Maile (pronounced “MY-lee”) Meloy is the author of The Apothecary, a stunning book about a young American girl who moves to London when her screenwriting parents are blacklisted. There, she meets an apothecary who seems to be involved in something more sinister — something having to do with the Russians and the Bomb. The book delves into the magical, while still retaining the feel of London in the 1950s.
The Apothecary is Meloy’s first book for younger readers; she has previously written a couple of novels and two short story collections for adults. I spoke with Meloy at Wordstock about her new book, the difference between writing for adults and kids, and why she prefers using the term “book for grown-ups.”
GeekDad: I know that The Apothecary started out as a movie idea from some friends of yours, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin. How much of the story did they give you to get started, and how much did you have to make up on your own?
Maile Meloy: They came to me with the original idea — that it would be a spy novel with kids and magic. Which wasn’t like anything I’d written before, and at first I was nervous about writing magic. They had the beginning of the story, some of which changed as I started writing, and they were really inspiring and great as I figured out where to go from there. Their kids go to a school in Los Angeles where a lot of blacklisted writers sent their kids, and they’d been researching the blacklist connection for the school newsletter and were interested in a story set during that time. Their daughter Franny was the first kid reader of the book, and that was incredibly helpful. (It’s dedicated to her.)
GD: How difficult was it to put yourself in 1950s London? Did you have to do a lot of research for that?
MM: When I started writing the novel, I had, by chance, just read a book called Austerity Britain, 1945-1951, by David Kynaston. It’s a collection of contemporary accounts of England after the war, when there was still rationing, heavy bomb damage, and limited resources for recovery. It was the next best thing to a time machine. Someone said that to write a period novel you should read two books and close your eyes. Austerity Britain was my book about London.
I also asked my father-in-law, who was a young man in England in the ’50s, to read the manuscript to fact-check it. He gave me a list of fifteen things I couldn’t have found on my own, because I wouldn’t have known what to look for. I had the characters hear a police siren, and he told me that police cars had a bell on the front, which you could operate from within the car. I had a woman who wasn’t rich wearing nylon stockings, which were very scarce. I had champagne glasses in a train station teashop, and he said they should be water glasses, and suggested I place the scene outside the newsreel cinema in Victoria Station. I made all his changes. Ian Schoenherr, the wonderful illustrator, had already painted the champagne flutes, but he kindly changed the illustration, too.
GD: I heard on NPR about these people who had filmed a documentary in Afghanistan, just filming the lives of ordinary people there, capturing the everyday stuff. For instance, because it’s expensive to own an oven, there are places you can take your flour and have it baked into bread, so they would film the person who baked the bread. And when they showed this film to people in Afghanistan, they’d ask questions like: “Where did you find that actor?” When they were told that it wasn’t an actor — these were real people going about their lives, they were really confused. It was one of these things where they didn’t have any concept of the documentary films, and they were asking, why are we watching this everyday thing?
MM: But it’s so useful for people to have that record of the everyday stuff because it’s the sort of thing that people don’t usually write down.
MM: The most challenging thing was getting the plot right, partly because I wrote the first draft so quickly. I wrote it in about six weeks and just dashed through it, and got the kids into scrapes and then didn’t know how to get them out. When I looked at it, it needed more structure, more logic. I think I’m someone who has always had too much plot in my novels, and so in a way it felt like coming home. I feel like kids are more demanding of plot than adults are. Just making sure that it worked, that it made sense, that the kind of puzzle of it worked and that you wanted to go to the next chapter.
The most rewarding thing has been … I think the illustrations. You don’t get illustrations in grown-up books, although I’m going to angle for it. Ian Schoenherr, who did the illustrations, just did the most amazing job. I had put little clip-art in each of my chapter headings, just something that would show up in that chapter to build a little suspense about what was coming next. But he did these amazing scenes from the book that wrap around but still have that function and still make you want to know what’s happening. I was limited by what I was able to find on the internet, but his are incredibly atmospheric and beautiful.
GD: Did he also do the cover illustration?
MM: He did the cover, yes.
GD: I know sometimes you get one artist doing the cover and somebody else doing the interior artwork.
MM: Cecilia Yung, who was the art director at Putnam, really wanted to make sure that we had someone who could do both the interior illustrations and the beautiful cover, and we talked from the beginning. She said: “Who do you like? Let’s look at some blogs.” That was really fun.
GD: I really liked those. I loved those little hints about what was coming, like the ear. “Why is there an ear? What’s going to happen in this chapter?”
MM: Exactly! Why is there an ear? And he worked so hard on the ear. There’s a statue at the Louvre, and it’s a woman behind a veil. It’s carved out of stone, and it’s incredibly beautiful and you can see that she’s got a veil on. I feel like Ian Schoenherr did something like that with the invisibility, drawing people who are invisible, which is really hard!
GD: Do you see yourself writing more kids’ books? Do you want to get back to writing something for adults now?
MM: When I’m not ready to write a new book it always takes me a while to sort of figure out what I’m doing next. And I started The Apothecary as soon as I’d finished my last book for adults because they came to me in that vulnerable moment. Then I think I got my next idea for a grown-up book at the normal time, when I was halfway through The Apothecary, and I was desperate to finish it so I could write this book for grown-ups. I keep saying “book for grown-ups” because “adult book” sounds like porn, so I just can’t say it!
So I started working on it as soon as I finished The Apothecary. What happened, because I tend to do research late because I tend to like getting the emotional story down first, and I couldn’t start writing this new book, I started doing research for it. And I did all this research about the setting, and I just overwhelmed myself with the real details of the setting. So I haven’t found a way in yet. I have to let all of that settle, and forget some of it.
Then I started thinking about where I would pick up Janie and Benjamin next, what another Apothecary book that is separate, but related, would be. I wrote forty pages. I just feel like that’s the muscle I’ve been exercising, so that’s the muscle that’s strong. So that’s what I’ve been working on.
GD: What sort of books did you read as a kid, and what do you read now? Now, I know from another article that you read Trixie Belden novels, but what else was there?
MM: The books other kids read: I love Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, Swiftly Tilting Planet. The Narnia books. I loved The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, one of my favorite books. I just re-read it; it really holds up. It’s so good. I read Treasure Island when I was home with pneumonia. And the “black spot” was so exciting and scary! I’m forgetting some… The Island of the Blue Dolphins. Oh, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths I loved. All those great stories about angry gods and transformations.
What I read now — I’ve been reading kids’ books. Partly just to see what’s out there. When I started this, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know if there were rules, I didn’t know that “middle grade” was a category, I didn’t know anything. So I read When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, which I loved. So good. I loved Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan. I love Philip Pullman. I think His Dark Materials is just astounding. He also has a series of four books about a girl named Sally Lockhart — actually, the fourth one is not so much about Sally — but she’s a detective. Kind of Trixie Belden-ish, and they’re fantastic. For a slightly older reader, maybe.
The trouble is, reading those books, that you go back to contemporary literature for grown-ups and you get sixty pages in and nothing’s happened. I’ve abandoned two books in a row because I’ve become a plot addict. I’m having a rocky re-entry.
GD: Well, I know you have another event coming up in a few minutes here, so that’s my questions. Thanks again for taking the time to answer a few questions.
MM: You’re welcome!
For more about Maile Meloy (including her books for grown-ups), visit her website www.MaileMeloy.com.