We have a story idea for our newest Top Ten contributor, Sue Miller: Imagine a forty-something writer who, after years devoted to rearing a family, finishes her first book and wakes up one morning to find this review in the New York Times:
“Every once in a while, a first novelist rockets into the literary atmosphere with a novel so accomplished that it shatters the common assumption that for a writer to have mastery, he or she must serve a long, auspicious apprenticeship. The novel arrives, all its parts gleaming, ticking, and we are filled with awe. However did the novice learn to build this thing? We marvel. But the question is beside the point, which is that the thing exists, has form, energy and power.”
Miller won’t have to strain her imagination because – surprise! - she is the author, and the glowing review was for her debut novel about the risks and responsibilities of love, The Good Mother (1986).
On second thought, maybe it isn’t such a good idea, because we also know what the writer did next: published nine more acclaimed novels, including Family Pictures (1990), While I Was Gone (1999), The Senator’s Wife (2008) and The Arsonist (2014); a short story collection, Inventing the Abbotts (1997), The Story of My Father (2003). Her numerous honors include a Guggenheim and a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship. She is a committed advocate for the writer’s engagement with society at large, having held a position on the Board of PEN-American Center.
In those works, Miller has expertly unspooled high-tension, hot button plots - involving molestation and murder, blackmail, betrayal, arson and terrorism - with what Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times called a “Chekhovian understanding of missed connections, lost opportunities, and closely held memories that mutate slowly over time.”
In a 1993 article in Ploughshares, Don Lee prompted Miller to discuss the challenges of teaching fiction writing at Boston University, MIT, Tufts and other schools. Lee began by observing:
“Though Miller has no interest in being prescriptive – deeming what is right or wrong -- she wants to nudge the reader into speculating about the moral dimensions of his or her life. These convictions sometimes led to frustrations when Miller taught writing. ‘Often students would be very good writers but would be clueless as to the importance of tension in fiction, what drama or struggle means.’ As a frame for discussion, she would cite Flannery O'Connor's belief that every good story is, in some sense, the soul's journey around a dragon. ‘Although all her stories were Catholic,’ Miller says, ‘I do think that stories tend to be about the human spirit, even though they might not be in those religious terms. It seems to me that most writers do, in fact, try to pose a problem for a character that will expose his spiritual crisis, expose him in the moment when he confronts the issues that are central to who he is and what he is doing here on this earth. So I would ask my students: What is the drama that compels this material? What do you think this character's dragon is? What is he running from? What does he need to defeat in order to become fully human? Do you want him to succeed or fail?’ "
- Read an excerpt from The Arsonist.
- Read a collection of New York Times articles about Miller.
- Watch a 2010 interview.
- Visit her official website.
Sue Miller opens lots of new doors for us, adding nine new titles our List of Books – only Jane Eyre was named by other contributors. We are delighted to see two personal favorites – The Beginning of Spring and A High Wind in Jamaica – but can’t wait for our just ordered copy of The Children’s Bach to arrive.
Sue Miller’s Top Ten List
1. The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner (1984)
2. The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (1988)
3. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (2011)
4. Binocular Vision: New and Selected Short Stories by Edith Pearlman (2011)
5. Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather (1935).
6. McKay’s Bees by Thomas McMahon (1979).
7. The Little Disturbances of Man by Grace Paley (1959).
8. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes (1929).
9. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847).
10. Starting Out in the Evening by Brian Morton (1997).