INTERVIEW: Mary Miller, author of The Last Days of California
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In 2009, Short Flight/Long Drive books put out Mary Miller’s first book, a story collection called Big World. Word got out and people ate her stories up. It was hard not to. They were blunt and tight little nuggets. Her first novel and Big 5 debut, The Last Days of California, comes out from Liveright books (an imprint of WW Norton) this week. I was not the only one eager to see how this short story writer handled the longer form.
Miller does not disappoint. The plot of The Last Days of California goes something like this: Teenage Jess goes on a road trip with her family to (surprise!) California. Except this isn’t an ordinary road trip made for ordinary reasons. They’re going to California because the End is Nigh and this family has been Saved and California is where they will meet Jesus. In a lesser writer’s hands, this would turn into some kooky, shtick-filled romp, but there are no shticks in this book. Instead, we find Jess and her family — a family that feels ordinarily real and painfully relatable.
Jess is a girl who finds herself wavering between a lot of things: faith and the lack thereof, jealousy and pity for her sister Elise, loving her family because they are what she knows while coming to see them at times as something completely alien. It’s in this wavering that Miller’s writing becomes its most powerful. In the still moments, something heartbreaking and unflinching comes out, something heartbreaking and unflinching and beautiful. The book has already been met with its fair share of praise, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of that coming.
I got the chance to e-mail with Miller about the book before the press whirlwind of her book began. The result follows.
I read that you grew up Catholic, and your upbringing didn’t really focus on the rapture. What is it about the rapture that is compelling to you? I always thought it sounded terrifying — even the part where the Christians got zapped up to heaven, because it seems like some sort of weird alien abduction, except it’s God and not aliens.
I honestly don’t think I’d heard of the rapture until a few years ago. Catholics didn’t speak of the rapture when I was growing up (and I’m suspecting this hasn’t changed). I think that’s what I found so compelling during May of 2011 when Harold Camping predicted it for the second time. I was visiting my parents in Jackson, Mississippi — watching the news with my dad every night and reading the paper with him every morning. There was a lot of rapture coverage. I found it all pretty bizarre, these people who were giving away everything, abandoning their families to go on the road and warn people.
I started to wonder what would compel someone to do this, who these people were. I started to wonder if they were really so different from my family.
I thought Jess and Elise’s relationship was really interesting, since Jess seemed to feel both tenderness and bitterness toward Elise, in equal measures. Did any of this derive from relationships with your own siblings?
I have a sister and two brothers. I love them all terribly, but my relationship with my sister is much more complicated. We get disappointed in each other easier; our lives are more intertwined. I want the very best for her, more than I want for myself, and yet, if she got all of these things, all of my dreams for her, I know I would be jealous.
My sister and I are four years apart, but we had a close relationship growing up. I was scared of the dark so I made her sleep in the bed with me every night until I was fifteen or sixteen. Then one day I decided I wasn’t scared anymore and locked her out. I remember her wailing at my closed door, really throwing a fit, and I still didn’t let her in. I had made her dependent on me, and then, on a whim, decided I didn’t need her. I still feel kind of bad about this.
I love writing about sisters. I hardly ever put brothers in my stories — there’s just not as much to explore within those relationships for me. There’s more separation; my brother’s accomplishments and failures don’t affect me in the same way.
I also like the way you presented Elise’s beauty, in that it was an asset in some ways, but mostly it was a detriment. Could you speak more on female beauty and what society does with it? I feel like it tends to complicate platonic female-female relationships, which are often complicated enough on their own.
This is a great question; I feel like I’d need ten thousand words to even begin to touch it, but here goes…
Elise’s beauty enables her rebellion in a lot of ways. She can walk out the door and men will do whatever she asks, give her whatever she wants. It also puts her at a greater risk of being taken advantage of and provides her with more opportunities to screw up — in this case, to find herself pregnant at seventeen.
I agree that beauty complicates female relationships. As a woman, I struggle daily to separate who I am from what I look like. I am more than my weight, more than my face and hair and the tiny lines developing on my forehead. We see our friends struggle with these things, as well, so it can present a sort of “who’s winning” situation when a girlfriend loses weight or has plastic surgery to fix her “flaws.” We need these flaws in others in order to feel okay about ourselves. (I’m speaking for myself here, what I’ve experienced, and I know this isn’t the case for all women. I also know it sounds totally shallow and horrible and I work daily on becoming more accepting of myself as well as others.)
What were you like when you were Jess’s age?
I was a lot like Jess. I was always looking into mirrors, trying to recognize myself.
I felt like a stranger to myself. I remember staring intensely into my eyes to try and see who was behind them. I would often catch my reflection and it would surprise me.
I read that you’re working on a book currently about Typhoid Mary. It seems like quite a range you have, from short shorts to a novel to a novel that requires a lot of research. What have you learned by going from form to form?
That novel has gone by the wayside for now. I’m hoping to pick it back up, but I don’t know if I will. It’s scary writing about a totally unfamiliar world in a decade in which you didn’t live. I kind of freaked out at around 30k words. Now I’m writing essays and short stories and just trying to sit down every day and write something, no matter what. I’ve been having trouble finishing things but I’m working at that. I’m also reading a ton.
I used to write a lot of flash fiction but I don’t anymore.
The more words I write, the more words I feel I need in order to tell a story.
I’m jealous of you for being a Michener fellow. Are there any bad things about the fellowship, to help make me slightly less jealous?
I graduated from the Michener Center in May so I’m not currently a student there, sadly. It was a great three years. I have nothing negative to say about my own experience: Austin is nice; I didn’t have to work; they paid me a living wage to write, during which I started and completed this novel. The Michener Center is also a very welcoming and friendly environment; the vibe is non-competitive because we all get the same level of funding and writing styles vary wildly, i.e. there’s not a “Michener aesthetic.”
That being said, the program might not be ideal for everyone. As Fellows, we’re required to work in our primary genre in addition to a secondary genre. I chose playwriting because I’m a shitty poet and screenwriting seemed like too much work. I wasn’t terribly in love with playwriting but it was interesting to be a part of that community for a while. We also don’t have many professors on permanent faculty. MCW brings in visiting writers each semester, which makes it a bit difficult to establish long-term relationships with a number of professors, but I got to eat cookies with Denis Johnson and Cristina Garcia made me dinner so I’m not complaining.
What have you been reading lately?
I recently returned from a booksellers’ conference in Denver and scored some advance reader copies. I loved Willy Vlautin’s The Free and David S. MacLean’s The Answer to the Riddle is Me. I didn’t want either of these books to ever end. I’m trying to read more currently instead of decades behind everyone else.