During a rare lull in her busy schedule, award-winning author Maile Meloy graciously responded to our questions about writers who have influenced her work, twisty plots, unfinished stories, and the weather in Montana.
TWQ: You grew up in Helena, Montana. What Montana writers influenced you and why?
The poet Richard Hugo, who wrote some of the most beautiful Montana descriptions I know. Wallace Stegner, who staked out the real, everyday west as a subject for fiction. And Mary MacLane, who wrote brilliantly in 1901 about living at home in Butte with no prospects, driven crazy by the sight of her family’s toothbrushes by the sink. Also my aunt Ellen Meloy, who lived in Montana when I was growing up, and who made me think that it was possible to make a life and a living as a writer.
TWQ: Which non-Montana writers do you most admire and why?
So many: Cheever, Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, Joan Didion, Joseph Conrad. I loved David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Right now I’m re-reading Evelyn Waugh. I get so much pleasure and also instruction from reading him. It might be because his style is so unlike the laconic western style I sometimes feel steeped in: it’s all about sentences and excess and performance and wit. And his books are beautifully structured. The structure of Decline and Fall really helped me with Liars and Saints, though they’re nothing alike.
TWQ: What attracted you to California?
I felt like I had to go somewhere, and I had a friend from Helena who was moving to Los Angeles to be an actor, and I knew we could be roommates. Also I had a vague idea about working in development for movies -- I liked movies. I had no idea what I was doing. I moved with my clothes and ten books and a table lamp in the back of my station wagon, and no job. I was braver then.
TWQ: What spawned the idea to intertwine the plots of Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter?
I had started another novel, after finishing Liars and Saints, and I had about forty pages when it ground to a halt. So after Liars and Saints came out, I was looking around for something else I knew about, and it seemed interesting to me, in a way it never had before (although I loved Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, and books like that), to have a character who was a writer. Then it seemed interesting to have one of the secret-keeping family from Liars and Saints write a novel, and at first I thought it could be their somewhat lost son, Jamie. But a character who had died in the novel was the better candidate. So I thought, well, I can bring her back to life. Why not? And that was exciting and freeing. And then the idea developed of a book that would exist parallel to Liars and Saints, that would seem to be the real-life source material from which Liars and Saints was distilled.
TWQ: Did you write Liars and Saints with the intention to commit metafiction with A Family Daughter?
No. It was only supposed to be the one novel. A Family Daughter does have metafictional aspects if you read it alongside Liars and Saints, and it was interesting to me to have elements in each that are recognizable but transformed in the other. But I also wanted it to stand alone as a realistic novel, with a different plot, that you could read if you’d never read Liars and Saints.
TWQ: Many of your short stories revolve around severe Western weather. What’s the most memorable Montana-bad-weather event that ever happened to you?
My uncle Mark and my aunt Ellen took my brother and me to the movie E.T. in Helena during the 1982 hailstorm that produced golf-ball and grapefruit-sized hail. We covered our heads with our hands, running across the street from the car to the theater, and during the quiet scenes in the movie we could hear the giant hailstones thumping on the roof. I learned what a ball-peen hammer was, because after the storm, my dad said that’s what it looked like someone had taken to all the cars. It sounded so great: a ball-peen hammer.
TWQ: What characteristics of Montana landscape and lifestyle continue to influence your writing?
So many. I guess, as you said, the fact that weather is important, that it’s not just an idle topic of conversation. And I think my style has been influenced by growing up in a place where people are suspicious of wordiness, and a there’s tendency toward the laconic. I’m happy with it, but it’s not really a choice. I’d be just as happy to be witty and English.
I also think it’s a trait of people who live in less populated places like Montana, where their great-grandparents were likely to have been homesteaders, to go ahead and do things they haven’t done before -- plumb a toilet, fix a roof, re-wire a light -- because who else is going to do it? And how hard could it be? I think I approached novel-writing the same way: blindly assuming that I’d be able to figure it out. If the first draft was roughly built, at least I had a first draft.
TWQ: What advice do you have for writers with lots of ideas who have trouble focusing on one long enough to create a whole story?
Set aside time to write, even if it’s only an hour or two a day, and think of the time as the requirement. So you just have to be there, and it doesn’t matter what you finish. It takes the pressure off the individual story, and you’ll end up working on the ideas that seem most promising. I start many, many stories and abandon most of them, but eventually some pay off. It’s like wildcatting for oil. You dig a lot of holes and eventually one has something valuable in it.
TWQ: What are you working on now?
A collection of short stories, many of which are set in Montana. I’m almost finished and it will be published in the summer of 2009.
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Maile Meloy was born in Helena, Montana, in 1972. A Family Daughter is her third book. Her short stories have been published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Her first story collection, Half in Love, received the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters , the John C. Zacharis Award from Ploughshares, and the PEN/Malamud Award. Her first novel, Liars and Saints, was shortlisted for England’s 2005 Orange Prize. Both books were New York Times Notable Books. She has also received The Paris Review’s Aga Khan Prize for Fiction and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in California. (This information is from the author page of Maile Meloy's Web site).