Mary Miller is the author of the short story collection Big World. Her work has been published in Mcsweeney’s Quarterly, American Short Fiction, the Oxford American, and other journals. A former Michener Fellow in Fiction at the University of Texas, she currently serves as the John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. The Last Days of California is her first novel.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on THE LAST DAYS OF CALIFORNIA. I really enjoyed it. In your acknowledgements, you thank your agent for wanting “to represent a woman who said she would always and only be a short story writer.” Can you talk a little about that?
Mary Miller: When my agent asked to represent me, I wasn’t sure why. I was writing short stories exclusively and had given up on the idea of writing a novel. They just seemed impossible. I’d heard about people working on novels for ten years or throwing out their completed manuscripts and starting over and I’m simply not willing to work that hard. Plus, I love the short form. I have twice as many story collections on my shelves than novels. THE LAST DAYS OF CALIFORNIA was fun, though, and it didn’t feel like a burden. I wanted to work on it.
CS: How was the experience of writing a novel different? Did you plan more than you do with a story? Did you plow straight through or did you put it aside and let it rest every so often? Do you still think of yourself as primarily a story person?
MM: I wrote the first draft very quickly. For me, I think it’s the only way to do it without losing interest and momentum. Writing daily, I quickly came to a point where I didn’t want to let the characters down; I felt like it was up to me to tell their story and if I didn’t do it I would be disappointing myself as well as them. I definitely did more planning and thinking with this novel than I do with stories. I moved scenes around, thought about metaphor, meaning, and plot.
I guess I’ll always think of myself as a short story writer. I may write another novel or two and I may not, but I’ll always write stories and they will always mean more to me because they’re closer to the truth of my life.
CS: You possess a wonderful control of tone. Much of the time, we’re in a limited number of settings—a car, motels, gas stations and restaurants—but your characters weave their ways through a very rich and varied emotional landscape. There’s boredom, tension, humor, and love—and they are often only separated by a few words or a single action.
MM: Thank you. I don’t know how to respond to this except to say that I tried to make it as true to life as possible. When I’m stuck in a small space with my family, there are so many, often opposing, feelings. With our families, we don’t have to be polite or politically correct; we complain too much; we’re often our worst selves because they have to love us regardless of how poorly we behave, all of which makes for interesting fiction. I come from a family where humor is highly valued. My siblings and I compete to be the funniest, to make each other laugh. Humor breaks the tension, provides relief.
CS: I also admired your dialogue—not just the back and forth of the travelers in the car and the folks they meet, but also the rich textures that existed between the narrator’s thoughts and the words she spoke. I think dialogue that reads and sounds natural is one of a writer’s real challenges. Can you talk about how you approach dialogue, what standards you have for yourself, what you want to achieve and what you want to avoid?
MM: I think a lot about whether dialogue feels authentic. Would these characters really say that, or am I trying to control them? Am I offering information that is already available to the reader? Dialogue should always be doing something—moving the story forward, revealing character, creating tension, etc. In the revision process, I cut a good bit of dialogue; it was probably the area in which I was most brutal. Rhythm is so important here. I would advise beginning writers to read their stories aloud, to make sure it feels right, and to cut liberally.
CS: There’s the family’s overriding journey—this trip toward a rapture that never comes, but beneath there are similar trajectories, other journeys, some personal, some shared. I’m always interested in the origins of a story. What came to you first—the family’s journey or the narrator’s? How did the other pieces fall into place after that?
MM: The family was present from the beginning. I wrote that first scene at the Waffle House in one morning, though I knew the premise when I began writing: an Evangelical family of four driving from Montgomery to California to await the rapture in Pacific Time. As I wrote, the characters presented themselves more and more clearly. I felt their energy. They wanted me to tell their story. All I had to do was write.
CS: There’s a real feel to the book, a claustrophobia that makes for a sense of uneasiness. There’s the car, the heat, the weird sights, and crappy motels. The children are trapped in the plans of the father, the narrator is trapped in the powerlessness of both her situation and adolescence.
MM: It’s a car trip, four people in a sedan, so it’s going to be confining. And they can’t escape it; they’re always together in small spaces. At best, the only privacy is in a bathroom and Jess and Elise do spend a lot of time in bathrooms. In a review of my book, Laurie Muchnick said, “Elise is the only woman who isn’t turned into a grotesque worthy of Jonathan Swift’s scabrous poem ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room,’ though she and Jess do spend more time in bathrooms than the main characters of any novel I can think of.” They’re looking for any chance to escape their family, for time to think without someone observing them.
CS: It took me awhile to appreciate that there’s a good deal of humor in the pages, especially between the sisters. I thought their relationship was one of the book’s real centerpieces. It was so real—their boredom with each other and their love and everything in between.
MM: Thanks. It’s funny. Some people find my writing completely bleak and humorless and some think it’s hilarious, so I guess it’s a sad sort of humor that not everyone gets. One time there was a visiting professor at the University of Texas and he didn’t much like my writing but he said I was the funniest and that meant everything to me.
CS: Food played a big role in LAST DAYS—at least to me. The narrator and her sister are continually eating junk food along the way. It added to the story’s transient feel—yet it also gave it a kind of universality, a sickly and decadent strain. It was funny yet at the same time also gross. Then there are other times when the family ate together and attempted to have a decent meal. Am I reading too much into this or was this a deliberate motif?
MM: When you’re on a long car trip, there are so few joys. You can’t move around much. You have to control your body. You have to be quiet if people are sleeping and no one wants to listen to the same radio station and your sister is poking you, etc., etc. So eating becomes one of the few things to look forward to: when will I eat next? What will I eat? And those options are limited as well. It’s not like you’re going to happen upon a Whole Foods while driving down the interstate so you might as well indulge in something unhealthy. At least it will be good for a few moments.
CS: You’re teaching creative writing these days. Does that impact your work? In what ways?
MM: I love teaching creative writing. It’s so much fun to be able to talk about stories with students, especially really smart, perceptive students, which I’ve been fortunate to work with. Sometimes they say things that are so exactly what I wish I had said and I’m incredibly impressed and humbled. I love stories and I love talking about stories so there’s really no negative. That being said, I’m only teaching one class a semester right now, so there’s still plenty of time for writing and reading and watching Netflix.
Curtis Smith is the author of five previous books of fiction. His stories and essays have appeared in over seventy literary journals and have been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He lives and works in Pennsylvania with his wife and son.