The Beatrice Interview

Sue Miller

"I was pissed at her, because I could really use that $10,000..."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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In her latest novel, The World Below, Sue Miller contrasts the story of Cath, a woman in her early fifties with two marriages and three grown children behind her, and that of her grandmother, Georgia, whose life was forever altered by a diagnosis of TB when she was in her late teens. Sorting through Georgia's belongings, Cath comes across a diary from that period and the years immediately following, and slowly begins to understand just how complex her grandparents' lifelong marriage was...and how radically different her grandmother's approach to emotional crisis was. "Our consciousness is developed differently than my grandmother's was, or even my mother's," Miller explains as we sit in a quiet room in the back of her hotel lobby. "We're responsible for being conscious of a great deal more. One of the worst things you can say about people now is that they don't know themselves, don't recognize their own feelings. There's a great premium on being aware of what's going on internally within yourself, on being your own best analyst. That's a tremendous burden, and there's some virtue, I think, to not shouldering it. But it's virtually impossible inn our culture not to shoulder it."

RH: What was the genesis of this story for you?

SM: It really comes from two places. One is an argument that I was having with a friend whose parents emigrated from the Ukraine. He described their sense of exile and separation from their homeland as profound beyond an American's ability to understand, but I think that many Americans have felt that sense of alienation, particularly during periods of great social change. I cited the example of my own parents, deeply religious people, who had raised children that didn't share that religious fervor. It must have felt to them as if we had completely gone over to the 'new world,' even though my parents were very American in other aspects of their lives. There must have been a great sense of loss for them.

I also found a diary that belonged to my grandmother's grandmother, written in 1869 and 1870. She was a dressmaker and my grandfather was an apple farmer. Her diary has very short entries. "May 12th was a lovely day with showers in the evening. I made this many dresses while John was in the orchard," and in the middle of this mundane work record, there's an entry that reads, "I am a person due to be disappointed in the very things I most wish to take pride in." Then the diary closes over that brief cry. She doesn't expand on it or indulge it.

People lived so differently then. There was a world below the world they showed on the surface. And when things were hard, you simply went on. You put it behind you or beneath you and you moved ahead with your life. Imagine the contrast to a contemporary diary, which could spend hundreds of pages asking, "Why do I feel this way?" There's a wish to resolve things, to settle things by speaking about them. It's that post-Freudian idea that if we confront our problems, delve deeply enough into them, we'll come to understand them and can accomplish what my great-great-grandmother accomplished by simply deciding not to think about it anymore. She reconciled herself to the problem and sewed Mrs. Holbrooke's dress.

RH: Did you always have in mind this juxtaposition of the two generations, or did you ever think about telling just Georgia's story?

SM: I actually considered doing less of her story and spending more time on Cath, providing just some quick memories of her grandmother. But the more I thought about it, the more interested I got in that period of time, and I also thought of it as a challenge to myself as a writer. I'd never written about anything that distant from my own experience.

RH: Did you much about the tuberculosis sanitoriums before you started writing?

SM: Not much. I did a fair amount of reading, and I looked at Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain again, for the first time in years, to be sure that I wasn't taking anything from him, wasn't imitating him in any way. I read some really wonderful book about the "sans," first-person accounts that were very powerful, very intense. Living in a sanitorium was often a very horrible experience, but it could also be a powerfully transforming time. In the United States, it was often the first time people were away from their homes, seeing another way of life.

Particularly for women, who still led constructed, rigid lives at that point. Although in Georgia's case... I imagined her life as a little bit beyond the pale even before she went to the clinic, with her mother's illness and the ways she ended up running the house because of that. A lot of the lives from that time might look quaint to us, like the life that Georgia was meant to be living, the charming Norman Rockwell home life, but I think that surface hid things that weren't so quaint.

RH: Why did you choose not to see the film of The Good Mother and have you stuck to that for other adaptations of your work?

SM: I was still struggling with the writing of Family Pictures then, and I had this idea that I would scramble my brains if I went to see the film. But I was out seeing another movie, and the preview came on, and I was so startled to hear the words that I'd written being spoken in a way that was different than the way I'd heard them spoken in my own head. I realized I didn't want to hear them that way. I wanted to remember The Good Mother as I'd written it, not as recreated by this interloper of a film. So I decided I just wouldn't see it.

I've seen the screenplays for The Good Mother and Inventing the Abbotts, and The Good Mother tried very hard to be faithful to the book, while the makers of Inventing the Abbotts didn't have that concern about the story. If faithfulness to the book had been the issue, I probably wouldn't have minded seeing The Good Mother. But that's not the issue. Film is just a different form, and my imagination was so involved in creating the books that I want to remember them the way I created them forever.

RH: The success of The Good Mother caught you completely off guard, didn't it?

SM: I saw it as a serious literary book, and I knew from other people that to expect much of anything in the way of money from a book like that was essentially to have your heart broken. I can remember wanting to apply for a Houghton Mifflin prize, where the winner would be awarded $10,000 and they'd publish the book. I thought I had a shot at it, so I talked to my agent about it, but she was very discouraging. I was pissed at her, because I could really use that $10,000, but she didn't explain herself--she just told me she didn't think it'd be a good idea for me and she didn't want to be involved in it.

Later, after the book became a bestseller, she told me that she had believed from the begninning that the book had enormous potential and that it would have been a mistake to try to sell it that way. She didn't tell me because she didn't want to make me self-conscious about what I was writing, didn't want to risk me freezing up.

RH: So you were already a bestselling author when one of your novels was picked for Oprah's book club a while back. How did your successes prepare you for the entirely new level of success that opened up for you?

SM: It wasn't really an adjustment. The real adjustment was the one at the very beginning, when I was still assuming that I'd always have to support myself in some other way, either by applying for grants or teaching creative writing. And I didn't mind the life I was projecting for myself when I was starting to write. I'm sure there would have been moments I'd get pissed off at the time I'd have to spend teaching and grading, but I liked the community of people I lived among, and still live among. But once you realize that you're going to have enough money to just write, there's no other adjustments to make. Nothing else feels as big anymore.

Oprah's selection did help me directly, of course. You could sort of graph my career with The Good Mother shooting up like this (raises arm above her head), and then each book selling a little bit less. I would have gone on writing, and would have continued to sell books, and that diminishing sales rate would likely have levelled out at some point. Then Oprah made the graph go "boom!" It gave new life to my books, and most certainly gave me new readers. I'm truly grateful for that, and I think it's the great miracle of what she does, introducing authors to people who ordinarily wouldn't be buying books--or if they did, perhaps buying a very different kind of book.

RH: One of the initial complaints about the club was about the quality and the sameness of the books she picked, but clearly a list with room for you, Andre Dubus, and Toni Morrison is not narrowly defined or unliterary.

SM: I think she's introduced readers to serious books of varying degrees of difficulty. I think she's interested in picking books her audience will be able to read, of course, and I know she had a lot of trouble convincing people to read Toni Morrison's last book, but I say good for her for being willing to push readers a little bit. She tends to choose accessible books, but there's nothing anti-literary about being accessible.

RH: What are you working on now?

SM: I just finished a book I've been working on for eight years, a memoir of my father's illness and death from Alzheimer's. I just turned it in a couple weeks ago, and my editor likes it, so we're just waiting to hear back from the people in charge of the money to decide whether they think it will sell or not.

When my dad was first diagnosed, there wasn't much written about Alzheimer's. Since then, there's been a lot more that's come out, but the kind of books I found about coping with the disease were either sappy and self- evident or very technical. I wanted to make a book that would be helpful to a person like me when I was struggling to figure out how to be a caregiver.

It was emotionally very difficult material for me, but I think even more than that, what made it hard to write this book was learning how to write in the first person when the first person really was "I." I had to figure out how much of myself I really wanted to expose, how confessional or intimate I wanted the book to be. I knew I had to be present in the book, because it was about how these events struck me, how they affected me, but I didn't want it to be simply about my life. I wanted it to be about my father's life, but mostly it's about the illness and what it did to our relationship, and the ethical and moral dilemmas it made me face.

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Andre Dubus III | Complete Interview Index | A. Manette Ansay

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan