Taking a ‘novel’ approach to civil engineering

It’s not often that civil engineering and literature show up in the same sentence.

Melissa Fischer, P.E., M.ASCE, is aiming to change that.

Fischer, who identifies as nonbinary, is a supervising engineer for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, but lately they’re probably better known as a novelist.

Fischer’s first novel, The Advocacy, published in 2019, mixes all the human drama, emotional stakes, plot twists, and character development that you’d expect from a great work of fiction with a realistic portrayal of a working civil engineer.

Fischer discussed the book on a recent episode of the ASCE Plot Points podcast. Read the highlights below or listen to the complete interview.

Civil Engineering Source: Can you give us the elevator pitch on what your novel’s about?

Melissa Fischer: The elevator pitch: “Who gets good water? Who decides?”

This novel focuses on the gold-mining region in Ghana, on a village whose drinking water supply is a river, which is ruined by the construction of a dam by the local gold mine. When I say local, it’s a multinational corporation – it’s a very large mine. [The village] appeals to a civil engineer who’s working in the area. [Louisa Lehmann] is a Peace Corps volunteer, and she’s actually managing an NGO, which is a charitable organization, that is financed by that same gold mine.

So, the village knows [Louisa] has contacts with the mine, and they’re asking her to help get the mine to rectify the situation. The more she presses on their behalf, the more she’s jeopardizing the goodwill of the mine, and they may pull their funding from her agency.

Source: What genre would you describe this as?

Fischer: I would describe it as literary fiction. I guess I’m not the one to say because I’m not the reader, but from the reactions of readers, I think that the fact that it’s about a civil engineer and that it’s written by a civil engineer, I think people are a little bit hesitant to imagine that it could be an enjoyable read. [laughs]

I would say you will not be disappointed. I spent 25 years writing this novel. Ever since I got out of the Peace Corps in ’94, I’ve been working on it. And a great part of that time was to learn how to write well. I think I have done my work and served up a really solid meal, a really enjoyable read, and that is the feedback that I’m getting. You can go on Amazon and see the feedback from readers, that people are enjoying the book.

Source: That’s got to be so satisfying to be working on something, to have something in your head for so long and not just the feeling of having it accomplished, but to have that outside validation now. That’s got to be pretty good, right?

Fischer: Yes, it is. I mean, 25 years is a long time. And I won’t say I was in isolation that whole time, but probably the first 10 years I pretty much wrote on my own until I felt I couldn’t make it any better. Then I started sending out copies to friends and family, maybe 20 or 30 or 40 copies every year to year and a half. I would get feedback, and I would revise it.

I did take a lot of the comments from people, and I think it made the book better. About 10 years ago I started going to a professional writing conference, and right off the bat I could see the difference in the kind of feedback I was getting. These are people who know writing, and they go right to the point, and I think my writing took a quantum leap. I have gone every year, I’ve circulated scenes, read them in critique sessions, and I think it’s really helped me to refine my sensibility as a writer.

People would walk up to me after a Read and Critique and say, “That’s the kind of writing I think all of us here want to do. It’s beautiful.” That kind of feedback I’ve been getting from years at the conference, but nobody had seen the whole book.

At some point, maybe three years ago, the big thing for me was getting Ghanaian readers to take a look at it. I’m really writing from my heart. I’m really writing out of love for what life has given me. My two years in the Peace Corps in Ghana were profound for me. And I want through the novel to somehow share with people who weren’t there the poignance and the beauty of the life that Ghanaians shared with me. So, the last thing I want to do is unintentionally offend the people I’m trying to honor, but it’s so easy to do even with the best of intentions.

So, I guess I’m responding to your question about getting this affirmation back. … Before the book gets published, you produce something that is called an advance review copy, or an ARC. That’s what you send out to reviewers so that you can actually have a review quote on your cover when you publish it. Sending those out and getting the responses from those people – who are people who know good writing and also know Ghana – was really very moving for me.

It felt like at the end of a 25-year journey there was somebody there waiting to say, “We welcome you.”

Source: You mentioned that you spent some time in Ghana with the Peace Corps. When did you decide that that experience was something you wanted to write about at least in some form?

Fischer: When I got home from the Peace Corps, I immediately started typing up my journals with the intent of having a novel.

Source: I’m interested that you always were looking at it in terms of a novel, not necessarily as just a straight memoir or something like that?

Fischer:  No, because as a child I always loved fiction. I was always reading, and I knew from a very early age that I was going to write a novel. For me, there’s something more alive, there’s something larger about the canvas of fiction. … I want to get beyond the empirical and just the recitation of actual facts.

Source:  Interesting. So, it was really during that experience that you were journaling and capturing impressions with an eye on a novel potentially someday?

Fischer: You know, I kept three sets of journals. I kept my professional journal for the work that we were doing; I kept a journal that was written to friends and family on the level of anything that I would be openly willing to share with anyone else; and, I kept a personal set of journals, which is kind of my uncensored, much more intimate journal that I’ve always kept, so I had that material when I came back.

Source: Have you met other civil engineers who are inclined to write like this? Do you think there are some similar skill sets there?

Fischer: I have no doubt they’re out there. I don’t want to forget anyone. I don’t think I have met another engineer who’s writing fiction, but I believe they’ve always existed and still exist. [laughs]

Source: Do you think the process of writing a novel has helped make you a better civil engineer or helped you approach your work differently?

Fischer: Absolutely. Wow, that’s a big question.

I think, for writing this book, I’m a better human being and that there’s something about the posture of writing fiction … When you’re writing a story, you don’t even know the what. You don’t know how the plot’s going to unfold. So it requires a posture of respect and a posture of listening because you’re waiting for the story to reveal itself.

There can be that tendency in the mind for when that story becomes visible to say, “Oh no, that’s not right, that’s not it,” and to ignore it and to keep waiting, imagining you’re listening, but you just missed it. And so, you learn to honor that very first impulse and not turn it away.

I would say, similarly, professionally, I’m a supervising engineer, so there are engineers who work under my guidance … learning to, seriously, from my heart, learning to really respect the people who work for me and really listen to them and what they’re bringing into the room and say yes to what they’re bringing in, that’s been huge for me.

Learn more about The Advocacy at melissaannfischer.com.

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  1. I especially liked what Melissa said at the very end of the interview. First, I had no idea that a fiction writer did now know how the story was really going to end until she was nearing the end the story. But even a more important point — that it is absolutely critical what we listen to that little voice telling us “something is not alright here and we must pay attention.” In Melissa’s case it meant paying attention to those she was leading, because they often saw what she did not see.

  2. Who is the publisher and where can the novel be purchased? This sounds a bit like Ibsen’s story, “An enemy of the people”.


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