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
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
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
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
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
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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