Every writer has a personal stash of the misbegotten, that folder on the computer -- or section in the filing cabinet -- for work that the author has given up trying to fix. Maile Meloy, 37, revisited hers three years ago when the literary quarterly Granta asked to publish a new story to go with her listing as one of the “Best of Young American Novelists.”
Meloy didn’t have any new stories “so I got out all the ones from the pile, from the ‘secret stash’ . . . the ones that I thought were closest, and started trying to figure out which of them I could get ready.” She settled on “O Tannenbaum,” the story of a young family -- Everett, Pam and their daughter, Anne Marie -- out chopping a Christmas tree when they encounter a literal Bonnie and Clyde, a bickering couple trying to resuscitate their romance. The couple becomes stranded, first by a broken ski, and then by the theft of their car. In a tale fraught with suspense -- are Bonnie and Clyde killers? -- and sexual tension, Everett and Pam invite the stranded couple for Christmas Eve dinner, and the story ends with an illicit kiss and enigmatic brush of the breast between Everett and Bonnie.
That trip to the stash was serendipitous for Meloy. She found other stories there that “because I had spent so much time away from them, I felt like I could see ways to fix them.” She polished up five more, wrote a couple of new stories, added them to three others that had previously appeared in magazines and in July published the critically acclaimed “Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.”
This most incidental of Meloy’s four books has been the one to grab the most attention, including the coveted cover of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, and better sales than her earlier works, two interconnected novels and another short-story collection. Not bad for a book built of discards.
“Hasn’t it been so nice? I can’t believe it,” Meloy says, sitting poolside behind the Beverly Hills home of friend and literary supporter Jamie Wolf, whose garden Meloy borrowed for the day for an interview and photographs. “It’s been amazing. It’s made me really happy.”
Happiness, though, doesn’t play much of a role in Meloy’s stories, which focus on big moments in small, isolated lives. The collection opens with “Travis, B.,” the story of eastern Montana cowboy Chet Moran, who is about as damaged as a man can get. Childhood polio weakened his hip, which kept him from getting out of the way of a rodeo horse, which led to a large steel pin and “from then on, he walked as though he were turning to himself to ask a question.” Loneliness leads to a chance encounter with Beth Travis, a lawyer from the western end of Montana, and Moran makes an awkward and failed stab at romance, clinging to hope even in his abject failure.
“Travis, B.” appeared in different form in the New Yorker, and Meloy chose it to launch the collection because “like when you’re playing spades you lead with your big cards.” But it also set the tone.
“I wanted to write about people who live in these really different worlds even though they’re in the same state, and this kind of possibility of connection,” she says. “I hate giving away endings, but the thing at the end where he throws her phone number away but he has it memorized -- it had the kind of ‘both ways’ thing.”
The strength of Meloy’s stories lies in their touch of the familiar. She moves among sibling rivalry and adultery (several times), but also writes about a young woman’s murder and her father’s drive to learn the details, which become knives to his heart. Another story details a grandmother’s drop-in visit to her grandson -- who believed the woman had died long ago. The stories share a rootedness, a sense that these could be real. And as in real life, sometimes endings are beginnings, certitude becomes tenuous and ambition can, on the cusp of attainment, turn out to be whim.
Meloy guides her writing by words she attributes to Thomas Merton, though also admits she can no longer find the exact quote. To know someone, she says, you don’t look at clothes or carriage, but at the purpose of the life.
“The question of what they’re living for is the central one, for me,” Meloy says. “Even if they aren’t really sure -- then that dilemma is the central one. If what’s really important to people is on the line, then I think you have a good story.”
Meloy herself is a good story. Raised in Helena, Mont., she comes from an artistic family. There’s a pottery-making grandfather, a local-journalist grandmother, a photographer father, an aunt who wrote nonfiction about the West, and her younger singing siblings -- a sister who studied musical theater at the Boston Conservatory and her brother, Colin Meloy, lead singer and songwriter for the folk-rock band the Decemberists.
“There was always this sense that art was just something you did as a part of your life, not necessarily as a profession,” Meloy says, adding that her parents feared for their children’s financial well-being. “I think it made them anxious as a profession. There was a while when my dad was like, ‘Will one of my children please get a job?’ ”
Meloy moved from Montana to Los Angeles about 14 years ago and “had a bunch of weird jobs” -- private swim instructor, script reader and then as a development assistant at Disney in direct-to-video animation. “I was answering the phone and reading fairy tales,” Meloy says. “It was great because it was my first real job with a real paycheck and an office and a place to go to every day.” And she got to sit in on story meetings, watching pros tear apart plot lines and reassemble them. “I realized pretty quickly it wasn’t what I wanted to do in the long run.”
All along Meloy was writing short stories on the side, staying after hours to use the office computers. Eventually, she entered UC Irvine’s vaunted Graduate Writers’ Workshop under Geoffrey Wolff (to whom she dedicates the new collection). After three years there, the last one teaching on a fellowship, Meloy started submitting short stories to magazines. The first two were bought by the New Yorker and the Paris Review, and as they were getting published she sold her first collection, “Half in Love,” which Scribner’s published in 2002.
The interconnected novels “Liars and Saints” and “Family Daughter” followed in 2003 and 2006. After putting together the new collection, Meloy has turned to writing another novel -- a flip of the creative switch.
“You have to sort of train for it, the way you’d train if you were switching from sprinting to a marathon,” Meloy says. “You need to adjust as you go back and forth.”