Kristin Johnson reports live from the Santa Barbara Writers Conference on speaker Maile Meloy’s keynote address.
Your humble correspondent had a full first day at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.
Conference owner Monte Schulz (son of Charles Schulz) asked who has been deadheading and doing round the clock workshop. Four people have been nonstop conferencing for 24 hours. “You’ll be so exhausted you’ll forget your name,” he quipped. That’s why we have name tags, apparently (also to keep any freeloaders from grazing at this writers’ buffet.)
Monte introduced his publicist and agent, Texan Erin Cox, formerly a publicist for Scribner where she met Montanan Maile Meloy twelve years ago. Maile Meloy took the stage in a sleeveless Modernist red dress with black piping.
After speaking about how she developed her love of reading as a child, she riffed on her first job as a River ranger, the metaphor of a jar of mayonnaise, legal training, meeting her aunt Ellen’s literary agent, and considering moving to Costa Rica before she decided that she didn’t want to be a Costa Rica dropout. She moved back to her hometown, but subsequently set out for LA, teaching swimming to movie people’s kids and reading scripts.
As she worked at her dream, her editor, who was a poet, said, “I wish you were a runner because you would have a different sense of time.” Working at her craft seemed slow. She got a job for a direct-to-video animation company and read fairy tales for possible films, then she wrote after hours while the housekeeping staff vacuumed down the hall in the evening. However, she did not want to lose the writing momentum, so she enrolled in an MFA program at UC Irvine, which allowed her to write in the morning. “That was key to me.” Jeffrey Wolf, the MFA director told her, “With short stories, it’s night a long time and then it’s day.”
She added, “I really feel like people have a natural length [of writing].”
Another gem from Maile Meloy: “You should never wait for a date or a reader to call.”
Her first book was chosen by Martha Stewart for her book club on her show. However, when she arrived in Connecticut, that was the day Martha Stewart’s emails were subpoenaed. Martha wanted to match what Maile was wearing. Maile was nervous about the interview. Martha stopped the camera and said, “Listen, you have to talk.” Maile said, “I was raised by lawyers and I was taught that you only answered the question you were asked. You volunteer nothing.” One wonders what Martha, who was subpoenaed, thought of that. However, the interview proceeded. The interview was sandwiched between how to make black and white cookies and a guy who had a lemur for a pet. Martha wanted Maile to come back when her book came out a year later. However, when Maile’s book came out, Martha was in prison.
Maile wrote a second novel linked to the first, and then a short story collection, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It. She wrote three books for children about Cold War spies and magic. “The middle book is the really fun one, it’s like the Empire Strikes Back. Darth Vader can get away. The third book is really hard.”
She said she knows when she’s most in a hurry and most rushing her writing, that’s when she has to slow down and concentrate. She explained that rituals and routines are important to her as a writer.