Mary Miller

The Rumpus Interview with Mary Miller

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I first found Mary Miller in a literary journal, the shortest piece in there, all heartbreak. Then I found her in another literary journal. And another. And another. Soon I was looking for her name and finding it with amazing consistency, her stories, one by one, knocking me slightly off track until I felt a world adding up of young women living hard lives. That world was Big World, Miller’s collection, which came out on one of the best indie presses around, Hobart‘s Short Flight, Long Drive, and soon seemed to be making the rounds of most people I knew online. So I was waiting with much anticipation and trepidation for Miller’s debut novel, The Last Days of California, because how could a writer of that compression write a novel, and how could I survive 300 pages of such continual heart soreness and clear-eyed recognition?

I had had the luck of being able to meet Mary Miller at—I think—a mutual reading at AWP. It was at a time when she had a picture of her with a gun on her Facebook page, and her words seemed so unrelenting to me that I was scared. She was gracious and a little shy. I kept following her work and I ended up soliciting and publishing her in The Good Men Project.

A Mary Miller story will still get me to pick up any journal. When I heard about her novel, I bulled my way to an ARC. I started the book on a plane to a writing festival where we were to be on a panel together, and by the time I touched down, I was just as much in awe of her as when I picked up that first magazine. Her prose is always on. There isn’t a single crack where you can let yourself think of her as just another writer. I’m glad and awed to know her.

I asked Mary some questions over e-mail about how she manages the mystery. The Last Days of California is the story of a family driving to California to meet the rapture. The narrator doesn’t know what to believe. It’s the story I was piecing together in my head, from all of those stories I read by Mary Miller before I knew there could be a novel.

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The Rumpus: Mary, you’re one of very few writers who intimidate me. I think I told you I was scared of you the first time I met you? I think it has something to do with how real and raw and owned your voice is. From the first story I read of yours to your novel, it’s like you know exactly who you are. What’s the deal with that? Did it just come out like that, fully formed?

Mary Miller: I don’t remember you telling me this! I can’t imagine you being intimidated by anyone—you’re so friendly and easy to be around. I wish I knew exactly who I was. I was talking to a friend earlier about the advice people give each other, advice like “just be yourself,” and how this is particularly awful because it presumes we know who we are. As if people are static and unchanging.

Good writing, in my opinion, is writing that looks really easy, so easy that a person who has never written more than a grocery list might convince themself that they could also write a book. That being said, it’s always a lot of work, as you know. And then there’s this: you have no idea how many failed stories and novels I’ve attempted. I have files full of stories that didn’t work for whatever reason.

Rumpus: You know, it occurs to me that we talk a lot about how we know a story works (which I still don’t understand). How do you know a story doesn’t work? Or, maybe more interesting, how do you know a story won’t work, even with more revision?

Miller: This is a great question. And I don’t have an easy answer for it. A story works when there’s momentum, life behind the words. Some stories have this and others don’t, and it’s difficult to say why this is. If all stories “worked,” though, writing wouldn’t be much of a challenge; it wouldn’t be art.

LastDaysofCalifornia.inddThere are many stories I’ve wanted to write that I’m simply not able to—sometimes I haven’t found the way in yet, and it doesn’t matter how hard I try. Sometimes the way comes later, when I’m not working or thinking about it at all. When stories don’t work, you try to convince yourself that all of that time and energy wasn’t wasted, that it will make you a better writer, if nothing else. There’s definitely a magical quality to writing that can’t be explained. I can write something I love in two days, or I can work on a story every day for months and it never comes together.

I think there simply comes a point at which you’re beating your head against the wall with revision, when you’re making something different but not better. For me, revision usually has more to do with making the language prettier, finding clearer images, using more active verbs. Perhaps adding a line or two of dialogue to try to better capture an emotion. But I’ve found that if the story isn’t there in the beginning, right from the start, I generally can’t beat it into shape no matter how much rewriting I do.

Rumpus: That’s interesting. You don’t do much revision on a macro scale, then? What about for the novel? Do you think this style of revision has to do with relying not so much on plot but on tone? I guess what I mean is: how do you conceive of plot? The Last Days of California seems far more “plotted” at the end; was that a surprise to you, or were you trying to go “plottier” with this book?

Miller: I don’t revise a lot when writing short stories. As far as the novel, I definitely thought more about plot. Honestly, I’m still pretty confused about what “plot” means. I’ve been reading some of my Goodreads reviews and one reader noted that the The Last Days of California “reads like a short story stretched to the breaking point, padded and brought into novel range…” I don’t know what people want, really. Does somebody have to die? What is meant by resolution? These are questions that I don’t quite know what to do with. That being said, I did want the characters to be changed by the end of the book. But will what they’ve gone through alter their lives from this point forward, i.e. will they make different (better) choices? Probably not. But I suppose this is, essentially, my perspective on life. Just because we’ve made mistakes and learned things from them intellectually doesn’t mean we won’t continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.

Rumpus: Were these the challenges, then, of going from stories to the novel? Plot? Revision? How did you know you had a “way in” that would sustain the novel length, or did that come later for the novel?

Miller: I knew it would be fairly long because the novel begins in western Louisiana and the family’s destination is California (the Pacific Ocean). Most of it was written over a summer spent at home in Mississippi, between my first and second years as a Michener Fellow. I was moving and found myself without a lease in Austin for two to three months, so I hid out in a room upstairs and told my family I was “writing a novel” and it was “very important work,” mostly as a way to have some privacy.

After that, I edited it many, many times. Even though it’s short (around 65,000 words), that’s still a whole lot of words for someone used to writing 3,000 word stories. Making all of those words work together is difficult. It took a lot of cleaning up, a lot of rewriting scenes in order to make them more vivid. I used everything—every oddity I’ve ever seen on the side of the road, every interesting memory I could make relevant. I can’t remember who said it—I think it was Allan Gurganus when he was visiting the Michener Center—but he told us to “spend [our] gold,” meaning, put everything you have into a story. Other “gold” will be waiting for you for your next project.

Rumpus: Take us through how you might rethink a scene. Is there one in particular in Last Days that caused some trouble?

Miller: It’s difficult for me to imagine any scene differently because I’ve read the book so many times. The book, as a whole, seems like a document that wouldn’t withstand any changes at this point. Or perhaps I simply can’t imagine having to revise it again.

There were definitely scenes I struggled with more than others: the car accident and the thunderstorm are two that come to mind. It’s difficult to write about a thunderstorm. There are only so many ways to describe it and our vocabulary is so limited. And the car accident scene required a tense, manic quality that had to be conveyed in the language, as well as the character’s dialogue and actions. I was editing these scenes long after I thought I was finished with them.

Another that stands out is Jess’s phone conversation with her preacher. There was a lot of dialogue but I had to keep her grounded in the hotel room, in her body, while at the same time allowing her to imagine the preacher in his home, his baby crying in the background. If only there could have been that split TV screen with two people in the frame at once (I’m imagining two girls in their respective bedrooms lying on their stomachs, twisting the old-school telephone cord around their fingers).

Rumpus: Let’s take the car accident, since that’s not really a spoiler. A man dies in a car accident early in the book, and the narrator’s family witnesses it. What did you adjust, do you remember?

Miller: I knew that I wanted the father to go to these people, to be a kind of hero in the situation—this was an opportunity for him to show his authority, as well as put his beliefs into action. I also knew that I wanted Jess to play an integral role; she’s much more active than her sister or mother, who just stand there waiting for the paramedics to arrive. Like her father, Jess becomes a part of the event. She isn’t content to be a witness, as she is in so much of her life.

In early drafts, Jess didn’t put her fingers on the dead man’s neck, feeling for a pulse. But I wanted her to do something, put herself in the scene. It’s a small way for her to feel in control of an uncontrollable situation, much like her life.

Rumpus: In the book, the parents seem to represent two different models for Jess. The sister, another one. There’s this constant sense of options for who she could become. The religious and sexual elements also reflect this, that she’s about to make a crucial choice. Was this sense of possibilities something you were conscious of creating? Is it something that’s more about the age she is at?

Miller: Yeah, Jess is definitely at a crucial point. Having spent all of her life in one place has limited her in many ways. And the family doesn’t travel unless it’s to the Florida Panhandle, which is similar to Montgomery in terms of culture and people. Jess hasn’t had any reason to question things before, to think analytically about her religious beliefs, her life. Very early in the book, she examines one of the tracts in a stack under her feet (All Suffering SOON TO END!) that she’s been passing out for years. This time, she reads it differently:

I thought about it, God holding us accountable for something we hadn’t done and then letting us continue to rule ourselves so badly for so long in order to show us that we needed Him. I hadn’t ever thought about it before, really. The logic seemed sketchy.

From this moment forward, Jess is looking at everything with more critical eyes, including herself. She realizes that she has spent her life viewing herself through the eyes of her mother and sister and father, the boys at school, and she doesn’t want to remain the person that they know. She’s changing throughout the book in small but meaningful ways, ways that I’m sure she’ll take home. That being said, she’s still very much trying to figure it out. I’m still trying to figure it out, too.

Rumpus: Why do you think she looks at the tract at that moment and sees it differently? Is it the whole situation? The way your prose works so much on the level of tone, and your focus on the line level, it’s almost as if the plot is causal in terms of tone, like the mood causes things to happen, rather than the traditional sense we have of plot, where because X happens, Y happens—because Jess witnesses this car accident, she feels freer to experiment sexually, for example. That’s not what’s happening here. Everything feels right in the novel, as in your stories, but if I were to lay out exactly why things are happening, it’s almost as if they start with the feeling. Does that make sense?

Miller: I think the situation has prompted her to look critically at her surroundings. They’re on this trip/pilgrimage that she doesn’t understand. They’re spending money she knows her family doesn’t have. And there’s all this time, and she has little more than an iPod and a stack of her sister’s magazines in which to entertain herself. There’s no TV, no neighborhood to walk her dog. She and Elise can’t talk freely in the car. They’re mostly just looking out the window.

This is interesting about mood causing plot, and I think that’s certainly the case for the girls. They’re bored and worried and can feel their parents’ tension, and this leads them to act in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. They’re also in new surroundings where they can imagine that they aren’t really themselves, at least not the selves they know at home. I guess I’m always working through feel—does it feel right? It’s something that’s difficult to explain but I think all writers work this way to some extent, whether we’re aware of it or not. For me, writing has little to do with thinking. I don’t want to control the narrative. I listen to the rhythm of the words and dialogue and try to give the characters the space in which to say and do what they want without intervening too much.

Rumpus: Do you think this is about empathy, or music, or something else? What I mean is, does “feel” come from putting yourself in your character’s shoes, or understanding that character well enough to know what the mood is and what would naturally happen next, or does it come from the music of the words, the music of one sentence leading into the next and what happens comes from the rhythm somehow?

Miller: It’s definitely about the rhythm of the words and how they sound together, writing one sentence and then another and another and cutting something immediately if it doesn’t feel true. I come from a family of musicians and—while I have no musical abilities of my own—I think I inherited a good ear. It’s also obsessiveness. I’ll spend a lot of time working on a single sentence, debating over a dash or a colon, etc. I want things to be perfect. I know nothing will ever be as perfect as I want it, and this is very sad, but sometimes I can get close.

Rumpus: You can probably see that I like to overthink everything. It’s more freeing (maybe counterintuitive?) for me to approach the page like I have control. Also, as a teacher, I want to be able to communicate what I am doing concretely. When you’re teaching, how do you explain to students how to get a better feel, how and why to make certain choices?

Big World

Miller: I try to think as little as possible, at least while working. I look at some of my early stories and can see the machination behind them, like a gear slowly moving. For example, sticking a dead father into the story to explain a character’s sadness and bad decisions, or trying to impress myself with my own cleverness. You don’t need a dead father to explain a character’s sadness. And impressing yourself with wit/cleverness often feels like what it is—authorial intrusion.

But to answer the question: I haven’t taught creative writing all that much (my CW teaching consists of a few summer workshops for elementary school children and an eight-week class for older adults), and I don’t really know what my teaching style is yet. I want to be able to discuss craft but I also want to teach writers to trust their instincts and learn to listen to themselves above all others.

Rumpus: When you’re thinking about musicality, do you theorize it at all, like in the Gary Lutz Believer essay? Do you know what makes something musically right? Are there ways to train your instinct? Are there ways to work the gears and ways to hide the gears?

Miller: I love that Gary Lutz essay, “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place.” And what an amazing title! If I ever get a tattoo, this would be a top contender. To be quite honest, along with thinking and such when it comes to writing, I’m not into words like “theory.” I’m a PhD dropout. No matter how many twenty-five-page papers I wrote, I never felt like I was saying much. I didn’t feel like the writer of the book, whose work I was analyzing, would have been impressed. It didn’t matter how much time or effort I put in. (My professors agreed.) “There is no analysis here,” the most brutal of them wrote. Now I wonder if my papers lacked critical thought, or if it was really more about my inability/refusal to write in the convoluted style that they wanted me to. I remember the initial shock upon reading my peers’ papers. I seriously could not understand them, and I couldn’t understand why the writing had to be so unclear in order to be considered smart.

Anyhow, this is beside the point. I think training your instinct comes from writing and reading. There’s no big secret. And reading slush helps, as well; I’d recommend everyone edit a literary magazine at some point. It’s time-consuming, but there’s a lot to learn from other writers who are also learning. The patterns (twelve stories about whales in this batch?) are also interesting.

Rumpus: I’m in a PhD program now (I get it). “Theorize” might have been a bad word choice. What are some of the things you’ve learned about language from reading slush?

Miller: Haha! Say the word “theory” and I immediately get riled up.

I’ve learned a lot about language from reading slush. You can immediately tell if a writer is in control of the narrative. This writer will avoid using too many words like “possibly,” “probably,” “maybe,” “perhaps,” etc. He/she will avoid using clichés, as well as a lot of metaphors, and won’t take four sentences to say what they could in one (or write a great sentence and follow it up with a bunch of stuff that just weakens it).

Rumpus: You’re going on to a teaching position in the fall. Do you think this style of teaching means rethinking the workshop?

Miller: I have a one-year appointment at Ole Miss in the fall (the Grisham Writer-in-Residence), and I’ll be teaching a fiction workshop each semester. I’ve taken dozens of writing workshops over the course of my graduate school career, so I know what I want to emulate, as well as what I want to avoid. I’ve learned so much from my professors and have been fortunate to have had so many good ones, including Frederick and Steven Barthelme, Edward Carey, Jim Magnuson, and Elizabeth McCracken.

Rumpus: What are some of the things you’d like to emulate in your workshops?

Miller: Some of the things I liked in my years as a student in workshops: the occasional in-class prompt; discussions about what it means to be a writer in the world; professors who are brutally honest and encouraging at the same time (this is a tough one). I also liked it when professors assigned us stories that they love. In general, I liked workshops more when they were more than just a workshop, when the professor took the time to actually guide us as young writers and teach us things it took them a long time to figure out on their own. I could probably write ten pages on this question.


Matthew Salesses is the author of I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying and The Last Repatriate. Follow him @salesses. More from this author →