Cow People

Maile Meloy was born and raised in Helena, Montana. She has more than a nodding acquaintance with cows and horses, bitter winters and dusty summers. Meloy understands the taxonomy of ranch girls. The characters in her short story collection, Half in Love, are

not the Texas kind, who are debutantes and just happen to have a ranch in the family, and not the horse-farm kind, who ride English. Horse people are different, because horses are elegant and clean. Cows are mucusy, muddy, shitty, slobbery things, and it takes another kind of person to live with them.

Maile Meloy, “Ranch Girl” in Half in Love (Scribner 2002)

Half in Love is Meloy’s debut short story collection. In 2002, it won the PEN/Malamud Prize and the Ploughshares’ John C. Zacharis First Book Award.

Big Sky country

There’s a lot of driving going on in Half in Love. Montana’s a big place and sparsely populated. The weather can turn on you just like that. You might be headed over Garrison Junction on your way to visit your daughter when the fog lowers and snow comes down and you can’t see beyond your headlights or notice the semi bearing down on you.

The Montana-based stories are the ones I like best. Maybe it’s because Montana is such an exotic place to me. I didn’t know that the best thoroughbred horses have straight legs or what frostbite can do to a newborn foal like Kite Whistler Aquamarine.

Meloy has said that the Montana stories were the hardest for her to write. It feels like she’s writing from a place in her heart. Good to know that even a local can get caught unawares in Big Sky Country. Here’s Addy and her Dad driving to the state fair in Great Falls.

I sat with my feet up on the dash, lead ropes and old race programs on the floor beneath me, and watched the mountains and the impossibly blue sky go by. I’d seen this landscape so much that most of the time my senses were glutted and one mountain range looked like the next. At other times, and this was one of those, it caught me by surprise and the blue was so vast and bright I couldn’t breathe.

Maile Meloy, “A Stakes Horse”

Lady Lawyers

I have to chuckle at the many lawyers in Meloy’s stories. Most of them are women who face misogyny and mansplaining every day. Like the unnamed narrator in the opening story “Tome”. Her client Sawyer wants a second opinion on his workers’ comp case. So the lawyer takes Sawyer to Billings, four hours away, to hear what the tort expert has to say.

We explained the situation. The lawyer said, “You have no tort claim.”
Sawyer said, “Okay.”
I thought, That’s what it’s like to be a man. If I were a man I could explain the law and people would listen and say, “Okay.” It would be so restful.

Maile Meloy, “Tome”

The lawyer jokes become even funnier once I learn that Meloy comes from a family of lawyers. Her father, stepmother and uncle all told stories about depositions gone wrong because the witness decided to go off-piste. Meloy learned at a very young age to answer only the question asked. This becomes a problem when Martha Stewart tries to interview Meloy for TV.

Martha: So, Maile, you grew up in Montana?
Maile: Yes.

The Europeans

The stories in Half in Love span decades. “Red” is set farthest back in time. A new conscript has arrived in London. He’s about to be shipped to the French trenches of WWI and finds a half-form of love while he waits.

The story that feels the most contemporary to me is set in Paris. “Aqua Boulevard” is a story. It is also a real life water park. It has pools and slides, a wave maker and a great horn to announce each new session. For this story, Meloy won the 2001 Aga Khan Prize for best fiction in the Paris Review.

I imagine the unnamed narrator to be a fussy Hercule Poirot type who lives by self-imposed rules and regulations. His voice is also the most unusual of the narrators in Half in Love. You can practically see his little moue-shaped mouth as he walks each day to the Polo Club.

I could have a horse at the club, well groomed and cared for. I would not get any better, at my age, but I could ride. But I like only to ride in the country⏤going somewhere⏤not in a hall in the middle of Paris, going in circles. So I walk to my lunch, I watch the horses, I walk back.

Maile Meloy, “Aqua Boulevard”

Meloy doesn’t live in Montana any more. Insofar as she was ever destined to become a ranch girl or a lady lawyer, Meloy is an LA woman now.

Recently, Meloy has begun writing for kids. People like to ask her whether she has kids of her own. And when she says, no, they ask, how do you write for them?

I hesitate. I write fiction, so I’ve written about many things I haven’t actually done. The novels would be very boring otherwise. But the thing I did do, for longer than anything else, was be a kid. Having had a childhood, I think my qualifications are pretty good.

Maile Meloy, “Whose Side Are You On?” in The New York Times, 21 Aug 2015
29 Dec 2021 | Karen Kao