It’s been a big month for Mary Miller. Even prior to last month’s release of her debut novel, The Last Days of California, excerpts and starred reviews found their way into the pages of Elle, O! Magazine, Redbook, and Publisher’s Weekly. For those who have been following Miller’s work, whether in print, online journals, or through her debut collection, Big World, it comes as no surprise. Miller’s is a startling contemporary voice, and her ability to beautifully articulate the experiences of the everyday, the habitual, and the mundane places her among such literary talents as Amy Hempel and Lydia Davis. We sat down with Miller to talk about how her novel came about, her experiences with the South, and her own creative process.
Hi, Mary—thanks so much for making time to chat. I want to begin with perhaps the most obvious question: why a novel about one family’s anticipatory road trip to California to be among the last to witness the Rapture? How did that idea even come about?
I didn’t know anything about the Rapture until the spring of 2011, when the latest prediction was prophesied, and I was intrigued. I wanted to try to make sense of why so many people—and there are more than you or I could imagine—would give up their lives and/or savings accounts in order to “spread the word.”
Our narrator in the novel, Jess, is a disenchanted, curiously apprehensive 15-year-old, which is to say: she’s a pretty relatable girl. Why did you elect for the novel to unfold through her narrative voice? What were you hoping to accomplish through that particular lens?
I love writing from the point of view of young people. They look at everything so closely, including themselves. And no matter how many years I accumulate on this earth, I never really feel any older. I keep waiting for this to happen. I guess I’ll always feel a bit like a 15-year-old when it comes to connecting with others in meaningful ways. Jess was the perfect narrator because she sees everything, judges others and herself harshly. I wanted the reader to feel like they were in the car with her family, like they were stuck in her head.
What I love most about your writing is the weighty power behind your first and last sentences. In fact, upon the release of Big World, the indie lit website HTML Giant posted the first few sentences from every story; they’re remarkably strange, uncanny, unique. Do you find these sentences come to you organically?
It’s always a good idea to look closely at your final sentences. This is where we we try to do too much work, connect all the dots, but it’s best to leave most of the work to readers. Otherwise, you’re telling them what you want them to think and how you want them to feel. That being said, endings are always difficult. They need to be beautiful and memorable and subtle, and these aren’t necessarily things that go together. I write and rewrite until I find something that feels right. Feeling is of utmost importance—you don’t need to know how something works or why. In fact, if you can easily explain how it works or why, you probably ought to try again.
You mentioned in a prior interview that one of the most freeing realizations for you, as a writer, was that you didn’t have to be nice, and indeed, many of your narrators embrace the ugly and the honest. In his Believer review, Jim Ruland described Big World as, “a full anatomy lesson of the kind of heart that’s kick-started by booze, cigarettes, and jukebox songs of regret,” which I think speaks to the sorts of people we find in your writing. Do you find yourself championing these sorts of people—in real life or on the page?
Oh, yes. It’s because I believe we are all these people. There is ugliness in all of us, and we’ve all developed coping strategies in order to make it through our days (some of which are more productive than others). It doesn’t matter if you’ve never smoked a cigarette in your life, if you’ve never taken a drink or eaten an entire pizza in one sitting. We’re all floundering.
From what I understand, you’ve lived in the South your whole life, and that identity embeds itself often in your writing. What effect do you think that landscape—its weather, its culture, its people, its history—has had on your work or way of thinking?
It’s difficult to say what the effects are because they permeate everything. I’ve lived in three states: Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas, with the majority of it in Mississippi. I only have intimate knowledge of these places. I hope to always live in the South. I didn’t know how much I loved Mississippi until I’d been away for a while (in Austin, Texas, which is kind of the South but not quite). I think a lot of people have ideas about what “Southern writing” is supposed to be: mamas and dead mules, catfish and collard greens and debutante balls. And, of course, “authentic speech” must be used, i.e., dialect. I’ve had a number of people accuse me of not being Southern enough, which is just odd. When some people think of Mississippi, they think poverty and racism and teen pregnancy. I think Barry Hannah, Faulkner, Walker Percy, Elvis, Oprah, Eudora Welty, the blues, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Larry Brown…
Can you give us a sneak peak of any upcoming projects? What are you working on now?
That’s maybe been one of the most difficult things about having a novel published, people asking, “So when’s the next one coming out?” I’m working on a bunch of things right now—stories, novels, essays. Hopefully some of them, at some point, will be published. I’ve been completing things more frequently in the last few weeks, so that’s been positive?
Any advice for aspiring writers who might feel as though they don’t yet have a home in literature or writing?
Write the stories you want to read. This is the reason I began writing—I couldn’t find stories that reflected my life or the people I knew. I could find some that were close, but none of them were quite right, so I wrote them. And if you aren’t willing to be totally honest, do us all a favor and pick another line of work. If you’re going to be a writer, you have to be willing to make yourself look bad (people are going to associate you with your narrators). In my stories, the narrator always looks worse than any of the other characters. No matter what image we project in our real lives, writing is about cutting through these images, forcing oneself to acknowledge that we are vulnerable and mean and sad and ugly, at least sometimes, and despite it all, okay.
What’s your favorite southern-set fiction?