"We Are All—Every One of Us—Unreliable Narrators": Alethea Black and Mary Miller in Conversation

Dear Reader,

If you’ve read Alethea Black’s story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely (a 2011 Discover selection) and loved it as much as we did,then you really should grab a copy of  Mary Miller’s debut novel, The Last Days of California, one of our Spring 2014 selections.

The Last Days of California is an incredibly wry and fresh take on the coming-of-age novel; Miller conducts the voices of teenage girls with verve, perfectly capturing the impulsive, magnetic push-pull of sisters to each other, to boys (elusive and otherwise), to their parents — and to the wider world.  Miller’s deft hand with details squeezes out the family’s slippery truths and keeps the story moving. Her characters have a palpable, resonant love for each other, despite their bickering and secret-keeping.  

Black’s stories are also packed with characters longing for connection, looking to be understood and to understand their places in the world.  The beauty and resonance of her stories comes from the collision of expectations with sometimes uncomfortable truths, and her tone ranges from elegantly melancholy to painfully, emotionally bare. 

In this far-ranging conversation for the Discover blog, Miller and Black discuss starting their writing careers later in life; the differences between writing long form fiction vs. short stories, and for an adult audience vs. a YA audience; and how shifting a story’s POV can electrify it, among many, many other things.

Cheers, Miwa

We Are All—Every One of Us—Unreliable Narrators

Alethea Black and Mary Miller in Conversation

Mary Miller: We both began writing a little later in life, i.e. we weren’t taking workshops as undergraduates or penning masterpieces about animals as children. In an interview you said that you were inspired by 1994’s Best American Short Stories anthology edited by Tobias Wolff: “Those stories went straight to my heart; I found them to be so moving and beautiful. When I saw my dad that Christmas–this was the year before he died–I told him I wanted to be a writer. He said I always used to say I wanted to be a writer when I was a little girl. But I must have forgotten, because I don’t remember that at all. So I said, ‘Why didn’t you remind me?'”

 I had a somewhat similar experience in that I always knew I wanted to be a writer but didn’t actually begin writing until I was 27. I think I felt like I was disappointing myself by not doing what I knew I was supposed to be doing, and so every day that passed was another delay; it became more and more difficult to begin. I might have put it off forever, had circumstances been different. Do you think you just weren’t ready to start, or had you really put it out of your mind completely? What were you doing prior to this?

Alethea Black: Oh, what a great question. I think I didn’t start writing sooner because I was still learning how to live. The idea of being “ready” was a very powerful one for me for a long time; I even found an old journal in which I was writing about issues with food — eating normally was one of the things I still hadn’t figured out how to do — and instead of “gain weight,” I’d spelled it “gain wait.” That subconscious “misspelling” really told me a lot. But once I figured out that I was stalling, that I was just afraid, that one little bit of light allowed me to realize that everyone stalls and everyone is afraid, and maybe you just have to be brave enough to start. On my fridge now there’s a magnet with the great John Cage quote BEGIN ANYWHERE.

What about you — was writing in the long form something that you had to find a sneaky way into? I laughed when I read the line in your Acknowledgments where you thank your agent for taking on someone who said she would always and only be a short story writer. The Last Days of California is so assured, and the pacing and voice are so flawless — it’s the work of a natural novelist, and it made me wonder why you thought you’d never write in the longer form (incidentally, I didn’t, either), and what led you to it?

MM: Yes, begin anywhere! I think I began with a dead Christmas tree. It must have been January 10th and there was a dead Christmas tree in the corner of the living room. I was walking on the treadmill and watching TV while periodically stealing glimpses at it. It was making me sad so I hopped off the treadmill, inspired to write an awful poem about the dead Douglas fir. Of course, I didn’t know the poem was awful. I thought I was kind of a genius. As soon as my husband (now ex) got home from work, I told him I was a writer and that I was brilliant. He is a nice man and so he just said of course I was. Of course.

I began small: poems and then flash fiction and then short stories and then trying my hand at novels. My first two or three attempts at novel writing failed miserably. I thought I could just turn a short story into a novel–easy! No big deal. I found out the hard way that it doesn’t work that way at all.

And thank you for saying that about The Last Days of California. The structure helped me a great deal. It’s very compressed–occurring over the course of a few days–and I had to keep the family moving along on this road trip, getting them from Point A to Point B. On road trips, things like where to eat and where to sleep become much more interesting.

Tell me more about your progression. I know you write novels as well as short stories.

AB: Well, I started out thinking I’d only write short stories. Charles D’Ambrosio, Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson, Joy Williams — they were my heroes. I’ve only written one novel (or, no, there was that really bad one I wrote in the 1990s, but we don’t talk about that), and when I wrote it, I didn’t quite know what it was at first. Was it a screenplay? (It had a strong plot, and a lot of dialogue.) Or a strangely streamlined novel? Turned out it was a young-adult novel, but I didn’t figure that out until I’d already re-written it five or six times.

And who are your favorite writers? Also, you speak of Last Days’ compression, and one of the things I loved about it is something I love about great short stories: it feels very finished and satisfyingly complete, but at the same time, it has an openness that’s very appealing. Since reading it, I’ve found myself wondering what would become of your characters later in life. Would beautiful Elise never amount to anything, or would she be a star? Would Jess find, in the end, a way to believe? Although, isn’t saying “I want to believe” — as Jess does — already a form of belief?

MM: Denis Johnson, Charles D’Ambrosio, and Joy Williams are some of my favorite short story writers, as well. I only recently began reading Williams–her collection, Escapes, is incredible. The stories are spare, but intricate and precise; she creates entire worlds in such small spaces. I’m also a fan of Susan Steinberg, Jean Thompson, and Beth Nugent, who published two books in the ’90s and hasn’t put out anything since. I occasionally google her to see what she’s up to. Why isn’t she writing, or, if she is writing, why isn’t she publishing? Doesn’t she know I’m waiting for her next book, that I’ve been waiting for years? 

One of the very best things about being a writer is finding work I might not have found otherwise. I’m constantly asking other writers what they’re reading, who they love. That’s why I’m so happy to have found your collection, I Knew You’d Be Lovely. I immediately felt like I knew your characters, their desires and struggles, whether or not I had anything in common with them. In the opening story, “That of Which We Cannot Speak,” you take a New Year’s Eve party, by far my least favorite holiday–too much expectation, too much pressure–and guide us through Bradley’s night. Just when I had given up hope for him, things turn, and it feels exactly true and right. 

As far as my characters in the novel, I wonder about them, as well. I tried to put them back in the car to see what they’d do next, where they would go, but they didn’t want to go anywhere. They wanted to stay exactly where they were. I’m curious as to how you knew your novel was a young-adult novel. What does this mean, exactly? How did you know? And do you think that description of it pigeonholes it in some way? I think my novel might also be categorized as YA.

 AB: That may be as good a description as any I’ve heard as to how you know when a piece of work is finished. “I tried to put them back in the car, but they didn’t want to go anywhere.” That’s a great metaphorical litmus test, and in your case it works literally! Thank you for the kind words about Lovely. And now I’ll be on the lookout for Beth Nugent, too.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between young-adult and adult literary fiction. With this book, I had an “Aha” moment when I changed the voice from first person to third. Originally, the opening line was: “It all started because I’d been missing my father,” and for some reason, just changing that to: “Katie had been missing her father” made me think of it as YA. The book has always had kind of a hope-filled tone that I think can be more characteristic of YA. But genre boundaries are such fuzzy things. Transmuting this thing word by word from adult to young-adult made me curious: I knew the difference between the two genres didn’t lie in the age of the protagonist, or in the seriousness of the subject matter, or in the attention to language … so what was the difference? One of the answers I’ve come up with has to do with the intimacy of the POV. In YA, you are checking in with your main character’s feelings, insecurities, thoughts, etc. in a way that might feel too “hand-holdy” in adult fiction. But I’m fascinated by books that live on the edge. Your book feels adult to me — stylistically — but it does have some things in common with YA. Obviously, the age of the two main characters (15 and 17). But also the intensity of voice, the rites of passage, the height of the stakes (what stakes are higher than the world ending?). You’re so talented at capturing the truth about that phase of life; you have YA chops, Mary, if you ever want to use them! And I don’t think it necessarily pigeonholes anything to call it YA. To Kill a MockingbirdLord of the FliesThe Catcher in the Rye — these all might be considered young-adult if they were published today.

Have you ever had a protean work that changed genre on you mid-stream? And do you feel like talking about what you might be working on now? Also (forgive me, but I’m always curious), could you give us a peek at your writing routines / rituals?

MM: That’s interesting about the point-of-view change, and how that altered the whole idea of the book for you. I recently made a similar change in a story, swapping first for third person. Sometimes that’s all it takes to make the story come alive. It’s awesome when that happens. 

I guess I don’t think a lot about genre. When I was teaching a creative writing class for the elderly, the women (and one man) would get so mired in definitions. During the class on memoir, they spent half an hour asking me the difference between memoir and autobiography and whether anything could ever really be “true,” and I didn’t think the questions would ever end. I kept telling them, write, just write. Call it whatever you want! 

Right now, I’m working on a few stories–or, more accurately–I’m avoiding the one story I know I should be working on because it’s too painful. I’m getting there, I think. I’ve started, at least. I like to write in the mornings. That’s about it as far as my routine goes, so we’re opposites. I already know you like to write in your bed, at night, and now I feel super creepy! I also read somewhere that you don’t get writer’s block. Is this true? I’m not sure about the term “writer’s block,” but sometimes writing feels so hard–nearly impossible–and other times a story comes together so easily it’s almost as if I feel guilty taking credit for it.

AB: Did I say I never get writer’s block? Oh, what an ill-advised thing to say! I’m knocking wood and kissing my miraculous medal right now. I think I must have meant that I have more trouble following through on ideas than generating them (i.e., I’m a Gemini). So while I’m always seeing or hearing things that I think would make a great departure point for a piece of writing, I’m not always putting in the hours at my desk. (Ha! Desk! We all know my desk is just a place where I keep my mail.) And I don’t think it’s at all creepy that you know I write in bed. Do you think it’s creepy that I know you sing karaoke and have some amazing cowboy boots? I think we should sing karaoke *together* while both wearing our cowboy boots. When you come to NY. Which must be happening, yes?

I guess I should also say that I sometimes find writing to be incredibly hard, too, but maybe I secretly like that it’s difficult? I mean, if it were too easy, we’d get bored (after we went to Europe).

You’re in the final weeks before your pub date, which I found to be such a surreal, crazy-making, uncertain time. Do you have anything that helps you stay grounded and clear-headed? And are there specific things that you’re looking forward to talking about or doing with regard to Last Days? Or specific things you’re dreading? I can imagine interviewers asking you what your religious background was like growing up, or other questions that can feel like thinly-veiled versions of: How much of this is true? Do you find those sorts of questions annoying?

MM: Is this a Gemini thing? I’m also a Gemini and feel like I have an excuse now! I found this definition at Urban Dictionary: Although nice and likable people they possess traits/behaviors commonly associated with bipolar disorder. “Several people in my life are Gemini, ’nuff said.” 

 And you’re right, of course, if every story we started was beautiful and amazing, writing wouldn’t be any fun. We would also develop insanely huge egos, probably, and become depressed because we were just soooo good. 

I am definitely feeling the crazy-making time over here, and it’s nice to hear I’m not alone. There have been a number of changes in my life over the last six months. I finally finished getting Master’s degrees in May (I have two and a year of PhD work because school seemed like a better life than actually working), and went through, let’s call it, a change in companionship. Add that to the book promotion/freaking out stuff and I’ve been a bit of a mess. It’s all been pretty great so far, though. I think the hardest part is allowing myself to feel worthy of the attention, to feel like the novel is good enough. I published a collection of short stories about five years ago, but it was with a super small press and pretty much everyone who bought it already liked my stories, or liked me. There wasn’t the thought that the bigger world might be judging me and deciding I was a hack. I think we need a support group for authors of forthcoming books. How did you handle it? I Knew You’d Be Lovely was originally published in the summer of 2011, yes?

 AB: Oh, that’s funny. I also went through a change in companionship around the time my book came out, which was in July 2011. Also, two weeks before it came out, my publicist decided she wanted to become a schoolteacher, and before that I’d lost my acquiring editor, and before that, the original publisher. But it all worked out. I read somewhere that you don’t mind being an underdog, and I have a healthy dose of underdog in me, too.

I think the hardest part for me was feeling as if I had to hide the fact that I was stressed out from my friends. Everyone was so happy for me, and I wanted to be happy, too (and I was), but it was also extremely nerve-wracking, and insomnia-inducing, and I was afraid that to admit as much would be tantamount to being ungrateful that I had a book coming out. Not helpful! I should have just said: This is amazing, and I’m so grateful, but it is also the most stressful thing I’ve ever done, so please bear with me if I order wine for lunch and break down crying for no reason.

Your book is going to get a lot of positive attention, so you should plan your coping strategies now. :smileywink: Of course you should feel worthy of it, but if that doesn’t work, maybe you could think of the book as a separate creature, with its own path, and you don’t have to feel humble on its behalf, or worthy on its behalf, or anything. You just gave it life and now you have to let it go. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.

I knew you were a Michener Fellow but I didn’t know you also had completed a year of PhD work. Do you see yourself continuing on with academia, or do you have other plans?

MM: Thank you. It’s nice to hear that I’m not a complete freak (at least about this). My coping skills as of late haven’t been very good, and have also been of the wine-at-lunch and random-crying variety, though it’s not solely about the book coming out. There have been a number of changes in my life combined with too much time to think about them. I’m going to have to start going to the gym twice a day. Perhaps it would be a good time to train for a half-marathon? Clearly, I need a hobby. People seem to really like yoga. 

I don’t plan on ever completing my PhD, which I started at the University of Southern Mississippi, and where I earned an MA. It would take another two years and the truth is that I’m not much of an academic. I recall one twenty page paper I wrote on the early novels of Jean Rhys. I was so proud of it. I read and reread her novels, researched for months. When the paper was returned to me, there wasn’t a mark on it until the final page, where my professor had written, “There is no analysis here.” That was it, all he offered. It sort of broke my heart. I’d thought the paper was full of analysis! Chock full of it. Anyhow, I only want to teach creative writing or literature for writers, so I’m hoping the PhD isn’t essential.

Not to change gears too much, but I love that you included an Author’s Notes in your collection. I also love learning about the inspiration/genesis behind a story. Did you have to fight to include them? Were some of them much more difficult to write than others?

AB: I pitched the idea to my editor, attached the Notes, and asked her to let me know what she thought. She wrote back “I don’t like them,” and my heart sank. But a line later, she said, “I love them.” Sneaky editor! She became a great champion of the Notes. There was one that would have been very difficult to write—the note for the final story—but I let myself skip that one because in a way, that story contained its own note.

Elizabeth McCracken called Last Days “hilarious and heartbreaking, dark and beautiful, a novel written by one of the most observant and mordant writers alive. Mary Miller (as the many fans of her short stories already know) knows how to write about the restless heart of the trapped.” I loved that—it’s such an apt description of the book—and I loved the idea of your subjects all being trapped in some way. I’ve heard about writers who draw energy out of confinement; they either write in tiny studios, or on small scraps of paper, etc. How do constraints (literal or metaphorical) fuel your work?

MM: I really enjoyed the notes, and I’m glad you were able to include them. There’s an online magazine, Frigg, that printed a lot of my early flash fiction, and one of the reasons I wanted my stories there was  because I loved reading other people’s comments (which the editor always asks writers to provide). I just reread one of my notes for a story called “Dislocation”: “‘Dislocation” is about a friend who is always telling me I should write under a pseudonym. He moves around a lot and still thinks this will fix something.” I wasn’t willing to give too much away, I guess. In my memory, I said a lot more. 

That’s a great question, about the idea of constraints and drawing energy from confinement. In a literal sense, I began writing because I was isolated. I was living in a town in east Mississippi; I had quit my job and had few friends. Other than my husband, the only person I had regular contact with was my ninety-something-year-old next door neighbor. She would call me on the telephone and ask me to come over, but she couldn’t really hear so no matter what my excuse–a roast in the oven, sickness, laundry, etc.–I would go over there and sit with her. We’d watch church services on TV and eat dry grocery store cake and she would tell me she was going to teach me to crochet, even though she hadn’t crocheted in years. I wondered if my life would always be so small. I didn’t feel like it should be so small and yet I felt guilty for wanting more. Other people seemed content with their lives.

That’s when I began writing. Of course, all of my stories were about people in static situations, people who wanted more out of life but were unable to make the changes necessary for this to happen. I suppose most writing, at its most basic level, is about a need for connection, a desire to be heard. I see this in your work as well–all of these characters struggling to connect with others on a deeper level. I’m thinking, in particular, about “The Only Way Out Is Through,” about a man who takes his teenage son on a camping trip in an effort to bond with him. In your story, though, they are definitely changed by the end; they start in one place and end up somewhere else entirely. I think, for a long time, my stories began in one place and ended at very nearly the same place. I still have to force them to do more than that, remind myself that things need to happen. Ultimately, writing a story about a woman alone in a room is extremely difficult to do well. 

AB: That’s a wonderfully vivid scene, you and your elderly neighbor in her living room eating cake. I think it’s so interesting the way things can happen narratively in big ways or small ways — or perhaps I should say visible or invisible ways — and sometimes it’s the small changes that are the more powerful. Do you think of your characters as trapped?

MM:  I don’t think of my characters as trapped; the word “trapped” implies such permanence, that these are girls and women–my narrators are always female–who will never break free from their mostly self-imposed constraints. I think of them more as incapable of making decisions because they haven’t accepted who they are yet. They feel compelled to live someone else’s dream for them, but it won’t last forever. 

Growing up in Mississippi, I saw most of my friends finish their college degrees and then quickly settle into marriage and motherhood. A few of them “went out on their own” for a few years, moved to a nearby city, but they seemed to be waiting for someone to come along and make them a wife and mother. I never dreamed of my wedding, children. And having a house seems like an albatross–what if you can’t sell it and are stuck somewhere you don’t want to be? It took me a long time to figure out that my route may be more circuitous, or a completely different path altogether, and it’s okay. Sometimes I still struggle with that last part, the it’s okay part. 

AB: Yeah, that’s one of the things I love about writers, that our path through life is so often an unconventional one. I guess the downside is that since we have to make it up ourselves, there aren’t the usual signposts to give us feedback. We have to find it other ways, or dredge it up from the smithy of our souls. I think you are right on track.

So. Mississippi. I read an interesting Richard Ford quote once where he essentially says that the whole point of writing is to transcend regional categorization—or social, gender, etc. categorization—and that he doesn’t especially enjoy it when people label him as a Southern writer. Do you think of yourself as a Southern writer?

Also, I love the way your characters are smart about some things while being simultaneously not-so-smart about others. (We’re all ignorant, just of different things.) What you just said about characters who haven’t accepted who they are yet made me wonder: If you have a narrator who is attempting to be honest but who is in some ways a stranger to herself, is she unreliable? I’ve always considered unreliability a matter of conscious deception, but maybe I’m wrong.

MM: It’s hard for me not to think of Ford as a Southern writer because he’s from my hometown–Jackson, MS–and is friends with my cousin (I call her my aunt). He also has the richest, loveliest voice I’ve ever heard (check out The New Yorker podcasts with his readings of stories by Harold Brodkey and John Cheever). His voice reminds me of those I’ve heard all my life. I don’t particularly care what people label me–I am Southern and I am a female and whether or not these are noted doesn’t change these things; they will help or hinder me in various ways, regardless. I also don’t think much of the term “regionalism.” All stories are set in regions, and the differences between people within these regions are what make stories interesting. 

That’s a good question in regards to reliability. I don’t know that any narrator could ever truly be reliable because the people writing stories aren’t reliable. We’re all bound by our experiences. We all deceive ourselves. Oftentimes, when we’re deceiving others, we may not even be aware of it. Talking about this inspires me to write this morning! I love the idea of the singular, unreliable narrator. It’s why I seriously doubt I’ll ever write a book in which the perspective shifts to show all sides of a story. I’m not interested in what everyone thinks, only one flawed and biased individual. 

Many of my favorite stories from your collection are told from the perspective of the adult male. As someone who’s never been able to write successfully from a man’s perspective, I’m in awe of this. Do you feel as connected to these narrators as you do your female narrators? I’m also curious if the men who’ve read I Knew You’d Be Lovely have commented.

AB: Wow, that’s an excellent point. We are all—every one of us—unreliable narrators. Now my writing brain is imagining a character confessing to a priest because he’d been an unreliable narrator. Or there could be a cartoon where one woman is telling the other that this was the reason for her recent break-up (“He was an unreliable narrator”). And I’m with you: I don’t think I’d ever be inclined to write one of those books where the same story is told from multiple POVs. I’d feel as if I were taking something pithy and padding it.

Thank you for the nice compliment about the male-voice stories. I do feel as connected to my male protagonists, although it may be a slightly different kind of connection—less intuition, more empathy. The feedback I’ve gotten from male readers makes me think maybe I got some things right. The part that’s always the most difficult for me isn’t projecting myself into the male psyche so much as reaching for the more masculine language. That’s what can be a little counterintuitive; not thinking like a male, but speaking like one.

Speaking of voice: Yes! I’ve loved Richard Ford’s New Yorker fiction podcasts so much. Especially the Harold Brodkey story, “The State of Grace.” After I heard it I immediately called up my friend Rebecca Donner and told her she had to listen to it, too, so we could discuss. When you mentioned the sound of Ford’s voice, it made me wonder if the act of writing for you is more visual, or more aural? I rely so much on ear—the sound of the words—that sometimes it almost feels as if I’m taking dictation. But I know other writers who are just the opposite. For a while there, it seemed to be fashionable to ask writers what the “soundtrack” was to a particular book, or what music they listened to while they worked. I was amazed to learn that some people can actually listen to music while they write.

 MM: I love that Brodkey story, too. I bought a couple of his books after listening to that podcast. I can’t believe I hadn’t read him before. (Other favorites include Antonya Nelson reading “When We Were Nearly Young” by Mavis Gallant and Lorrie Moore’s reading of “Day-Old Baby Rats” by Julie Hayden.)

I rely on ear a lot, as well. There are a number of musicians in my family, and while singing and playing instruments are not skills I possess, I love the rhythm that words make. I love making them sound the way I want them to sound. For me, that’s essentially what makes a story successful: Does it sound right? Do my ears like it?

AB: I’ve been thinking about what I love most about your book, and one of the things I was so impressed by is how well you interlace the rapturous and the mundane. Few books have given me such a true sense of how it’s all one giant fabric — life — it’s Burger King French fries and Judd Nelson movies and motel swimming pools and unwanted pregnancies and whiskey and blood and insulin and Vanilla Frosties and the end of the world and God’s great mercy all rolled into one. It was such a pleasure to discover you, Mary. Thank you for writing such a wonderful book.

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.