Amazon Best of the Month, July 2009:
There is one line in Maile Meloy's newest story collection that completely slayed me. (It's on page 97.) And in fact, there are many moments before and after that line that left me awestruck as I wondered how she was able to capture a feeling--typically one that's very familiar, like the flushing embarrassment of an unexpected advance, or the sudden fury found in a bout of sibling rivalry--and create it anew. The effect is both masterful and ephemeral: all of a sudden, it's as if your own life is reflected back to you. This is what great story writers do, and in the stories that follow--whose characters revel or unravel in their relationships to love and family--Maile Meloy pinpoints the ambivalence running through our most powerful emotions, be it love, jealousy, grief, or loneliness. That she writes with so much truth and wisdom and restraint makes Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It
an unexpected pleasure and a worthy outside-the-box pick for your summer reading. --Anne Bartholomew
Amazon Exclusive: Maile Meloy on Arranging Stories
My most recent book, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It
, is a story collection, as was my first. Lately people have been asking me about how you decide which stories to include in a collection, and what order they go in, which was (and still is) a big question of mine.
When I was writing the stories that became my first book, Half in Love
, I read great collections to see how it was done: Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus
; J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories
; Merce Rodereda's My Christina
; D.H. Lawrence's England, My England
; Hemingway's In Our Time
. I wanted to know how the arrangement of eight or ten or twelve stories could create a complete experience that the reader could move through, when the stories weren't linked in any way except for the fact that one writer wrote them, but it was hard to see how I could transfer that information to my own book.
I was taking a class from Ann Patchett then, and she said, about the number of stories in a collection, that Salinger's Nine
was like eight hours sleep—a little more was okay, a little less was fine, but it was a good general guideline. About variety, she said that a collection was like a mall: it needed a few big stories with broad horizons, like the big anchor stores, to make a space in which the smaller, quirkier stories could survive.
That made sense, so in putting Half in Love
together I took some stories out, and left others in, and set aside two linked ones to start a novel with. I made lists of the titles, and annotated them with codes about what was in each story, some of which were so obscure I can't decipher them now. (One was "adbhj." I have no idea what that means.) The easily breakable codes indicated that the story was in 1st person, or 3rd, or 2nd, and whether the protagonist was male or female, and where the story was set. Then I cut the lists apart and moved the titles around on the kitchen table. I spent a long time trying to keep the first-person stories away from each other, before realizing that I didn't need to, that it wasn't difficult to move from one first-person narrator to another. We're used to hearing different voices telling us things about their lives, and I ended up having four in a row.
I did the same thing for Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It
, with the annotated titles on cut-up pieces of sticky notes, so they would stay in place—an improvement on the method. Otherwise, the arranging hadn't gotten any easier. I knew which title went first, and had a sense about which one might go last, but I moved the middle around for days, trying different sequences.
I got out Salinger's Nine
again, because it struck me as the Platonic ideal of a story collection, and I thought about it as a template, wondering which story was my "DeDaumier Smith's Blue Period," and which was my "Teddy." But that came to seem futile and silly, and I went back to thinking about my own stories.
I put a story set in Connecticut third, after two Montana stories, so it was clear that the collection was going to go to other places. And there were two stories that made sense near each other, but needed to be separated, like quarreling siblings. The story about a man whose daughter has been murdered couldn't go early. It had to go somewhere in the middle, at a point when the reader was already in the book. And it seemed good to have a lighter story after it, about a grandmother who comes back from the dead.
Sometimes the arranging felt like lining up the batting order for a baseball game: which story leads off? And sometimes it felt like seating people at a dinner party: boy-girl-boy-girl if possible, and certain stories shouldn't go next to each other, and try to encourage interesting conversation. And sometimes it felt like making a mix tape for someone you love. But mostly it felt like a puzzle with a discoverable solution, and moving the pieces around was part of the pleasure.