I read ‘Big World’ around about this time last year and I utterly loved it. It’s up there with my favourite short story collections of all time. It’s one of The Incredibles. When I listed, in an interview for the terrific Vulpes Libris, my five favourite short stories ‘Temp’ from ‘Big World’ was one of the first that came to mind. (The interview’s due to go live on Friday, so you’ll have to wait until then to see the others.) It’s that good. And look – it’s little, like mine!
And so I am utterly delighted to welcome ‘Big World’s’ author, the lovely Mary Miller here for a chat. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
Welcome to the blog, Mary. It is a huge pleasure to have you here. I utterly loved ‘Big World’ and have even mentioned that one of its stories, ‘Temp’ made in onto the list of my five favourites from living writers. So yes, it’s a real pleasure to have you here.
Yay! Thanks for having me, Nik.
So, on to the questions! First of all, could you tell us a little about ‘Big World’ – how would you describe it and who would you say it’s for?
I’m terrible at these sorts of descriptions. I love what Sean Lovelace wrote on his blog (his blog is amazing, btw): “
The characters would not bowl. They would watch others, disinterestedly, like observing flies on a windowpane. They would sip from those little crinkly bowling alley cups…they would watch, watch so closely (as in exactly
) the pain of others (that they don’t [can’t?] express), that pain a moiling presence, or a caught truth, like hangover sweat seeping through pores…”
I thought the book would mainly be for girls like me: vain, insecure women who have never stopped thinking of themselves as girls, women who would fail a personality test at Applebee’s (I was proud). But a lot of men seem to like it, too, which has been nice.
How would you describe a typical Mary Miller story?
I seem to be best at disintegrating male/female relationship stories. These are always my best stories. People ask me to write stories set in the year 2050, funny letters to the editor, etc., but I can’t do these sorts of things well. I wish I could.
How and why did you start writing?
I was 27, lonely, and unemployed. It was a way to be someone other than who I was. It was awesome, actually. I started writing at a time in my life when I didn’t feel like I had much of anything and it made me feel good about myself, gave me a sense of purpose.
As a child, were you a big reader? What kinds of books did you like and what sort of stories were you exposed to at school?
I read a lot of Stephen King (I loved The Talisman, which he co-authored with Peter Straub). And I’d read what I was assigned in school, but I didn’t like any of it. We were pretty much just memorizing Frost poems, stuff like that. It was terrible. I hope schools are doing better jobs of making children into readers now, but somehow I doubt it.
Was there ever a moment in your writing career where you thought: Yes, I can do this ?
Sure. There’s a lot of ‘Yes, I can do this,’ but then it can quickly turn into ‘There’s no way I can do this.’ When I sit down to write, I can feel both of these things in a span of ten minutes. It’s really hard. There’s a lot of time and energy put into writing hundreds and hundreds of pages of stories that go nowhere and failed novels.
Your stories are mostly realist. Is that a conscious decision or is that the kind of thing that comes naturally?
I just started reading Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas (I’m late, I know), and I’m so impressed with what he’s able to do. It’s like he has an actual imagination—an ability to see beyond what’s there and make it real. I don’t have this ability. I write about the things I know and see and hear and feel.
As I mentioned, ‘Temp’ is one of my all time favourite stories. Could you tell us a little about how it came about? The story behind the story?
Thanks! That’s really cool, especially since this story is never mentioned as one of the “best” in the collection. I worked as a temp at a financial office one summer and I was a disaster. I really would disconnect everyone and jam copiers and give myself paper cuts. There was also a guy like Jason, who was a bouncer at night. I didn’t go home with him, though. And my mother is still alive and I never dated a bad drunk (only medium-bad drunks). Everything is just pieces of things I’d gathered, some fiction, some non-fiction, and put together.
My favorite paragraph in the story is the one that starts: “The two of us together can’t even keep small animals alive.” I remember the dog at the pound that was “old and mangy with a bad hip,” how he looked at me. I still think about that dog.
What’s your writing process?
I write as much as possible, which isn’t that terribly much, usually in bed. I’m trying to write faster, just get things down, and then go back and edit. The way I’m used to writing, trying to perfect a sentence before moving on, doesn’t work well for longer pieces.
Who is Mary Miller?
A perfectionist, too judgmental, a Mississippian. Who knows? I like myself more and more every day.
What do you think a story needs for it to be great?
Great stories are inexplicable. There’s no model, no explanation for how to write them.
And advice to any aspiring short story writers who may be reading this?
Read short stories, poetry, novels, everything you can get your hands on. Don’t try to start at the top. I know people who have never published who will only send to the very top tier magazines—this is preposterous. If you consider networking a dirty word, think of it as supporting and being nice to the people you like. Don’t ever burn bridges because you will always be forced to repair them (it’s a small community). Support independent bookstores and presses. Publish online. When bad things happen to you, remember that at least you can turn your misery and humiliation into a story. Non-writers, the sorry bastards, don’t have this pleasure.
If you could recommend one book to me, what would it be?
City of Boys by Beth Nugent. I would like for everyone to read this collection.
What’s next for you?
I’m moving to Austin soon. I have three years to write and the support the Michener Center at the University of Texas. If I don’t make something of this, please track me down and knock me over the head.
Mary Miller is the author of a story collection, Big World, and a chapbook of flash fiction, Less Shiny. Her stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, Black Clock, Indiana Review, Oxford American, Mississippi Review, and others.