Author Mary U. Miller is a Mississippi native and lifelong Southerner. Her books include the story collections Big World and Always Happy Hour and the novels The Last Days of California (which I appreciate because it features the Waffle House) and Biloxi (which I love because it features a rescue dog).
Of Biloxi, Miller’s latest novel, USA Today said: “Miller…has crafted a Southern version of '80s minimalists like Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver. Her prose is clear and resonant as a church bell.”
But as Laurie Hertzel wrote in the Star Tribune, “Why compare it to anyone? Miller’s good all on her own.”
Beyond her books, Mary Miller’s short stories have appeared in The Paris Review, McSweeney’s Quarterly, American Short Fiction, and other publications.
Her short story “Outage” was published in the most recent issue of Oxford American (Fall 2021).
A former James A. Michener Fellow in Fiction at the University of Texas and John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi, Mary Miller lives in Mississippi with her husband and her rescue dog, Winter.
In what way do you think literature has the ability to change the way people live their lives?
Now I’m imagining a whole Eat Pray Love situation…
More than any other genre, poetry alters my perspective and makes me to want to examine things more closely, but this doesn’t last long after I close the book.
What was the last book you gave as a present?
I don’t buy books as gifts unless I know someone well and even then I’m hesitant. It’s disheartening to give someone a beloved book and hear that they didn’t like it—it’s like proof you don’t see the world in the same way, that you’re fundamentally mismatched. I do give away lots of books, however—I leave them at the free library or force them into the hands of people who come over to my house.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Necessary vs. unnecessary mysteries, which I learned from the brilliant Elizabeth McCracken at the University of Texas. When writers try to be mysterious, it often just ends up vague or confusing. Necessary vs. unnecessary mysteries is a reminder that it’s okay to say what you mean, to be direct.
Is it better to write for your worst reader or your best reader?
People are either going to like your writing or they aren’t, and there’s nothing to be done about that. I only have to look at my Goodreads reviews to remind myself (five stars, one star, five stars, one). The one- and two-star folks aren’t my people. Occasionally I’ll click on their profiles to browse the terrible books that they love and everything is right with the world.
I have to say: I wish people wouldn’t force themselves to finish books they dislike; pick up a different one or go watch a movie. So many unhappy reviewers are like, "I want those six hours back" or some such. No one’s forcing you to read the book, lady! I didn’t take those hours from you.
Which author do you re-read most frequently?
If I had to name one, I couldn’t. But now I want to name one.
There are a handful of books that I enjoy rereading, however, like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Willy Vlautin’s The Motel Life, Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Lynda Barry’s Cruddy, Bukowski’s Post Office, and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. This random list can generally satisfy whatever mood I’m in.
What is the best sentence you’ve ever read?
That’s putting too much pressure on a single sentence, but here are a few sentences/passages that have stuck with me recently:
Pat Conroy’s Beach Music: "But no one walks out of his family without reprisals: a family is too disciplined an army to offer compassion to its deserters."
Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police: “I remember hearing a saying long ago: ‘Men who start by burning books end by burning other men…’”
And Lucia Berlin’s story “Homing”: "Of course I could get a book or call somebody and find out about the nesting habit of crows. But what bothers me is that I only accidentally noticed them. What else have I missed? How many times in my life have I been, so to speak, on the back porch, not the front porch? What would have been said to me that I failed to hear? What love might there have been that I didn’t feel?
"These are pointless questions. The only reason I have lived so long is that I let go of my past."
How do you decide what books to read?
Recommendations from friends, browsing bookstores, social media, BookMarks at Lit Hub (I love getting their weekly roundup of best-reviewed books), developing a reading list for a class I’m thinking about teaching… I’ve also been preordering books more frequently, so there’s always a stack waiting.
Describe your writing routine.
I write when I feel like writing or when I have a project that I’m working on. There’s nothing wrong with writing when you feel like it, so long as you feel like it on a somewhat regular basis.
I should really get a schedule.
What is your go-to activity when procrastinating on writing?
Reading, mostly. As long as I’m reading, I don’t feel too guilty about not writing. I also walk the dog while listening to political and crime podcasts. There are certain household chores I don’t mind as well: laundry, dishes, Swiffering. And I love to take the trash out.
How do you decide when to be done with a written work?
There’ve been plenty of times I sent things out before they were ready. I’m grateful for all the rejections I receive because it means a piece isn’t finished yet and I get to try again. I recently completed a story that I started around 2004—sometimes it takes years and years to find an ending (or a working middle followed by an ending).
With novels, however, you do have to call it at some point. This is usually when your editor makes you and the relief is terrific.
Name a writer who is a deep influence on you who you suspect hardly anyone you know has read.
Jean Rhys was an early influence, though she’s fairly well known, at least among my cohort. I’m teaching a class this semester on ‘lost’ women writers, as inspired by Rhys and her near thirty-year absence from literary and public life. We’re reading books by Lucia Berlin, Bette Howland, Kathleen Collins, J. California Cooper, Antonia White, and Maritta Wolff, among others. I’m excited to introduce my students to these writers, many of whom aren’t widely read.
Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so, what’s on your playlist?
Music distracts me too much. I like the quiet punctuated by napping dog yips.
Best bookstore you’ve ever been to?
Lemuria in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s my hometown bookstore, and I had no idea how wonderful it truly was until I started traveling and exploring bookstores around the country, the world. It’s hard not to be partial to the ones you get to visit more frequently, so Square Books in Oxford comes in a close second. I’m also excited about a new one in Columbus, Mississippi (where I teach) called Friendly City, which I got to visit recently.
If you were standing in line at a bookstore and noticed the person in front of you was holding your latest book, what would you say to them?
Saying nothing would be so much cooler, but I’d probably be like, "Oh hey, that’s me! I hope you like it!" And then I’d offer to sign/personalize it. It would be embarrassing for all involved and all observing, I’m sure.
What literary landmark would you most like to visit?
I’d like to go to Milledgeville to visit Flannery O’Connor’s home at some point, but I don’t much care for birth places or grave sites. I’ve never stood in a writer’s home and felt inspired. It’s just a house where things are perfectly arranged, a kitchen with an ice box, a single dress hanging in a closet. I’d rather spend that hour or two reading their work.
Is social media good for you?
I found Twitter stressful, and I’m glad I quit it. I don’t post often on Facebook or Instagram, but I do find myself scrolling… It’s okay, though. It’s nice to see friends, their smiling faces, to know what they’re up to.
What job have you held that was most helpful for your writing?
I’ve gotten some good material out of temp work as well as my (one and only) waitressing job. There are still some jobs that I’d like to mine for material, like the 3+ years I spent taking disability claims for the government or the time I lived and worked at a home for pregnant teens. I was 22 when I worked with the teenagers, a spoiled recent college grad charged with teaching them how to bathe a newborn, how to nurse their babies. It’s unbelievable that someone gave me this job.
Favorite books you’ve read in the past year?
I really enjoyed Peter Heller’s The River (such excellent trip-gone-very-wrong fun), Bad Kansas: Stories by Becky Mandelbaum, Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, and A Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke. It’s hard to choose just a few, though, as I’ve read so many books this year: Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford is astounding, as is Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. Sometimes I think there’s nothing I want to read, but there’s so much good stuff out there. So many great books published every year.
Depends on the day, but today I like the word obsequious best.
Visit Mary Miller at maryumiller.net.