In “Biloxi,” A Grumpy Old Man Finds Redemption in a Dog
Mary Miller on Mississipi and writing about the minutiae of life
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Mary Miller has an extraordinary knack for getting into her characters’ minds. Reading her prose feels like stepping out of your own head and into someone else’s. She demonstrates this talent in her new novel, Biloxi, by meticulously portraying the thoughts, desires, and displeasures of a disagreeable middle-aged man in Biloxi, Mississippi.
In the throes of a messy divorce, Louis spent most of his time watching television and eating his ex-brother-in-law’s meager leftovers. But, during the course of the novel, we watch as this Deep South homebody leaves behind his stagnant life for a journey that neither he nor the reader could have expected, beginning with an impulsive decision to turn into a driveway boasting a “Free Dogs” sign and return home with a new pup. As a young woman from Vermont, I am the opposite in almost every way to Louis, but while reading Miller’s empathetic characterization of a seemingly unlikeable man, I grew unexpectedly and irrevocably attached to him.
I talked to Mary Miller about Mississippi and writing about the minutiae of life.
Frances Yackel: What was the origin of your novel?
Mary Miller: I was living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast when I started working on the book, and I didn’t have much of a community there. It was just before the 2016 election, and I was consumed by the politics of those around me, as the Coast is one of the reddest areas of this red state. Writing from the perspective of a conservative white man who has found himself alone during his “twilight years” doesn’t seem like the best way to process what I was going through, and yet it comforted me.
FY: I spent a lot of my time reading the book bewildered by the way he treats and talks about women. Why did you choose to write your novel from the perspective of an unpleasant, anti-social (and chauvinistic) old man?
MM: I didn’t intend to write from the perspective of a man, particularly such an unpleasant one. The narrator, Louis, just showed up and took over. I thought he was really funny, too—an ass, but funny. And though he talks and thinks about women in negative ways, it’s mostly because he doesn’t know how to interact with them, because he feels inferior to them. Toward the end of the novel, he has a revelation in this regard: “I was afraid of women. I had been afraid of them my whole life. If I’d been a bully, if I’d mistreated or ignored them, judged them by their looks or weight, it had always and only been because of this.”
FY: Reading Biloxi was like being transported into the mind and body of Louis McDonald Jr. I know everything that he thinks and does, including when he picks his nose and when he makes a promise to himself that he probably won’t keep. Most of your writing takes this form of the unfiltered first person. What is your process for getting into the mind of your characters? Did you find any difficulties getting into the mind of an unpleasant, anti-social retired man?
MM: I loved being in his head, honestly, and going about his days with him. I saw Louis as a complicated person who has suffered and been disappointed, whose life hasn’t gone as planned. I find him charming—cantankerous but charming. At the time, I also had too many hours in my day and not enough to fill them (except when I was writing about him), so I related to him on that level.
The nose-picking, yeah…. In the Booklist review of Biloxi, Annie Bostrom calls me “an absolute master of minutiae,” which is my jam, I guess. I’m always reporting on my character’s bathroom habits and food obsessions, the things most writers ignore. But people spend most of their lives eating and sleeping, going to the bathroom and grooming themselves, and it seems odd that writers often don’t mention them. I’m like, “that girl has got to be hungry!” I get really distracted by this sort of thing in movies and TV shows, too, particularly those that are supposed to be happening in real time. You never see anyone pee and one time they ate a Snickers bar so they’re fine.
FY: While writing a novel from the eyes of one person, do you spend any time in the minds of the characters that populate his life? Do you know when Sasha or Frank eat or drink or pick their noses?
MM: Ha! I don’t know about the nose-picking. Sasha and Frank only mattered to me when Louis was observing them. Like Louis, though, I did wonder about Frank after Layla goes after him: is he the mild and imperturbable man Louis has always assumed or is he hiding something? Both Sasha and Frank are mysteries to me, as they are to him. As most people are in our lives.
I’ve never written a book, or even a short story, from multiple perspectives. I’m impressed with writers who can shift seamlessly between characters and tell each of their stories, but it just seems… really hard and easy to mess up. It’s also not what I’m most interested in. Telling a story from differing points of view feels akin to getting at the truth, or attempting to, and I’m not much interested in truth in fiction.
FY: In a previous interview with Electric Lit, you mentioned that you don’t care as much about the life changing events as you do about the preceding events. This is clear in the way Biloxi is written; the intricacies and hypocrisies of Louis’ mind are a fascinating part of the story. However, the book does begin with a life-changing event when he picks up Layla. Many of the proceeding events are directly affected by that rash decision. Do you think something life-changing had to happen in order for Louis’ story to be told?
MM: That’s a great point—Louis’s life is changed within the first few pages. When I started working on this book, having no idea what it would be, I began with the image of some sleepy balloons tied to a mailbox and a sign that said FREE DOGS. I’m assuming this is something I saw while cruising around—I did a lot of cruising during my time on the Coast—but I don’t recall now. While it’s true that I’m not typically looking for a life-changing event, all stories present themselves in different ways and I try to take them as they come. Louis kept doing and saying things, kept surprising me, and I indulged his whims.
FY: Louis is a very surprising character! I was so excited to see what he would do next because he was so unpredictable, but this seems to be a new characteristic of his. In fact, it seems as though he may be very different from the man he was before he picked up the dog. And yet, as a reader, I feel like I know both sides of him (pre- and post-dog) very well. Do you have a method for developing your characters and their dispositions predating the first page of your stories?
MM: Now I’m thinking about that: do I know pre-dog Louis? I do and yet there’s not much to tell before he meets Layla. He was hiding out from the world and trying to get through his days, watching Naked and Afraid from his favorite chair.
Some writers make lists and do exercises to find out more about their characters at different points in their lives, their likes and dislikes, etc., but I’ve never done this. If the narrator is present, he or she lets you know who they are, so these things are unnecessary. And if the narrator isn’t present, no number of lists will make a difference. You can’t write a story that doesn’t want to be written. Or you can, of course, but it will be painful and unsuccessful and hard on everybody.
FY: Towards the end of the book, Louis and his acquaintances almost begin a conversation about politics. Louis clearly doesn’t want the conversation to progress any further than the general consensus that, yes, everyone will vote on Tuesday. Is there a reasoning behind keeping politics so limited?
MM: Fox News is on pretty early (Chapter Two), so it’s clear where Louis’s political inclinations lie. I didn’t want to write overtly about Trump or the election, though; this book allowed me to focus on something else at that time, kept me occupied and distracted from reading the news constantly, from fretting and feeling hopeless. Louis isn’t all that interested in politics, anyhow. He’s the type of person who feels he’ll be screwed no matter who’s in charge. He votes because he’s always voted, because it’s his duty as a citizen.
As far as that particular scene, he figured he was in mixed political company and knows the ensuing conversation would have been unpleasant, like every conversation I’ve ever had with people who are politically opposite from me. It hasn’t ever ended with one of us saying, ‘You know what, you’ve made some really good points and I’m going to consider them seriously. Would you send me further materials to read?’
FY: Absolutely, I’ve had my fair share of conversations just like that. If you were to meet Louis and happened upon the subject, do you have further reading that you would recommend to him?
MM: It’d depend on the particular rabbit hole we were going down, but one of the conversations we have a lot is about the flag—Mississippi is the only state that still has the Confederate battle flag on it—and the removal of Confederate monuments from town squares and universities.
We haven’t had a vote on the flag since 2001—when something like 64% of voters chose to keep it—but I hope we’ll get another chance soon. There are plenty of alternatives, like the Stennis Flag, or literally anything else.
In general, these defenders of the past argue “heritage not hate,” and that Mississippi seceded because of “states’ rights.” I’ll usually start by pulling up the Mississippi Declaration of Secession, and read them the first few paragraphs: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.” There’s also a good NPR article that has a graph so you can see when Confederate statues and monuments were erected; there are great spikes in times of extreme racial tension.
If facts don’t sway them, I go this route: don’t we want people to feel welcome in the hospitality state? Don’t we want new businesses to locate here? Mississippi is last (or second-to-last) on all of the “bad lists,” from obesity to illiteracy to children in poverty, and holding onto these vestiges of the past ensures we stay there.
FY: You’ve said to Electric Lit, in the same interview mentioned above: “I’m a Southern writer because I’ve always lived in the South. I don’t even know what it means, really, or how it’s “different,” because I’ve always lived here.” Do you think this story could have been set anywhere else? Or is Louis’ hometown integral to the person that he has become and the story he has to tell?
MM: Biloxi, like many towns in Mississippi, is a closed society in a lot of ways with families going back generations. Things change more slowly in places like this. So yes, it’s central to who Louis is, to his beliefs and perspective.
There are a few other places where this novel might be set outside of the Mississippi Gulf Coast: various locales along the Florida Panhandle, perhaps Galveston, Texas (though it’s been a long time since I’ve been to Galveston so I can’t say for sure). It is quite a particular place, though, with the annual fall muster at Beauvoir and the brown water of the Mississippi Sound, Hurricane Katrina tree sculptures scattered along Highway 90. There are plenty of places to swim and eat fresh seafood, sit on porches as the breeze rolls in. A nice word for this sort of place is colorful; it’s quite colorful. And if you ever do find yourself in this part of the world, get yourself to Gulf Islands National Seashore pronto. It’s my favorite park even though I once received an exorbitant ticket for having my dog off-leash.
FY: Another interesting aspect of the setting is the tourism industry that allows for an ephemeral aspect to enter into Louis’ life despite the fact that he’s from a place where families can go back generations. I think that contrast between movement and stagnation is mirrored in Louis’ life. Though he lives a very monotonous life, his story and your novel are full of twists and turns. You mentioned earlier that you were living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast while writing the novel. Could you speak more to this mixture of tourism with deep-rooted local life?
MM: The Coast is demographically different from the rest of the state. The people who live there are either transient—military, casino workers, tourists—or those who’ve been there forever and hardly leave the Coast (though they may go to other coastal communities along the Gulf to vacation). You find these “established” folks at the yacht clubs, partying on each other’s back porches, and at restaurants like Mary Mahoney’s and White Cap. In other parts of Mississippi, you don’t get many outsiders, or the outsiders are just people from other parts of the state who’ve moved to bigger ones. It’s a pretty small world down here, I guess.