Writing Home: A Conversation with Mary Miller

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Mary Miller is back, and at her very best, with her new novel, Biloxi. In fact, it only took a few pages of Biloxi for me to know that I was reading what will undoubtedly be one of the best books of the year.

With Biloxi, Miller returns to the South, capturing its feeling, its sensibilities, and its voices perfectly. As the novel opens, Miller introduces readers to middle-aged Louis McDonald, Jr., a lovable grouch in a perfectly depressing rut. Soon after he adopts a mixed-breed dog he names Layla, Louis begins to see things a little differently. Biloxi follows this new pair of friends as they deal with life through all of its twists and turns.

Mary Miller is the author of two collections of short stories, Big World and Always Happy Hour, as well as the novels The Last Days of California and Biloxi. Her stories have appeared in the Paris Review, the Oxford American, New Stories from the South, Norton’s Seagull Book of Stories, The Best of McSweeney’s Quarterly, American Short Fiction, Mississippi Review, and many others. She is a former James A. Michener Fellow in Fiction at the University of Texas and John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss. She lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with her husband, Lucky, and her dog, Winter.

It was my absolute pleasure to be able to speak recently with Mary Miller about her process, her latest novel, and, of course, her dog.

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The Rumpus: You are a writer who’s found success in the short form, both through short stories and essays, and in the longer form. Does one form come more naturally to you than the other?

Mary Miller: Essays don’t come naturally, though I still try to write them, and am sometimes somewhat successful (usually with the help of a good editor). With fiction—whether a short story or a novel—it’s easier for me to find the voice. Character motivation and development also come more naturally when I’m “making it up.” I’m not sure what this says about me, that I’m unable to tell a story while also staying true to the facts.

Forgive the obvious, but novels are difficult because of their length. With both The Last Days of California and Biloxi there were a number of points at which I wanted to give up: around ten thousand words and again at twenty thousand, and certainly I wanted to abandon them at forty thousand, too. Once I make it to forty-five or fifty thousand words I can talk myself into completing a project. It should be noted that neither of my novels is long: The Last Days of California is sixty-seven thousand words and Biloxi is seventy-three thousand words. I like to remind myself that there are plenty of brilliant novels under fifty thousand words, like Camus’s The Stranger and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I’ll never write anything as good, but it’s nice to know it’s possible to write a successful novel in so few (relatively speaking, of course, it’s still a shit-ton of) words.

Rumpus: I find myself thinking more and more about writer labels. The one I see most often associated with you is that of being a “Southern writer.” Do you think of yourself as being a Southern writer? Do you think these kinds of categorizations help or hurt writers?

Miller: As far as being labeled a Southern writer, it’s accurate, though I think many of my stories could be set almost anywhere with a warm climate. I think of myself as Southern in the same way I think of myself as a woman; they just are and there’s nothing to think (or not think) about them.

I do wonder whether it’s helpful in terms of marketing. The label may attract readers in the South, but is someone in Minnesota or Idaho less likely to buy my book because of it? Also, I rarely pick up a book in which the jacket copy mentions a “Midwestern writer” or “West Coast fiction” or some such, so the whole thing is kind of odd. Though I’m proud of the South’s literary heritage and all of the excellent writers we have down here, particularly in Mississippi, I don’t want to alienate readers elsewhere.

Rumpus: Speaking of Mississippi, your latest novel takes readers to the coastal city of Biloxi. Is this novel an example of where you could’ve picked any place with a warm climate? Or was something calling you to write specifically about Biloxi?

Miller: As far as the setting of Biloxi: I moved to the Gulfport, which is the quiet next door neighbor to Biloxi, with all of its casinos and cheesy tourist attractions, in the summer of 2016, trying to write a novel that didn’t want to be written. It was set on a fictionalized Ship Island, a barrier island about twelve miles off the coast, so I’d go out there and do “research,” meaning I’d walk the beach and climb to the top of Fort Massachusetts while swatting at mosquitoes.

The Coast was a terribly isolating place to live right after Trump’s election, as it’s one of the most conservative parts of the state. My relatives were all super excited, and there were many uncomfortable dinner parties. Louis came into my life around this time, and though he’s also a Republican, he disdains politics and politicians in general. He’s often hate-watching Fox News and hate-listening to right-wing radio, which I found myself doing as well. There wasn’t much of a choice. I’d go to the gym and Fox was on multiple TVs, and the radio—the number of white men yelling on the radio at all hours of the day was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it! They’d won the election and they were still so angry.

I don’t think this novel could be set elsewhere. Perhaps the Alabama Gulf Coast is similar in many ways, though, and parts of the Florida Panhandle as well. Now I’m thinking maybe Galveston, too…

Rumpus: Biloxi is certainly character-driven, centering around Louis McDonald, Jr., the sixty-three-year-old grouch. One of my favorite moments is when another character is trying to convince Louis to adopt Layla: ”I wanted the dog but I didn’t like the idea of doing him any favors, and I certainly didn’t want him to think he’d talked me into it.” He’s perfectly grumpy, but still complex, and we come to know him as a very loving person. What do you hope readers take away from Louis?

Miller: Thank you! He’s an enormous grouch… He’s the old-school type of Southern/rural man who distrusts doctors, the government, and pretty much everybody else (outside of, perhaps, his fishing buddy and his wife, but he’ll keep a good eye on them, too). He would never see a psychiatrist or take medication for his mental health, and no matter how obvious his struggles may be to others, he would never, ever talk about them.

While Louis is decades older than I am, I can imagine what it would be like to be in my sixties and alone, life not having worked out like I thought it would, like it might have. Some of us don’t deal as well with life’s inevitable disappointments, aren’t as able to change and adapt.

Louis is quite a bit like my father, to be honest, though my father is in his seventies and is still married to my mother. My mother says he sees the glass half empty as opposed to half full and I recently let her in on the joke that there’s a third type of person, the kind who sees the contents of the glass—no matter how much it has in it—as piss. She got a kick out of that. Like Louis, though, my father can also be really loving and generous. My parents have this ten-pound poodle mix, for example, that my father loves like a baby. All day long he’s trying to please her; he sits in his chair and throws the ball to her with his feet.

Rumpus: Ha! Does your father know Louis is a bit like him?

Miller: He suspects, I’m sure. When I first received my advance copies, I gave one to my parents and was horrified to find that my father had picked it up and started reading it. I expected him to admire it as an object and place it back on the table, same as Louis would have done, but he’s become more interested in my writing in the past few years.

In one of my early stories, the narrator’s father had gone hunting and stayed overnight at “Bub’s trailer,” and my father also had a hunting buddy named Bub who had a trailer. He still talks about that. Perhaps he’s curious to see if Bub and his trailer will make a reappearance.

Rumpus: Layla is “a slightly overweight dog” who gags and can’t catch bologna. In the dedication of Biloxi, you write, “For Winter, who also happens to be a slightly overweight mixed-breed who gags a lot.” Other than the obvious similarities, how much did Winter help shape Layla?

Miller: Winter is much prettier than the dog on the cover, but she’s basically Layla in every way except for one: Layla seems to trust and care for Louis more than Winter trusted and cared for me when I adopted her. Winter was found on the street and then stayed in the shelter for a few weeks before I brought her home, and she was super weird back then. She wouldn’t climb stairs and didn’t like any sort of elevated surface. Her preferred posture was flat on her belly underneath a table. She was sweet and gentle but she didn’t want to be hugged or held and seemed rather suspicious of my intentions in general. There’s some of this with Louis and Layla, too, but not as much.

It’s taken me years to win this damn dog over. Now she’ll fall asleep in my arms and doesn’t let me out of her sight. When I go out of town, she goes on a hunger strike and has to be tempted with fresh salmon and fried eggs.

Rumpus: At the novel’s opening, Louis is in quite the predicament: he lost his dad, divorced his wife, and quit his job. However, Biloxi is a story with an optimistic heart. There are second chances—and, really, I think it’s hope that ultimately guides many of Louis’s actions. Do you mind talking about the importance of hope in your novel?

Miller: I’m surprised that so many find the novel hopeful. I’m glad they do, but I didn’t see much hope for Louis as I was writing it.

Though Layla has brought him slowly and uncomfortably back out into the world, I wonder how much things will actually change for him. His big dream of buying an RV and going to see the Grand Canyon is probably out of his reach, even if he can afford it. And I doubt that his relationship with his daughter and her family will ever be close—closer, perhaps, but not close. I’d love for Louis to prove me wrong, though, if in the novel’s follow-up (there won’t be one, at least not written by me) he’s sold his sad old house and is cruising down a dusty back road in Colorado with Layla riding shotgun.

Rumpus: Speaking of the future lives of your characters, do you find yourself ever thinking back about the characters you created in the past, like the Metcalf family from your novel The Last Days of California? Or do their stories pretty much end once the book is put away?

Miller: Nah, I don’t think about them or wonder about them. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.

Rumpus: When you began writing Biloxi, did you know how Louis and Layla’s story would end?

Miller: I didn’t. I just tried to follow Louis around and see what he would do. His world is tiny when the novel opens and slowly grows larger, but it’s still very small. I feel like I wandered around with him and ate cheeseburgers, watching with discomfort and amusement at the things he said and did.

Rumpus: Do you usually do a lot of outlining before you begin the formal process of writing your fiction?

Miller: I don’t outline, though I can see how it might be helpful for some people. One time I tried to write a horror novel (the island novel), and since it was so out of my realm of “expertise,” I wrote a short synopsis of each chapter that became a hindrance almost immediately. I’ve been meaning to return to this novel for years, but it’s overwhelming because I know I’ll have to completely re-envision it, I’ll have to let go of the ideas I had for it.

My goal is to let the characters take over as much as possible so they can tell their stories without my interference, which is the only way it works for me.

Rumpus: So, does this mean your characters come to you first and everything else fills in as you tell their stories?

Miller: Usually a line of dialogue will come first, and as I keep writing, characters emerge and the characters do things. I realize this isn’t very insightful, but I don’t know how to explain it other than that.

I wrote Biloxi in a blur, the majority of it over a two- or three-month period. I assume I saw a sign for free dogs while I was out cruising around and went home and started writing, and then Harry Davidson showed up, shuffling down his driveway to offer Louis a dog. I was very dog-focused at the time, more so than usual, as Winter and I spent nearly all of our time together walking the beach and visiting various parks. Our favorite spot was Gulf Islands National Seashore in Ocean Springs; it’s the most beautiful place in the state by miles.

Rumpus: I want to close by telling you how much I appreciate how Biloxi shows the immeasurable value in the relationships between humans and dogs. It’s such a universal kind of friendship, and so few other novels approach this subject. You captured it beautifully with Louis and Layla.

Miller: Thanks so much! Dogs are the best. I was going to tell a story about how I taught our family dog to walk again after her stroke, but I already used that material in The Last Days of California and it’s terrible to plagiarize oneself (but I did teach that dog to walk again and it took weeks and weeks but she made nearly a full recovery and was loved for eight more years. It’s probably one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life).

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Photograph of Mary Miller by Lucky Turner.


Bradley Sides is a writer and English instructor. His work appears and is forthcoming at the Chicago Review of Books, Electric Literature, The Millions, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He is at work on his debut collection of short stories. For more, visit bradley-sides.com. More from this author →