Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Maile Meloy

Whether guarded and insular or curious and generous, all of Butler's visiting authors have something to offer. Sometimes the author sends out a vibe that (s)he is doing us a favor by dropping by, but it's more fun when the author is open to the experience.

As evidence, I give you Maile Meloy. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, she's also friendly and open-hearted. Maile's vibe was I'm here, and I'm ready to engage.

Meloy is the author of two novels (Liars and Saints, and A Family Daughter), two short story collections (Half in Love, and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It), and a Young Adult novel (The Apothecary). Her morning Q&A at the Efroymson Center for Creative Writing was followed by continued conversation over pizza. That night she wowed the crowd as she read from a new, as-of-yet unpublsihed story, "The Proxy Marriage."

Maile spoke about how her childhood in Big Sky Country effected her writing. She said that living in an isolated place like Montana makes people believe they can do things no one else can. She approaches writing, she said, in the same blind way.

Meloy said she likes to switch between short and long forms, and compared writing short stories to dating, and novel-writing to a long-term marriage. Each type of writing uses a different 'muscle,' and employing this analogy she said that short story-writing uses fast-twitch muscle, whereas novel-writing uses slow-twitch. She recently completed the sequel to "The Apothecary" and said that writing Young Adult novels has opened up a new area in her brain. Still, it has been a challenge for her to return the short story form, and she feels that her prose now reads like Young Adult lit.

When speaking about her story collection BWITOWIWI, Meloy said, "Time is the great editor." She illustrated this point by saying that she pulled the stories from BWITOWIWI from her reject pile. Time had passed since she last looked at them. With fresh eyes she was able to push through and fix the stories. "Don't give up on your reject pile," said Meloy, "especially if there's something in there that twinkles."

Meloy often starts a story with dialogue and puts her characters in charged situations. She doesn't outline her stories in advance, but thinks them through on paper, developing the characters and the plot as she writes. "I stand the characters up and let them talk." She tries to surprise the reader and herself. This type of automatic writing requires a lot of revision, she said, and she often goes back to makes her characters more vivid. "I have a responsibility to make the characters visible." Because there is so much revision involved, Meloy said she throws out as many pages as she keeps.

When asked about writer's block, Meloy discounted the phenomenon without saying so outright. She quoted Picasso, saying that Inspiration must find you working. "You do the work the way a violinist practices scales," she said. She writes every morning, the time of day when she is closer to her unconscious and dreams, the time her mind can make more associations. If she gets stuck, she takes a break. Often, when she returns to the work, she is able to untangle the problem. Or, she starts something new. "I feel grounded and happy when I write."

Meloy, who writes fiction, said that a lot of readers assume her stories are autobiographical. Her story Red From Green (from BWITOWIWI), tells about a young girl who has an troubling experience on a river trip. Meloy said that sometimes people come up to her and insist that she must have taken a similar river trip. When Meloy complained about this to her friend, the writer Tobias Wolff, he chided her, saying that writers work hard to make stories real, but complain when readers believe them.

At lunch I asked Maile if, in addition to writing, she teaches. She said she tried it for a year, but wasn't very good at it. That's the only thing Meloy said that I didn't buy. She didn't teach a single formal class at Butler, but I learned more than I can say.

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