Diving deep with Sue Miller
Published: February 20, 2002
|Sue Miller explores submerged emotional worlds|
Sue Miller was a struggling single mother, working as a day care provider in the early '80s, when her first short story was published in Ploughshares. The emerging writer received a modest $50 and copies of the magazine. More important, her story caught the eye of a literary agent who offered to represent her. Miller, who had been writing most of her life, began to think, "Maybe this is rather good stuff." As it turned out, that was an understatement. Her first novel, The Good Mother (1986), about a single mother caught up in a custody battle, became an immediate bestseller.
Early on, Miller displayed a remarkable talent for casting a revealing light on the shadowy corners of intimacy.
In The Good Mother, Miller explores the tensions created by a woman's need for self-fulfillment and her responsibilities as a mother. She once said that the novel "looked directly at the changes happening in the American family."
While she never faced a custody fight, the author drew from her own experiences as a single parent. She clearly understands the vulnerabilities that go with the territory. "You have this sense of people being ready to step forward and judge the job you are doing as a parent, to say nothing of how you are integrating falling in love with that job."
With each subsequent novel, Miller continues to examine the idea of self-knowledge—in the context of marriage, family and society.
"To what degree is the self something we will? To what extent is it shaped by circumstances? These questions make for fascinating exploration," she said in a BookPage interview.
An astute and honest observer of domestic life, she dives deep into the emotional waters of broken marriages, alienated child-parent relationships and hidden, often disturbing, parts of her characters' inner lives.
Family Pictures (1990), which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, examines the conflicts that arise when a husband and wife respond differently to their autistic son. In While I Was Gone (2000), Miller introduces Jo, a middle-aged woman who is confronted by a turbulent, secret past life that infringes on the seemingly tranquil present.
Her latest novel, The World Below, perhaps her most richly layered work, intertwines the stories of a granddaughter and grandmother, contrasting the way each deals with disappointments and compromises in their lives.
Catherine moves into the home of her grandmother, Georgia, and discovers the deceased woman's diaries, which reveal a love affair she had when she was a patient in a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1919.
This bittersweet story causes the reader to reflect on parts of oneself that have been lost or buried over time, or what might have been.
Miller's other novels include For Love (1993) and The Distinguished Guest (1995). She also published a book of short stories, Inventing the Abbotts and Other Stories (1987).
While in Milwaukee on a book tour for The World Below, Miller talked with The Writer about her work and her writing process.
How did you come up with the idea of using the lives of these two women from different eras?
I have these diaries from my family that I inherited. The two that are central to this work were one of my [great-great-]grandmother's, written from 1869 to 1870, and my mother's diary from high school.
My great-great-grandmother was a farmer's wife and a seamstress in Maine. They had a hard life in some ways, but the diary is similar to Georgia's, maybe even more on the surface than Georgia's. "March 13: was a lovely day. The wind blew 'til noon then it calmed down. John did this in the orchard. I cut out a dress." It's fascinating in some ways, and in some ways it's pretty boring. Then suddenly, on June 13 (I don't have the exact words): "... was a beautiful day. I'm a person destined to disappointment in everything she takes pride in in life. Sometimes I wish I were ... sleeping the sleep that knows no waking." The next entry refers to [that passage] slightly: "It's been a clear day unlike the turbulence in my soul" and "I sewed a dress." Then the day after that, the waters have folded over—to [use] my metaphor from the book, and it's never mentioned again. There is not a clue to what it refers to. It's this cri de coeur with no connection anywhere else in the diary to what is going on in her life. No other protests, no other complaints.
Then I have my mother's diaries written in the '30s. She was a person in love with herself, and she was utterly self-preoccupied. I mean these are adolescent diaries to be sure, but my mother sort of stayed that way.
That was the impetus: my thinking about the way one would have lived such a life, where she couldn't indulge that cry. It was something she expressed once and felt no right to. And then to think about a person like my mother, who was keenly aware of herself and every nuance of her emotional life, sexuality and religious beliefs—very excessive and ex-treme. Some of that is simply two personalities, but some of it is history. I was interested in doing something that made use of that.
[Another theme in the book came from] an argument I had with a friend one night at a dinner party. His parents had emigrated from the Ukraine. He was speaking of his parents' sense of exile and alienation from where they ended up living and the way their children grew up. My argument was that I thought everyone thought they had raised their children in a different universe than the one in which they had been raised. Everyone is kind of appalled at the distance they have come from their own past— the past was like a country they were in exile from.
My own parents were these radical-pacifist Christians—deep believers, who raised four of us kids who are really not involved in the religious life in any way. We must have seemed like savages to them—as though we were being raised in a country that was taking us over and taking us away from everything they held dear and had grown up cherishing.
|How did you pin that idea of alienation down to the structure of the novel?|
I began to think about Georgia earlier on and decided to have something like an illness that severed her life, that cut her off. The tuberculosis sanatorium seemed to be a good solution to that. She would be sent away, and all life would change for her, and then she would have to come back and go on living in a world where she no longer felt at home. Then I got very interested in the TB phenomenon.
This feeling of alienation from the past and parts of oneself runs through much of your work. For example, in While I Was Gone, Jo keeps her past life hidden from her family and then she is forced to confront it. What interests you about this theme?
To me, that's a very common thread in 20th-century American literature in particular—that sense of our having invented ourselves. We are a country of people who are cut off from the past. Even if we do a good job of inventing ourselves, we experience a sense of dislocation. That's one of the things I'm interested in exploring.
In The World Below, Catherine's life runs parallel to her grandmother's. Both have mothers who die when they are young. Both have a sense of dislocation. Was it always your intention to build the novel this way?
That was part of the picture from the start. I set up things that made their lives seem, in terms of some details, quite parallel, so I could play around with what in a deeper way was and wasn't parallel. I wanted the reader to speculate on what it means to be uprooted and whether uprootedness is something that everyone has always felt, or whether it's a modern phenomenon.
Were you interested in the idea that there are parts of our parents' or grandparents' lives that are hidden from us?
It wasn't so much the sense of our not knowing about our ancestors as the difference in the way we are conscious of life. I wanted to be looking at a post-Freudian character who is very self-analytical and self-aware, who has spoken very openly to her children about her inner life, and at a person whose practice of life was very different, pre-Freudian. I wanted to look at these two ways of being conscious of difficulty and pain and of expressing that in life. I was looking at what time has done to the way we comport ourselves and think of ourselves.
Your title, The World Below, refers to the novel's central metaphorical image (a village that is submerged after a reservoir is built). Could you talk about how you use metaphor in your work?
I did think of it working metaphorically in lots of ways in the book. The most direct way is when Cath sees the village [underwater] and says it's like memories, it's like looking at your past and looking at what is lost to you, what you can see and can't touch, what you can recall but you can't relive. But I also thought of it, obviously, as being true for Georgia's whole life, that there was this submerged world of feelings and passions and unexpressed emotions.
I don't think I use metaphor in language very much. But I think of it often as an overarching element in my work. It's there for me, and it's exciting for me in thinking about the work. For instance, in The Good Mother, I thought about the process of the legal system. The changes in language that forced the narrator into a place where she couldn't speak of her experience in words that were familiar to her. I thought of it as this narrow dark tunnel. For me, what happened in that book was that Anna was forced into this kind of alternate shape of her experience, which was very foreign to her, very alien to what she had understood was going on as she had lived through it.
How did you deal structurally with telling two stories at once in The World Below?
I had written big chunks of Georgia's life and Cath's life separately, so one of my big tasks on revision was weaving them into each other more than I had. I didn't want to have alternating chapters. I didn't want it to be as patterned as that is and as boring, to me, as that. On the other hand, I wasn't exactly sure how to do it. So some of the work I did on revision was restructuring everything, moving chunks of one person's narrative into the other person's story, then writing connective tissue between the two.
You begin The World Below with Georgia's grandparents riding into town in a buggy, in hopes of getting Georgia and her siblings after their mother dies, but the father refuses. It's very dramatic and cinematic. How do you decide where to begin a novel?
The first chapter is really important, no matter what. It's a decision that is intrinsic to whatever book you are working on. There are no real answers for what needs to happen in the first chapter, except that it needs to draw the reader in to make the story seem compelling and of great interest. The most remarkable thing is how different beginnings are from one another.
It was very clear to me that I wanted to begin with the grandparents and the possibility of their rescuing Georgia. For some reason, as I wrote it, I knew that this grandmother was not going to appear later in the book. This would be her scene, then we would move into Georgia's life. It was less visually focused the first go around, but it was very clear to me that I wanted to begin with the grandmother's offer and her sense that unless she took Georgia, Georgia wouldn't have a childhood.
With my second novel, Family Pictures, I made a really prolonged false start—several hundred pages and a couple of years of work. It really didn't work, but I had made a commitment to those characters and what I wanted to do with them. Even though I had to discard a lot of it, it wasn't ever a question of not doing it.
|How did you change it?|
It was about this huge family, and they have an autistic kid. I had started it before the parents met and moved with them through their meeting and the early part of their marriage. I just cut an enormous amount, began in a very different place and ended up occasionally using little bits of [what had been cut] as memory or referring to some experience. It just needed to enter more directly and more quickly into the dilemma, into the issue of the book, which was the child and the different answers each of the parents had for the meaning of his presence in their lives—what they were, therefore, meant to be doing about it.
Could you describe your writing process?
I make a lot of notes before I get going. I know what I want to do pretty much. I don't necessarily know everything that is going to happen in the book; there is some serendipity, but I have a sense of what the ideas are that I'm working with and how I want to embody them. I've made a lot of notes about specific scenes, not complete themes but kind of ... she'll do this, he'll do this, he'll say this ... . Then when I get to that [scene], I know why I'm there, and what I want to do around it.
I write in longhand in a bound notebook. When I near the end of the book, I often go through those notes and look at things I haven't used. I think about whether they belong any longer. If they might or they do, I take a Post-it note and make this row of small themes and bits of dialogue. I'm looking at them everyday, thinking: Would they fit here or work there? It's all a big, fat mess.
I do feel a sense of eagerness and commitment to the enterprise with each book. I was very perplexed by the weaving of the two stories [in The World Below] and really worried about how it was going to go.
How and when do you decide the novel's point of view?
This one was a funny one because I knew Cath [The World Below] would be narrated in first person, and I wanted her to tell her grandmother's story, but also tell it in a way that she simply wouldn't have been able to know. I was thinking of someone like Marlow in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, where he tells this story that seems preposterous for him to tell and to have privileged information. In that sense, it's maybe a bit of a stretch in some ways, but it was something I wanted to be fooling around with to interest myself.
With the third person, you virtually can write a first-person kind of thing. You can descend very much down on the character's shoulder, but then you also can float around and be very godlike, and comment on the character and what the character doesn't understand about herself. I like that very much.
There was only one book—For Love—where I really wasn't sure whether I'd write it in the first person or third. The others all seemed to me to need to be a certain way.
Family Pictures was a little confused, too—some of it was in the first person, some in the third. It moved around among a lot of different characters.
I like the third person best of all because of its flexibility. The first person is so enclosed. I felt that particularly in While I Was Gone. [Jo] was in some ways an unreliable narrator; she's trying for reliability, but it's not in her nature to be reliable. By the end of the book, I felt very confined by her perspective and by inhabiting her personality as a whole.
What is your writing routine? When you are really into the writing, is it difficult to break away and participate in other areas of your life?
I try to make myself work three hours a day. If things are going really well and I'm excited about what I'm doing, I work longer than that. During revisions, I'm working on it all at once. It's more complicated at that point—it's not just writing a scene, but making sure the whole book is doing something. And I'm moving things around within the whole book. That's when I often put in long days. I get very lost in it. I get a little dreamy, particularly toward the very end, when the whole book is existing for me in this simultaneity of thought. It is hard to attend to the dailiness of human interaction. But earlier on [in the process], writing is more workmanlike.
What do you enjoy the most about writing?
Making the notes and thinking about [the story] before you have to confront the reality of what you are able to get on the page—when it seems you will be able to get everything you want on the page and you're not holding yourself accountable word by word. You're not working on it yet; you're just conjuring it and it feels you might do anything.
Could you describe how you work with editors?
My first editor, Ted Solotaroff, was a well-known editor at New American Review (later called the American Review). He was terrific as an editor. He would ask these open-ended questions: "One wonders ... ." He would leave it up to you whether you cared or didn't care. I remember in Family Pictures, which he edited, I had a certain tendency to sort of announce what was going to happen in the chapter and then to have it happen.
He talked about the fact that the book itself wasn't very dramatic, and it didn't have much of a plot. It was basically an account of this family's history. He thought that each chapter needed to be as compellingly dramatic as it could, and that tendency on my part undercut any sense of suspense in the book.
I went back and looked at the chapters. In some cases, I eliminated parts of the chapters or moved them around.
My present editor, Jordan Pavlon, is my son's age, I would guess. She's a wonderful reader. What she tends to do is write me a dense three-or four-page single-spaced letter about the book, responding to it, saying what she thinks is strong and what she would like to think more about. Occasionally she'll say, as Ted did, "This word choice seems off to me. I don't think she should say this here." It comes down to line-editing kinds of things. But those things are always up to me. If I think she should say that, I leave it in, but I'm always interested, because they're both good readers and such generous readers of my work that I think about why they might have those thoughts, if there is something else I ought to do. That's basically the process. It's comfortable for me. I've trusted both of them. It's important that editors understand your impulses in your work. Both have been very respectful of my saying, "That's not something I want to change."
Does your agent also give you feedback?
That has changed a lot over time. Initially, she [Maxine Groffsky] was very important to me as a first editor. She worked with me on The Good Mother. There was a chunk of family history floating around loose in the book, and she helped me find the right home for it and tighten it up a bit. She had been an editor. I think that's changed. She's done less editing as time has gone on, and I've developed more of a relationship with my editors and gotten better at editing myself. I've learned from the editors about what my tendencies are, what my weaknesses are.
At this point, her role is very different. She's much more a friend. I've been with her a long time. I rely on her enthusiasm and an emotional connection with her, using her as someone to talk about business or my career.
Is there anything you fear about writing?
A lot. I think every writer is anxious about putting a book out there, fearing judgment of the book, fearing it's being profoundly misunderstood somehow. There's that, but I think the deeper fears are of not being able to do what you want to do, of not getting the central thing down on paper somehow, of not being able to embody the notion that you're entertaining, or to think of the right fictional reality for it, of going off, of being wrong.
Photograph by William Zuback