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The Library as a Hideout: A Conversation with Maile Meloy

by Brendan Dowling on September 3, 2013

Novelist Maile Meloy established herself as a formidable talent with Liars and Saints, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, and A Family Daughter. In 2011, she turned her attention to the YA scene with the beguiling The Apothecary. Set in England during the 1950s, The Apothecary follows fourteen-year-old Janie Scott, the daughter of two Hollywood blacklisted screenwriters. Janie soon befriends her new classmate Benjamin Burrows, whose father is the local apothecary. Mr. Burrows’ seemingly mundane occupation proves to be much more when he is kidnapped by Russian spies who hope to get their hands on the Pharmacopoeia, an ancient book of spells and potions. Janie and Benjamin, along with their new friend Pip, are then thrust into a whirlwind adventure involving magical transformations, teenage crushes, and preventing the deployment of an atomic bomb. This past June, Meloy released the book’s sequel, The Apprentices, to similar acclaim. Meloy spoke to Brendan Dowling via e-mail on August 29, 2013.

Public Libraries: The Apothecary is told from Janie’s point of view and the majority of the plot takes place around Janie’s new school. The Apprentices, however, is told in third person and follows the exploits of a number of characters as they’re scattered around the globe. What was the experience like writing in this expanded world with different viewpoints?

Maile Meloy: It was freeing. I loved writing in Janie’s voice, as if it were the true story of what happened to her when she was fourteen, but it meant that everything in the plot had to be experienced by Janie. Because I’d left the characters separated at the end, I knew I had to rethink the narration for a sequel. I thought about having Benjamin narrate, but I wanted the ability to shift from Janie’s experience to Benjamin’s to Pip’s. There were fewer limitations. The world opens up in the second book, which meant the narration had to also—I wanted to include other places and other minds.

PL: One hallmark of Janie’s relationship with her parents is that they talk to her like an adult. In the same way, you seem to trust your readers to handle some pretty adult themes, like the characters having to live with the (sometimes fatal) consequences of their actions. What has been the feedback you’ve received from younger readers about the book’s tone? Did you feel that you had their trust to take it even further in the second book?

MM: I’ve had kids write to me after finishing The Apothecary, saying that they had cried because Benjamin and Janie were apart. And other kids have been very proud to have read the scary parts, and the sad parts. I think a crucial part of reading, especially at this age, is that you experience love and loss, and other people’s minds, and you get to practice being brave. When I think of the books I loved as a kid—Charlotte’s Web,  A Wrinkle in Time, Treasure Island, the Narnia books—they all provided that imaginative experience of adventure and emotion and consequence. The characters have grown up a little in the second book, so I did think I could take the story further. I just got a letter from a girl wondering very specifically how Benjamin will respond to what happens in The Apprentices, and where it will take him next, and that’s really all I want.

PL Benjamin, Janie, and especially Pip are all in much different places in their lives in The Apprentices than they were in The Apothecary. Do you have an endgame for where they’ll eventually end up or do you discover that as you write?

MM: I always discover it as I write—that’s part of the fun for me. I thought of it as a puzzle: where would the three kids be, and what kind of people would they have become, and how could I get them back together? I’m close enough to the end of the third book now that I have a general idea where they’ll end up, but not exactly how I’m going to get there.

PL: You’re working on a third Apothecary book right now–will this be the last book in the series or will the series continue?

MM: It’s my plan to make it a trilogy, with no bonus fourth installment, although other writers seem to have found that irresistible, so who knows? But I think three will be the right number.

PL: One of the things that marks your characters is their moral complexity, especially for a YA book. Sympathetic characters make selfish choices and the main villain is more of a morally ambiguous figure than a criminal mastermind. Can you talk about your decision to make these characters so flawed? Do they start out that way or is that something that develops the further into the writing process you get?

MM: I had some habits from writing books for adults: one was that you can’t have your characters get everything they want at the end, and another was that they can’t be perfectly bad or perfectly good. While I was writing the villain, I had him provide multiple explanations for his actions, as Iago does in Othello, because I wanted to give him what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “motiveless malignity”: a scary, inexplicable badness with a lot of rationalizing chaff thrown up to disguise it. But then I found that I believed some of his explanations, and liked some things about him. That all happened in the process of writing the book. When I began, I didn’t even know who was going to be the bad guy. I had to go back and shift things when I figured it out.

PL: Your writing moves among a lot of different genres: novels for adults, short stories, and now the YA series. Does writing in one form or for one audience affect your writing process in another area?

MM: Yes, all of it affects everything else. I started out writing short stories, so when I turned to writing novels, they had story-like chapters, without a lot of digression. When I went back to writing short stories, having written novels, the stories became longer and more involved. Having written for adults made me include some ambiguity in the YA books. And I just wrote a short story for Byliner that’s almost a horror story, which was either a response to writing for kids, or a natural extension of it.

I don’t know what will happen when I try to write another novel for adults, but I think the YA books have given my plot-designing muscles a workout. As Roald Dahl said of writing for kids, “They lose interest so quickly. You have to keep things ticking along.”

PL: At one point in the novel, Pip is being chased and considers ducking into the library, noting that “most of the books [he] had read in his life were because libraries were good places to hide.” Have libraries been a good place to hide for you? What has your experience with them been like?

MM: I was an early reader, and shy, and my mother took me to see my new kindergarten classroom before school began. The amazing kindergarten teacher, Mr. Wolf, had built structures all over the room: a two-story fun fort, a miniature house, a spaceship that my brother later helped redesign as the Millennium Falcon. One was an enclosed space about six feet square with interior walls made entirely of bookshelves: the classroom library as a hideout. Mr. Wolf said I could go in there any time I wanted and read, and I couldn’t believe my luck. When I was older, the public library became a bigger version of that hideout.

In college, when the libraries got bigger and I had glimmers of a vocation, they began to seem overwhelming. I started thinking about how many books there were, the impossibility of reading them all, and the difficulty of finding a place among them as a writer, and I started getting Stendhal Syndrome—the fainting feeling the novelist got when surrounded by great works of art—and feeling a little dizzy.

Now I love them again, especially since I’ve been talking to teachers and librarians and kids. It’s really brought home how important libraries are for kids who don’t have books at home, or who go to schools with strict curriculum requirements. They—you—provide crucial access to information, and imaginative access to other worlds. When I hear about libraries that don’t have funds to stay open, and schools that have lost their librarians, it breaks my heart, and makes it seem even more important that we keep the ones we have.