Malie Meloy grew up in Helena, currently lives in Los Angeles, and has become one of the most acclaimed young American fiction writers in recent years, with two novels (2003’s Liars and Saints and 2006’s A Family Daughter) and two short story collections (2002’s Half in Love and the new Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It) to her credit. Granta listed her among the 21 “Best Young American Novelists” in a 2007 feature, and she has won several awards including The Aga Khan Prize for Fiction from The Paris Review, a PEN/Malamud Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Meloy will appear in Missoula at this year’s Montana Festival of the Book on October 22 (Wilma Theater). I recently interviewed Meloy via email about her new story collection, her writing process, and the difference in word choice between her and her brother, The Decemberists‘ Colin Meloy.
New West: Eight of the eleven stories in this collection are narrated by or written from the perspective of male characters. Why did you decide to write mainly from the male perspective?
Maile Meloy: The stories were written over several years, so I didn’t realize how prevalent the male perspective was until I was putting the book together. There was a while when I was first writing stories when I didn’t feel I could write a man’s voice, but now it feels almost more comfortable, maybe because it’s easier to keep myself out of it.
NW: Some of the tension in several of your stories is provided by past or anticipated adultery, a classic subject that has been tackled by many contemporary short story writers, notably Richard Ford and the late John Updike. How did you make the subject fresh for you?
MM: When I start writing a story, it always feels like a process of discovery, and I’m not really thinking about what other people have done. I try to read a lot of different kinds of books so I’m not in danger of mimicking any one of them, and I try to write stories I would want to read.
NW: Many of the stories in this collection contain a surprise or twist, such as in “Two-Step,” when the reader learns that the narrator is having an affair with her friend’s husband, or in “Lovely Rita,” which takes several turns after Rita asks the narrator to help her raffle off her sexual services, or the moment in “Red From Green” when Sam’s dad retreats into his tent. How do you come up with these central surprises, and how do you decide when to reveal them within the story?
MM: It’s all trial and error. I see where the story goes as I’m writing it, and when I get stuck, I think about what could possibly happen next and pick the thing that seems most interesting or promising. Then I let time pass and read it over to see if things are happening at the right time. I think you can really feel it if the timing isn’t right, especially if time has passed.
NW: My favorite story might be “Travis, B.” in which the title character must drive from western to eastern Montana twice a week for a teaching job. Have you heard of people driving that distance for jobs in Montana?
MM: I’m so glad you liked it. My stepmother had a job like that, for which she had to drive across the state. I was so struck by it, by the despair and the weariness of facing that drive. She didn’t meet any cowboys, but when I wanted to write about two people who come from different worlds, even though they live in the same state, that drive seemed a way to make the distance physical and tangible.
NW: How does an idea develop into a story for you?
MM: I usually start with a situation, but a fairly simple one, and just see what happens, as I find my way through. For example: the first seeds of “Travis, B.” came from the half-serious rumor that a certain restaurant in Montana might be owned by someone in witness protection, who’d been sent to rural Montana and had to start a life there. I’d never been to the restaurant, but it struck me that it would be very strange and lonely to leave a tightly knit urban world, and everyone you know, and end up in this incredibly isolated, tiny town. (I won’t name the town, on the off chance that the theory is true.) Nothing of that remained in the story except the idea of isolation and the difficulty of connection. It wasn’t until I had the cowboy as the male character that the story started to work.
NW: You’ve lived in California for over a decade now, but you still set much of your fiction in Montana. Is it easier to write about a place that you’re no longer living in?
MM: I think it might be. I go home two or three times a year, and still feel a strong connection, and it’s the place I know best. In high school at Helena High, my teacher David Cooper had us read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, in which a character says, “The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon.”
NW: “Agustín” is set in Argentina. What prompted this story? How familiar do you need to be with a place before you can set your fiction there?
MM: I’ve always been interested in Argentina as a place, and a long section of my novel A Family Daughter was set there. The country had scary associations for me when I was a kid, because of the political unrest there. Chile, too—I was terrified of the Junta, without really knowing what it was. I’ve been to Argentina a few times since, and that helps—to have seen the hanging parrot nests, and been on an estancia. I also read a travel book by Miranda France called Bad Times in Buenos Aires, and while I wouldn’t say anything made its way into the book, it was still useful.
NW: Your language is clear and precise, and you manage to achieve a lot of striking sentences by putting together simple words in a novel way. (For example, I loved this passage from “The Children”: “‘Hey!’ Gavin said, with undisguised joy at seeing Jennie, and Fielding understood that his son was in love, unrequited. She took the tribute seated, like a queen.”) Have you always written in this concise, straightforward way, or did you ever go through the phase that some aspiring writers go through of writing flowery prose?
MM: Thank you! I don’t think I had a flowery period. I didn’t start writing fiction until I was 22, but I wrote a lot of letters to friends who lived far away, which I think was good practice as a sustained attempt both to communicate and to entertain someone else. And I wrote one story when I was 15, while staying with my great-aunt on one of the Great Lakes, I’m not sure which one. I had a sudden compulsion to write a story, and had the whole thing in my head. I wrote it longhand, the only fiction I’ve ever written longhand. It had a love triangle in it, and it was set in Utah, in the house of a lapsed Mormon, and it had a sort of dramatic ending. I don’t think the prose was flowery, but it might have been more mannered than I would like now. Then I put the story away and didn’t write another one for years.
NW: In his lyrics for The Decemberists, your brother Colin Meloy uses much more elaborate vocabulary than you do in your stories. Did you have a similar difference in vocabulary when you were kids?
MM: I don’t think so, but palanquins don’t generally come up when you’re growing up. He read more fantasy novels than I did, which might have had an effect.
NW: Have you ever collaborated on a creative project with your brother?
MM: No. It’s a nice idea. We send each other what we write.
NW: For Oprah Magazine, you wrote about your difficulty coming home to Montana for Christmas because of all the obligations you have to visit your divorced parents and their extended families. Did the story “O Tannenbaum” grow out of this experience of Christmas tension?
MM: No, it grew out of the memory of cutting down a tree every Christmas, and taking one that was crowding another tree, so that the one left behind had room to grow. That image, that idea, was all I had. Then the family was in the car and came across hitchhikers who’d broken a ski, which seemed interesting, and their names were Bonnie and Clyde, which seemed ambiguously scary, and then I made my way forward from there. I told NPR’s Morning Edition and my uncle Tim that the CB radio had come from the fact that he had one in his van, and we made up “handles” for ourselves, but he has no memory of the radio or the handles. This happens sometimes—like the time I wrote an essay about being chased by a bear and my father said it was really a moose. But I’m still fairly sure the CB radio memory is true.
Meloy will appear in Missoula at this year’s Montana Festival of the Book on October 22 (Wilma Theater).