Sue Miller was born in Chicago in 1943, the second of four children in an academic and ecclesiastical family. She went to college at Harvard at 16, was married at twenty, and held a series of odd jobs until her son Ben was born in 1968. She separated from her first husband in 1971, and for thirteen years was a single parent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working in day care, taking in roomers, studying the piano, and writing with increasing focus.
Miller's first story was published in 1981. Since then, she has taught in various writing programs in the Boston area. In 1983-84 Sue Miller had a Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe, which led her to the publication of her first novel The Good Mother. She finished the novel in 1985, it was published 1986, and was quickly followed by a collection of short stories. In the 90's she published Family Pictures, For Love, The Distinguished Guest, and While I Was Gone. Her latest book is Lost in the Forest.
Steeped in the hearth and embodied by veterinarians, ministers, single moms, sons and daughters, her identifiable characters weave tangled webs that take ordinary people from dangerous liaisons to extraordinary emotional landscapes. Since her first novel was a monumental success over 20 years ago, Miller continues to mine the depths of emotional connections and fragile familial equilibriums beset by incident. Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with the author from her Boston home.
WOW: In October, I heard you read one of your short stories at a LitPAC event at the Paradise Lounge in Boston, and I was wondering if you could tell our readers a little bit about LitPAC and your involvement.
SM: Sure. LitPAC is a cause I'm very sympathetic with and very happy to support. It's about getting authors more involved in the political process. Through literary fundraisers like The Progressive Reading Series, along with individual donations, LitPAC supported at least 15 house candidates who ran in the midterm elections. The organization supports candidates who support progressive values, who demand accountability from the administration, etc. People who work to restore Americans' trust in government.
WOW: Today, as a matter of fact, is a good day in America for those of us of the progressive ilk. (Miller and I spoke the day after the elections and an hour after Rumsfeld's resignation.)
SM: Indeed it is.
WOW: Let me ask you about your most recent work first, Lost in the Forest, which is set in the vineyards of Northern California and tells the story of a young girl who, in the wake of a tragic accident, seeks solace in a damaging love affair with a much older man. What struck me immediately about this novel was your ability to write such convincing characters, even young children and adolescents, as you did superbly in While I Was Gone. How do you approach crafting an orchestra of unique voices?
SM: Well, some people don't think they are so different, I suppose. But, if it does work, it is about imagining being that person. The two main characters of my current project are 30 and 70-years old. It requires me to discover the unique ways they think to themselves. I have to consider their age, their background. That's the fun. Entering that other complex person. It is the job of a fiction writer to imagine each character so carefully that the reader believes in the character and can take the step of identifying with the character. That sense of identification is really produced by a sense of how real the character is, it seems to me.
WOW: How do you imagine your audience? Or do you?
SM: I try not to think of it, but information comes to me. When I taught at Amherst, none of the students had heard of me, so I knew I didn't reach down that far. Audiences in general have grown smaller. It is harder to sell fiction now. I'm not unrealistic-I know my readers are mostly women. More readers of fiction, for that matter, are women. Even fiction written by men. But I don't write for that audience, I intend my books to have a greater human interest. I write about people the way they are, the way they get to be who they are, and the things they are perversely compelled to do.
WOW: When did you start writing?
SM: I think I always wrote. But never saw that as connected to something I could do for a living. I didn't really know writers who worked at it as a profession. I was not, well, I was so young, I was not thinking that writing would be at the center of my life. I never assumed I would publish. I think that slowly changed. There seemed a clear chasm, between those who published and those who wrote.
WOW: And you bridged the gap with a bestseller! What events led up to that success?
SM: I got married right after college. I started off thinking I would teach high school English but stopped doing that rather quickly and took several odd jobs. Then I got pregnant and stayed home for a while, then began working in daycare when I got divorced. I worked in daycare for 8 years when I got divorced. And I started to write again. Daycare is the most demanding work I've ever done. I'm still very aware of what a privilege it is to write.
I wrote The Good Mother in '83 and '84 during a Bunting Fellowship at Radcliff College. It was a wonderful year. After that, I did go back to daycare and I had a story taken for publication. I had jobs teaching writing at local schools and was piecing life together teaching here and there.
I published 5 short stories before The Good Mother was picked up, stories that I would send out over and over, putting them right back into new envelopes until they found homes. But the success of The Good Mother was beyond my wildest imagination and I knew immediately it would change my life. Which it did. When my agent for The Good Mother tried to tell me everything she was going to do with it I said "Oh, please don't!" It would have seemed astronomical to me at the time.
WOW: How old were you when the book was published?
WOW: And the book was made into a film-what was it like to see the movie in the theaters?
SM: Yes, the book was made into a film several years after it had already had its life. I actually hadn't seen the film. I saw the previews and realized I wanted to go on imagining it the way I pictured it, the way I had written it. I was afraid that if I saw it I would always have this visual overlay. I thought, almost mystically, that it would be physiologically damaging to me as a writer to see a translated version of my imagination that something might misfire in my brain permanently.
WOW: I can't imagine curiosity not getting the best of you!
SM: It's not restraint, I really didn't want to see it!
WOW: Tell me then about the experience of While I Was Gone being chosen for Oprah's Book Club in 2000.
SM: Actually, it started out as a terrible mix up. Oprah had called when the book came out in hardcover-she called the bookstore while I was doing a reading. They didn't want to interrupt me for the phone call, but they also didn't believe it was actually Oprah, calling a bookstore in the middle of a public reading. The bookstore was near Dartmouth College, and we all assumed it was a prank! Luckily she called again when the book came out in paperback 1 year later. So it's true, Oprah waves her magic wand and suddenly your book reaches a much wider audience than it might have.
WOW: I can't believe Oprah makes the call herself!
WOW: How did being a single mother shape your writing?
SM: Well, for a long time I didn't write! I didn't get much done. I didn't have much dough. But I was very psychologically engaged with my son in a way a husband might not have been. I also raised him in a nice time for single mothers. It was the feminist era in Cambridge [Massachusetts]. On my street there were lots of kids Ben's age. Parents exchanged childcare responsibilities. It was a lovely time for me in many ways. Parts of it were hard, and complicated, but I enjoyed almost all of it.
WOW: How long does it take you to turn out a novel?
SM: About 2 1/2 years.
WOW: Are you working one now?
SM: Yes, but I'm a little bit overdue. So instead of writing 3-4 hours a day, which I normally do, in the mornings, I'm writing 6-7 hours each day in order to finish.
WOW: Can you tell us anything about it?
SM: Some things are subject to change, so I better not.
WOW: Do you follow a detailed outline when you write?
SM: It's a little more haphazard than that. I keep [notebooks] in longhand, full of notes. I write, then stop, add notes, write more dialogue-it's all peculiarly arranged. I have to go back in time and prepare for particular moments in my notes and remind myself of when I need to make connections. I try to make as many notes as possible beforehand so purposes are clear and reflect the novel's intention from page 1.
WOW: What authors inspire you and what do you read?
SM: That has changed over the course of years as I've been writing, but I love and read a lot of Alice Munroe, Alice McDermott, Thomas McMann. They are like Talismanic writers for me when I'm discouraged. Helen Garner's The Children's Bach has been a magically helpful book for me. It's like taking Ibuprofen for your aching joints. I also, of course, look forward to Ian McEwan's novels, always. I read a lot of book reviews and buy books based on that. I read a lot of young writers and am always appalled when I find a writer who has written six books and I haven't read any of them! Right now on my nightstand, let me see, the new Ken Kalfus and Nell Freudenberger's The Dissident.
I'm also one of four readers for the Pen Hemmingway prize, which will award the Best First Book of the year. This gives me a nice sense of what's going on.
WOW: In your books I am stunned by the succinct descriptions, the details that in less than a sentence set the stage in high resolution. In While I Was Gone, Eli is drawing on a cocktail napkin, and you describe the ink jumping-and it's just perfect, that sentence. Any advice for those of us cursed with verbosity?
SM: I am always trying to flesh things out. I don't think of myself as a stylist in any way. If I get a metaphor or two in a book, I'm happy. I start always with the bare minimum because that's how things come to me. That's my struggle; I struggle with minimalism. Scenes and ideas come to me in a very quick, brief way, and my labor is to add and embellish in revision. But even after the revision, it's always very minimal.
WOW: I appreciate so much you taking the time out of your day, especially given your current deadlines. I have one more question for you. Ok, two. How do you respond to your work being called "domestic fiction?" And how do answer the question "How much of your work is autobiographical?"
SM: American fiction has turned away from home and the family with Hemingway leading the way, saying you need to have adventure, and today we have Tom Wolfe saying that you need to be writing about big world issues. But if you consider literature throughout the ages, and take a look at a writer like Tolstoy, you realize that everything comes back to the hearth.
As for my work being autobiographical, there is this great quote from John Cheever, whom I admire greatly, that I'll paraphrase. Fiction is related to autobiography the way dreams are related to reality. It's beyond our ken the way things get formed in fiction, the way it's beyond out ken the way dreams are constructed.
For the true writer, however close the events may be to his life, there is some distance, some remove, that allows for the shaping of the work. Every reader can sense the difference between a writer who embodies meaning through the events he describes and the writer who seems simply mired in those events. It is that struggle for meaning that lets the writer escape what really happened, and begin to dream his fictional dream.
WOW: Sue, we'd like to thank you for taking the time to share with us. Before we part company, we have a fun question for you. Since this issue's theme is Authors' Staircase, what would your fantasy staircase look like and where would it lead?
SM: I know this staircase well. I saw it in a architectural salvage place, which places I love to haunt. It had come from a mansion, whose owners' names I can no longer remember. It was a circular stair, wooden, ornate, immense -- with a beautiful handrail and newel post, with elaborate carving everywhere. It led nowhere, and I couldn't have used it or afforded it anyway. But I'll never forget it.
"Everyday life" in the hands of a fine writer is charged with meaning, and Sue Miller brings a sense of that charge, that meaning, to what may fairly be called the domestic. After speaking with the author, it is easy to imagine her soothing, calming voice resolving many a sandbox dispute during her daycare career-or coaxing her original, dynamic characters to life. But behind Miller's lilting voice I could hear the barely-audible hum of a powerful story-making machine. And at some pivotal moment in each of her novels that power belies the gentle tone in her voice. If you have never encountered her work, don't hesitate to pick up her latest novel Lost in the Forest, where there is never a dull moment.
D'lynne Plummer is a freelance writer and storyteller based in Brookline, MA and has written for such publications as The Boston Globe Magazine and Art New England . D'lynne is also the marketing manager at ICON architecture, inc, a Boston design firm.