Exit, not pursued by a bear

Maile Meloy went from Disney dogsbody to writer admired by Philip Roth. Marianne Brace meets the Orange Prize hopeful
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The Independent Culture

Since being published a year ago Maile Meloy's Liars and Saints has sold around 75,000 copies in the UK. It was chosen as one of Richard & Judy's summer reads and has now made it on to the Orange Prize shortlist - the £30,000 winner will be announced on Tuesday. Philip Roth, one of its many admirers, called Liars and Saints an "impressive achievement" and praised the way it packs a punch despite its brevity.

Since being published a year ago Maile Meloy's Liars and Saints has sold around 75,000 copies in the UK. It was chosen as one of Richard & Judy's summer reads and has now made it on to the Orange Prize shortlist - the £30,000 winner will be announced on Tuesday. Philip Roth, one of its many admirers, called Liars and Saints an "impressive achievement" and praised the way it packs a punch despite its brevity.

In this slim volume Meloy tells the moving story of the Santerre family through four generations. It begins with a marriage. While Teddy's off flying fighter planes in the Second World War, his beautiful wife Yvette has her picture taken by a photographer who kisses her. The ramifications of that one incident colour the next 50 years as illegitimate children are born, a girl dies young of cancer, family members test the ties that bind them and find their Catholic faith challenged. The novel combines the sweep of a saga with the emotional intimacy of a short story as each generation grapples with the secrets and lies of the one before.

"Never to lie is to have no lock to your door," Elizabeth Bowen once wrote. "Yes. That's good," says Meloy nodding. Elfin, with reddish hair and dark eyes, the writer looks younger than her 33 years. Maile (it rhymes with "Kylie") must inherit her features from her paternal Irish ancestors, a Catholic seamstress's daughter and a younger son of an Anglo-Irish Protestant who left Ireland in the 1880s. "They ended up in California and then, trying to get back to English rule, headed for Canada driving sheep," explains Meloy. A severe winter marooned them in Montana. The man died and his wife, Meloy's great-great-grandmother, remained. Meloy was raised in Helena, a small Montana town where it's hard not to run into someone you know on the street. "I've always made eye contact. Now I live in Los Angeles, I've had to train myself not to do that."

One of three siblings, Maile is the elder sister of Colin Meloy, front man for indie band The Decembrists. Their father is an attorney and her family had hopes that the scientifically inclined Maile might become a doctor. "I think there was a sense in general of the sciences being more important than the humanities. And I still sort of feel scientists are smarter," she says.

As a child Maile devoured comic books and adventure stories, although she had no idea she was going to be a writer herself. When she was 10 her father promised her a 10-speed bike if she read 10 classics. The bike had "to sit in the hall waiting for me to finish", Meloy laughs. "I'd picked out Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Silas Marner because it was short. The thing is, I don't remember any of them - just the experience of reading."

She clearly had an active imagination. Meloy recently wrote a piece for The New Yorker recalling an occasion when a bear followed her parents as they skied down a slope as Maile sat watching from a car. "I was four. I even remember seeing super-8 movies of the bear and being shown those later - 'Look, there's the bear'. After writing the piece I called my father who said, 'There wasn't any bear. We were once chased by a moose.'" Meloy is laughing. "I think memories are sort of like that."

After a first degree in English, Meloy worked as a development assistant on Disney's direct-to-video animations. "I was at the bottom of the totem pole, answering the phones and reading fairy tales." But script reading gave her a good feel for narrative, and she joined the creative writing programme at the University of California-Irvine.

Half in Love, her stunningly good short story collection, was her graduate thesis. There isn't a dud in it. "There are lots of stories I didn't put in," says Meloy modestly. "All sorts of duds in my hard drive." Liars and Saints followed soon after. It's as if Meloy decided to write an epic in short-story form. Each slim chapter could almost stand alone, spinning on a pivotal moment or revelation.

"The first two chapters actually started as short stories," admits Meloy. But once she decided to try her hand at a novel she says she worked hard "to make sure that I didn't close a chapter down at the end". She had no idea where the story was leading ("which is the fun part"), and loved the shift in narrative perspective the novel allowed her.

Meloy's family has a tradition of Catholics and Protestants intermarrying though she says her upbringing was "very secular". But with Liars and Saints she became aware of her own Catholic sensibility and became fascinated by the mystical and magical. Characters embrace the faith, reject it utterly, find it won't let them go.

The book manages to be moving and avoids the pitfalls of sentimentality and melodrama. "It's about how everyone muddles through doing what they think is right at the time, but it turns out it wasn't. I'd like to think that although it's an American book, it's about basic human things: loss, love, betrayal, jealousy, sex and death. Things that travel."

The Santerre family is already travelling. At a recent book signing a woman thumped down Liars and Saints, telling Meloy, "You don't look Italian." "I said, 'Oh, should I?' And she said, 'Well, we had Santerres down the street from us and they were Italian.'" The Santerres in her novel are French-Canadian. "To me that's sort of amazing," says the writer, smiling. "She had had a great experience reading it and had so connected with this 'Italian' family, and I thought - why not?"

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