Sue Miller, MONOGAMY

Sue Miller, MONOGAMY

Zibby Owens: I interviewed Sue Miller a while back. I’m releasing her episode today. Thanks to all of you who listened to my very personal heartfelt episode that I released this weekend about my family’s losses. Thank you. I’m sorry I made so many of you cry. Thank you for all the direct outreach as a result of that episode. I had to get it out of my system. Anyway, Sue Miller, critically acclaimed and loved by readers, Sue is recognized internationally for her elegant and sharply realistic accounts of the contemporary family. Her books have been widely translated and published in twenty-two countries around the world. The Good Mother from 1986, the first of her ten novels, was an immediate bestseller, more than six months at the top of the New York Times charts. By the way, I totally remember my mother reading this when I was little. Subsequent novels include three Book of the Month main selections: Family Pictures, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; While I Was Gone, which was an Oprah’s Book Club selection; and The Senator’s Wife. Her novel The Arsonist and her nonfiction book The Story of My Father came out recently as did her latest book which we talk about in our interview which is called Monogamy which, by the way, I keep leaving in front of Kyle just to give him nice reminders that it’s so important. Not that he needs some. Her numerous honors include a Guggenheim and a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship. She is a committed advocate for the writer’s engagement with society at large having held a position on the board of PEN-American Center. For four years she was chair of PEN New England, an active branch that worked with writing programs in local high schools and ran classes in prisons. She has taught fiction at, among others, Amherst, Tufts, Boston University, Smith, and MIT. By the way, we did this interview from her bathroom. I even made sure that she took her shower cap and moved it out of the screen, so we were immediately bonded for this interview. Anyway, enjoy.

Welcome, Sue. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Sue Miller: I’m completely in sympathy with the title. I’m glad to be here.

Zibby: It’s such a thrill for me because growing up, my mother had your books. The idea that it’s come full circle and I get to interview you, I just get such a kick out of it, as does she. Your latest book, Monogamy, was so great. I’m so excited that we’re going to do a book club about it. I just fell into these characters’ lives. Would you mind telling listeners who might not know what it’s about a little about the book and what inspired you to write it?

Sue: It is a character-driven book, completely, as most of my work is. I’m really interested in exploring human nature and human foibles and so forth. We have two main characters in this book. Graham, who’s a bookseller, the husband in this quasi-monogamous marriage, an ebullient, enthusiastic guy, he loves good food. He’s a little overweight. He loves wine. He loves his wife. He loves books. He needs to have people around him. He needs to have people love him also. He’s married to Annie. They’ve been married for about thirty years. She’s a quieter personality. She’s also much smaller than he is. They’ve gone to a party once years earlier as Santa Claus and one of his elves. She’s a photographer. At the moment the book begins, she’s about to have a show for the first time in some years and is full of anxiety about her career. She’s basically been full of anxiety about most of her professional life. She’s particularly anxious now because it’s been a while since she had a solo show.

You get, at the beginning of the book, a flavor of their life together and the way they exchange. I move around between their brains, essentially, in third person and enter them and explain them a little bit or have them explain themselves. Then quite early on in the book, it gives nothing away, really, or maybe a little, Graham dies in the night of a heart attack. Annie wakes up and he’s dead in the bed next to her. She’s numbed and shocked and then, as she must, begins to call other people to whom this will really matter. That includes the other main characters in the book. They get introduced, actually, by being at the end of these phone calls. The first person is her daughter with Graham, Sarah, who’s in her late twenties and is in San Francisco. They have a reasonable relationship, but it’s a little strained. Sarah has loved her dad enormously, he kind of rescued her through a tough childhood and adolescence, and has a lot more difficulty with this quite reserved and, as she sees it, unknowable mother.

Then she calls, actually, the next person is Graham’s first wife, Frieda, who has been, by his wish, very much a part of their marriage, partly because they’ve had a child together who is Annie’s stepson and is very much, of course, in Graham’s life. She’s just a member of the marriage in a certain way, Frieda. Then she, Frieda, turns — you’re with her now. She calls her and Graham’s son, Lucas, who’s in New York. Basically, the book moves around among these characters and their grief and what his death means to them and then how they connect to each other after the death and what happens between and among them after the death. There’s a lot that happens. Graham is not out of the picture in a certain way because his relationship to them and their memories of him and things that happened with him and so forth take up a lot of the energy as the book moves along too. That’s the basic way it’s set up, I guess you would say, and the people we care about, or I care about and I hope I make you care about along the way.

Zibby: I cared about them so much from the very beginning. You spent so much time orienting us to Annie and Graham that when he died, I was very sad about that as opposed to having it happen on the first page before you get to know him. I felt like you really got us into their marriage and the bookstore and his character and what he was like and them sitting drinking wine. I knew that’s what the book was about, but I kind of forgot once I was in it. Then it happened and I was like, . I felt a sense of loss, so well done. It was so good. I couldn’t help but think this must have happened. You couldn’t have made all this up. Have you gone through something or a loss like this? It just seemed so vivid to me, this whole scene. How did you come up with this? Did you lose somebody really close to you? I know about your father from your memoir. Tell me a little more.

Sue: I had a friend a long, long time ago. I was remembering, his wife died in her sleep. He really told me about that, how just incredibly strange it was to wake up and have her dead. I think my father’s death informed me a lot too. I was with him as he died over a long period of time, ten days or so. That’s it, probably. I’ve never had anyone that I was in love with die, and especially not in bed next to me. Sorry, that’s no thing to laugh about.

Zibby: No, it’s okay. Then I noticed you gave both Annie and Frieda mothers who both were battling Alzheimer’s as well in the book. That was one of the common bonds that they had, perhaps with your experience with Alzheimer’s yourself or you wanted to just put that in. What was that about? What made you put that?

Sue: It was in part that. I was thinking that there needed to be ways in which they became friends. Annie resisted it very much at the beginning thinking that it was too modern and silly, she thought of it, and a little embarrassing, almost, to welcome this person as a friend who was once married to Graham and had a child with him. Frieda had less trouble because she’d lived with Graham through the whole era of the sixties and seventies when all the rules about how marriages were supposed to work were deliberately broken, at least by people in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as far as I could tell. They needed to have ways to slowly become very close friends, which they do. So I just gave them that. When my father was ill, it was so comforting to me to talk to my husband then, just to talk about what was so funny that had happened that day in his crazy world that I was part of and had to agree to go along with and then, of course, awful things too. Frieda says that that seems to her to be the nature of this disease, that it’s amazingly funny and amazingly awful at the same time. That’s what they share with each other. Then over the years, they’re always together at holidays. Frieda’s just always there because Lucas is there, her son. Since they all live in the same neighborhood, it would be strange not to have her there. Graham very much wants her there. He’s continued to have a really warm relationship with her, regrets what he did to their marriage and that sort of thing.

Zibby: It was so neat how you had the stepmothers get to know — or maybe not the stepmothers. Yeah, the stepmothers, get to know the other child by the other — .

Sue: Yeah, the children get along better with the stepmothers. Each of them has his or her own reasons for having trouble with his or her own mother. They did this almost trade for a while when they’re entering adolescence and then through adolescence. Each of them is more helped by the other mother who’s not really his or her own mother.

Zibby: How do you do it? How did you invent characters, particularly Annie but also Graham and I guess every supporting cast member in this book, that are just so incredibly real? I feel like you inhabited this character of Annie more so than almost any other character I’ve read in every little detail and how she does every little thing. How do you structure that? How did you come up with her? How do you make sure to show the reader so much about her? It seems like magic to me.

Sue: It certainly is in the sense that I really can’t account for all of it. I love the close third person. That’s the voice in fiction that gives you the most fluid access to a character so that you can sit a little bit away from the characters in the third person and talk about what she’s doing. Then you can step right forward into her brain and essentially speak in her voice and speak about her reactions and speak about what she’s saying to herself. I think a lot of it is that, the wonderful fluidity of a third-person narration. The other thing is I make an enormous number of notes before I start to write anything so that I could feel that I know the character quite well, just notes, for instance, about what they hate, what they believe, what sort of books they like, or things like that. I’ve always done that just in very simple ways. I’m not writing a book at that time. I’m just making notes to myself.

Then as soon as I begin to write, anything they say, it’s sort of like you feel you know someone maybe if you’re online dating or something and you think, this person sounds so interesting, and then they speak and you think, oh, my god, no. This is how I would imagine. I’ve never done it, actually. Or you think, this is such an interesting voice. As soon as I began actually having them speak to someone, that just does it for me. I invent the voice and that makes me comfortable with everything else if I feel it’s right. I love doing it. That’s one of the main impulses for me in writing fiction, is to make what I hope are believable characters. My sense is that when you get mostly deeply engaged in fiction is when you actually sort of think these people are real. You know they’re not. You know they’re fictional. That’s what I want to get you very close to believing anyway.

Zibby: It’s like when you’re in a movie theater and next thing you know you’re sobbing. Two hours before, you didn’t know who that character even was. Now you’re completely emotionally invested. It’s a longer version here, more immersive almost. What part of this book was the first germ of the idea for you? Was it Annie? Was it Annie and Graham? Was it the thought of a loss? Was it dying in the sleep? Which was part of it was like, oh, I think I’m going to write about blah, blah, blah?

Sue: It was actually, had to do with my father’s death and then the aftermath of that. After he died, I was just swept by grief. It just would not release me for a couple of years. I tried therapy. I tried this and that. I was on antidepressants for a while. I decided I would write a book about him, also about Alzheimer’s disease. At that time, the stuff you could read about Alzheimer’s disease was either sort of sappy, you’ve got to get a hobby and you have to be with friends. It just wasn’t useful to me. Then the other thing you could read was incredibly technical stuff. I felt I wanted to write a book addressed to the reader telling her or him something about my father and also talking, to some degree, about the kind of moral or ethical issues I felt were raised by my being the one with him. I felt also as I was doing this book about him that I uncovered new information. I talked to friends of his. My sense of him really changed over the course of writing the book. I felt connected to him in a new and different way. That made me feel different myself in my relation to him. I wanted to explore that feeling of contact and change after death with someone and in this case really falling out of love with someone and then falling back in with someone long after he’s dead, in Annie’s case. That was the sort of feeling I had about that great mystery of death and the way one can change over time, the way one feels about the dead person.

I started with that and then thought it will be Annie. She was the first character. This will be this woman who — I thought of some things. Then Graham arrived. Once he was on the scene, he made me immensely comfortable with everything else in the whole book because that’s the kind of guy he is. I was charmed by him. I also wanted to present him as a complicated person, someone you’d have to think, well, that wasn’t so nice. You might even feel that he’s awful. In some ways, he is awful. He sort of recognizes in himself, this terrible need in his — anyway, I wanted to make him as complicated as possible while also trying to make you like someone very, very complicated. That was the impulse, really, was to have this whole thing after his death that goes on with Annie in particular. It happens with other people too, a kind of shift each of them feels, each character, about Graham’s presence in her or his life, and not always good. In some cases, they’re looking at everything with a little more distanced eye too.

I described this before. When I was taking psych classes in college and afterwards, we used to do these sociograms where you make a circle and you put all the people you’re considering around the edge of this circle. Someone acts or something happens to one of the characters. You trace these radiated lines, what it means to this person and what it means to this person on the circle. Each of them reacts. Their reaction crosses the circle to this character and this character. By the end, you just have this web of connection and feeling and whatever else is going on, anger or joy. That sort of was what I wanted to do be doing, was to just watch this circle of people and all their connections with each other, the ones that worked, the ones that didn’t work, and look at how complicated but try to make it easy for a reader to enter and to look at too. It was a world.

Zibby: Was it hard? Tell me about what it was like writing this book. Could I have a visual? Where did you write it? Was it at home? Did you like to go to a library? Where did you write it? Then because it’s so immersive, did you ever have trouble putting the work aside and going back to your real life?

Sue: No, I didn’t have trouble like that.

Zibby: All right, that’s good.

Sue: I wrote it over a long period of time. I wrote it in many different places. Basically, most of the time I wrote it in my office. We have a little place in the country, and I wrote it some there too. I write in longhand, first draft, so I can move around. What I like about it is I can move around the house, one of the things I like about writing in longhand. I write in little books. That was the way I wrote it, essentially, and the places I wrote it. There was a lot going on in my life and in my family’s life right then, and so there were periods of time when I wasn’t working at all. Now my granddaughter lives in Germany. She’s young. She’s twelve. She’s sort of also old, but she’s young. When she comes to stay, I just drop everything. About four or five years ago, she began to come and stay for the summer. That was just a huge open space in terms of my getting any work done and that sort of thing. I’ve never been incredibly disciplined about my work, I’m afraid. It took a very long time, this book, and probably benefited from that in some way or another. I had these pauses where I could just stop and think about it and make a few little written notes in my notebook and so forth to think about for the next time I actually sat down. Then I just type all that stuff in and then pull it out and then write over that for the next draft and just type it back in again. I waste more paper. More trees have been consigned to death by me because of all the in and out that I actually physically do instead of just changing things on the computer and not having to use that much paper, which would be much better to do, I know, but that’s the way I work.

Zibby: I forgive you on behalf of everyone because at the end of it, then you’ve got these masterpieces. There you go. It’s worth it. Everybody has their own process and everything. How did you get to be a writer at the very beginning? If you go all the way back to the beginning of your career, how did you get your start?

Sue: I always wrote. I wrote as a little kid. I always invented stories. I can remember these little girls down the street a little bit younger than I. I must have been in fifth or sixth grade. They must have been in second or third. They would wait for me to come from down the street to their house. We would proceed on to school together because they wanted me to continue this fairy tale, essentially, that I’d begun with them. Then I wrote a lot all through my childhood, silly, horrible things. I actually won a Scholastic fiction award in high school. A lot of very distinguished writers have won that, Truman Capote and Joyce Carol Oates. I entered this world of real writers in a certain way. I wrote a couple of novels after college, one right away and then one that took a lot of time because I got married and I had a child. I got divorced. I was a single mom and working and so forth.

I never thought of it as a career, somehow. I just assumed I would always do it. I didn’t much care about publishing at that point. Then at a certain point in my life, in my mid to late thirties, I began to send out a few short stories that I’d written. It sort of occurred to me. I’d gone to a few writing classes just to make myself finish things, which I rarely did. I just wrote because of the circumstances of my life. I was looking at other writers and thinking, I’m actually a lot better than they are. Actually, my teacher encouraged me in that case. I just began to send things around. They got taken, almost everything I’d written from the first story I wrote. They didn’t get taken right away. I had to send them to six places or something starting with the places that would’ve paid me a little bit of money, or a lot of money by my standards then. Then when my son was a little bit older, when he was about ten, I really started seriously writing a novel. I had two unpublished novels that I’d written before then and quite a few short stories.

Then I thought that I would write something that might get published. That was the first time I thought it. I was probably thirty-eight or so, something like that. And it did. It was The Good Mother, which was my first book. It just changed my life in this astonishing way that was really shocking and discomfiting. I sort of thought I was in charge of my life and I knew what it would look like. With the short stories that I’d published, I was able to begin to teach writing here around the Boston area which is a great area to be in for part-time work like that because there’s a lot of writing programs and a lot of writing requirements at various colleges. There are a lot of colleges here too. That’s what I thought my life would be like. I would write and I would teach and go on living at the same sort of quasi-poor. That was fine with me. There was nothing about that I didn’t like. Then suddenly, all of that changed. I did feel for a while, really out of control, that I was not in control of my life, and discomfited by it a little bit. That’s the story.

Zibby: Wow. Once you had this major success, did you find it hard to follow it up? Did you feel pressure to perform on your next books? Were there things in the works? How did it affect your writing, this huge success that you had?

Sue: The main thing was I was determined not to do the same thing or even the same kind of book. My first book was narrated in the first person. At the very center of it was a courtroom drama in which my main character loses custody of a child. I just stuck right with her. It was a very dramatic plot, to say the least. I really decided deliberately that I wanted to do something very unlike that because I didn’t want to be — now that I had a publisher who was waiting for it, I didn’t want to be doing the same thing and become the person who always wrote that. Although, now I’m the person who always writes about family and domestic life. That’s the way I’m categorized. I ended up always writing that anyway. The second book that I wrote, my father is ill and dying during that period of time. Again, I was sort of slowed down. It was about a whole family. I moved around from person to person in the family. It covered about forty years of their life together, a family with an autistic son. Everyone’s response to that person in the midst of the family is different and is complicated.

Again, it’s like the sociogram, that book was, essentially, all of these people whose lives were connected. There was much more to be really angry about for everybody, or troubled about, in that book. I just wanted to announce, I’m not doing anything you think I’m going to do. I loved that book. I like them all, but that was amongst my favorites. I don’t know. I haven’t ever organized them, this is my third favorite book and this is my sixth favorite book. Anyway, I dealt with whatever pressure there might have been by just saying, there’s not pressure on me. I’m doing what I want to do. There was a little pressure to do something very different, that’s true, but I wanted to do it. I wasn’t doing it because it was different, a little bit, but not all the way.

Zibby: How do you continue reinventing what you want to say and do? What advice would you have to aspiring authors, people who are starting out who want to have a career like yours, for instance?

Sue: This would not be something I think you could deliberately do, but I think it helped me a lot not to feel I was launching a career. I was doing this thing I wanted to do which might or might not be the center of my life. That made it easier for me to please myself with what I was doing. Also, to just go as slowly as you can. As I say, I had written two novels before The Good Mother. I had sent one around a little bit, but instantly sort of didn’t want to do that. I think just to wait until you feel really, really certain of the book that you’re sending out, until you love it yourself, it’s the very best you can do, and not be so focused on — I was old for a writer. My first book came out when I was forty-six, my first novel. It’s hard to say let time go by. There certainly are people who have written wonderfully very young. I’m not prescribing anything, but I feel like I benefited by being a little bit more relaxed about things. The other thing is just to read and read and be asking yourself all the time, why do I feel this way about this character? Look at what’s on the page. Just practice in that way, rob some people technically, essentially.

Zibby: Do you have a type of book you like to read in general or a certain genre? Do you like to read what you write type of books, or totally different?

Sue: Both. I like to read what I write. I also like a lot of other different kinds of books. One of my favorite writers is Alice Monroe. The form she writes in is completely different from mine. She’s utterly brilliant. Then the British writer Tessa Hadley, she’s much more interested in writing about adolescence and growing up. Although, there are a lot of quite wonderful — she’s a wonderful writer. I really love her work. Some of Brian Morton’s work, I just wait for his next book to come out. It’s varied. I just read this really wonderful book by the unfortunately named Michael Crummey, he’s a very established Canadian writer, called The Innocents. It’s just as different as it could be. It’s set in Nova Scotia with a few children whose parents both die. They set up living alone in the nineteenth century, I think it is, or maybe the early twentieth, but I think the nineteenth. It’s the story of their complete innocence, of their not knowing anything about anything. It’s an amazing book. I can’t recommend it highly enough. So that sort of thing. I like to read some nonfiction. I move around a lot. I think I’m more judgmental of books like mine, domestic books. I’m more critical of them because it’s more like the work that I do, probably. I think should’ve done that better than you did.

Zibby: You wouldn’t want to see the novels that I have stashed in my drawer, then. Anyway, thank you so much. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for so many delightful moments reading Monogamy over the last couple weeks. I’m excited for you to come to my book club and talk to everybody there. Now I want to go back. I have to read your memoir about your dad because it sounds like such a moving, emotional experience and relationship. Hopefully, by book club I will have read that too.

Sue: Great. It will be good to see you again. I’m very glad to have met you from my bathroom to your bedroom or wherever.

Zibby: Exactly, this is the Zoom universe.

Sue: Thanks so much.

Zibby: Thanks. Buh-bye.

Sue: Bye-bye.

Sue Miller, MONOGAMY