In a deep Montana winter, a man drives nine hours through the night, leaving his horses without food, to find a woman he just met, only to leave her with a few words in the parking lot and turn around, not knowing what more to say. A woman having tea with her lover’s wife is blindsided by news of a baby; not knowing whether to stay or go when he gets home, she lets herself into his car outside and waits.
The characters in Mailey Meloy’s second story collection, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, are “doomed to ambivalence and desire,” conveyed to us in prose free of all digression or departure. Meloy understands better than most writers that a fierce economy of language makes every decision an essential one, and every indecision heartbreaking. Meloy understands the music and mathematics of the short story form the way a conductor understands what the winds and brass and choir are doing at a given moment, and what they should be doing.
Both Ways was a national bestseller, a California Book Awards silver medalist, and one of the top ten books of 2009 according to the New York Times. Meloy is also the author of the story collection Half in Love, and the novels Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter. She has been shortlisted for Britain’s Orange Prize, and has received the Paris Review’s Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award, the American Academy of Art and Letters’s Rosenthal Foundation Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2007 she was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. She lives in Los Angeles.
The Rumpus: The danger in many of the stories in Both Ways is elemental: black ice, machinery accidents, live wires. Is danger is an essential component to all fiction? If not, must something else be present for a story to work?
Maile Meloy: I think danger is an essential component of life, and therefore of some fiction, though there are other ways of creating conflict and drama and interest. I would say that most of the danger in the stories is human—the black ice and the machinery wouldn’t be dangerous except for human folly and error, and the people in the story with the live wires (“Nine”) are more dangerous than the electricity.
Rumpus: Want—as in maybe all fiction—is central to these stories, but the desires are not always big or complex. In “Liliana,” you have that beautiful scene in which the narrator remembers eating warm buttered saltines made by a friend’s grandmother, and how he wanted his grandmother living in Spain to invite him there, to eat buttered crackers. As a writer, when do you know the size and scope of what a character wants?
Meloy: I never know anything until I start writing. In that story, the narrator had a rich, unknowable grandmother, so it made sense that he would want something homely and simple from the world he saw around him—he would want consistency and warmth. And baked buttered Saltines seemed like the perfect unpretentious comfort, but I didn’t know that until the moment I got there.
Rumpus: I read an interview in which you talked about your move to California: ten books and a table lamp. You said that you’d been braver then. Many of the characters in Both Ways seem to be acutely aware that their bravery has slipped out from under them, even if they’re not sure when, and the brave acts they do manage to summon—Aaron skiing the closed black diamond trail with his daredevil brother, or Chet driving nine hours across Montana to see Beth Travis—don’t seem rewarded.
Meloy: I also had a sleeping bag. I think it’s easy to be brave when you’re starting out because you don’t know any better. It’s harder when you start to see how people get blind-sided by what happens in their lives, how everything can change in a minute. I admire bravery and believe all the things people say about not letting your decisions in life be based on fear—that you can’t be afraid of failure, that boldness is everything—but we wouldn’t be telling ourselves that all the time if it were easy.
Rumpus: You’ve written two novels and two story collections now, all to excellent reviews. Do you view stories and novels as two different species, or are they closer than that? Do you feel more comfortable in one form than the other?
Meloy: I like going back and forth between the two. I do think they’re different, in that there are story-sized ideas and novel-sized ideas. But my first novel, Liars and Saints, began with two linked short stories that I made into the first two chapters. And although I worked hard to make sure the novels each have one big narrative, they’re both made up of story-like chapters.
I think 10-15 pages is sort of my natural length, in the way a runner might run the 800- or the 100-meter dash. Short stories are harder because you have to start over every time, with new characters and new situations, but they’re what I did first. And you can see the end of them. I like living in a novel, as a writer and as a reader, but sometimes you can’t see your way out.
Rumpus: In his letter “To a Young Writer,” Wallace Stegner tells a former student that her books will speak to thoughtful readers, who are “scattered through the apparently empty theater, listening and making very little noise.” Do you hear your readers like that, and has that changed from book to book? Do you think the technological changes in how we read and the online communities in which we participate are changing the nature of the audience, or the theater?
Meloy: Now I’m curious who the writer was, and what happened to her.
The theater actually seems surprisingly full, to me. I hear from people a lot, even though I’m not on Facebook and don’t tweet and don’t have a blog. I do think it’s much more possible to be in touch than it used to be, but I’m not sure that’s important to the work itself. You don’t want to be too eager to please, or too afraid of criticism. For publishing reasons, it took two years for my first story collection to come out, after I sold it, and I wrote my first novel in the meantime.
I like hearing from readers now, but I’m really glad I had that protected space for two books and not just one. I think it was good to keep writing on my own, without any expectations or opinions coming in.
Rumpus: What practical (or impractical) advice can you offer to a young writer?
Meloy: Read all you can. Anyone who writes dialogue is probably a natural mimic, so I think it’s good to read as many different kinds of writers as you can, on your way to finding your own voice. You couldn’t possibly mimic all of them, but you can see what other people do.
Also write all you can. It’s like playing an instrument, and you have to practice, and the way you practice writing is to write stories and throw many of them away.
Also pay attention to the world, to the stories people tell you, to how they do the things they do all day.