Mary Miller interview with Meg Tuite
The Last Days of California, is an engaging, gripping novel about a family of four who take a road trip cross-country to California to see the sights before ‘the rapture’ hits.
Miller’s collection, Big World, is also a masterpiece, reminiscent of those first few Salinger stories I read with a NO-bullshit narrator who could somehow even see that sickly, yellow wallpaper in the kitchen of my childhood. Miller guides the reader in the same deeply intimate and lock-the-bedroom-door kind of way from first sentence to the last.
Mary Miller, you are a phenomenon: a force! I am inspired after reading your work! It is rare to find writing that can do that.
In The Last Days of California, Jess, the younger daughter, is the subjective narrator, who moves the reader through family dynamics with humor and pathos. Jess is the outsider looking in on everything around her, including how she is perceived by others. Elise is the ‘too’ beautiful, older sister who is prepared to confront family denial in all arenas. Mom appears as ‘in’ as she is ‘out’ of this family excursion, yet supporting her husband when questioned, and Dad is somewhat reminiscent of the father in Kingsolver’s, “The Poisonwood Bible”, in his singular focus to convert and save as many sinners as he can, with a distance from family needs and insistence on his final vision quest even if they do end up broke. And Jess ingests all of it and regurgitates it through her raw and precise world view.
The voices of the two daughters are stellar, unique, and they move the reader through serious terrain. Here are some exceptional quotes from the novel:
“I looked around at the other diners: they were all hideous. I could live easily in a town like this.”
“Elise had stopped eating meat six months ago, but I’d catch her stealing glances at our pulled pork sandwiches, our sausage-filled side of the pizza. She had a whole spiel about animal rights and the environment and the nutritional requirements of the human body and our father had his own spiel–he said if people stopped eating meat, animals would overrun our cities and wreak havoc and the economy would crash. He said if meat weren’t available, people would turn to cannibalism.”
“I imagined my father at the kitchen table a few weeks from now opening the credit card bill, the smell of pot roast we’d be eating for days. My mother would have us bag up all our old clothes for the Ultcheys and the other families who had given their money away, as if they needed our worn-out clothes while my father assured them that we would all be in heaven soon, that this was not the life He had intended for us. I wondered whether he really believed it, if he’d ever believed.”
“We ate while watching Anderson Cooper, our dresses wrinkled and hiked up to our thighs. She stopped eating to tell me about Anderson’s brother, how he’d committed suicide. “I can’t feel anything anymore,” he said, hanging from the ledge of a tall building. And then he let go.” She said he was handsome and rich and had everything and he still wanted to die.”
“Do you want to die?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I love my life.”
“Are you being serious?”
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”
“I thought that was your point.”
How did these characters come to you? Was it the narrator first? Or did you envision this family road trip from past family excursions you’ve been on? The voice of Jess was inimitable and yet could have been my sister in the back of the car. How do you walk that line between fiction and non-fiction?
The girls’ voices came to me easily, though the parents’ voices were harder to capture, particularly the mother’s. When I began writing, I knew the basic premise: an Evangelical family on a pilgrimage from Montgomery, Alabama to California to await the rapture. I learned more and more about them as I went along. I definitely thought about all of the road trips I’ve taken over the years—I used every odd thing I could remember, like the man I saw giving camel rides for five dollars a pop in front of a dollar store—but also the boredom and tedium of car travel, particularly when crossing large states like Texas.
As far as walking the line between fiction and non-fiction, I’d say that this book is largely fiction, though I based a few of the characters on people I know. My sister says I quoted her directly in a number of places and she’s not wrong. Luckily, she likes being a character in my stories.
Where did you grow up and how does place work in to your novel?
I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. No matter how many times I’ve tried to “escape” my home state, I always end up back here. After living in a few other places, however, I’ve realized that I don’t want to leave any longer. My home is a part of me and there is so much here that I’ve grown to love and appreciate. Mississippi is culturally rich; we have the blues, great writers and artists, friendly people. I’m really happy to be from Mississippi and have stopped trying to find my way out (and if I do, for a job or whatever, that’s okay, too, but I’ve stopped the struggle).
I always find it difficult to say exactly how I use place in terms of my writing. I’ve never lived outside of the South and it’s all I know—these people, this land—it’s a part of me in every way. It shapes my writing completely.
Do you work on one project at a time? Do you have other writers that you workshop with to help strengthen the work?
When I was working on The Last Days of California, I focused exclusively on the novel. I knew if I stopped working on it, if I started something else, I would lose the momentum I needed in order to complete it. I didn’t want to lose the tension I’d built or the characters’ voices, which is easy to do if you don’t write consistently enough to stay invested in the world. I knew I needed to get them where they had to go, that they couldn’t do it without me but would help as much as they could (it’s strange to feel this way about characters, but I really felt as if they were assisting me; they became very real).
When I’m writing short stories, I generally work on a number of things at once. I’m sure this works well for some people, but it makes it difficult for me to finish. I’ll get about 1,500 words into something and won’t know where it’s going and then I’ll just start something new—oh this seems fun and easy! I could finish so much more if I had the discipline to push through the hard part.
I understand that wanting to work something shorter to find an end more quickly, even though it doesn’t always come quickly.
How was it to go from an Indie press to a larger press, besides more circulation? Did you have good experiences with both?
I’ve had really good experiences with both. With Big World, which was published by Short Flight/Long Drive Books (Hobart), I was friendly with the editors before they accepted the manuscript, and the process was collaborative and fairly casual. Elizabeth Ellen and I worked together to edit and arrange the manuscript and I had a say in the cover design. I feel like it was a great first book experience in that I learned a lot about the process of publishing and didn’t expect very much. I’ve been surprised and delighted that Big World is still being read and is still in print (it should go into its fourth printing fairly soon).
Working with Katie Adams and all of the folks at Liveright and Norton has also been a great experience. They’re hands-on and respond quickly to my questions and concerns. They also let me make the final decision on the title. The Last Days of California wasn’t even in the running but I felt certain it was the right one, and they were good enough to let me convince them of this. It’s been exciting to walk into bookstores all over the country and see my novel on the shelves—sometimes even in airports!
I’ve been lucky to work with people who have published my books because they felt passionately about them and wanted to get them out into the world.
I can’t tell you how thankful I am that your novel is available in airports! That’s what we need: great literature available on a large scale.
Who have been your biggest inspirations, whether musicians, artists, writers, or family and friends?
Oh, gosh. There are so many. I’m inspired by Willy Vlautin, who is both an amazing musician as well as a novelist (his fourth novel, The Free, came out earlier this year and is incredible). I wish I had a secondary genre in which to work, another outlet when the writing is going badly. Unfortunately, I have no other talent. Perhaps I could collage? Some writers are doing this now and I imagine them in a state of childhood bliss, sitting on the floor surrounded by old magazines with a pair of lefty scissors in their hands.
As far as writers, I’m inspired by Mary Gaitskill, Beth Nugent, Susan Steinberg, Jean Rhys, Amy Hempel, Miranda July, Janet Frame, Judy Budnitz, and so many others. I also like male writers, but I’m much more interested in reading about the lives of women.
I’m the type of person who likes music but I don’t love it. I’ll listen to pretty much whatever’s on the radio—country, rap, pop, and be pretty happy about it—so that puts me in that category of people who say, ‘I listen to everything.’ Maybe we’re liars or lacking souls or something.
There is no lack of soul here. I call that a ‘larger scope’. You have many moments that have many needs.
And I LOVE that list of inspirations! Always happy to see Janet Frame and Jean Rhys included in the mix: two of my favorite writers!
What are you working on at this time?
I’m finishing up a story collection, Always Happy Hour, which I’ve been working on for years, as well as a novel. My novel-in-progress, Carriers, is loosely based on the life of Mary Mallon (Typhoid Mary), who was isolated on North Brother Island after infecting people through her cooking. She died there after nearly three decades in isolation. In Carriers, which is set in the early 1950s, there are eleven women housed in cabins on a barrier island, all of whom are asymptomatic and living in relative peace until the state begins to bring actual sick people into their fold. Then it gets all Lord of the Flies and people start turning up dead. I’d put it away for a while, but I’m working on it again and hope to have a draft done by the end of Christmas break.
Damn exciting! Okay, so I have to ask how it has to been to work on a novel based on historical fact? How much time has been spent researching as compared to utilizing your own instincts and intuition based on what you’ve read?
It’s been pretty great. I’ve listened to podcasts and read books about the life of Mary Mallon. My favorite books so far have been Fever: A Novel by Mary Beth Keane and Typhoid Mary, Captive to the Public’s Health by Judith Walzer Leavitt. Research is fun; it gives you an excuse to delay writing but you feel like you’re working. My novel isn’t so much about the life of Mallon as it is inspired by the idea of the healthy carrier in captive. And I love barrier islands, all of the disasters that take place right off our coasts: shipwrecks, places to confine the sick and imprisoned. My hope is that novel will be my own, something only I could write. I’m also curious to see if I can write a story without men, without sex, though there is sure to be some sex.
What would you say to a new writer who was just starting to send their work out for publication?
Don’t be afraid of rejection because you will never stop being rejected. It’s best to get used to it as quickly as possible—learn to love it, even because it means you’re taking risks. And the more you write, edit, and submit, the greater your chances of acceptance.
How do you keep yourself moving forward as a writer? Do you have an agent? Or do you send your work out independently?
My agent is Sarah Bridgins with Francis Goldin Literary Agency. I’ve been with her for about four years now and she’s been really supportive. She wanted to represent me after reading Big World and I tried to talk her out of it. I had no idea why she wanted to represent a short story writer, which is what I thought I’d always be.
As far as moving forward, that’s a tough one. I go through periods where I write very little, or finish very little, times when it’s difficult to think of myself as a writer at all. But even during these times I’m working and producing more than I realize; it’s simply not as much as I’d like. I just want to write stories that mean something to me; that I can be proud of. And I’d really like to publish another novel.
Do you have a special quote that speaks to you as a person and a writer?
I recently read an interview with Kazuo Ishiguro on which he speaks about binge-writing The Remains of the Day, a book I loved. Writing from 9am to 10:30 pm, Monday through Saturday, he hoped to “not only complete more work quantitatively, but reach a mental state in which [his] fictional world was more real to [him] than the actual one.” I love the idea of creating a fictional world that feels more real than the actual one; it seems like a good way to handle a bad time in one’s life. Unfortunately, during the bad times in our lives, we lack the mental capacity for this kind of stamina.
I believe some writers are able to encapsulate that switched world: Fernando Pessoa speaks of that idea in The Book of Disquiet, which is an exceptional book.
Thank you so much, Mary, for sharing some of your insight with us and also sending us a new story to publish. You are pure brilliance and I SO look forward to your upcoming collection and novel!