Meet Cheryl Strayed’s New Literary Love

Margaret Malone’s new debut short story collection People Like You has already been hailed by a slew of literary luminaries. We caught up with the Portland author to talk about big writers and little worlds.

By Fiona McCann November 25, 2015

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Margaret Malone. Photo by Sabina Poole: Oregon Arts Commission

“I love this book beyond measure,” says Cheryl Strayed, in her blurb for Portland writer Margaret Malone’s new book. Tom Spanbauer calls her a “master of the minimal.” And according to Jim Shepard: “Margaret Malone’s characters are like Miranda July’s without the financial resources: fiercely funny and keenly unhappy, and wanly persistent in their belief in their capacity to change even as they remain expert at observing as if from afar their own genius for self-sabotage.”

So who’s this new author? Malone's People Like You has some of the biggest literary names out there rhapsodizing—galvanizing her small press publisher, Atelier26 Books, to expand operations to ensure its distribution. We met with Malone to discuss short stories, the importance of audience, and life as a Dangerous Writer.

Where did it all begin? Was short story writing always your creative outlet?

I started writing when I was 27, which always feels super late to me because everyone I’ve ever met says things like “I was writing stories when I was three!” And I didn’t do that. I liked books as a kid but I wasn’t that kid. So it felt like I started writing late. Which is funny, looking back now at 41 I think “27? I knew nothing!”

What was it about the short story format that attracted you?

Because I started writing late, I didn’t have any grandiose visions about becoming famous or great. I just enjoyed it. I love how things have to fit together. There has to be a purpose to each and every part of a short story. That’s fun, at least most of the time. Some of the time I just want to stab myself, but most of the time I love the way you have to fit everything together for it to be its own little world. I love the way that a story has to be self-sufficient. It has to be able to exist on its own without a lot of scaffolding around it. It’s like a puzzle, something I have to figure out each time I get into the rewriting.

Were you always hoping to find an audience?

Yes and no. The answer is yes, in that I wanted to connect with people. And I wanted a book. But it was almost to my detriment that I started writing late, because I didn’t have that youthful drive about it. It was more of “I really like this and really hope I have a book some day and I’d love to find someone to connect with me,” but it was distant. It wasn’t driven by this fiery sense of “Here I come!”

Then when my first short story was published in the inaugural issue of Swink, I flew back for their launch party, and that was the first time I’d ever read in front of an audience. It was completely petrifying. It was packed, and I was so nervous, but half a page into the story I hit this – I don’t know what to call it. I was completely gone, and I thought “Yeah, this is totally what I’m supposed to be doing and I just have to keep doing this. Whatever happens, I have to keep doing this.” That was pivotal in a way, because reading in front of an audience has become almost my favorite thing to do. I love that thing that happens when there’s someone listening. It takes on its own life. It has nothing to do with me and nothing to do with the people listening. It’s just this shared bubble we’re in.

You were in Tom Spanbauer’s Dangerous Writing Workshop for three years. How important was it for your writing?

Once I landed in that world, it was like “Uff!” It was just awesome. I suddenly had language around the things I was trying to do and I had people supporting me and trying to do the things I was doing and who got what I was doing. So it was amazing.

How did you get it on the radar of so many big literary names?

I’m not good at pushing my connections, it doesn’t come naturally to me. But I knew this could be the only book of mine that ever comes out, and it will certainly be my only first book, and I don’t want to look back and not know that I did everything I could possibly have done to give this book a chance in the world. So I just went to everybody I knew. And all these people that I knew peripherally in the writing world were like “OK, no problem.” Jim Shepard is one of my literary heroes, and I wrote him a cold email, saying “You don’t know who I am, I have a book, I love you, you’re one of my heroes.” He wrote me back three weeks later, saying “I can’t promise you anything because my schedule’s crazy but I’ll think about it.” I sent it along and he sent a blurb back a week after he got the book. And I read his blurb and thought “I wish I wrote like that! His blurb is better than my book!” That was the best writing day of my life.

What’s next?

My goal right now is to tour. I’m going on a little mini West Coast tour in January. I’m doing Seattle, a ton of Portland stuff, two or three readings in San Francisco, one big LA launch, and I’m trying to get another reading in there. Then I’ve applied for a grant and elbowed other friends to try to get into a reading series in New York. Because now my goal is to get to the East Coast. And just to keep writing.

Are you working on something new?

I do have a second book of short stories that I have going, they’re in motion. And I have a book of essays that’s almost done, and then I have a memoir my husband and I wrote that’s pretty much done. . . I’ve been writing in obscurity for so long, it’s like “Yeah! I’ve got more stuff!”

Margaret Malone’s People Like You, from Atelier26 Books, was released November 17.

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