Cicero once said, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” As an author, lawyer, district attorney and publishing house founder, this week’s portrait, Treva Hall Melvin, knows a little about books and soul. Her publishing company Neith Rising publishes work from women of color and LGBTQIA+ authors. A native New Yorker, she graduated from Villanova Law School in Pennsylvania and now lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and their two children.
Tell me a little about yourself.
I am from Jamaica, Queens, NY. Born and raised. I went to Hillcrest High School there and then I went to Indiana State University on an athletic scholarship. From there I went back home and worked as an assistant physical therapist because I had a background in sports medicine. I decided to go to law school because I wasn’t able to get into Columbia to get my Masters degree in PT, so my dad, a smart man — he was an inorganic chemist engineer — said, “Why don’t you go to law school? I was so mad at Columbia that I was like, “Yeah! I can do better than Columbia!” He tricked me! And that’s how I landed in PA because I went to Villanova to study law. Then I got married and adopted two kids. One when I was 40, the other at 48. They’re 21 and 14 now. The wild thing is that we didn’t find out until later that they were related to each other. Not that they cared, they were already brother and sister.
What were you like as a kid?
I was all about the sports. I was into swimming, karate, I was a brown belt in taekwondo, and softball, I had an athletic scholarship in volleyball and was the captain of the basketball team. I even tried out for the junior volleyball team. We had a few thousand students and I was 96th from the top. For fun we’d go into Manhattan, taking the train or bus, hopping on the E-train.
That’s back when we were free as kids.
Yes, yes! I’d lie to my parents and take the subway to the village and hang out. We didn’t need alcohol or drugs, we’d just have fun and experience life. We’d learn and see and get it. My dad was involved in a lot of community activism, politics, supporting Shirley Chisholm at the time and doing voter registration. As a kid it was a drag, but I’ve learned to appreciate it as an adult. What a gift it was.
I had a similar background, but it was my mother dragging me around to canvas.
No, I was born in North Jersey. We moved to Pennsylvania when I was in about the 4th grade. It was a little culture shock from the city to the very Republican township of Radnor.
Yeah, my move to PA has been interesting as well. I’ve had several Karens try their nonsense on me. I’ve had about seven incidents, and I always want to say, you really don’t want to try this on me. They’re in shock when I turn it around on them and respond in kind. Then suddenly they have nothing to say! I don’t understand that, you roll at me and then turn tail. Did you expect me to just take it? And it often happens when I’m running, just trying to enjoy myself, just breathing air and not doing anything to anybody and you decide to step to me with some passive-aggressive nonsense. I had one woman try something at a CVS and instead of going off, I just said to her, “You! Go to the back and stand in the corner.” The woman at the register knew me and she was trying her best not to laugh. And the woman who was rude, suddenly had nothing to say. There was another time when a cop picked up my son and some other kids who were just out playing. The cop made the kids call their parents and when I went down, I told him that I was a former federal prosecutor and asked him what the problem was. I also asked him to identify himself and pulled out my phone to tape him. He told me, “I already said my name and I’m not saying it again.” I said, “Don’t you smart mouth me” and told my son to get in the car. I don’t like having to come out of my bag unless I’m in a courtroom but sometimes you have to. The cop didn’t say anything because he didn’t know who I knew, but after I left, one of the other mothers, who was white said that he turned to her and said, “I’m sorry you had to see that” thinking she would be on his side. But she was gangster too and she clapped back, “I agree with her!” This year has turned me into a beast. If I see you doing anything to a woman, or a child, I’m going to stop you.
Speaking of protecting women, I saw in your bio that as the Assistant District Attorney for Delaware County you worked for the Special Victims Unit. I’m a lesbian, so of course I love the show Law & Order: SVU. What was factual and what was fictional on the show?
To start with, you’re never going to yell or shake your finger at a judge. That just doesn’t happen and if it did, you’d be in lockup before you could blink. You’d be downstairs with the sheriff eating donuts. We used to watch the show and laugh, “What? You can’t object to that!” but it’s still engaging TV and I’ll tell you, whatever you see on the show, you can bet it’s happened in real life, but 10 times worse. The most ugly, horrific thing you can think of? It’s happened. One of my co-workers used to write for the show, so there is an authentic voice from the mind of an attorney. One thing that is the same is that the pleasure you get from putting away a sex offender, it is glorious. Especially when you set out a trap for the defense attorney and they fall into it. It’s a chess game. I sit down and write out my questions: if I ask this one, what will his answer be, and if I ask this one after that, he’s not going to have any option but to answer this and then I’ve got him. Not everyone does that but I was extremely successful in attaining convictions because I used that format. That was an exciting time; I may go back to that.
That’s cool. So let’s talk about what you’re doing now.
So I started a publishing company because I’d written a book and the company that had it wasn’t doing anything with it. Then I found out that they went out of business and sold out to another company and that my book was part of the package, something that I hadn’t agreed to, so I decided to contest it because, hello, I’m a lawyer. They were located in Arizona and I threatened to drag them into court in NY. They took care of it in less than an hour.
Way to go!
Yeah, so I got it back and decided to re-publish the book. Then Trump got elected and all that nonsense started resurfacing. Some people were losing their minds and some people were losing their jobs. With all the ignorance and craziness out there I decided to do something to help and motivate women and LGBTQ+ people of color. Even in industries that “should” be more progressive and accepting, our writers struggle to express themselves authentically thanks to a lack of respect by the systems in place in publishing houses. I want us to fill a serious need in the publishing industry for these overlooked groups. We include genres like mystery, crime, thrillers, drama, fantasy, YA and children’s books.
Tell me about your book, “Mr. Samuel’s Penny: An Elizabeth Parrot Mystery.” It got great reviews.
It’s a page-turning mystery but also a coming-of-age story inspired by my childhood as a city girl spending summers with my grandparents in North Carolina. But it’s not an autobiography, the mysterious events in the book are made up! Some of them are based on things that I’d seen but written in an age appropriate way for young readers. I wanted my daughter, who was 11 or 12 at the time, to have something she would enjoy reading. My Dad was the one who encouraged me to write. Throughout my years of criminal practice, defense and as a special victims prosecutor, I had many stories to tell. He would listen and sometimes he would laugh so hard he would nearly fall off the chair but then there were stories that made him sit in silence until I was done. He suggested that I start writing them down. I have a few more books in the series that I want to put out soon.
That sounds exciting. Tell me about your connection to the queer community.
I’m an ally, and I used to be in the life before I got married. I’ve just always been who I am and gone where I feel life should take me with whomever it happened to be. I’ve always had an affinity for anyone brave enough to just be you. Back when I was in high school I had boyfriends and girlfriends and we didn’t give a crap. Are you kidding? I’m from New York, who cares? I was allowed to just be me. And it’s nice that the kids seem to be returning to that. I remember when the football player, Michael Sam, came out, and I asked my son about it. He was 14 and playing football at the time and he said, “Who cares? He’s a great player, that’s all that matters.” He’s walking around with black nail polish on, he doesn’t care. He gets it. One of his friends just transitioned and it’s not a big deal. I’m so proud. And my 21 year old dates whoever she wants, she’s wild like me. She gets it. And all their friends do too, they’re kind, gracious and humble. They make me feel like I’ve done my job.
That’s wonderful. So let’s get to some random questions. Your book revolves around a unique penny, were or are you a numismatist?
No, but my father was a coin and stamp collector. That’s where that came from.
What do you like to do for leisure time?
I’m taking Kumdo, which is a Korean version of Kendo, which is a martial arts practice where you have a bamboo sword and you wear the full garb and everything. I’m getting older and just working out, and jogging isn’t working for me or my mind. This is so good for my head, I love it. It’s not kicking and punching, it’s all about movement.
A conversation piece in your house?
When you walk in my door, there’s an iron Japanese foo dog right inside. He’s there to protect us from evil spirits coming into the house. I also collect a lot of antiques. My house itself is about 100 years old.
Something that people might not know about you.
I had breast cancer and had both breasts removed.
Something that one of your kids made that you still have.
My daughter made this blue angelfish in about 3rd grade and my son made one of those things where you press on copper to make a kind of 2D art thing, he made a silver one of a ship. They’re both on display in a kitchen display cabinet with my antique dishes.
I’m looking at your bio and it says that you bake cookies.
[Laughs] No! No more cookies, too fattening. But I can cook all day long. Now my thing is Asian cuisine. If I can get a bowl of string beans with garlic, I’m happy.
What are you binge watching?
“Yaoi” Boy Love anime or manga. What’s interesting is that they are typically created by women for women. I love “Given” and “Heaven Official’s Blessing” and “Twittering Birds Never Fly.” If I could find a doggone writer who could write something like that for me, I would pass out! People think they’re all about sex but they’re not, especially “Given”, I watch that and it can make me cry and “Heaven Official’s Blessing” is Chinese and it’s beautiful and historical.
What’s a favorite book of yours?
“To Kill a Mockingbird.” That’s my all time favorite. I have four copies of it at my house.
I wouldn’t expect anything else.