Sandra A. Miller, WEDNESDAYS AT ONE: A Novel

Sandra A. Miller, WEDNESDAYS AT ONE: A Novel

Zibby Books author alert!!! Zibby is joined by author Sandra A. Miller to discuss Wednesdays at One, an intriguing, atmospheric, and masterfully written literary suspense about family, friendship, and the price we pay when our mistakes come back to haunt us. Sandra describes the terrifying, real-life stalking experience that inspired this novel – her psychologist husband’s client became obsessed with him and tormented their family for years. She also talks about the case of vertigo that kept her from writing for months and what it was like to grow up in a dysfunctional, violent family that did not let her express her creativity. You can read all about it in her beautiful memoir Trove.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sandra. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” your second time, the first time for Trove, which as you know, I loved, and now for Wednesdays at One, which we’re publishing at Zibby Books. How cool.

Sandra A. Miller: Thank you, Zibby. It is so fun to be here a second time and to be working with you on this book.

Zibby: Yay. Sandra, can you please tell listeners what Wednesdays at One is about?

Sandra: Wednesdays at One is a literary suspense set in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s the story of a clinical psychologist, Gregory Weber, who is burdened by the memory of this horrific thing he did as a teenager, something that no one else knows about. Now he’s in his forties. He lives a privileged life with his wife and his two children. He’s carried this lie of omission into his marriage. It has really infected his marriage that nobody else knows this thing. Then one Wednesday at one o’clock in his therapy practice, this beautiful, disarming woman appears. Her name is Mira. She seems to know things about Gregory’s past. His life is thrown into turmoil by her presence and her knowledge of what he’d done. What eventually happens is he becomes very vulnerable to her beauty and her probing questions, and the therapy roles reverse. He becomes the client desperate to uncover his connection to Mira and maybe find some redemption for his troubled soul. The central question of the novel is, who is this Mira? Is she an avenging spirit related to his past sin? Is she a femme fatale, a wannabe psychologist, or maybe a manifestation of Gregory’s pain? That’s what really drives the novel.

Zibby: It’s so cool. Where did this idea come from?

Sandra: It’s sort of a funny and horrible story. Back about twenty-seven years ago, my husband and I were just dating. We’ve been married twenty-five years. He called me one day from work. He’s a clinical psychologist like Gregory, but he does not bear any horrible burdens from his past that I know about. He called one day. He said, “Shut the windows.” These were landline days. I ran over, shut the window. I came back, and I said, “What is going on?” He said, “A client just came into my office, and she knew things about me. She’s probably been listening through our open windows at night.” It turned into a four-year stalking horror story, honestly. The seed of this novel was planted that day. I wasn’t interested in telling the story of a stalker who felt proprietary toward my husband’s home life. I was very curious about this idea about a psychologist who one day, a client comes into his office and knows things about him that she shouldn’t know. What if the psychologist has a buried secret and this person comes in and starts talking about it? How would the tables turn? How would he become vulnerable when usually, the psychologist is in control and the client feels very vulnerable? I loved this idea of this role reversal. I tried it in a lot of iterations over the years. Again, this was twenty-seven years ago that this happened. I couldn’t quite find a way to tell this story, but it stayed with me. It always intrigued me, this idea, this concept. Then it was the pandemic. It was 2020. I got a terrible case of vertigo. It lasted through the spring of 2020. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t look at my computer screen. You might know Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, the beautiful book that talks about morning pages.

Zibby: She was on my podcast.

Sandra: She’s amazing, right?

Zibby: Amazing. I love her.

Sandra: She’s simply amazing. That was fifty years ago she wrote that book. It’s still so beautiful and so relevant today. I started doing the morning pages because I couldn’t look at my computer screen. I would just close my eyes in the morning and scribble out a couple pages in my notebook. That was my writing for the day. In my head, I thought, oh, no, this is it. I’ll never write again. I’ll never look at a computer screen again. That’s not actually what happened. The vertigo lifted in the summer of 2020. With it, post-morning pages, came this clarity of this story of this psychologist, Gregory Weber. I sat down, and I knew how to tell this story. It came to me almost fully formed like a download. Every day for the summer of 2020, you’ll recall there was nothing to do. We couldn’t go to parties. We couldn’t talk to people. We lived in our pods. Every day for that summer, I wrote a thousand words a day. It was weirdly easy. This might be my one-off as far as easy books go. Ninety days later, I had a ninety-thousand-word manuscript that was Wednesdays at One. The book that is coming out now is very similar to that original book. There were other complexities over the years that have influenced the story. Really, it’s been a twenty-seven-year journey.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Wait, two things I want to go back to. First of all, the vertigo, was it caused by COVID? Did you have COVID?

Sandra: I think it was caused by, I did a yoga technique, and I might have just been a little bit vulnerable to it. It really left me spinning, my head dizzy. If you’ve ever had vertigo, it’s terrible.

Zibby: I had COVID. I had vertigo when I had it. I was calling doctors. They’re like, “No, this isn’t a side effect. Maybe it’s your inner ear.” I was like, it’s not randomly my inner ear the week I got COVID. I have COVID. I’m really sick. Now I have to hold onto walls to get to the bathroom like I’m on a moving ship. It was the worst. I’m like, people live with this all the time. How do they live with this?

Sandra: It’s terrible. I was asking myself the same question. The first few nights that I had it, I thought, I can’t live with this. Then it slowly started to lift. There are some techniques. I had some good therapists and doctors who helped me. That was a challenge. To then come out of it with the gift of this book, I think that they are inextricably linked, honestly. I think morning pages, the dark night of the soul that was COVID, and then opening up to possibility — I tend to frame things in a spiritual context anyway. I absolutely believe that sometimes what we see as truly the biggest burdens end up being a big gift. This was one of those cases.

Zibby: It sounds really easy to replicate those conditions, so you’ll have no problem moving forward.

Sandra: I am knocking on wood, man. You never get vertigo again.

Zibby: I think I had it for two days. It was the worst thing ever. Now let’s go back to this four-year stalking of your husband and you. What on earth? Tell me more about that.

Sandra: Oh, my goodness. It was, the word is, I guess, nuts. A client became obsessed with him. Again, this has nothing to do with the actual plot of the book. My Mira is not obsessed with Gregory in the book. There are different reasons that she’s pursuing him. In real life, just a client who became obsessed with my husband and started stealing our mail and showing up on our doorstep, coming to the house when we weren’t there, listening in the bushes. It culminated four years later with a high-speed police chase in our neighborhood after she tried to draw attention to herself by threatening suicide on our front porch. She ended up in a psychiatric hospital. There was a time a few years later — our son was born. My husband was driving with our son in the back. He looked in the rearview, and he saw her. He drove right to the police station. That ended that. The interesting thing, Zibby, is I never really — I wrote a few essays about this, but it was so disruptive to our lives that I never wanted it to find its way into a longer piece of work because it was truly — we were beginning our relationship. This was the beginning of our marriage. Every time we came home, answering machine days, the entire tape of the answering machine would have run out by her phone calls. We changed our number. We did everything.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s insane. Why did it take so long for it to stop?

Sandra: We needed to get restraining orders. There were some issues because my husband was her therapist. He had to do it very carefully. Finally, it became a court case. There were years that I would pick up the phone, and I would just be trembling.

Zibby: Wow. Where is she now? Do you know?

Sandra: I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I just know that we’re fine. Again, I’m knocking on wood. I’m knocking on wood a lot in this conversation. Everything seems to have resolved. It’s been twenty years, maybe, now that things have been clear and clean and fine.

Zibby: Did you ever question your husband in the beginning? Was there ever anything to the Gregory — I don’t know. Was there ever any question in your mind?

Sandra: That’s an interesting question. What I thought is — this kind of speaks to the book a little bit. I thought I would know how to handle this. Here’s my husband, a trained Yale psychologist with a PhD, and I decided that if this situation happened to me, I would absolutely be able to bring it under control. That wasn’t the case because we’re dealing with a very mentally ill person. That wasn’t the case. I would not have known how to handle it. I didn’t question my husband as, what did you do? I questioned him as, are you handling this correctly? Of course, he was.

Zibby: I feel like everybody questions if their spouse is handling something correctly, or maybe they don’t.

Sandra: Maybe. In the book, Gregory’s wife Liv questions. Oh, you’re seeing this woman. She’s your patient. What is going on with her? What are you not telling me? Are you handling this strangely? As the wife of a therapist, you always have ideas about how things might be done. Wife or spouse of a therapist. I shouldn’t say wife.

Zibby: Did you ever consider becoming a therapist after you saw — one of those things like, I could totally do that. I might as well just go off and become one.

Sandra: I’ve always joked if Mark ever missed work, which he doesn’t, I could definitely pinch-hit. I have what I call a pillow-talk understanding of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is what he practices. At night when I can’t fall asleep, I’ll tell him to bore me to sleep. He’ll tell me details of session dynamics, not with real people, but just general therapeutic techniques, session dynamics. He’ll say, “If we’re dealing with somebody with OCD, maybe what we would do is have them touch the bottom of their feet and not wash their hands.” He’ll tell me in this very droning voice to bore me. My pillow-talk understanding of session dynamics has led me to believe that if he’s out for a couple of sessions, I could go in and figure it out with a client.

Zibby: That is so funny.

Sandra: Honestly, I went to college thinking I would be a therapist, as many people who grew up in dysfunctional families do. I think that’s often a path because we are so desperate to understand our families or resolve the issues and the dysfunction. My sister’s a wonderful social worker. She took it all the way. I was in college thinking, I’ll be a psychologist. I’ll be a therapist. Then I’ll get my life straightened out, and my mother’s and my father’s. Fortunately, the chair of the English department handed me back my first paper for literary analysis, English 101, and she whispered as she handed it back, she said, “You’re a very good writer. You should be an English major.” I thought, okay, that sounds good. Everything turned on that moment, being seen by this very brilliant professor who was the chair of the English department and still a friend today. Just like that, all of my therapy dreams ended.

Zibby: They all got to live out in writing this book, so there you go.

Sandra: It’s very true.

Zibby: Tell me a little more if you don’t mind — if I’m prying, then you don’t have to talk about it — about your dysfunctional family growing up.

Sandra: I think what happened is I was a very creative child who was really interested in the arts and writing and theater, and I grew up in a very stayed, middle-class family which emphasized being a good Catholic girl and behaving yourself and not causing trouble and not bragging about yourself or not being creatively effusive, which I was. It was very, very hard. There was a lot of violence in my home. As soon as I could, as soon as I went on to college and then beyond college, I just needed to escape and see the world and stretch my creative muscles. Interestingly, my dad was much older. He had been in World War II in Japan. Right out of college, I worked in publishing for a few years. Then all I wanted to do was go to Japan and understand where my father had been in World War II. My father died when I was in college. As far as the dysfunction goes, it was oppressive. It was burdensome to me all my life. Yet at the same time, I really wanted to understand it. I explored that in Trove, my memoir. That felt important to me to figure out who I was, what I was looking for, the loving connection to my family that I never had.

The beauty of dysfunction is if you work with it, if you take it into your creative life, you can transform the dysfunction into something creative, like a book. In my case, I’m very proud of my memoir because instead of going around saying, that childhood sucked, I said, let me understand what that was. Who were my parents? My father had terrible burdens as a man growing up who went to war. My mother was a fifties housewife, also probably had some creative dreams that had to be repressed at the time because women weren’t allowed to explore themselves to the full extent of their abilities or interests. I do think that — I tell my students this. I teach creative nonfiction at UMass Lowell. I tell them all the time, one of the great gifts of this writing process is when you take a very hard story and you turn it into something beautiful. You’ve made art out of your hardships. I can’t think of a better way to work with our burdens and to make them something creative and productive.

Zibby: Do you think that takes the burden of the dysfunction off? Turning it into art, does it free you?

Sandra: I think so. I think it does. I think while you’re in it — for example, while I was writing my memoir, I had to retraumatize myself daily at my desk remembering the stories, remembering the violence, how unseen I felt, the shame that I carried out of that family. At the same time, I can hold that book in my hand and say I worked that through. I did that work. I wrote my way through that. I think it’s cleared me. I think a lot of people feel that. I think that’s why people love to write. I think that’s why memoir is so popular now. You see a lot of women, for sure, who are exploring their lives in middle age and want to make sense of something, whether it’s been hardship, divorce, struggles, or just a beautiful life. I think there’s something very liberating about the writing process as well as a finished product.

Zibby: In a way, it’s like you have become a therapist to all those people.

Sandra: Thank you, Zibby. That’s what I was hoping you’d say.

Zibby: Oh, good. I’m so predictable.

Sandra: I do love that. I love when somebody reads my memoir or even the novel and says, oh, those characters, I got to think about shame and guilt and what we carry into marriages and the struggles of a long marriage. Maybe we’re all sort of psychologists as writers, right?

Zibby: I was also a psychology major. I wanted to be a psychologist. I spent a summer at a psychiatric hospital. I don’t know what that reveals about my family of origin, but I’ll just leave it there.

Sandra: Okay, I won’t ask any other questions.

Zibby: One of the interesting things about Wednesdays at One — there are many. It’s that you are writing so effectively from the point of view of a man. You are obviously not a man. This is something that doesn’t always happen nowadays. It’s come under the microscope, spotlight, whatever. Is this okay to do? How do we all feel about this collectively? Who can you write about? What race can you write from? What gender? How do you feel about this discussion?

Sandra: I think it’s a very long discussion. I’ve heard some people talk about it. This is the line I take right now. I think that as fiction writers, we have the right to explore the characters that we want to explore that come to us. Yet there’s a moment right now in time that we need to be very sensitive to this issue and be aware that we are not making assumptions about other people, about other cultures. I feel like if we do this, if we take on a character that doesn’t relate to our own identity, that we have to do it very consciously, very thoughtfully, with oversight of readers of that background. I hope the tables are turning a little bit, that this is opening up for fiction writers because that’s the beauty of fiction. I tried to write this story from a female perspective. I tried to write it from the perspective of the client. The story really happened when I inhabited Gregory’s brain and mind and psychosis. That’s when I knew I could tell this story. What a loss it would be if we think we have to tell a story a certain way that aligned with our identity or eliminate characters. I have a lesbian couple in my story. One of the women is Puerto Rican. I grew up in a very predominantly Puerto Rican town. I have a lot of experience with the backgrounds that I write about. I hope that I do it responsibly. I hope that all writers do it responsibly. Not everybody has. I do think that we have to take a moment right now to reflect and really be conscious as we go forward writing about different identities.

Zibby: When you teach your creative nonfiction class, what other pearls of wisdom do you impart to your students that maybe can benefit the listeners here?

Sandra: First of all, when they come into class, their phones are attached to their hands. All our phones are attached to our hands. I make them peel them off their palms and turn them off and put them into their backpacks. They look at me like, how can this possibly be so that we can’t look at our phones for sixty or ninety minutes? Then I give the lecture about quieting your mind. How are you going to hear your own stories if you’re always obsessed and scrolling through other people’s stories? I think that’s very important for this generation. I would absolutely never be a writer if I hadn’t started writing in the late eighties before the internet, before social media. Maybe I would’ve, but I’m not sure I could’ve done it. I spent two years in Tokyo. That was the basis for the first writing that I did. I was there from ’88 to ’90. Phone calls were a dollar a minute. Letters took two weeks. The TV only showed Japanese programs. There was no computer, no screening, no movies to distract me. I had books and my journals. That was it. That quiet, that going inside, the lack of distractions I think is really key for a writer. If you can’t turn off the noise, you’re going to struggle to hear what your characters are talking about. That’s what I tell them. Then the time is up, and their phones are glued to their hands again. Mine is too. I hope that when they go out and actually maybe try on this writing thing in a serious way, I hope that they can learn to quiet the distractions because I don’t think it works otherwise, or it’s reflected in the writing.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. It’s true. I know. I think about even the only times when I was at summer camp or something where I would go for eight weeks and read all these books and write all these letters. Do people have that space in regular life? I don’t know.

Sandra: I think it’s the challenge of all the generations to come right now. Unless we learn how to do it, we’ll be in trouble. I’m not one of these, oh, the olden days, but I do think that we’re pretty distracted right now. Writing takes an intense amount of quiet concentration and focus, good writing.

Zibby: By the way, I’m going to Japan. This will air later on your pub day, but I’m going to Japan on Friday.

Sandra: You are?

Zibby: I am. I’m going to Tokyo with all the kids.

Sandra: Really? What’s the plan?

Zibby: I don’t know. We’re doing a lot of Pokémon-related things.

Sandra: That’s fun.

Zibby: If you have any recommendations, we can take this up on email or something.

Sandra: Sure.

Zibby: Last question. Aside from all this amazing advice you’ve already given with the distractions, if you had one piece of advice for aspiring authors in general, what would it be? Maybe for novelists.

Sandra: Tell the story you want to tell. Tell it your way. I feel like that’s a little bit time-worn, but nothing could be truer. Even as I was writing Wednesdays at One, I thought, I don’t know, is this weird? I dabble in the speculative. Is this marketable? When I put aside those doubts and just let the characters play on the page and trusted my own instincts, it worked. We’ve talked about this. It’s a slightly hard to characterize book because it’s not quite a psychological thriller. It has rich characters and rich family drama. I find that’s what’s interesting about it. Don’t just write to the genre because you think that’s what’s expected. Don’t write because you’re going to fill some gap in the literary canon right now. Write the story that really only you can tell.

Zibby: I love that. Sandra, I have so much respect for you. I really do. I loved this episode. Mostly, I’ve really loved working with you. I’m so excited for your book to come out. I feel honored you chose us. It’s meant to be. I’m really excited.

Sandra: It is absolutely meant to be. I’ve thought that all along. I was so thrilled when I had just finished my book and you had started a publishing house. I had such a good experience on this podcast the first time with my memoir. As soon as I saw that, I was like, kismet, and sent it off to you.

Zibby: Here we are. So exciting, oh, my gosh. Onwards.

Sandra: Onwards.

Zibby: Congratulations.

Sandra: Thanks, Zibby. Bye.

Zibby: Thanks, Sandra. Bye.

WEDNESDAYS AT ONE: A Novel by Sandra A. Miller

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