As the title indicates, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it (Text, May 2010 in Aus, Riverhead US), Maile Meloy’s engaging collection of stories, is about the fear, desire, pleasure, confusion and complications of wanting it both ways and sometimes having it so. It’s like Guido’s dilemma in Fellini’s 8 1/2 – he wants all the women and he wants none of them, he wants to make the film and he doesn’t. About the main character in his film, he says: ‘He wants to possess and devour everything. He can’t pass anything up. He’s afraid he’ll miss something. He’s drained.’ It’s a kind of paralysis I’m sure many of us are familiar with. Not really a weakness, but simply wanting too much. Meloy’s stories are both bold and quiet – the characters face their dilemmas in the realms of family, love, sex, money and place. I was very happy that Meloy agreed to an email interview from her home in California. Enjoy.
Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, is, as the title suggests, a book about our often contradictory desires. Your characters want to be everywhere, and yet stay safe and comfortable; they also want to be with other people, without destroying what they know (and love). Why is this pull, this tension, so compelling to you as a writer?
Because it’s intolerable, that we should have things only one way—isn’t it? 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.
The class of the characters, their jobs, and the settings are quite varied in the book. How do you decide on a character, occupation and setting? What comes first and where does it go from there?
Usually the setting is the given, when I begin. If the characters are on a ranch in Montana, or at a polo club in Paris, or in wartime London, then that’s essential to who they are, and what the story will be. Because it’s the given, I tend to take the setting for granted and it isn’t usually very present in the first draft. I start with dialogue, with the emotional situation between the characters and what they say, and how they reveal themselves. Then I go back and add in the important details of the setting so it’s vivid and the reader can see it. But I’m completely bored by things like descriptions of trees. I only put in landscape if it’s really essential to the story. I have a general sense of the characters at the start, but I figure them out as it goes along, as they talk to each other. Occupation usually has something to do either with the setting or with the important thing I know about the character at the beginning: he’s an injured cowboy, or he has a job building a nuclear power plant that he feels ambivalent about, because it’s the only job that’s available to him. The father in ‘The Girlfriend’ became an architect after I decided that his murdered daughter was in Montana because she loved wilderness, because The Lorax had set her on a path in life: it made it seem possible that the sky-blocking office buildings her father designs are the reason she flees New York for the West.
I love how, in most of the stories, we are privy to the history and tensions of a particular relationship, then a spanner is thrown into the works, and the reader is left to form their own conclusions. Or, in something like ‘Red From Green’, the story concludes on the real cusp of this teenage girl’s adventures (though we’ve seen the world that has shaped her and formed her decision in moving on). Have you always been a fan of the more open-ended approach to short fiction? Or do you feel you give enough away for the reader to understand where this is all going?
I hope there’s enough for the reader to understand! I don’t want stories to tighten down too much at the end, because life isn’t like that. It’s ongoing, and out of every episode there are always choices and surprises and unexpected consequences. I want a story ending to land, like a gymnast lands at the end of a routine, but I also want it to seem like real life, in which we know that everything will go on: the gymnast will walk off the mat and go wait for her scores, and all the complicated relationships with her coaches and teammates and family will be waiting.
Your writing comes across as very natural, and your stories are in the realist vein. How did you come to your style and thematic interests? Can you tell us a bit about your history as a writer?
I started writing short stories when I was twenty-one and spent the next few years trying to figure out how to do it. One thing I was trying to do was to give a voice to the American West that I came from, which was very particular and seemed underrepresented in the books I had read. That seemed like something I could bring to the great, vast, intimidating world of books. My first book, Half in Love, was a collection of short stories, most set in Montana and Utah, although one was set in Paris and one in wartime London. But then I started to feel that I was in danger of being identified as that Montana-girl writer, and I was determined that my first novel, Liars and Saints, would never set foot in Montana, and never mention it. Liars and Saints is set mostly in California, with detours to France, Louisiana, and an American aircraft carrier in the Pacific during World War II. It was realistic, following a single family for sixty years and tracing the effect that buried secrets have on them over generations. After that I got restless about all the realism, and wrote a novel, A Family Daughter, that reads as a separate, realistic novel with its own emotional story, but also has a meta-fictional aspect if you read it together with Liars and Saints. It was a way of keeping myself on my toes, staying interested, and doing something I hadn’t done before. Then I wrote the new collection, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, and I just finished a young adult novel called The Apothecary, which isn’t like anything I’ve ever done before and was a great joy.
Who are some of your favourite short story writers, or what are some of your favourite stories?
JD Salinger’s Nine Storiesis one of my all time favorite collections, and the story I like best changes every time I re-read it. It used to be ‘DeDaumier-Smith’s Blue Period’, and then it was ‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’, and then it was ‘The Laughing Man’. I also love and admire William Trevor, who seems unstoppable as a short-story-writing force; the Catalan writer Merce Rodoreda; Alice Munro, of course; Anthony Doerr, whose forthcoming collection Memory Wall will take the top of your head off; Richard Ford, who was my first fiction writing teacher; and Philip Roth, who doesn’t write short stories anymore but whose Goodbye, Columbus was an inspiration to me when I was trying to assemble Half in Love. And David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives is one of my favorite recent story collections, if it can be called that, which I think it can.