As part of a writing exercise in her eighth grade English class, Ashley Mellinger penned a letter to her future self.
In it, the 14-year-old girl from Harleysville, Pennsylvania, asked whether her writing project would ever be complete: “Is H.O.T.P.S. finished yet?”
Now, Mellinger, 23, an EMU senior a couple months away from earning her nursing degree, can finally answer that question with a resounding “Yes.” Her debut novel, Heartache on the Play Stage (HOTPS), was published on Jan. 23 and is available to purchase at online booksellers.
“I promised my 14-year-old self that I would get it published one day,” Mellinger said. “I’ve been working on it for eight to nine years, and I promised myself it was going to be worthwhile.”
The 486-page book is a humorous coming-of-age tale that follows Katie, a 17-year-old who’s among the top of her high school class and appears to have it all. She has stellar grades, impressive extracurriculars, and a meticulously planned future. But, “not everything is what it seems,” reads a description on the back cover.
The title of the novel refers to a breakup between Katie and her boyfriend Johnny on stage as they’re putting on one big play meant to reenact the lives of the students within the high school. Within two weeks of the breakup, Johnny starts dating someone else and, Mellinger said, “that completely crushes her.”
“One thing I like is that she recovers because she wants to get better,” Mellinger said. “Not because Johnny finally takes her back or someone tells her to stop. She recovers for herself.”
The novel is published by Archway Publishing, which specializes in working with self-published authors. Heartache on the Play Stage is available to purchase on the publisher’s website and on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.
Order her novel here.
A copy of the book is also available to check out at the Sadie Hartzler Library at EMU.
Work on the novel began in 2016, when Mellinger was in middle school, and started as her just writing for fun.
“I would write little notes in my phone,” she recalled. “I carried around a notebook everywhere and would just write down ideas, write down everything that came to me.”
Those ideas turned into stories about Katie and her circle of friends as they navigated high school. Mellinger, who cited The Outsiders as an influence, would stay up late and “write the night away” whenever inspiration struck. Because such a large part of her writing came from when she was in high school herself, the characters and their dialogue, along with their worries and their dreams, all feel authentic and true to life.
The characters bear some similarities to the author. Like Mellinger, Katie has always wanted to become a nurse. And, similar to what Mellinger did before coming to EMU, Katie wants to take a gap year after high school to work as an EMT.
“It’s a work of fiction, but there are parts of me in all the characters,” Mellinger said.
She finished writing the story in January 2021, and then “editing took forever.”
Mellinger said she’s been reading Heartache on the Play Stage to her boyfriend over the phone during their nightly calls together. She’s also been reading it to her mom, who’s always keen to hear another chapter.
“She thinks it’s absolutely hilarious,” Mellinger said. “She laughs at everything — even the things I don’t think are funny.”
Another one of her biggest fans is right on campus.
Dawn Neil, coordinator for the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and a good friend of Mellinger, started reading it as soon as she could get her hands on a copy earlier this week. She playfully bragged about having the first autographed copy of the novel.
“I might have to buy a second copy so I don’t crack the spine on this one,” she said.
So, what are the future plans for the nursing novelist?
Mellinger said she has two projects in the works, including a sequel, but those have been put on hold as she completes her coursework. She also plans to throw a big party to celebrate the novel after graduation.