An Interview with Maile Meloy
by Jenna Williams
Maile Meloy grew up in Helena, Montana, and now lives in Los Angeles. Her new novel, The Apothecary, is her first for young readers. She is also the author of the novels Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter, and the story collections Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, which was named one of the Ten Best Books of 2009 by the New York Times Book Review and one of the best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times and Amazon.com. Meloy’s stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta, and other publications, and she has received The Paris Review’s Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a California Book Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2007, she was chosen as one of Granta’s 21 Best Young American Novelists. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Slate, Sunset, and O.
Interviewer: When you started working on The Apothecary, did you know that your audience would be younger than that of your previous works? If not, at what point in the writing process did that become clear to you?
Meloy: Yes, I knew it was a kids’ book from the start. But I didn’t know any of the rules for kids’ publishing, so I thought I was writing a young adult novel, and found out only after I turned it in that the characters being 14 made it a middle reader novel. But mostly I felt like I was just writing an adventure story about two 14-year-olds in 1952, and that would determine the tone and the content. I hoped it would be a book that people of all different ages could read.
Interviewer: Were you influenced by any young-adult or middle-reader authors in particular?
Meloy: I think the Trixie Belden mystery series, which my stepmother gave me when I was a kid, must have influenced me, although I haven’t looked at one of those books since I was 13. Trixie, like Janie in The Apothecary, is smart and intuitive and curious but also a real girl, not a detective-superhero. And because it’s a Cold War spy novel, I had John LeCarré in mind at the beginning—but John LeCarré for kids, which doesn’t exist. I revere Philip Pullman, both His Dark Materials and the Sally Lockhart books. But I only really started deliberately reading kids’ books after I’d written the first draft or two.
Interviewer: Having written fiction for an adult audience previously, did you find writing for a younger audience made the writing process easier, or more difficult, in any way?
Meloy: I think it opened up a new area of my brain. When you’ve been writing fiction for adults, dealing with the real, hard facts of the world, it’s very liberating to get your characters into a scrape, and to need a way out, and to realize, “Well, they can fly.”
Interviewer: In some of your short stories, you open with pithy, fast-moving narration. For instance, “Four Lean Hounds, Ca.1976” and “Lovely Rita” both cover major events and/or relatively long swaths of time before slowing down for dialogue and scene. This stands out to me, because it’s so different from the more conventional structure of covering narrative backstory within the scenes. And yet it works in your stories, so brilliantly. How do you decide which stories merit that form?
Meloy: I don’t really plan how I’ll write the stories ahead of time. I can recognize when it works, and when it doesn’t, I try to fix it or I throw it away. But I think there’s really something to just saying what happened, to get the reader up to speed.
Interviewer: One thing I really admire about your work is the way you foster empathy for all of your characters, regardless of their wrongdoings or poor choices. That is so difficult to do. At what point in the writing process do you find yourself seeing characters in a new way (either less perfect or more relatable than you thought)? Have there been characters you’ve had more trouble cracking open to access that empathy?
Meloy: The most interesting characters are multidimensional, of course. I think flaws make people relatable. And I think close third person helps generate empathy for problematic characters. Some characters can tell their own stories (in first person) and we believe them, but there’s always the possibility that they’re lying. With third person, you’re inside the character’s head, but there’s also a separate narrator telling you that this version of events is true.
Interviewer: Your novels take on several points of view—more than I’ve read in any other novel I can think of, off the top of my head. And yet, it feels very natural, in reading your work, to move from one perspective to another, and another, at a fairly quick pace. In your initial drafting process, do you jump around between different points of view, or do you work on one point of view at a time?
Meloy: I write the story beginning to end, and shift to the character who can best pick up the ball at that point.
Interviewer: In an essay on place in fiction, Richard Russo says, “I’ve never written effectively about any place I was currently residing.” Does this speak to (or contradict) your own experience at all? Did it become easier in any way to write about Montana once you moved away? Has it been at all difficult writing stories set in California?
Meloy: I’ve written things set in California, but they’ve mostly been set in the past, in cities where I don’t live. I think Russo’s right. I’ve written a lot of stories about Montana while living in Los Angeles. When I was in high school we read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, and there was a line that struck me, although I don’t think I really understood it then: “You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon.”
Interviewer: You said in another interview that you want to still be writing when you’re eighty, which isn’t something a lot of people can say about their occupations. What ways do you have of keeping the balance between work and play in the writing process—because it can’t be all fun, all the time, right?—so that you’ve arrived at this place of wanting to write forever?
Meloy: Writing is hard and sometimes frustrating, but when it’s going well, it’s great. I feel more grounded when I’m writing something, and I pay more attention to the world. I become more engaged with the stories in books and movies and conversation, and with thinking about how they work.
Interviewer: What advice about writing do you wish someone had given you earlier? (Or, what have you had to learn the hard way?)
Meloy: I’m an obsessive editor, and try to make sure a book is really finished when I turn it in. But when it comes back to me in galley pages, typeset in a new font and with the margins justified, I always see things I want to change. So now, before I turn the manuscript in, I put it in a different font and justify the margins as an editing tool, to try to trick myself into seeing it fresh.
Any way you can get some distance is good. Put the manuscript aside for a while, because time is the great editor. Read it aloud to yourself or (even better) to someone else. You’ll see and hear things your eye would otherwise skip over.
Interviewer: If you had to stop writing, what would be your first-choice dream job? (Nothing off limits.)
Meloy: Film editing, which is cheating because it’s just another form of storytelling. Or fixing up old houses—but again, you’re making something that people will live in, and thinking about their experience of living in it, which is sort of like writing novels.
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