Will Grayson, Will Grayson

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Keep Them Guessing: An Interview with Maile Meloy

When I was a lowly editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster in 2006, a colleague gave me a galley of Maile Meloy’s forthcoming A Family Daughter, and I was absolutely done for. Within a year, I had exhausted all of her published works.

Meloy is just ten years my senior, which means I’ve enjoyed an admittedly precious, evolving relationship with her work. Under normal circumstances, she probably couldn’t produce enough to mollify me, but she’s been downright vexing since 2009, when her last adult book, the short story collection, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, was released. Since then, she’s published a small number of articles and short stories in NPR, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and elsewhere. I won’t pretend that every new offering is her best, but for me, it fills an acute deficiency. It is the sustenance I need while I await her next book.

But the thing is, that book has yet to arrive. Instead, Meloy has made an unexpected foray into middle grade fiction with The Apothecary, a 2011 book about 14-year-olds and a magic book that falls into the hands of Russian spies. In June, the book’s sequel, The Apprentices, was released, and there were rumors of a third book, but no clues on her website.

In fact, despite being a reader in lockstep with this writer, I have absolutely no idea where she’s going. It seemed time to query the writer herself, and Meloy was kind enough to email with me last week.

The Millions: The book tour for The Apprentices, the sequel to The Apothecary, is rapidly approaching, and I understand that you’re working on a third installment. Will this be a trilogy, or an ongoing series?

Maile Meloy: I’m planning to make it a trilogy. But there are so many fourth-in-the-trilogy books out there that it must be tempting. Yesterday a kids’ book club suggested that I write a fourth book that’s the story of The Apothecary from Benjamin’s perspective, rather than Janie’s, and I’m crazy enough to have thought, “Hmm.”

TM: Are you considering it? I can’t help but see a connection between that suggestion and your two adult novels, Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter.

MM: I thought the same thing. I finished writing Liars and Saints thinking I was done with all the characters in it, and then ended up writing a parallel story about them in A Family Daughter. And I was really taken, this year, with Jane Gardam’s brilliant Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. They’re both the story of the same marriage, one novel being mostly the husband’s story and one novel the wife’s. I think Old Filth is a masterpiece on its own, but it was the combination of the two, at the end of the second book, that made me burst into tears. I like the idea of novels that aren’t exactly sequels but companion novels, that each stand on their own but complicate the other. And I’ve written a couple of parallel short stories like that. But I don’t think I want to do it with a novel again.

TM: The Apothecary was your first middle grade novel, and it was also the first time you had written an entire book in the first person. In The Apprentices, you return to the third person, and the main characters, Janie Scott and Benjamin Burrows, are now far flung. Did their distance necessitate the shift, or do you prefer it?

MM: I loved writing in Janie’s voice, and the sense of reality it gave: that this is the true story of what happened when she was fourteen, in 1952. First person is frustrating, in some ways, because everything had to be filtered through Janie’s experience — overheard or noticed or learned by her. But it was really the distance that dictated the shift. I started with the main characters across the world from each other, so switching to third person was a way to include their scattered perspectives. And it felt instantly comfortable, as it’s the way I’ve written novels before.

TM: You’ve described writing the first draft of The Apothecary as somewhat freeing, devoid of the kind of rules and expectations you’ve felt as an adult novelist and short story writer. How did the process of writing The Apprentices compare?

MM: The Apothecary hadn’t come out when I started writing The Apprentices, so I still felt some of that freedom: I didn’t have a sense of what the expectations might be. And I also felt more confident, having done it once. I really love the pacing that writing for kids both requires and allows.

Then The Apothecary came out while I was still writing the second book, so I was talking to kids, and they would ask if certain characters were in the new book, and I’d go home and make sure they were.

TM: I imagine many of your middle grade readers come to book signings with their parents, some of whom are familiar with your adult novels and short stories.

MM: Yes, although sometimes adult readers don’t put it together until they get to the back flap of The Apothecary and realize they’ve read the other books. I’ve also done some mother-daughter book clubs, which I love. The communal family reading that people do now strikes me as very sweet, and one of my goals was to make sure the parents didn’t find it a chore.

TM:  Speaking of family, you’re now working in the same medium and genre as your brother, Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. He’s also written a middle grade trilogy, Wildwood: The Wildwood Chronicles. Do you foresee a collaboration?

MM: Colin has such a beautiful collaboration going already with his wife, Carson Ellis, who illustrates the Wildwood books. I love everything they do. And novel writing is a solitary practice for me, at least so far. I love Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the YA novel John Green and David Levithan wrote together, but I don’t quite understand how they did it.

TM: How did the essay in Medium last May, “On Playing With Others,” come about?

MM: That’s funny — that’s about the solitary practice, too. The composer Greg Bolin wrote two short one-act operas based on two of my short stories, and they were being performed together. I wrote an essay about the process, and about how strange it is, when you’re used to sitting by yourself writing fiction, to suddenly have to worry about the availability of opera singers and rehearsal space.

TM: When did you write the short story, “The Proxy Marriage,” which appeared in the New Yorker in May of 2012?

MM: I wrote it right before it was published. I needed some distance from The Apprentices to figure out the plot, so I stopped and tried to write a short story — which I wasn’t sure I could do anymore, being used to the pace of novels. And then it was the closest thing to instant gratification I’ve ever had in writing fiction. Usually I revise forever, and then everything takes so long. But the New Yorker is quick, and I’ll probably never have that kind of turnaround from conception to publication again.

The only thing about “The Proxy Marriage” that wasn’t quick was the digging around in the Montana territorial code to try to find the original source of the law that triggered the story. Montana is the only state that allows for a double proxy wedding, so that neither party has to be present; both can have someone else in their place. My generous father did that digging for me, but we never figured it out. We did find out that he co-sponsored the bill that established the current law, when he was in the Montana legislature in the 1970s, and he’d forgotten about it. I asked him why he thought double proxy weddings were allowed and he said, “Well, why not?” It’s a contract you’re entering into, and if you’re going to allow one proxy there’s no reason not to have two. Which is not to say that Montanans are unromantic, but we’re practical.

TM: Have you taken similar breaks from the third middle grade novel? Has it worked as well?

MM: I took an inadvertent break this summer because I spent a lot of time with my family. When I got home, I started reading the unfinished novel draft from the beginning, to get my head back into it and see where I was. I love having a little time away, and the distance it gives you. I could see where the plot was getting away from me, and where things weren’t hanging together. I was so happy adding pages, before, and now I’m so happy cutting them.

TM: I read everything you write, so when you moved to middle grade novels, I dutifully followed. At first, I found your writing for children to be quite different, but I soon realized that Janie and Benjamin are dealing with a duality that looms large in your adult works. Their lives consist of the normal stuff of childhood, but they’re also contending with simultaneous, albeit extraordinary, realities. Your adult characters often feel as if the lives they’ve lived have had concurrent, imagined ones all along, full of things they long to do but abstain, because the associated risks seemingly promise a chimera will emerge and wreak havoc. It isn’t as if they have regrets they sometimes think about, but rather an ever present temptation.

MM: It’s always been frustrating to me that to choose a path means giving up all the other possibilities. To have a choice at all is extraordinarily lucky, of course, but you choose a career, a city, a partner, to have kids or not to have kids, and you become a different person than you might have been. Other things fall away. To write a novel in which an extraordinary reality is possible in conjunction with ordinary life, in which people can actually fly away or become invisible (and not just want to do those things metaphorically), was an enormous pleasure.

TM: In 2011, you told GalleyCat “I have a novel for adults in mind, but I haven’t found my way into it.” Have you progressed on that novel for adults, or another? Can we hope for another short story before 2013 concludes? I must confess, I fear you won’t come back to us.

MM: Oh, that’s very kind. I have a short story — a real estate horror story — coming out with Byliner in October, just in time for Halloween. And I have a story in xo Orpheus, a really amazing collection of myth retellings that’s out this month. Mine is the Demeter and Persephone myth as a joint custody story (it always struck me as one). The novel from 2011 was a period story. I started doing research for it on the side while working on The Apothecary, and I got too caught up in the real history. It’s always dangerous for me to do too much research in advance; I get overwhelmed by facts and don’t feel as free to make things up. But I’m hoping to forget a lot, and let it settle and ferment, and start again.

Walking Enigmas: On the Reading Habits of Teen Boys

At parent-teacher conferences earlier this year, I spoke with at least 10 sets of parents that lamented the uncommunicative nature of their teenage sons.

“You would know more than we do.”

“He speaks up in class?  That’s good because he doesn’t talk much at home.”

“I ask him if he has work for class but he always just says ‘no.’”

It makes me think that this is why The Catcher in the Rye is a classic. People are just so thrilled to hear a teenage boy’s thoughts.

Then maybe they’re sorry they asked.

There’s no getting around it: 15-year-old boys talk to their friends more than they talk to their parents. They probably talk to their dogs more than they talk to their parents. In class, they can’t stop talking for five minutes to work independently on a writing project, but when they get home, apparently, they’re mute.

When they’re talking in class, it isn’t about their thoughts and feelings. But my informal qualitative research suggests that young men today are growing up with the same basic longings and tribulations that Holden did. How do I know? How do I have any idea what these walking enigmas feel inside? By what they read, of course. Teenage boys might be closed books, but the ones that they open are those in which the author manages to capture the honest-to-god truth about coming age. Here are three books the teenage boys in my class have been reading:

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: I’m so excited that this novel has been made in to a movie; originally published in 1999, Perks might not be enjoying the readership it is today without the film publicity and modern cover art. The book merits its evolution from cult classic to mainstream movie fame — in turns heartbreaking and hilarious, Stephen Chbosky’s novel gets the coming-of-age motif just right. His character Charlie is the wallflower that the title references, and Charlie’s journey, told through letters to an anonymous recipient, is ultimately one of moving out onto that dance floor and of refusing to play bystander to his own life.

A freshman in high school, Charlie navigates friendship, bullying, crushes, sex, drugs, and loss. He is an earnest, shy kid who struggles against depression and seclusion, hanging on to moments of joy and human connection. The novel is just angsty enough to feel honest, without being cringeworthy, and the voice is real and raw. I haven’t met a student yet who didn’t relate to Charlie’s story.

Ball Don’t Lie by Matt de la Pena: One of my favorites this year, Ball Don’t Lie tells the story of Travis Reichard, or as his mom used to call him: Sticky Boy. Matt de la Pena’s character portrayal is incredibly rich — not only when it comes to Sticky, with his compulsive tics and subconscious motivations, but with the entire cast: Sticky’s addict mom, his girlfriend, Anh-thu, and all the boys who go head-to-head on the basketball court and the streets.

We first meet Sticky on the gym floor of Lincoln Rec: “the best place in L.A. to ball.” De la Pena’s description of the game and the boys who play it is so vivid you can hear the squeak of sneakers on the court and the thud of the ball on the bent and battered rim. Initially, all but the outcome of each play is a mystery, and it takes a while to get to know Sticky, a foster kid whose only dream is to play in the NBA. Sticky is slow to show himself, as his past has left him broken, and the uncertainty of his future leaves him guarded. But, chapter-by-chapter, piece-by-piece, greater depths are revealed, and the book opens up to an emotional and riveting account of an urban basketball community, and a boy looking for a home.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan: Yet another delight from John Green, and this time with the added bonus of Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson tells the story of two Will Graysons: a pair of teenage boys who meet serendipitously, at a time when a small miracle of coincidence is just what each one needs.

The two male protagonists, one gay, one straight, navigate platonic and romantic relationships with varying degrees of success and failure, with all the modern day complications of texting and online messaging. The story builds to an epic climax, complete with a high school musical and passionate declarations of love. The writing is funny, the characters relatable, the circumstances engaging, the themes meaningful and poignant. I haven’t seen my copy of the novel since September: as soon as one student signs it in, another signs it out.

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