Mostly Scary: An Interview with Mary Miller

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Mary Miller is a writer from Mississippi. She wrote the compact ass-pocket-sized masterpiece Big World, a collection of short stories that manage to be both hard-boiled and domestic, currently in its third pressing. Her novel The Last Days of California is forthcoming on Liveright Publishing, a Norton imprint. In due time Mary will take over the world. But first she let me ask her questions about books and stuff. Here goes.

Jimmy Cajoleas: You’ve said before that your first short story collection, Big World, was based in part on personal experiences. Does your new novel The Last Days of California differ from this?

Mary Miller: The Last Days of California is similar to Big World in a lot of ways, particularly in terms of its female narrator and her inner life. The narrator, Jess, is fifteen. She’s jealous of her prettier sister and doesn’t know how to be herself, or what that would even look like. Her identity has always been tied to her religion, and when that starts to fall apart, she doesn’t have any concept of who she is. In other ways, The Last Days of California is a stretch for me. I didn’t know anything about the rapture when I began writing, or Protestantism, and I’d never been to Arizona or New Mexico. I guess these are more surface issues, though, things I could research. Places I could get in my car and go see.marymiller

JC: Big World has all these gorgeous jabbing sentences, mostly on the shorter side. How has your writing style changed in the last five years since it was published? How has writing a novel affected your style?

MM: Thank you for saying that. When I reread Big World now, I don’t know how I was able to fit so much into a sentence. I was writing a lot of flash fiction at the time, I guess, and with really short stuff, you have to get in and out quickly while still affecting the reader on an emotional level. Writing longer stories changed my prose. And then writing a novel changed it more. Because the stories in Big World are pretty short, and the book is short, I got away with prose that would feel stilted and choppy in a longer work. The stories in Big World are also pretty plotless; they couldn’t carry more than what’s in them. I know this first-hand, after trying to turn both “Leak” and “Pearl” into novels.

JC: What did the experience of trying to expand “Leak” and “Pearl” teach you about plot? How did you learn to write more plot-oriented stories? What sort of sacrifices did you have to make in terms of language and style?

MM: More than anything, I’ve learned how much space a story needs. In “Leak,” the major action (the narrator’s mother’s death) has occurred off-page. It’s an episodic story about a girl’s life with her father that begins and ends with a water-stained ceiling–it’s not a story that needs 70k words in order to be told. The same thing goes for “Pearl.” The narrator is getting a divorce and has had to move back home with her parents. This action takes place before the narrative begins. Now it’s just about this new life she finds herself in, answering telephones at a law office and making mistakes with men and generally being a wreck. All of this is well conveyed in three thousand words.

I don’t know anything about plot except that stuff needs to happen. There has to be change, tension. There has to be something at stake. I sound like a fiction workshop right now, but it’s true. Shit has to happen. People have to want to turn pages, and no matter how beautiful the writing is, they’re not going to turn pages for that alone.

I don’t feel like I’ve made any sacrifices in terms of language and style while writing longer stories and novels. I still care about each sentence. I’ll spend a lot of time on one sentence, making sure it’s exactly like I want it. I guess my paragraphs are longer. That’s about it.

One more thing: the only way I was able to complete The Last Days of California was by having a very structured timeline. The novel takes place over four days so time is very compressed. It’s also a road trip novel so I had to constantly be moving them along, getting them from Point A to Point B. This made it a lot more manageable. I have no idea how people write novels that take place over decades or generations. This just seems insane to me. It makes my head spin right off.

JC: My students always love Big World, particularly the younger women. One student told me that she even made her boyfriend read it, so he could “better understand” her. Why do you think the stories connect so well?

MM: I love this! It makes me so happy. I’m also sure her boyfriend was horrified. I think the best stories in Big World are pretty brave and unflinching, though I didn’t think about this as I was writing them. The characters are isolated and insecure and the people in their lives don’t understand them. They often date certain men in the hopes that these men will be able to change them—make them happier and more fun-loving, make them like themselves more—and they’re disappointed in these men when they’re unable to do that for them, and they’re disappointed in themselves for being unable to be the people they want to be. The stories in Big World were some of the first short stories I wrote, and I had no idea what I was doing. I was just writing things that I wanted to read. I was also trying to impress myself. Trying to impress yourself isn’t something I’d recommend.

JC: How do you write kids so well?

MM: I try to write young characters the same way I write adults. For me, the key to writing children is to not treat them like children. Also, both of these narrators, in “Leak” and “Aunt Jemima,” are old enough to have experienced the shortcomings of their worlds and the people around them. In a lot of ways, they aren’t kids anymore. They’re just smaller and more oppressed.

JC: What was your own experience with religion growing up? How did that influence the religious content of the novel?

MM: I grew up Catholic in a place where there weren’t very many Catholics. I mean, there were some, but central Mississippi is not a Catholic place—it’s Protestant. And many of these Protestants don’t even believe that Catholics are Christians. I remember helping a student with an essay once and his whole argument was based on the premise that Catholics weren’t Christians.

Growing up, my mother taught us that Catholicism was the “one true religion.” There was a lot of fear of the body and sex. We didn’t know any openly gay people. So I know what fundamentalism looks like, but Protestantism was wholly unfamiliar territory. I had never heard of the rapture growing up. We didn’t proselytize. We wore blue jeans to church on Saturday afternoons whereas our Protestant counterpoints wore suits and dresses.

(Note: my parents are awesome and have changed with the times, and thanks to four artistic children.)

JC: You’ve mentioned before that Willy Vlautin is a writer you admire. What is it about his work that resonates with you? Has he influenced you at all?

MM: I remember picking up The Motel Life when I worked at a bookstore in Nashville (a one-year stint post-divorce and pre-graduate school). When the store was empty, I’d browse the fiction shelves to see which covers stood out to me. I picked this one up, opened it at random, and was immediately hooked by Vlautin’s prose. It’s so readable and fun and smart; he makes writing look very easy. I was drawn to his characters, as well—decent people who would get themselves into bad situations that just got worse and worse.

He’s also unafraid to write unlikeable types—racist assholes, for example—which most people don’t write about for fear that these characters will reflect negatively upon themselves. I could go on and on.My favorite of his books is Northline, which was published with its own soundtrack. As for whether he’s influenced me, I’m sure he has, but I couldn’t say exactly how. If he had to give advice, though, I would think it might be this: don’t worry about seeming smart; implicate yourself; love your characters but don’t protect them from their mistakes. This last one is particularly difficult. Writers often want to save their characters, as if by saving them, we might also save/redeem ourselves.

JC: Have you had any mentors in the writing world? Have you learned more from other writers or just from being out on your own, doing the damn thing?

MM: I’ve learned a lot from my professors, particularly Frederick Barthelme, Steven Barthelme, Edward Carey, and Elizabeth McCracken. Edward Carey encouraged me to revise and write about different characters and situations. He made me believe that I wasn’t a one-trick pony. Elizabeth McCracken said such amazing things in workshop that my peers and I would sit with our notebooks ready to jot things down. I remember telling Frederick Barthelme that a story could be about anything and he said, “Is that your aesthetic position?” and I found that it was. The Barthelmes were my first writing teachers—I must have taken three workshops from each of them. They were very generous with their time and I knew that their doors were always open. Frederick Barthelme is also one of my favorite writers. It’s pretty awesome to sit in a classroom with someone you admire so much, to watch him drink Diet Coke and laugh.

JC: You’ve mentioned that you’re working on a book based on Typhoid Mary. Can you tell us a little about it? What was the research like? What are the difficulties of writing from someone else’s real life?

MM: The new novel is inspired by the story of Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary. I became interested in her after listening to a podcast about her life. The idea of a healthy person (but a carrier of a communicable disease) being isolated on an island for years, kept apart from her friends and loved ones, intrigued me. Mary Mallon could see New York from her little cabin, but she couldn’t go there. She spent her time writing letters to an old lover and various members of the government trying to obtain her release.

In my story, there are nine healthy carriers isolated on an island. It focuses on the relationship between two of these women, who live much of their lives in a fantasy world they create based on The Wizard of Oz books (thanks to L. Frank Baum’s poor financial situation, he wrote a lot of them). Or maybe this isn’t what it’s about. I don’t have a draft yet. I have no idea what will happen, which is exciting and scary but mostly scary.

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