Maile Meloy plays kayak polo and surfs; she comes from people who consider nothing impossible; she has a more exotic name than you do. It’s Hawaiian, because her parents lived there before she was born, in Montana. It is pronounced MY-lee.
Maile Meloy has a chair that tilts backward so that she can give her shoulders a break, and she writes in it every morning, when the line between dreamlife and reality is blurriest.
She laughs a lot, smiles a lot, is tiny—a beanpole with biceps—and ebullient.
I met her at Butler University, at a Q&A session before her evening reading. Her new book, The Apothecary, is a big detour for a writer historically focused on the chuckholes and blind curves of adult life. It’s a young adult novel, a fantasy of teenage spies and magic elixirs. That’s not so different, she says. What’s different is moving from novel to short story, which is “like training for a marathon and then trying to run the 100-yard dash.”
Maile Meloy hates descriptions of trees: “I’m a narrative junkie.” That’s no surprise. Her stories move quickly and are full of people doing stuff with/to/in defiance of other people. They are full of Montana, which she is, too: “There’s a trait that people in isolated places have. They believe they can do things they’ve never done before.” She believed she could write, which she says might not have seemed a real possibility had she grown up in New York.
Her stories are full of lawyers, as was her young life with a lawyer father. (One who plumbed their house without assistance or benefit of experience. How’d he do it? “Just remember that everything runs downhill.”)
“Lawyers see people at really hard times in their lives.” And they’re the modern version of oral storytellers: “They need to have a more convincing narrative than the other guy.”
Her mantra, during her early writing days was “What would Cheever do?” What she does is never give up. Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It was borne of the reject pile, of old stories she returned to with new determination to solve. “Time is the great editor,” she said. It turned insurmountable problems into puzzles—solvable puzzles that she pieced into incisive little narratives.
“Writing is revising,” she said. “I throw out at least as many pages as I keep.” All in service of getting to the guts, which she shows you, pulls you close to examine. And you recognize them—they’re inside you, too, just as vulnerable and raw as the pulsing slimy red organs she holds—but before you can examine them fully, she yanks back, because . . .
“I like an ending that doesn’t tighten down too much and take all the air out of the story.”