Tag Archives: Mary Miller

An Interview with Mary Miller

17 Oct
Mary Miller's debut novel, The Last Days of California, follows a 14-year-old girl whose father takes the family on a road trip from Montgomery to California in anticipation of the Rapture. A recent Publisher's Weekly review said that Miller has created a "narrator worthy of comparison with those of contemporaries such as Karen Thompson Walker and of greats such as Carson McCullers."

Mary Miller’s debut novel, The Last Days of California, follows a 14-year-old girl whose father takes the family on a road trip from Montgomery to California in anticipation of the Rapture.

Mary Miller’s debut novel, The Last Days of California, is finally out, and it’s already getting rave reviews. A reviewer for The New York Times wrote, “Why worry about labeling a book this good? Just read it.”

Miller grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. Her collection of stories, Big World, was published in 2009 by Short Flight/Long Drive Books. A graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, she will return to Mississippi in the fall of 2014 to serve as the John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss. At this cool website, she discusses the stories she’s read lately.

In this interview, Miller discusses misunderstanding and subtext in dialogue and the challenge of transitioning from story writer to novelist.

(To read Miller’s story “I Won’t Get Lost” and an exercise based on the story’s dialogue, click here.)

Michael Noll

I love the dialogue in your story “I Won’t Get Lost.” The narrator has to explain gentrification to a man who’s never heard the term before. The basic premise of the conversation is weird–who hasn’t heard of gentrification. But instead of closing the distance between the two people (the man saying, “Oh, so that’s what gentrification is. Thanks for telling me”), the dialogue actually pushes them farther apart. By the end of this early portion, the man stops talking and takes out his phone to verify what he’s just been told. I’m curious how you approached this piece of dialogue. Our natural tendency is to make dialogue function as it does in the real world, which is toward understanding. Did you have to consciously make this dialogue work against that tendency, or did it move that way on its own?

Mary Miller

Thanks, Michael. This is a pretty much a conversation I had on the bus one day. I guess I thought it was odd, as well, because the gentrification discussion inspired me to write this story. And then it became more about the narrator, and how talking to this stranger made her feel exposed and self-conscious.

My natural tendency in writing is toward misunderstanding and confusion. When people speak to each other, particularly those who know each other well, there is typically a lot of subtext. I’m at home right now visiting my family, and when we talk I notice all of the things we aren’t saying, or how we’re saying one thing and meaning something completely different. In life, this kind of sucks, but it’s great for dialogue.

Michael Noll

The story’s title is “I Won’t Get Lost,” which is appropriate because every piece of dialogue, every internal thought, and every observation in the story is about dislocation and disconnection. Did you start with this theme in mind, or did it surface through various drafts of the story?

Mary Miller

I don’t think about theme when I write. I feel when something is coming together and creating a larger story, or when it’s not, but it’s not something I think about. I don’t ever want my writing to feel heavy-handed, for the reader to see me guiding him or her to some conclusion.

Michael Noll

Your first novel, The Last Days of California, will be published in January. It’s about a 15-year-old girl whose evangelical father takes her on a road trip across California to save as many souls as possible before the rapture. On one hand, a novel is always a big jump for a story writer, especially when the stories are often quite short, as yours sometimes are. On the other hand, a road trip novel has a unique structure: many short, sometimes disconnected scenes. Did you choose this structure on purpose? Was it a more manageable way to approach a novel for the first time? If so, that would seem like an awfully smart decision.

Mary Miller

Yes, yes, yes! I really don’t feel like I could have written a novel, at least not at the time, without this rigid structure. I had to keep moving the characters from Point A to Point B, which created a certain amount of tension. They’re behind schedule! They must keep going! They need to eat and use the bathroom and look at all of these odd things and people they’re coming into contact with… Each night, there’s a new motel, a new environment for them to explore. The structure certainly provided me a frame within which to work. It made it easier and more fun to write.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write Away from Consensus in Dialogue

15 Oct
Mary Miller's story "I Won't Get Lost" appeared at New World Writing, an online journal founded by former Mississippi Review editor Frederick Barthelme.

Mary Miller’s story “I Won’t Get Lost” appeared at New World Writing. Her novel, The Last Days of California, is out now from Liveright.

In real-life conversations, we almost always seek common ground and compromise. Like the advice for married couples, we try not to go to bed angry. We want to leave a conversation having agreed upon something or with some shared understanding. But fiction is not like real life. In stories and novels, dialogue between characters who are seeking mutual understanding is boring. It kills, rather than heightens, tension. This means that good dialogue in fiction is actually the opposite of a good real-life conversation. It must veer away from consensus and not toward it.

Mary Miller demonstrates how to write dialogue that moves away from understanding in her story, “I Won’t Get Lost.” You can read it now at New World Writing.

How the Story Works

The story is about a woman riding a bus. A man asks her about the neighborhoods in the city, whether one of them is dangerous, and she says no, the area has been gentrified. Here is the conversation that follows, beginning with the man’s response:

What’s that?

Gentrified?

I’ve never heard of it, he says.

It’s when rich people move into a poor neighborhood and buy up all the houses and make them nicer. And then the property values go up and the poor people can’t pay their taxes and have to move out. He’s looking at me like I might be brilliant. It’s controversial, I add.

I’ve never heard of it, he says. Is that a real thing?

Yep, I say, gentrification.

I’m going to look it up, he says, and takes out his phone.

The dialogue begins with a simple question, which receives a simple answer. Normally, the natural, logical next step would be consensus. The man would say, “Ah, now I understand.” But that’s not what happens. First, he expresses disbelief. Then he steps out of the conversation in order to verify the answer on his phone. He is resisting the basic human impulse to agree. As a result, tension is created. In the next paragraph, the woman worries about her appearance. She’s disconcerted, and though the story doesn’t draw a direct line between the unresolved distance between the two speakers in the conversation, the discomfort is clear—and discomfort is one way to push a story forward, to create tension.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write dialogue that veers away from understanding using “I Won’t Get Lost” as an example. The dialogue in Mary Miller’s story is between a person of authority and one with questions. The woman has the authority of knowledge (she knows the local landscape and the definition of gentrification). The man doesn’t have this knowledge but wants it. Let’s do something similar in the exercise:

  1. Choose two characters, one with authority and one who is requesting something of that authority. You could choose someone with an authority of knowledge, like the woman on the bus in Miller’s story, or you could choose a literal authority (teacher, police officer, administrator, parent, preacher, politician, or someone with the authority that comes with a particular expertise such as a scientific researcher, engineer, or car mechanic).
  2. Choose a place for the dialogue to occur. Keep in mind the way that place can enhance or diminish authority. So, if the dialogue takes place in the person of authority’s office or workplace, that person’s authority is enhanced. But if the dialogue happens in public or in some version of the private sphere, the authority might be diminished. In other words, on whose turf is the dialogue taking place?
  3. Begin with a question or request. Miller’s story begins with a request for information: Where should the man go that isn’t dangerous? It’s a simple question that assumes the other person’s authority—the man asks the woman because she’s from the city in question and, therefore, knows where to go. So, in your story, consider what question might be posed to the person of authority. The question might be posed out of necessity or out of curiosity. You might try posing a couple of different questions until you find one that you like.
  4. Supply an answer. Let the person of authority respond to the question.
  5. Ask for clarification. Let the questioner ask about part of the answer. In Miller’s story, the man asks about gentrification, which was part of the answer to where he should go. In your story, you might let the questioner ask about a term used by the authority or the rationale behind part of the answer.
  6. Supply clarification. This one’s easy. Let the authority answer again.
  7. Ignore or deny the answer. This is where the dialogue swerves off track. The normal expectation is that if a question is posed and an answer is given, then some level of understanding has been achieved. But we’re actually aiming to avoid understanding. So, let the questioner refuse to accept the answer by denying it’s accuracy or rationale or by acting as if no answer has been given at all. (If you have kids, then you’re familiar with ignored questions and requests and the tension that creates.) In Miller’s story, the man essentially ignores the woman’s answer and seeks out the same answer on his phone.

Your goal in this dialogue is to break the societal expectations for a certain kind of exchange. We expect to be listened to, to have our expertise respected, and when that doesn’t happen, it’s as if civilization itself has, in some small way, failed. The best dialogue is not an argument but rather a conversation in which one of the sides denies the other side’s authority or right to speak.

Good luck and have fun.

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