Mary Miller Has a Few Questions

The author of the new collection Always Happy Hour talks about life in the South, crafting sentences and her tendency to ruminate.

When I was accepted into the MFA program at the Michener Center — what seemed to me then and now a clerical error they were too kind to correct — one of the many happy-making trains of thought that kept returning was, That’s where Mary Miller goes. I had come across Miller’s first collection, Big World, the year before, and it quickly became one of the collections to which I pointed when I thought that is what I want to do. I think of Mary’s stories — in Big World, in her chapbook Less Shiny, and in her new collection, Always Happy Hour, out from Liveright (W.W. Norton) — as apertures through which we, her readers, are given the opportunity to witness, however briefly, a life in the process of being lived. Perhaps this sounds somewhat reductive, or not on the face of it an altogether captivating characterization, but at a time when it seems so much of contemporary short fiction is interested in massive world-building, in grandiosity, in purportedly clever conceits that ultimately obscure a reader’s ability to engage with a character, I find Miller’s stories so generously, beautifully fortifying. She is not interested in dazzling you with a twisting-and-turning plot; she’s happy to have that dazzle take place on the level of the sentence, her kingdom and her greatest gift. (The collection is abundant with sentences one comes across and is instantly furious that one hasn’t written.) What I love most about Miller’s stories, then, is how disinterested they are in presenting a reader with the sense that something has been solved, or is even solvable. I love that Mary Miller has created a space in short fiction wherein the goal is nothing more and nothing less than, to borrow a phrase from Maggie Nelson, “to let things hang out.”

It was the best way to end a terrible year, talking with Miller over e-mail about Always Happy Hour.

Vincent Scarpa: I wanted to begin, if it’s all right with you, with language, with your sentences. Though I identify as something of a syntax-junkie, I find that it’s something extremely difficult to talk about: the way a sentence sounds, and why I find a certain sentence — or, as in your work, so many sentences — to sound, lacking a more clarifying phrase, beautifully correct. Reading the stories in Always Happy Hour and revisiting your previous work — the novel The Last Days of California, the collections Big World and Less Shiny — I always come away feeling most strongly and most delighted by the sentences themselves above all else: their often untidy construction, their occasional disobedience of “proper” grammar, their hiccuping flow and rhythm, and the way these things come together to constitute your singular style. An example, just one of many, from the story, “At One Time This Was the Longest Covered Walkway in the World”: “I want to ask my boyfriend what color his ex-wife’s eyes are because if they’re blue then the boy isn’t his and we could be spending our nights alone.” I wonder: do you read your sentences aloud as you write? Do you find that you labor at the level of the line as much, if not more, than on the level of the story as a whole? Furthermore, I’d love to know which writers you turn to for good sentences, perhaps even feel instructed by. (Frankly, I’d love to know what are some of your favorite sentences.)

Mary Miller: Oh, how I love the sentence. Above all else. Above everything. I never read aloud, though, unless I’m timing myself for a reading. When I’m alone, it feels weird to hear my own voice.

I think my sentences have gotten tidier over the years; the most important thing is rhythm, how the words sound and feel. When I first started writing I didn’t have an amazing grasp of things like modifiers, and published stories with sentences like this: “We carried backpacks and sat around a table in tennis shoes.” Someone wrote to me and said, “The table doesn’t wear tennis shoes!” and I responded with something like, “Don’t be obtuse [I’m not a complete idiot]! You know what I’m saying!” But all the same, I would never write a sentence like that today. I rather like picturing a table with tennis shoes, though.

(I can’t believe this story is still online, but it is, and that sentence is in the first paragraph.)

The sentences I like best are the ones I wish I’d written because they reflect my own thoughts and feelings. I love my Kindle because I can highlight everything in one document instead of messing up my books with dog-ears. I highlight constantly:

— “Every living thing had mysteriously died the second we turned the camera on.” — Miranda July

— “‘I’ve got a retirement plan. It’s called a bullet,’ said Boris.” — Jack Pendarvis

— “We fall out of love only to fall in love with a duplicate of what we’ve left, never understanding that we love what we love and that it doesn’t change.” — Sara Majka

— “A psychiatrist friend of yours once told you that a telltale sign of a mentally unstable person is she’s never dressed appropriately for the weather.” — Vendela Vida

These sentences resonate with me for one reason or another. For example, I remember going over to my grandparents’ house one Sunday afternoon in the winter, how my grandmother asked why I was wearing shorts and kind of blocked me from entering her home until I answered. And then I wondered myself; it was too cold to be wearing gym shorts and yet there I was with my legs all chicken-skinned. It hadn’t even occurred to me to wear something halfway decent, something appropriate for the weather, and my own family said nothing to me, ever, for fear of offending me because I was so sensitive. No matter what anyone said to me, I was always trying to interpret the subtext, and I always felt the subtext was: you’re wrong; what’s the matter with you; why are you the way you are and how can I change it?

VS: You turned me on to that Sara Majka collection, Cities I’ve Never Lived In, when I came to see you in Gulfport, and I’ve probably thought of certain sentences, certain moments, in that collection at least once every few days since I read it in June. So, thank you.

As I think about some of my favorite sentence-makers — Mary Robison, who can marvel with a line “I would always be late, too, if at the parking garage I hadn’t grasped the mechanical-gate concept, that at the very fucking second the fucking stick rises, is when you go,” from One D.O.A., One on the Way, or Flannery O’Connor, who does breathless, breathtaking work in a sentence like “The black sky was underpinned with long silver streaks that looked like scaffolding and depth on depth behind it were thousands of stars that all seemed to be moving very slowly as if they were about some vast construction work that involved the whole order of the universe and would take all time to complete,” from Wise Blood, or William Gay, in Little Sister Death, of his protagonist: “He was seized with longing so intense it ached in his chest, he wanted it always to keep, to drag out secretly and study it like a yellowed photograph, and he thought I am home, this is me, this is where I have been rambling down to all these years” — I wonder, despite thinking that schooling or geographying or really any endeavor to group writers to be mostly futile and almost always exclusionary, if there isn’t something to be said about Southern writers, syntax, and sentences. It might be something as simple as an ear tuned to a different variety of speech pattern, or perhaps something more difficult to pin down, like what it is that might drive a person to talk quickly, ramble, rush out language with no space for pause or comma. Is any of this resonating with you? If so, I’d love to hear you talk about it, designated, as you are, as a “Southern writer.”

MM: Robison is so good! I arrived too late at the University of Southern Mississippi to be her student. All I got were the stories of how things were so much better before I’d gotten there, which of course is how it always is. You missed it, people want to tell you; it was so much better before…

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. When I moved to Austin for graduate school, I lost my accent for a few years but that was about it. (I’ve been told that it has returned in full force since my return to Mississippi.) Southerners value storytelling, humor, and rhythm, though I imagine that’s pretty universal. And I come from a family of musicians, so music is very important to us. Over Christmas, my siblings plugged their guitars into their amps and we sang along to Bonnie Raitt’s “Papa Come Quick” and The Band’s “The Weight,” songs that are more like novels set to music.

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.

We also kept making my sister’s boyfriend tell the same story every time someone new showed up. Each time he added new details and each time I thought I wouldn’t be entertained, but I was. Perhaps Southerners talk to each other more? Tell more stories? There’s still a front-porch culture; it’s hot nearly year-round (it’s currently 73 degrees) so you sit outside and drink beer or iced tea and just talk about where you’ve been and the things you’ve seen. Or, if you never go anywhere, you gossip about your neighbors.

VS: Many of the narrators and protagonists in the stories here are more or less self-aware, but that self-awareness by my no means indicates that they are going to change, or that they’re even capable of change. Perhaps this is best embodied in a remark made by the narrator of “The House on Main Street,” who says, “It is seven-thirty and already painfully bright outside. I need curtains but this seems completely beyond the realm of possibility — where would I get them and would they be long enough? I’d probably have to have them made.” In which case self-awareness signals an acknowledgement of one’s intractability, one’s tendency not to move toward action. Then there’s the narrator of “Proper Order,” a story which ends with her saying, “Don’t mess it up, I want to tell him. Don’t fuck things up because once you start fucking up it’s so hard to stop and there comes a point at which you simply don’t know how to do anything else anymore.” In which case self-awareness seems to also be a kind of resignation. What about that interior space interests you, or seems ripe for pulling and creating characters from? You capture it exceptionally well.

MM: At the Michener Center, I was a fiction writer who was also writing plays because, as you know, we had to have a secondary genre. I wrote a few plays over those three years but they never interested me much. I wanted to have my narrator think — what was she thinking? How was she feeling? And so I was always writing terrible stage directions, but even those didn’t do it. You can show your character pacing or frowning or crying but WHAT IS SHE THINKING? Action and dialogue and situation — for me everything is secondary to the thoughts in a character’s head.

I’m reading Chelsea Martin’s Mickey right now and dog-eared this last night:

“I felt incredibly close to Mickey in that moment. I felt like he could intuitively understand the trajectory of my mind, or was connected to me in some transcendent way, breaking down one of the many barriers that made us two separate people instead of one whole.

But I could never know what Mickey thought or felt, despite occasional reassurances. It felt the same as the way I couldn’t know if, when I held his hand for comfort while we fell asleep, he felt comforted, too, or was merely patiently attending to my embarrassing emotional needs.”

This is why I read, and why I write. Because you can never know what’s going on in someone else’s head. Because you can never really know the people with whom you are the closest.

VS: When we spoke in 2014 about your novel The Last Days of California, you said, “I think I came to terms long ago with the fact that not a whole lot of people are going to like my work in general.” I think I said something about how the masses have never been arbiters of the sublime, but I didn’t not see what you were getting at, either. Your work, as you said then, isn’t always plot-driven, and doesn’t always give people the ending they might desire. But reading the stories in Always Happy Hour, I think it’s precisely the choices which might alienate some that, on the contrary, convince me of your mastery over the short story form. In no small part because I think you follow and trust the language and make it do such beautiful work, but I think there’s also something of equal importance to be said about that which your stories don’t do. They don’t have an interest in presenting characters who are easily understandable or reducible, or whose actions and motives are always reasonable and unambiguous — because who, really, is? Nor do they engage in ribbon-tying endings, providing a false sense of closure just because the story itself is closing. Which is to say that I think the most rewarding part of reading these stories is the experience of feeling frustrated or worried or puzzled or disenchanted, not about the work itself, but by virtue of the work being so precise and so illuminating that we really do inhabit the world and the lives of these characters; characters who probably resemble us more than we’d like to believe. This is all a long, circuitous way, I suppose, of asking a rather lofty question: what do you feel a short story ought to do? Or, if this is even a different question, what is it you seek to do in your stories?

MM: In any kind of workshop environment (and outside of them, too), you’re asked: “what makes this day different from all of the other days?” and “how does the narrator change throughout the course of the story?”

I never cared much about these things. The day that everything changes isn’t as interesting to me as what led up to that day. And people do change — I’m not one of those people who believe we’re incapable of it — but I also don’t see it happen very often, not in my own life, nor in the lives of the people I know. So a narrator changing over the course of a story and/or coming to some great realization that alters everything — I don’t buy into all that.

The day that everything changes isn’t as interesting to me as what led up to that day.

I like to read about how people live, what someone’s life is like on a particular day. Not, of course, the most boring day of their life while they’re watching TV and semi-catatonic, but that could be a story, too. I’m a thinker, a ruminator, and while it’s not the best way to live, it can be interesting to read about. Who do they miss? Who do they love? How do they get through a day, an evening, a night? What do they want? What led them to this place and time in their life? All of these things interest me.

I walk my dog around our apartment complex and peer into the windows and I’m so incredibly curious. Who are these people? Why don’t I know them? I want to know them. Are they like me? Do they want to be friends? All indications are that they are not like me and do not want to be friends. Right now I’m living in a place with a very transient population because it’s casino/military/trashy, which makes it hard to talk to people. No one is putting down roots; they’re all just waiting to move on. I spoke to a neighbor not long ago and she was very friendly because she had questions for me: did I know why the cops had been called? Had I seen or heard anything? I talk to the homeless guy at the beach where I walk my dog and berate myself for never having any dollar bills to give him as he insists on cleaning my windshield, as he tells me his story about needing bus money to get back to New Orleans and I let him give it to me. I want to interrupt him and tell him I don’t need his tale, it’s not necessary. Of course I want to know everything and and write it down because most people don’t think about their lives as being interesting, or important.

Alas, I’m not that friendly, either, and so we will all be strangers here.

VS: The stories in Always Happy Hour alternate from first-person, second-person, and third-person narration. I’d be interested to hear you talk about the process of deciding from which point of view any given story should be told. Do you always know, going in, that a story is going to be, say, in first-person, or are there times in revision where something that essential can change? Do you have a sense, when writing, that the chosen modality has enforced upon the future of the story certain narrative limits or possibilities? Perhaps because I’ve now heard Antonya Nelson give the same “Against the Use of First Person” lecture twice, I’m even more interested in troubling or complicating the notion that there are things, lacking a better phrase, that you can get away with in one mode that you can’t in another. You seem to have such a keen instinct for not only choosing the right vantage point, but also for playing with perceptions of what these modes can and can not do, so I’d be curious to hear whatever your thoughts about this might be.

MM: I don’t like third person that much, and I hate it when a story begins with a character’s full name, like, “Jack Bishop was waiting for the train when he saw his ex-wife…” It feels like somebody’s making stuff up. And while I love fiction, I want to believe that what I am reading is real.

I learned pretty early that first person was for novices, or this is the line they give you — beginners use first person, and particularly first person present tense — but it often feels like the most authentic point of view to me. And I write in past tense, as well, but my most natural writing mode is first person, present. It’s personal and immediate, like you’re inhabiting the life of a person right now.

When I start writing in second person, I can’t stop, so I don’t do it much anymore. There was something too affected about it, and “you” becomes an authorial intrusion.

VS: My final question is a two-parter. Part one: I’d love to know which books you’ve found recently that you’ve enjoyed, and who we should not fail to be reading. Part two: what are you working on next?

MM: I loved Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka. I think I’ve read it three times? And I’m currently finishing up Mickey by Chelsea Martin; what she’s done in this slim book is nothing short of amazing. I think people see a book like this as a bunch of vignettes that are separate and random and therefore easy to cobble together, but it seems harder to me than writing a novel where somebody’s always waking up and beginning a new day, where one thing leads to another. And she has a lot of intelligent stuff to say about art and the fallout that can take place within families, sometimes for no discernible reason. The ways it’s marketed — “a girl coming to terms with her breakup” — the way so many things are marketed — doesn’t do it justice. And I understand the whole marketing thing, it just seems like more often than not the people that are doing the marketing get it wrong.

Rachel Yoder’s forthcoming collection, Infinite Things All at Once, is so good. It’ll be out from Curbside Splendor this year.

As for the other part, I’m working on a novel. I don’t even want to call it that until I have a draft, though. Until then it’s just a very long story that seems to be flailing.

All of this reminds me of the boyfriend who was going to “sit down over a long weekend with a bottle of whiskey” and write the great American novel (loosely based, of course, on his life, with himself as the deeply-flawed but lovable anti-hero).

I guess the other thing about writing is that people think it’s easy. It’s tedious as shit. And you also have to know what a misplaced modifier is so you don’t have your tables wearing tennis shoes.

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