Los Angeles-based author Maile Meloy has received plentiful critical kudos for her work as a writer of short stories and novels for adults. Her collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It earned a spot on the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2009 list and she has received numerous writing awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship. She has now written her first novel for a younger audience, The Apothecary (Putnam), with illustrations by Ian Schoenherr. Bookshelf caught up with Meloy upon her return to L.A. from a New York City dinner event with booksellers, the first of several such dinners Putnam has scheduled to promote her new book.
Can you talk a bit about your new book, The Apothecary?
It’s a Cold War spy novel with kids and magic, but a kind of magic that’s more akin to science: it has to be learned. The book is set in 1952, and it’s about a girl, Janie Scott, whose parents are on the Hollywood blacklist, so they have to move to England to work. In London, which is still reeling from the war, Janie meets a mysterious apothecary and his defiant son, Benjamin, and gets drawn into their world. It’s about a boy confronting his destiny, and a girl finding a new life, and it’s set in the atmosphere of fear and anxiety of the early fifties, of “duck and cover” bomb drills and a mounting nuclear threat.
You’ve had a critically acclaimed career trajectory as an author for adults. What was behind your decision to write for a younger audience?
I had just finished the manuscript of Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, my last story collection, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. I’ve heard that Iris Murdoch used to finish one novel, write “THE END,” and put a fresh piece of paper in the typewriter to start a new one. I’m not like that. While I was kicking around ideas, my friends Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett told me they had a movie idea about a mysterious apothecary. Mark and Jen are filmmakers [directors of Nim’s Island; screenwriters of the 1998 film version of Madeline] and whirling dervishes of creativity, with six projects always going at once (and two precocious kids). They thought the apothecary idea should be a novel first, and that I should write it. I said I’d try, not knowing that it would take over the next three years of my life.
Was your approach to the book any different when writing for younger readers?
The first couple of chapters were heaven, because I had a kind of game plan from Mark and Jen. I thought, “this is fantastic! This is the only way to write novels!” Then I called them and said, “What happens next?” And they said, “We don’t know! Keep going!” So I did, feeling like I was building the bridge as I was walking on it, and I wrote the first draft in six weeks. It was an absolute pleasure. I think it went so quickly because there was no pressure, and no expectation. I didn’t write kids’ books, so I wasn’t worried about whether it was bad or good. And if there were rules, I didn’t know what they were. I got Janie and Benjamin into situations where I didn’t know how they’d get out, and I felt like I was along on the adventure. The next few drafts were more complicated, figuring out the puzzle-like plot and making it all work. I didn’t really approach the writing itself differently. Janie is the narrator, so that affected the tone, the register, and the action. It’s wholesome by nature. I just thought of it as a book about a smart 14 year-old in 1952.
For which audience do you prefer to write?
It’s funny; I’ve answered that question so many times about short stories and novels. The answer is sort of the same here: I like both. It’s refreshing to go from one to the other, but it also takes a certain adjustment. I tried to write a short story in a hurry while I was finishing The Apothecary, and I completely failed. It wasn’t a short story. It sounded like the beginning of a YA novel, because that was the muscle I’d been exercising, and that was the muscle that was strong.
Your brother Colin is also releasing a novel for young readers this fall (Wildwood, HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray). Growing up, was yours a writing family? Did you write as kids?
We were definitely a reading family, and read all the time. I wrote endless, twelve-page letters to friends who lived in other places, and that was my first experience writing to entertain someone else. I would write the letters in band class, against the music stand, which should tell you something about how well I play the flute. And I wrote book reports to get a bike when I was ten, which I wrote about last weekend for the Times
I wrote one short story when I was about thirteen. It had a big party in it, and a love triangle, and a terrible betrayal. So it wasn’t entirely off track from what I’d write later. But I didn’t write fiction again until my last year of college, when my thesis advisor suggested I try writing short stories and it instantly felt like what I wanted to do.
Will you and Colin be doing any book signings or other publicity together? Perhaps something in your hometown?
Yes, we’re doing an event in Helena, Montana, where we grew up, at the Holter Art Museum, which coincidentally has a show of our grandfather’s pottery in one of the galleries, including a few pieces he did with his brother. Which is kind of nice.
What other kinds of publicity will you be doing to support The Apothecary?
I’m doing a bookseller dinner tour and just did the first one, which was an enormous pleasure. I love booksellers. They’re the most passionate readers. And I’m doing bookstore events, and school visits. The book is coming out in Australia first, in September, and I’m going on book tour there with Ann Patchett, which will make it so much easier and so much more fun. She’s going for State of Wonder, of course. It would be great if all book tours were with a friend. Because Colin and Carson [illustrator Carson Ellis, who is also Colin’s wife] wrote and illustrated their book together, they have a co-book-tour built-in for Wildwood, it’s brilliant.
I know that The Apothecary is still fresh out of the oven, so to speak, but have you jumped into any other projects yet? What are you working on now?
Halfway through writing The Apothecary, I started itching to work on a grown-up book, but I knew I couldn’t just stop and switch over, so I started doing research about the setting for the new book. I think I did too much research, and overwhelmed myself with real facts, because when I sat down to start writing, I wrote 4 pages and stalled out. Then I started playing around with the idea of a sequel to The Apothecary, and where Janie and Benjamin might be, and I wrote 40 pages. So again, that’s the muscle that’s strong. And I just talked to my first group of kids and they were very persistent about wanting to know exactly when a sequel would be published. So that’s what I’m going with for now.
The Apothecary by Maile Meloy, illus. by Ian Schoenherr. Putnam, $16.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-399-25627-1