Books In Conversation
MAILE MELOY with Weston Cutter
Do Not Become Alarmed
Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It
Weston Cutter (Rail): I guess I’m curious how this book even began. There feel to be competing claims or developments—or I can imagine, I guess, different onramps (a pair of close relatives vacationing together on a cruise; a set of kids getting lost; a story of a little girl trying to make her way north). Was there some specific instance that initiated it all, that you kept coming back to?
Maile Meloy: I started with the idea of kids getting lost. A cruise ship seemed like a good place for that to happen, because it feels like a safe, enclosed place, but is still a ship at sea with all the inherent dangers.
In the original draft, the families traveling together were friends, but then I decided to make them closer. I told a friend who’d read the book that I’d had the brilliant idea to make the two women sisters! She has a sister close to her in age and said, “No way. I would kill my sister if my kids got lost on her watch.” So now they’re cousins who grew up together.
I wrote the first section years ago, up to the point when the kids get lost. Then I put the pages aside because I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I wrote the third Apothecary novel, start to finish, and then went back to those pages. I knew the kids needed to run into people with an entirely different experience, kids who were in a different kind of jeopardy. When I picked up the book again, I started the thread of the child who’s traveling north to get to her parents, and then I moved it earlier in the book as I revised.
Rail: This’ll maybe get answered by the above, too, but I’m curious about this in-threaded story you've got in Do Not Become Alarmed, the story of Noemi leaving her grandmother and trying to get north. It feels critical, but it also feels more timely/pressing/social commentary than anything I’ve seen you otherwise do. Is that accurate/fair? Maybe that’s it’s whole own question: is there an aspect of... not cultural commentary, but cultural awareness, of aligning with contemporary issues, that you feel like novels should engage in? Did you feel an impulse toward that here? This could be just a wildly ridiculous tree to be barking up.
Meloy: Hm—Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter are both about the last half of the twentieth century in the United States, after the Second World War, and how the events of those decades challenged people’s certainties. But here’s my answer about this one:
I always want to write about the world we live in, but I never want a novel to feel like it has an agenda. This one ended up feeling more of-the-moment than I expected it to, because it’s about well-intentioned, liberal people who think they’ve worried about everything, so none of it can happen, who then get blindsided by something they don’t expect. And it’s about immigration, which is always on my mind because I live in California.
Even in September, a few people wondered if the title seemed too negative. Then the world changed, and no one is saying that now. I just read the Peter Schjeldahl review of the Whitney Biennial in which he talks about the art being chosen in 2016, before the election, when the art world was permeated with “worry, but not yet alarm.” Now there’s alarm.
Rail: From what I’ve read/understood, your first two novels featured one family—different generations of the family, but still. I guess I’m curious how deep into a family this work takes you, and if ultimately you a) knew, on finishing Liars and Saints, that there was more you wanted to write about that family and b) have a sense, now, that you’re not quite done with these families (I realize that’s almost cruelly unfair; this is just a pleased reader q, one animated by the fact that there was the familiar stomach-lurch as I got toward the end and realized that whatever resolution was coming wasn’t gonna offer enough info just generally to satisfy me).
Meloy: I think I’m done with this story, but I also thought I was done with the family in Liars and Saints when I finished it. But I’m happy to have the question! I want the characters to keep existing in your mind, as living people do, with futures stretching out ahead of them. I never want to tighten everything down at the end so it can’t breathe; that doesn’t feel real to me.
Rail: This is maybe an impossible question, but I'm curious about “influences,” or whatever. You’ve mentioned other folks at various interview points, but I guess I’m curious if there were specific works that helped guide this book as you wrote it. Not that you were, like, using somebody else's map, but more a question of if there was a book that hit you in a certain way such that you wanted to write a book that offered a similar hit to readers. Lord, this might not just be impossible but silly, too. I’m sorry.
Meloy: I started the novel after reading A High Wind in Jamaica, the 1929 novel by Richard Hughes, about kids who get taken by pirates. The kids don’t know how much danger they’re in because they’re kids. But books always grow and change. The news stories about unaccompanied minors trying to reach the border were on my mind, and so was Cary Joji Fukunaga’s film Sin Nombre. And maybe Joseph Wambaugh’s Lines and Shadows, which I read a long time ago. And probably all the Joan Didion I read in my twenties.
Rail: Can you talk at all about your process? In that video reading/interview (which was at Harvard, and after Both Ways) you mentioned writing in one of those chairs that tips all the way back. I mean less about that process, but more about revising. I’m teaching some Saunders stuff lately, and was reading an interview with him, and his stuff seems weirdly similar to yours in this one way: an absolute precision of character and characteristics. How much time do you spend cutting, sorting, clarifying character? It felt like a not-minor miracle that every single one of these characters was fully vivid, absolutely clear, and yet you nailed them so adroitly it felt almost literally impossible (I read like 1 paragraph/page to my wife, as I started, just marveling at the precision, how acutely you rendered these people).
Meloy: I don’t outline; I figure out the story as I go. The best parts always come at a point when I don’t have any idea what happens next. So I try not to get anxious about feeling lost or stuck.
I tend to start with a lot of dialogue, and then go back to fill in the setting, so the reader can see it. What happens between people is the most interesting thing to me. I get bored by too much description in books; I’m sure that’s a moral failing.
I’ve always had a draft manuscript in one long document, plus a timeline or chapter list that I create after I have a draft so I can see the book all at once, plus a bunch of chapters and scenes I’ve cut and am “saving” just in case (I never use them again), plus a document of ideas that I want to put in somewhere.
[This won’t mean anything to people who haven’t read the book, but for you: In the first draft, Penny had a lot of chapters. Other characters didn’t have enough. I’d been writing middle grade novels and that muscle was strong, but this wasn’t supposed to be her book; she wasn’t supposed to be so dominant.]
I always read the book aloud to myself, as part of the revision. I did it twice with this one, with different drafts, to hear repetitions and awkwardness.
And at some point I put a book in a different font, and justify the margins, because I always see things to fix when it comes back typeset from the publisher. It’s as if it’s not in my handwriting anymore, when it’s not in the same font with the words in the same places. So I try to recreate that experience in advance.
I show drafts of the book to trusted friends, mostly writers, when I can’t figure out what else to do with it myself, and also to make sure the reader is getting the story I want to tell. They were all unbelievably helpful with this one.
Also, I just finished Lincoln in the Bardo and I loved it so much. The idea that we seem weirdly similar in any way makes me giddy with happiness. That book is so strange and moving and wonderful. Genius.