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Maile Meloy on Her Transition from Adult Fiction to Middle Grade Books

Many authors have transitioned from adult fiction to young adult or children’s books recently. We caught up with author Maile Meloy to find out how she made the transition and find advice for other writers.

Meloy will publish her debut children’s book, The Apothecary, on October 4th. The Apothecary was written for a middle-grade audience. Meloy (pictured, via) built her career with two novels and two short story collections for adults.

Q: What advice do you have for authors looking to make the transition from writing for an adult audience to a middle-grade audience?
A: Make interesting stuff happen. I want that from books for adults, too, but I think kids are even more demanding than adults about plot—about what happens next. I also think there’s no need to write down for a younger audience, or to leave out words that seem hard. Kids are smart.

Q: What inspired you to write a children’s book when in the past, you published short stories and novels for adults? Did your writing process diverge from its normal path for The Apothecary?

A: I had just finished writing my last book and was trying to figure out what to do next, when my filmmaker friends Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin said they had a movie idea about a mysterious apothecary but they thought it should be a novel first and that I should write it.

I said very blithely that I would try, not knowing that it would take over my life. The first draft was a delight and a revelation, and I wrote it really quickly. I didn’t know where the story was going, or if there were rules about writing kids’ books, and I didn’t worry about whether it was bad or good; I just felt like I was along on the adventure. Then I had to go back and make the puzzle-like plot work, and it became more like the hard work of writing a novel. In that way it was like my normal process: I always throw away at least as many pages as I keep—getting rid of scenes and characters and chapters—as I figure out the story. It’s not very efficient.

Q: Describe the research process you went through for The Apothecary.
A: I had just read David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain, 1946-1951, which collects stories of Britain after the war from people who were there. It was the perfect book to read before writing a novel set in London in the early 1950s. I read a little about the Chelsea Physic Garden and apothecaries’ measures and alchemy, and then I started writing.

I tend to do research late, after I have the story down. If I do too much, too early, it gets in my way. After I had a draft, I went to London, to the Chelsea Physic Garden and the Imperial War Museum, which is my favorite museum. I put a Morrison bomb shelter from the museum in the next draft. I listened to oral histories about the experience of British children in the war. I read about the development of atomic weapons. And I cornered a chess genius at a dinner party and got plausible opening moves for a chess game played in 1952 between a skilled English boy and an American girl who’s trying to be bold, so I could replace my vague placeholder sentences: ‘Janie pushed out a pawn.’ I knew what the scene was, I just needed the right details.

Q: The Apothecary features some great illustrations by Ian Schoenherr; what do you think is the best way for a writer to collaborate with an illustrator?
A: I think it should be just that: a collaboration. I had put clip art at the beginning of each chapter, with a picture of something that would appear in that chapter. Ian used a few of those objects, and continued the idea that the opening image should build suspense about the chapter, but he went way beyond my little boxed images. I was limited by what I could find in photographs. He chose perfect moments and scenes from the book to illustrate, and his paintings wrap around the text, across the top or bottom of the page. They’re so beautiful, and Ryan the designer and Cecilia the art director showed me the sketches as they came in, so we could have a dialogue about it. There’s a character in the book with a wooden leg, and in the manuscript it was just a peg, but Ian drew an articulated leg with buckled straps, a boot, and visible nails to hold the sock up. I started to say, ‘Oh, that’s not the right kind of…’ and then I shut up and went back and changed the text. His leg was better.

Q: What’s next for you in your writing career?
A: I have a novel for adults in mind, but I haven’t found my way into it yet. In the meantime I’ve been writing another Apothecary book, picking up Janie and Benjamin two years later. I’m trying to think hard about the story as I go, so I won’t have to throw out as much as I usually do, but that’s just an experiment. I’ll see if it works.

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