I've loved Maile Meloy's work since I read her first collection, Half in Love, followed by Liars and Saints (shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize) and A Family Daughter. Published by The New Yorker, she's received the Paris Review's Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her latest collection of stories, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it is astonishing, moving, and just brilliantly written. I'm so thrilled to have Maile here.
The interesting thing about this collection is that all of these fabulous stories were ones you had originally discarded, that you picked up again and polished. What changed in your initial writing of the story and your polishing? Was it craft or simply looking at the stories from a different point of view?
I think time is the great editor, and I had set the stories aside for long enough that I could see ways to fix them. I really despaired of most of them, but I also think now that the fact that I found them difficult meant that there was something promising in them (though I’ve thrown away plenty of unsalvageable stories). Here are more specific answers:
In the case of “The Children,” I made the story a lot longer, and let it grow outside its original confines. When I first started writing stories they were always 10-12 pages long, and I think one of the things I’ve learned in the last ten years is how to be more expansive, and allow in what might feel like excess. In the case of “Liliana,” I decided not to be afraid of the complications of the title character, and to let her be both awful and charming, and ready to foil anyone who wants anything from her. In the first draft of “Agustín,” the main character’s daughter, waiting for her inheritance, was so dreadful that you could understand him courting his ex-lover just to spite her, which took away from the power of his love. So in that case I tried to give the story and the desire back to Agustín.
There’s an incredible sense of longing in these stories. One character yearns for an unattainable woman “who could find him if she wanted”; a girl in “Red from Green” can’t process a disturbing event until she turns it into a story. All of the characters indeed seem to “want it both ways” even at their own peril. Why do you think we all want this, even though we know the outcomes may be bleak?
Because it’s intolerable, that we should have things only one way—isn’t it? When I was a kid I would never answer the question of what I wanted to be when I grew up, even as a game, because to choose one thing seemed to rule out all the other possibilities. I believe that choosing a path and embracing it can be fulfilling, but I also find it maddening that whatever you choose inevitably closes other doors—even if I’m just ordering off a restaurant menu. Why did I get the fries? Why didn’t I get the fries? Like that. I hope it’s human nature and it isn’t just me.
Many of your stories shift direction and offer surprises, like small shocks. I was wondering if in the writing, you yourself were surprised, or if you had everything mapped out in advance.
I’m always surprised. Occasionally I know vaguely where a story is going, and the writing goes more quickly then, but mostly I find out what happens as I go along. There’s that story about F. Scott Fitzgerald, I think, losing his only copy of a new story on a train. Someone asked if he was going to rewrite it and he said, “Why? I know how it ends.” I feel a little like that. I think it would be more efficient to have things plotted in my head before I began, but I don’t really know how to do that. I’m usually writing to find out what happens. And when it’s surprising, I’m happy.
What’s obsessing you now in your writing?
How to switch gears. I just wrote a young adult novel called The Apothecary (it will be published by G.P. Putnam in 2011), and as I was finishing it, I was asked for a short story. I’d already raided all the almost-there stories for Both Ways, so I tried to write a story set in the world of the grown-up novel I want to write next. What I ended up with wasn’t a short story; it sounded exactly like the beginning of a young adult novel. That’s what I’ve been writing, so those are the muscles I’ve been exercising. I couldn’t come up with a short story in a hurry. I know from going back and forth between stories and novels in the past that it just takes a little time to make the switch, but I have to figure out how to get the muscles for writing grown-up novels back.
What question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask?
Nothing, these are all terrific! But feel free to ask follow-ups, if you have them.