While interest in supernatural fiction is again on the rise, thanks to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels that are the basis for HBO’s hit show “True Blood,” Melanie and Steve — also a writer — say their work has little in common with the pop-fantasy bestsellers.

“For the most part, what both of us write is about something, and the genre or the structure or the form is just the way to talk about something that’s deeper and hopefully more important than just the vampire,” Melanie says.

A case in point is Melanie’s book Revenant, a dark fantasy story about death and grief that garnered her some of the best reviews of her career, including one from London’s Time Out that called Tem’s “heartfelt, cathartic tale … the most genuinely haunting I have read for a long time, because it deals in truths.”

“I created a fictional Colorado ghost town called Revenant … and the idea is if people get stuck and can’t let go of the people they’ve lost, they’re drawn to this ghost town to confront their ghosts,” Tem says. “If they can let go then they can leave, and if they can’t let go then they’re stuck there. We were at a convention in England not long after the book came out, and a woman came up to me and said that that book had changed her life.”

Tem’s day job is all about changing lives as well. A longtime social worker, she’s worked for 12 years at Adoption Alliance, where she is director of the Waiting Child Program. The alliance is a nonprofit child placement agency in Denver. She recruits and trains families who want to adopt older children out of foster care. She also does home studies and finds children. In her spare time, she teaches a writing class at a north Denver bookstore.

Not quite the antisocial life some might expect a pair of horror and fantasy writers to lead.

“I think people have been surprised [to learn about our writing] over the years and have said to us, ‘But you seem so nice!’” she says with a laugh. “I collaborated with Nancy Holder on two books of erotic horror, and my kids were somewhat taken aback. My daughter, who was a teenager when one of them came out, said, ‘How do you know all that stuff?’ Well, I read a lot.”

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