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Uncertain terms

Maile Meloy returns to the Montana Book Festival with a grownup story about kids gone missing



Maile Meloy has spent the last year "down a deep hole," she says, finishing her latest novel. She started the book in 2014, in between writing a young adult series, and last week she turned over a final draft to her editor. She's suffering from eyestrain and the corners of her pinky fingernails have worn off from typing on her keyboard, but she's looking forward to a trip to Montana—a place she still considers home even after years of living in Los Angeles—where she'll read at the Montana Book Festival's prestigious gala night.

Meloy's clear, quiet prose and lovingly crafted characters have made her a nationally recognized writer for both adults and children. She doesn't shy away from uncomfortable situations and conflict. The novel she just finished, Do Not Become Alarmed, for instance, follows two families who go on vacation together only to have the children in the party go missing. It's a huge shift away from the young adult Apothecary trilogy she completed last year—New York Times bestsellers for which she won the E.B. White Award.

"The novel is clearly a book I wrote after writing three kids novels," Meloy says. "But it's also very much about the parents, and what they're going through. I've missed writing about grownups. In the Apothecary books, the kids have good parents, but I had to get rid of them as quickly as possible so the kids could have an adventure without checking in all the time."

Helena native Maile Meloy will read from her upcoming novel, Do Not Become Alarmed, at this year’s Montana Book Festival. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MAILE MELOY
  • photo courtesy of Maile Meloy
  • Helena native Maile Meloy will read from her upcoming novel, Do Not Become Alarmed, at this year’s Montana Book Festival.

Meloy has a knack for creating stories full of uncertainty in both feelings and actions. She writes characters, balancing their wants and hopes and needs often with dark or even sinister elements lurking in the background and urgently pressing the plot forward. Do Not Become Alarmed will also not be the first time Meloy includes children's perspectives in her adult fiction. In the past, she's accomplished that feat with precision, such as in her short story, "Nine," about a 9-year-old who is navigating life with her mother's boyfriend and son.

"Shifting back to writing for grownups was hard," she says. "After three books, that middle-grade muscle gets strong. The new novel has chapters about kids on their own, and my husband read the very first draft and said those chapters felt too YA—not because of the content, but because the kids had too much awareness of what was going on; there wasn't enough uncertainty. I realized that I'd gotten used to writing books where the kid characters are—and should be—kind of superhuman in what they can do and figure out."

Meloy's complicated characters will get the big-screen treatment in mid-October with the release of independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt's new film Certain Women. It's an adaptation of Meloy's second book of short stories, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, which was named one of the Ten Best Books of 2009 by The New York Times Book Review. The film stars Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and Missoula-based actress Lily Gladstone (Winter in the Blood) and follows strong-willed women trying to make their way in the unforgiving landscape of the contemporary American Northwest.

"It's very strange and moving to see characters saying lines you know really well, onscreen," Meloy says.

If Certain Women comes anywhere close to accurately detailing Meloy's complicated characters—and we hear it does—it's bound to be a powerful film.

Maile Meloy reads from her upcoming novel at the Wilma for the Montana Book Festival's Gala Reading Sat., Sept. 24, at 7:30 PM.

Four must-see events at this year's Montana Book Festival

by Erika Fredrickson


Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is one of the most famous poems about the difficulty of choosing between two paths. The storyline seems simple but it's filled with complex emotions about regret and acceptance. Tell Us Something, the locally based live storytelling series, kicks off this year's festival with a lineup of people telling 10-minute personal stories (without notes) to a live audience on the theme "Fork in the Road." Storytellers and their subject matter are always kept a surprise, but expect emotional curveballs, confessionals, flawed characters and strange-but-true tales with enough meditation on literal and figurative roads to give Frost a run for his money.

Wilma. Tue., Sept. 20, at 7 PM. $10/$8 advance.

Perma read

A few weeks ago it was announced that Debra Magpie Earling would become the new head of the University of Montana's creative writing department and the first Native American person to hold the position. The festival will hold a gift-giving ceremony and drumming for Earling in celebration of her new role. The professor has also proved her chops as an author—her 1992 award winning debut novel Perma Red is a stunning read with lines like, "The back of her head danced with silver stars and Louise fell back into dreaming, a snagged fish released again to water." It's the kind of line-by-line writing that makes aspiring authors either want to work harder or curl up in a ball and never open their eyes again.

Payne Family Native American Center. Wed., Sept. 21, at 4 PM. Free.

Breaking free

Brendan Leonard's pre-writing life consisted of alcohol binges, multiple arrests, car wrecks and fistfights. Sixty Meters Anywhere is about the turn he took when he trekked into the Rocky Mountains and had some major revelations that led him to later adventures across the country and into Europe. Redemption stories that take place in the wilderness are a particular weakness for readers in this town, and Sixty Meters has the added bonus of being a western barstool tale that expands past the mountain peaks with which so many of us are familiar. In the talk "From Arrest to Arrete," Leonard will read from the book and talk about the story behind the story.

Shakespeare & Co. Thu., Sept. 22, at 3 PM. Free.

Sexy things

Last year, literary writers got up on the VFW stage and read their own original erotic fan fiction based on "Nancy Drew" and the "Babysitters Club." The hilarious and titillating event is back, this time with a focus on monsters and robots because, of course! Writers/readers include Laramie Dean, Acton Douglas and Mara Panich-Crouch, among others, and the readings will be emceed by festival director Rachel Mindell. Ready to find out the erotic inner workings of, say, C3P0, rendered in the delicious language of local and visiting literary masters? Yes. You are.

Radius Gallery. Thu., Sept. 22, at 7 PM. Free.

The Montana Book Festival runs Tue., Sept. 20 through Sun., Sept. 25. Visit for schedule and ticketing info.

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