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The irony of being named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2007 was that Maile Meloy had to stop writing her third novel. Instead, she needed to focus on creating a short story for the magazine’s commemorative issue. So Meloy turned to several unfinished tales, was reenergized and realized she had the makings of a new collection on her hands.
The resulting book, “Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It” (out now from Riverhead Books), contains 11 concise and quietly affecting stories that strike a powerful chord with their examination of loneliness and longing.
“I am always interested in stories that aren’t linked but that fit together and create a whole experience. I didn’t realize how much there was a thematic link until I read them together. It was really a process of discovery,” says the soft-spoken Meloy, 37, whose first name, pronounced Miley, is Hawaiian, and whose surname is Celtic.
She returns to short stories after two acclaimed novels, “Liars and Saints” and “Family Daughter.” “For a long time I wasn’t sure if I could write a novel. I felt 10 or 12 pages was my max,” she says. But Meloy, a willowy strawberry blonde who takes care to sit in the shade while chatting in a friend’s garden in Beverly Hills, is a consummate storyteller; even the first two chapters of “Liars and Saints” began as short stories she had left out of her debut collection, “Half in Love.”
Meloy grew up in Helena, Mont., where her father is a lawyer (“I think lawyers have to be good storytellers,” she notes) and her mother works in development for the ACLU. Her grandmother wrote for the local paper, and her aunt, Ellen Meloy, wrote nonfiction books and essays. Meloy majored in English at Harvard, but despite her family’s knack for prose, remained undecided on a career until her senior year. “Richard Ford was teaching a class that you had to write a short story to get into, and it instantly felt like, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do.’ But I didn’t tell anyone for a long time because I was much too embarrassed to say that I wanted to be a writer.”
Post-graduation, she held a string of short-term jobs: working as a river ranger in Utah, campaigning for a Montana state proposition, teaching in Costa Rica. She considered breaking into publishing, but “New York seemed intimidating and hard and expensive.” Instead, she loaded up her car and drove to Los Angeles with an aspiring actor friend. She started working at a small production company and eventually became a development assistant in Disney’s direct-to-video animation department, where she read fairy tales and scripts, answered phones and sat in on story meetings. After hours, Meloy stayed in her cubicle to focus on her own tales. Movies weren’t her calling, so after a year and half, she enrolled in the M.F.A. writing program at University of California, Irvine. The stories she wrote there eventually became part of “Half in Love,” released by Scribner in 2002.
Critics praised her assured prose and gift for domestic detail. Indeed, Meloy prefers intimate moments over sweeping scenarios, whether they occur between an aging Argentine and his long-ago lover, a middle-aged man and the teenage girlfriend of his daughter’s murderer, or a ranch hand and a night school teacher.
“The close relationship stories have always been really interesting to me because the stakes are high — you see people when the chips are down and the things that are most important to them are on the line,” she says.
Meloy believes it’s easier to write about a place when you’re not in it, and “Both Ways” is rife with details culled from her home state — from a lazy river rafting trip that goes awry in “Red From Green” to the nine-and-a-half-hour drive the characters in “Travis, B.” endure out West.
“I guess because you pay attention to the world when you are writing fiction, a certain way of saying something or the beginning of a situation can make its way in,” she says.
But she’s fiercely private about her life in Los Angeles, where she lives near the beach with her husband. She declines to disclose even the barest details, such as his name and occupation, which typically appear in the book jacket. “I really prefer to keep that separate,” she says, while touching her wedding ring, two thin gold bands worn together. “There’s actually a few, some have stones, but I didn’t wear those today. My husband jokes that the number I wear shows how much I love him that day.”
Meloy, who writes each morning at home, is working on “a totally different” novel set in England in the Fifties. What became of the book she put aside to write “Both Ways”? “I don’t know if I will go back to that,” she says. “You never know. I saved the file.”