Since her iconic first novel, The Good Mother in 1986, Sue Miller has distinguished herself as one of our most elegant and widely celebrated chroniclers of family life, with a singular gift for laying bare the interior lives of her characters.
While not strictly speaking autobiographical, Miller's fiction is, nonetheless, shaped by her experiences. Born into an academic and ecclesiastical family, she grew up in Chicago's Hyde Park and went to college at Harvard. She was married at 20 and held down a series of odd jobs until her son Ben was born in 1968. She separated from her first husband in 1971, subsequently divorced, and for 13 years was a single parent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working in day care, taking in roomers, and writing whenever she could.
In these early years, Miller's productivity was directly proportional to her ability to win grants and fellowships. An endowment in 1979 allowed her to enroll in the Creative Writing Program at Boston University. A few of her stories were accepted for publication, and she began teaching in the Boston area. Two additional grants in the 1980s enabled her to concentrate on writing fulltime. Published in 1986, her first novel became an international bestseller.
Since then, success has followed success. Two of Miller's books (The Good Mother and Inventing the Abbots) have been made into feature films; her 1990 novel Family Pictures was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; Oprah Winfrey selected While I Was Gone for her popular Book Club; and in 2004, a first foray into nonfiction -- the poignant, intensely personal memoir The Story of My Father -- was widely praised for its narrative eloquence and character dramatization.
Miller is a distinguished practitioner of "domestic fiction," a time-honored genre stretching back to Jane Austen, Henry James, and Leo Tolstoy and honed to perfection by such modern literary luminaries as John Updike, Flannery O'Connor, and Richard Ford. A careful observer of quotidian detail, she stretches her novels across the canvas of home and hearth, creating extraordinary stories out of the quiet intimacies of marriage, family, and friendship. In an article written for the New York Times "Writers on Writing" series, she explains: "For me everyday life in the hands of a fine writer seems ... charged with meaning. When I write, I want to bring a sense of that charge, that meaning, to what may fairly be called the domestic."
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Here are some fascinating outtakes from our interview with Sue Miller:
"I come from a long line of clergy. My father was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church, though as I grew up, he was primarily an academic at several seminaries -- the University of Chicago, and then Princeton. Both my grandfathers were also ministers, and their fathers too. It goes back farther than that in a more sporadic way."
"I spent a year working as a cocktail waitress in a seedy bar just outside New Haven, Connecticut. Think high heels, mesh tights, and the concentrated smell of nicotine. Think of the possible connections of this fact to the first fact, above."
"I like northern California, where we've had a second home we're selling -- it's just too far away from Boston. I've had a garden there that has been a delight to create, as the plants are so different from those in New England, which is where I've done most of my gardening. I had to read up on them. I studied Italian gardens too -- the weather is very Mediterranean. I like weeding -- it's almost a form of meditation."
"I like little children. I loved working in daycare and talking to kids, learning how they form their ideas about the world's workings -- always intriguing, often funny. I try to have little children in my life, always."
"I want to make time to take piano lessons again. I did it for a while as an adult and enjoyed it.
"I like to cook and to have people over. I love talking with people over good food and wine. Conversation -- it's one of life's deepest pleasures."
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In Spring of 2008, Sue Miller took some time out to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
In terms of prose style or a particular way of telling a story or a story itself, there is no one book that I can select. At various times I've admired and been inspired by various books. But there is a book that made the notion of making a life in writing seem possible to me when I was about 22. It was called The Origin of the Brunists. I opened the newspaper on a Sunday to the Book Review, and there it was, a rave, for this first novel, written by a man named Robert Coover -- a man still writing, though he's more famous for later, more experimental works. The important thing about this to me, aside from the fact that the book turned out to be extraordinary and compelling (it's about a cult that springs up around the lone survivor of a coal mining disaster, Giovanni Bruno), was that I knew Robert Coover. He had rented a room in my family's house when I was growing up and while he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where my father taught. Bob Coover. Bob Coover, whose conversations with friends drifted up through the heating ducts from his basement room to mine. Bob Coover, a seemingly normal person, a person whose life I'd observed from my peculiar adolescent vantage for perhaps three years or so as he came and went. It was thrilling to me to understand that such a person, a person not unlike myself, a person not somehow marked as "special" as far as I could tell, could become a writer. If he could, well then, maybe I could.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. This is the tale of a group of children accidentally kidnapped by incompetent pirates near Jamaica. I love this book for its utter originality, for the startling, almost blithe way terrible events are recounted, for the sense it gives of the way a child's consciousness and conscience are formed. It's funny and horrifying and utterly compelling.
The Children's Bach by Helen Garner. This novel does in about 90 pages what most of us take hundreds to convey. It's the story of a marriage and the infidelity that changes it and both people in it. The elliptical way of dealing with events, the quick, telling gestures that convey feelings and story, the brilliant compression of language, all are inspiring to me.
The Republic of Love by Carol Shields. This is a beautifully written, funny, and eccentric contemporary love story whose two main characters are a thrice-divorced nighttime radio deejay and a scholar of folklore whose specialty is the mermaid. It's erudite and charming, and completely satisfying in the way it plays with the conventions of boy meets girl, boy wins girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back.
McKay's Bees by Thomas McMahon. Written by a professor of applied mathematics and biology at Harvard, McKay's Bees is about a wealthy 19th-century dilettante who travels to Kansas to raise -- yes -- bees. Along the way we learn a great deal about this art, about abolitionists, about border ruffians, about love. Light, funny, full of knowledge and history, informed by science, this is a wonderful book.
The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever. A hilarious and moving family chronicle about the Wapshots, who live in an old New England fishing village. The village itself is a character here, and the story of Leander, Moses, and Coverly, of old Honora, is ribald and sad and delicious.
Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather. One of Cather's rich novels about what it means to be an artist -- in this case a musician, a spirited, lovely young musician who leaves the prairie town she grew up in and goes to Chicago, only to discover that she's not quite good enough. In its evocation of the natural beauty of the prairie, of the deep, thrilling pleasure of making music, in its note of yearning and loss, it is vintage Cather.
The Professor's House by Willa Cather. This is the story of man, the professor of the title, seemingly successful in everything he's done, whose life begins to feel empty to him. Embedded in the novel -- one of Cather's unusual structures -- is a beautiful novella, set in the unexplored west, about a former student of his. This student and his life are emblematic to the professor of another possibility, another way of being alive, lost to him now.
The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor. In some ways, this book is like a children's fairy tale. A naughty little girl disobeys her parents and is lost. This changes their lives, her life, and the lives of several others -- forever. But it's very grownup in its presentation of loss, of the need for atonement, of the comfort we take in dailiness, in what remains to us, as Lucy thinks near the end of her life, "instead of nothing, there is what there is."
That Night by Alice McDermott. This novel is an intense, moving story about the love between a teenage couple as observed by a younger neighbor in a Long Island community. The narrative is constructed in a way I find utterly compelling, circling back again and again to a night when a gang of teenage boys, led by the young lover, come to spirit the girl away, and end up in a street fight with a group of fathers from the nearby houses.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun, for its joyful depiction of a life about to be swept away by Stalin's Great Purge, for the portrait of the intense love between father and child, for the searing horror of the ending - all beautifully photographed.
Bill Forsyth's Comfort and Joy, which we often watch at Christmas. It's the story of a Scottish disc jockey whose beautiful, erratic wife Maddy leaves him just before the holiday, and the bizarre events -- involving a war between competing ice cream vendors - which help to heal him. It's funny and completely unexpected in its plot turns. And comforting.
Hal Hartley's Simple Men. The dialogue has the surprising, slightly surreal quality that marks Hartley's films and sometimes makes you burst into laughter. His use of color and the compositions he creates on the screen are always wonderful, but particularly so in this film.
Alan Rudolph's Love at Large. A witty, typically quirky Rudolph story involving a bigamist being tailed by a private detective, Tom Berenger, who is being tailed himself by another private detective, Elizabeth Perkins. Everyone is wrong and mistaken and confused by love. Anne Archer is very funny as the woman who hires Berenger. Who is, by the way, tailing the wrong man.
The Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski. This is my favorite of the Coen Brothers' movies. I love the trio of John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, and Steve Buscemi. I love the bizarre dream sequences. I love the convoluted plot. I even love the profanity, so stylized and repetitive as to be part of what's funny.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I never listen to music while I'm writing. I try not to listen to anything. Silence is best. Though birdsong is a lovely occasional interruption.
I like many kinds of music. I have played the piano a little in the past, and I love listening to classical piano in particular. There's a three-record set of Annie Fischer playing Liszt and Schumann and Chopin and Beethoven that I've nearly worn out.
I love the Four Last Songs by Strauss. I love the blues, and rhythm and blues, which I grew up listening and dancing to in Chicago. I like doo-wop, and early rock and roll. I like jazz, particularly jazz singers. Particularly female jazz singers: Jane Monheit, Diane Reeves, Billie Holiday, Alberta Hunter, Weslia Whitfield.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I usually give fiction to people when I'm giving books, though there are special interests that some of the people in my life have, and if I read a review of a book that sounds as though it might connect with one of those interests, I will hunt it down.
I love children's books, and I have nephews and nieces, and now a goddaughter and a granddaughter, whom I've had great fun choosing books for over the years. I worked in day care for a long time, and did a lot of reading aloud, sometimes the same book over and over, so I really appreciate children's stories that are pleasurable for the adult reading them as well as for the child. Those are the ones I look for.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write longhand, in notebooks, for my first draft; and also on the printed-out versions when I do revisions on typed drafts. As a result, often I'm not even working at a desk. Part of what I like about working this way is, in fact, the ability to roam the house while I work, to follow the sun from room to room, to work in bed if it's cold out. I have a particular kind of pen that I like and buy by the dozen. I keep several of the books I listed as among my favorites around to inspire me if I get stuck.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
In a certain sense, I suppose I am an example of an overnight success. My first published novel rushed right onto the best seller lists and stayed there for months. But I'd written two novels before then that I never even sent out, the first one in my early twenties, and the second just before writing The Good Mother -- the title of the very successful one. During the years between that first novel and The Good Mother, about 20 years in all, I was working, in one way or another -- writing, reading with a writer's eye as to how others worked, and then, in my thirties, beginning to get some short stories published.
I think the most inspirational aspect of my history may be my acquiring my literary agent through a story I published in Ploughshares. She read it, saw in the little bio at the back of the magazine that it was my first published story, and thought there was a good chance, in that case, that I didn't yet have an agent. She wrote, we met, and that was that, for more than 20 years.
There's a sense, I think, of the relative invisibility of the "little" literary magazines, but I'm evidence that interested people out there are reading them, and reading them carefully.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I don't think there are any tips, any shortcuts. But reading seems to me the basic first step, always -- reading and noticing how other writers you admire make you respond in one way or another; asking yourself what it is he/she is doing that makes you feel whatever it is you're feeling. It was by such writerly reading that I came to understand a little of how fiction works. It was an utterly essential step, one I spent years at. I think of those years, those years of mostly just reading, as a kind of apprenticeship.
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