Sue Miller on Writing
The Good Mother and Family Pictures author at Metcalf Hall tonight
The absorbing, unflinchingly human novels of Sue Miller have inspired a loyal following among readers around the world. From The Good Mother to her most recent, The Lake Shore Limited, Miller’s fiction probes the themes of family, marriage, love, and loss through an exacting but compassionate lens, and her portrayals of flawed, mostly well-meaning characters have been praised for their honest complexity. Tonight Miller (GRS’80) will speak at the GSU’s Metcalf Hall as part of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center’s Friends Speaker Series.
BU Today asked Miller about her craft, the critics, and her inspiration.
BU Today: Looking back, did beginning your writing career at 35 make you a more perceptive, confident writer? Could you have written The Good Mother at 25?
Miller: I certainly think I knew more about life and about writing when I was 35 than when I was 25—which was when I wrote my first, unpublished and unpublishable, novel. And I think I knew even more about both at 40, when I started writing The Good Mother, than I did at 35, when I wrote a second, not-so-bad-but-not-so-good novel. So while my career might have begun, in some sense, with the writing of The Good Mother, my apprenticeship began much earlier, and it was the combination of that apprenticeship with just having been alive longer that made The Good Mother possible.
Have any of your characters or stories been interpreted in ways that surprised you?
Perhaps not so much interpreted in odd ways, as used. The Good Mother was assigned in a school of social work as a kind of case study. The students were to say how they would have intervened with Anna, the main character, so she wouldn’t have gotten herself into the pickle she arrived in. And I would have had no book. And I sat in once at a psychoanalytic conference in which the main characters in The World Below were discussed as “damaged” people. Duh! And, oh yes, when the character of Leo in The Good Mother was described as the phallic interloper in the mother-child dyad, now that was a surprise.
What’s your response to critics who seem to hold it against you that you’re compulsively readable?
I have no response to those or any other critics—though I have to say, I’ve never heard a criticism framed in just that way. Too “plotted” maybe, but I love plot. My favorite phrase from a critic was a Brit who called me “emotionally prolix.”
In what countries other than the United States do your books sell particularly well?
The Good Mother sold well everywhere, but particularly in Scandinavia, where other of my books did quite well. Other than that, some books have done well in one country abroad, some in others—and in general, the earlier books better than the later ones. My most loyal foreign publisher is Bloomsbury, in the UK.
The parade scene in Family Pictures, when the father overhears a stranger asking, in effect, “What on earth is wrong with that child?” is among many favorites. They’re like turning points in Hitchcock films—the mundane detail that changes everything. How do you conceive of and craft them? In general, do you start with a plot outline?
The father realizes that he’s known for a while that something is wrong. I think in general I’m interested in mundane detail, in how important it can be—so I’m always looking for the moment that arises out of everyday life and changes things. I usually arrive at these moments by pressing myself, mostly through the ample notes I make before I begin and while I’m writing, off to the side of my writing, as it were. Notes that read, essentially, “How can you use this? How can this be more alive? What lies underneath this?” and so on.
And in general, this note-making process is central to me as I write and beforehand. I would say that I begin a book when the notes have reached a critical mass, so it’s this mass—or mess, really—rather than a plot outline, that serves as the guide to what I’m going to write.
What writers have inspired you, and who do you like to read now?
I always look forward to anything coming from Alice Munro or Ian McEwan. Brian Morton is a wonderful American writer whose work I find compelling and inspiring. Other Alices: McDermott, Mattison. And just to show that I can enjoy a writer whose name doesn’t begin with M, I’m always hoping William Trevor will publish something new, or Jane Smiley, or Julian Barnes. The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner is a book I return to again and again when I feel I’ve forgotten how to write myself.
You write so honestly about married people’s loneliness and ambivalence—why is this so compelling for you? Do you think our expectations of marriage are misguided, and that most married people keep secrets from each other?
I think I write of any character’s loneliness and ambivalence—sometimes married characters, sometimes single ones. It seems to me the human condition. But I don’t really have an opinion on anyone’s expectations of marriage. What one hopes at a wedding is always that the experience will meet the expectations—and sometimes it seems to. Even when it doesn’t, though, it would be hard to argue that anyone shouldn’t have those expectations. Why not start with high hopes?
I don’t know if I think it’s necessarily most married people who keep secrets. I think most people have an inner life that’s unavailable to others. Some of it surely is that we don’t want others to know our shabbiest thoughts and feelings, our low-rent, self-centered preoccupations. I don’t, anyway, and I project this on others. Maybe I’m all wrong.
You write about dogs with great affection. Are you a dog person? How can dogs and cats advance a plot or define a human character?
I am a dog person. I once wrote an article titled “My Life as a Dog Person.” I’ve had cats in the past, too, but I think the experience I describe in my nonfiction book about my father, that of clearing out a house where nearly 100 cats had lived with an eccentric (why bother to add that adjective?) and shall we say, not very tidy, old man, served to diminish my affection for felines. Served to terminate it, actually. So dogs it is.
In at least one of my books, While I Was Gone, a dog served as a way of introducing two characters, one of whom was a vet. But I think in general they just add one more possible way of revealing something about a character.
How does it feel to see your novels adapted as movies? Do you write the adaptations?
I haven’t seen the movie adaptations. I haven’t written them either.
Are you able to shrug off negative reviews, and how? Any advice about this to young writers?
I am usually able to live with negative reviews—I don’t think I shrug them off, exactly. But my response to them has to do with the nature of their negativeness, of course. If it’s a matter of someone’s aesthetic, or of someone’s just not liking the characters, well, that’s that. I’ve had some that seemed offended that I’d even written the book, though, and a few that were oddly ad hominem (or feminem perhaps), and these were more lingeringly unpleasant for me. And perplexing.
I guess I’d say to young writers, and to myself, learn what you can from them if they seem fair-minded, and let the rest go.
About your work habits: do your books all take about the same time to write or does it vary?
My second novel, Family Pictures, which was also my longest, took four years. I think this may have been in part because my father was ill while I was writing it, but it may have been too that it came right after The Good Mother, which had been an immense success, and I was trying to be very careful to do something as different from that as I could. Also, I made a long false start with it—200 pages or so—and had to go back and begin again.
Most of my books have taken about two years to write. While I’m working, I try to keep at it for three hours a day, minimum. If it’s going well, I’ll work longer, but sometimes I can’t wait for the three hours to be up. Mornings are best, before the confusions of the day start. But I’ve always interrupted myself when the need arises. My granddaughter is coming to visit next week for a couple of weeks, and that’s that—I’ll be at the playground.
Are you working on a new novel?
I’ve just started a novel I’ve promised to Knopf in 2013. I gave myself an extra year because of my granddaughter.
Sue Miller will speak tonight, September 29, at 5:30 p.m. at the George Sherman Union Metcalf Hall, 775 Commonwealth Ave. Preceding the talk, she will sign copies of her most recent novel, The Lake Shore Limited (Knopf, 2010). The event is free and open to all students with BU ID. More information is available here or by calling 617-353-3696.
Susan Seligson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments