In his Believer review, Jim Ruland described Big World as, “a full anatomy lesson of the kind of heart that’s kick-started by booze, cigarettes, and jukebox songs of regret.” Miller’s protagonists are often young, intelligent (and, at times, deeply sardonic) females engaged in some sort of destructive and/or deteriorating relationship. What is perhaps most impressive about Big World is the way in which each narrative seems to vault effortlessly from the particular to the universal.
The Rumpus: What book or writer first inspired you to begin writing?
Mary Miller: When I began writing, I was buying books at a chain store in Meridian, Mississippi; they only carried popular stuff and the classics. None of it seemed to have anything to do with me, really. Mostly the stories were written by men, but even those written by women were irrelevant. Maybe the women were vaguely unhappy but they had parties to host, or else they had farm work to do. Early on, it was the poets who allowed me to see what was possible: I loved Anne Sexton; I wasn’t crazy about Plath’s poetry but I liked The Bell Jar, and I knew she had killed herself so this automatically made her much more interesting. I also stumbled upon Kim Addonizio and Laura Kasischke. They made me realize I could write about the things that were going on in my head, that I didn’t have to be nice.
Rumpus: What is your writing process like?
Miller: I don’t like to think about process. I write one sentence and then another, and I don’t ask myself what comes next. I used to write one draft very slowly and then, if it needed to be revised, decide it was shit and throw it out. I don’t do that anymore. I save everything and piecemeal things together. I’ve found that nearly everything can be useful; often things are just in the wrong form.
Rumpus: How long did you spend writing Big World?
Miller: I started writing fiction in the fall of 2005 and gave the manuscript to Elizabeth and Aaron in the summer of 2008. The first story I wrote was “Go Fish” (published as “My Brother in Christ” in BW). It feels really early to me now, like I was just working out my style. I’d kind of like to rewrite it, but someone once told me to look at it as a document, a picture of who I was then. I guess I’m going to have a lot of documents, which is cool since I’ve never managed to keep a diary.
Rumpus: In the her Rumpus Review of Big World, Laura Van Den Berg called you a “master of tone.” And its true, Big World has such a cohesive and authentic tone. Each narrative is distinct, but the cumulative effect is that of inhabiting (or having some sort of intimate conversation with) someone else’s consciousness in all of its complexity, which, I think, is one of the most uniquely magical experiences a reader of fiction can have. Is that something you strive for? Does tone come naturally to you or do you struggle to correct yourself when you lose sight of it?
Miller: It comes naturally.
I struggle with this because the tone is flat and most people don’t like to read about sad, depressed characters that don’t do anything because it’s too much like their real lives—things should happen and characters should do things and say things and create a lot of drama. What makes this day different than all of the other days? If it’s just another day, then it will be called a slice-of-life story, a vignette, and everyone knows this is an insult, like when one of your peers in workshop begins every sentence with, “I know this is a first draft, but…”
I try to figure out whether the story feels right to me, which I’ve gotten pretty decent at. Sometimes static and depressed is good and sometimes it’s just dull and lacks energy. Either way, I try to create a whole world; if it’s a sad, depressed world, it should still be detailed and rich and fully realized.
Rumpus: What is the best writing advice you were ever given?
Miller: I’ve been given a lot of great advice. One of my professors recently said that writers should think of themselves as geniuses with much to learn. This resonated with me because I really do think I’m a genius and I also think I have much to learn. If you don’t think you’re a genius, you won’t have the guts/ambition/narcissism for writing, and if you don’t think you’ve got a lot to learn, you won’t progress. You’ll also act like a jerk.
Rumpus: What do you think about the idea of “real fiction,” i.e., the conceit of the publishing industry/critical establishment that you can only write one book that is noticeably autobiographical and that your second book, if you are a really a writer of “depth” and “imagination,” should be a novel from the perspective of, I don’t know, a zebra or a man who lives in Latvia?
Miller: I don’t think much about the publishing industry. I’m a short story writer so I don’t have to be a part of it, to a large extent. When my fellowship is up in a few years, I might have to reassess things, but I’ll probably just get a job at a college somewhere and teach fiction and continue writing whatever I feel like. If this doesn’t pan out, I’ll see if James Frey is still hiring.
Rumpus: What is the gestation process like for your stories? Do they start with a character? An idea? A simile?
Miller: Never a simile, sometimes an idea, often a sentence. The narrator is nearly always a thinly veiled version of myself so this takes some of the question out of it. If the narrator isn’t “me” then it’s someone watching “me.” It’s a very narcissistic world I live in.
Rumpus: In an interview with the Paris Review, Faulkner said of his contemporaries (and this is kind of a long quote):
All of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide.
Do you agree with that statement? Do you think you all writers strive for some permanently elusive goal? That writing is like approaching an asymptote?
Miller: This just sounds like the kind of thing that sounds cool to say, perhaps while drinking whiskey and chain smoking unfiltered cigarettes.
I think of Hemingway, who was depressed and disoriented and had multiple rounds of ECT, how he found himself unable to write, unable to organize his thoughts into anything coherent. This is what killed him. If I got something exactly right, matched “the work to the image,” I’d be thrilled. I would know it was a very rare occurrence, and that it would probably never happen again. Then maybe I’d drink some whiskey.
Rumpus: What do you consider the most writerly city in the world?
Miller: New York, of course. I think nearly every beginning/emerging writer would pick New York. It would be amazing to live there, even for a summer, and pretend I was “a writer in New York” or a “New York writer.” I like Austin quite a bit, though. There are lots of readings and literary events and it’s all free or really cheap and everyone is nice. And the Mexican food is excellent here. I eat an avocado a day.
Rumpus: In Fast Trains you write:
I read an article about loneliness in a Jesus magazine while I ate. None of my coworkers believed in Jesus. We made fun of the earnest and plain-looking women who congregated in the religious section, one of them offering advice while the other protested mildly, their quilted bible covers in paisley prints. Sometimes I got the urge to join them. It wasn’t because there was something missing. The something missing was the plight of humanity—any idiot knew that—it couldn’t be filled with food or alcohol or drawing blood from skin.
When I read this sentence I sort of felt like it could function as a thesis statement for the whole collection. Many of the protagonists share this sense of deep, existential loneliness. One narrator remarks, I can’t remember where, that no one has ever really known her. Do you think that fiction can, in a way, function as an antidote to this type of loneliness?
Miller: She says that she has successfully hidden herself from everyone she’s ever known—that still makes me kind of sad because I remember being in a relationship with someone who didn’t know me and feeling like I had to protect myself, to keep from being “found out.” Basically, he just didn’t like me very much. Now I’ve accepted the fact that someone is going to like me or they aren’t and there isn’t anything I can do to change that so I might as well be myself. I’ve always thought that was the most horrendous advice, though—just be yourself. As if the self is some static thing that a person can just be.
So the question—no, I don’t think fiction in any way makes loneliness better. I think leaving the house makes loneliness better, participating in life. I force myself to go to parties, to be nice to people and smile and make friends. It’s all very uncomfortable, really, but it makes life more pleasant.
Rumpus: What would you say is your most common edit? That is, what instinctual writing habits do you find yourself censoring most often?
Miller: I tend to go too far. I think I’m saying something profound, typically at the end of a paragraph, but it’s obvious and functions more as an instruction to the reader, who doesn’t want to be told how to think or feel. It’s tricky because I don’t want to cut what actually is insightful but I have a hard time telling the difference.
Rumpus: What did you want to grow up to be when you were little?
Miller: I wanted to be a writer. I had this little cubbyhole bed built into the wall, and I would sit there for hours and hours reading Stephen King and scaring the hell out of myself. Other than some sporadic poetry, however, I didn’t start writing until six years ago.
Rumpus: What book are you reading right now?
Miller: I’m almost finished with The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey, who will be at the Michener Center for the next three weeks giving craft talks. It’s not the kind of book I’d have probably ever picked up on my own, but I’m really enjoying it. I’m also reading Adam Novy’s The Avian Gospels, which is amazing so far. I love anything even vaguely apocalyptic. If animals are dying and things are falling from the sky, this is excellent. I’m also reading Cheryl Strayed’s Torch. I just found Strayed and I love her—I bought Best American Essays 2000 and 2003 to read her nonfiction. I tend to read a bunch of books at once, but I’m actually finishing them now. For a long time, I was just moving them from room to room: bedroom to kitchen to living room and back to the bedroom at night to go to sleep.
Rumpus: What is the best thing about Mississippi?
Miller: I’ve been in Austin for about five months, but I’ve spent nearly all of my life in Mississippi. Sadly, all of the young creative people who don’t want to get married and have babies by age 25 move away. The few who remain are the ones who left, got hooked on drugs, and had to move back. Then they sober up and get married and have babies.
What I like about Mississippi: thunderstorms, the blues, folk art, cheese grits, Square Books. I like Southern accents. I like being from somewhere that nobody gives a shit about; it makes me feel like an underdog.
Rumpus: In an interview with Nik Perring you said (vis a vis your own writing process):
There’s a lot of ‘Yes, I can do this,’ but then it can quickly turn into ‘There’s no way I can do this.’ When I sit down to write, I can feel both of these things in a span of ten minutes. It’s really hard. There’s a lot of time and energy put into writing hundreds and hundreds of pages of stories that go nowhere and failed novels.
Could you expand on this a little? How do you overcome self-doubt? Do you find yourself growing anesthetized to it the more you write?
Miller: When I wrote this, I think I was mainly talking about novels. Over the years, I’ve attempted three or four, a couple of which made it to 150 pages or so. At some point, it always devolved into a word count and it wasn’t fun and I didn’t enjoy it. When people post their word counts on Facebook, I can’t help thinking that that’s all it is—it gets to a point where you just want to get to 80,000 words and be done with it already so you can work on something you actually like. I’ve given up on novels for the time being and I feel very happy about that. Now, if a story sucks, I’ll chop it up and use parts of it in something else. Or maybe I don’t use it but at least I didn’t spend six months writing it.
Rumpus: What are you working on right now and when will we see it?
Miller: I’m finishing up a second story collection now, doing edits and things. I also have a chapbook coming out with Rose Metal Press this spring—They Could No Longer Contain Themselves: A Collection of Five Flash Chapbooks by Elizabeth Colen, John Jodzio, Tim Jones-Yelvington, Sean Lovelace, and Mary Miller. It feels kind of weird to have these flashes out now because most of them were written about four years ago. I still like them, though. They know how to wrap things up in a way I can’t do now.
Rumpus: Finally, will you marry me?
Miller: I have a nice boyfriend but he lives a thousand miles away—so maybe, as long as we can skip the whole courtship process.