Author Q&A: Sue Miller

Elena Bowes catches up with best-selling author Sue Miller about her latest novel- Monogamy.

In Miller’s 11th novel she looks at how the dead continue to reveal themselves after they have gone. The story revolves around a couple who live in Cambridge Massachusetts. Annie and Graham have been happily married for nearly 30 years when Graham dies of a heart attack. Annie discovers that their marriage had not been a monogamy. Graham may be dead, but he plays a central role amongst the family he leaves behind. 

Your writing is spare and vivid — The sky the blue of a childs bright crayon. The humid air a kiss. You make writing look easy and yet I know its anything but. Do you have any tricks of the trade advice for writers on how to tell a story? How to create an image that sings?

Well, of course that’s Graham noticing the sky, the air. So at least some of my advice – if I have any that’s useful – would be to try to know your characters deeply enough to understand what they would respond to, what they’d notice – and how they’d notice, and why they might. 

Were there certain things in the character development stage of Annie or Graham that helped you to see them more clearly in your mind? For example, the particular way Graham dressed or the things Annie liked to cook or whatever it may be.

I think the choice of third person was elemental to my development of both Graham and Annie as characters. I could use the thoughts of each of them about the other to help me to see them clearly. Even very early in the book, Annie’s recognising Graham when she meets him, thinking of him — and helping me think of him — as the gregarious, energetic person she’s seen around the square  — and envied for those qualities. And his seeing her at the bookstore party as ladylike and elegant, but also somehow carrying a sexual charge. 

As I was just starting to work out who each of them was, before I’d really written anything, one of the first ideas I had about their interactions occurred to me. As it turned out, it didn’t appear in the text until the very end of the book — but I think was guiding me all the way through in my understanding of Graham. It’s when, in response to her depression about her work, he suggests that Annie come to work in the bookstore, and she says no, that he would devour her if she did that; and asks him why he needs to eat his cake as well has have it. His response is to grab her, to nibble at her, to cry out, “My cake! My cake!” 

This stood in for so much for me. His devouring energy as well as his generosity, his ability to make a joke of himself, to rescue them both from what might have been a tense moment, to turn the exchange into something funny and sexual. It speaks worlds about him; but that Annie thinks of it at the moment she does, in her careful working out of her deepest feelings about Graham long after his death speaks worlds about her.     

Is this an eternal dilemma in a happy marriage – how much of oneself to give away and how much to hold back?

Well, the irony here, of course, is that Annie held a great deal back, and was able to do that because Graham was so forthcoming in his love for her, in his daily appreciation of her. Which did make her feel less separate, less independent. But I think – thought — that this was a complicated part of the deep emotional connection between them.

Can you comment on the sacrifices Annie made in marrying Graham?

I don’t think of Annie as having sacrificed anything connected to her work life in marrying Graham. There is the question of whether she might have been more successful if they’d moved to New York after the strong reception of the photographs of her mother, but it’s not clear in the book, nor in my intentions, whether or not that was a kind of fantasy on her part. Certainly, the failure of nerve she experiences has almost nothing to do with having married Graham – though it might have had something to do with having become a mother, and the two are not disconnected, of course.

Was part of Annie’s love for Graham the fact that she was so memorable to him, that he saw her?

Clearly it was. Even at the very start of their relationship, she’s attracted to him in some measure because he’s so open about his deep attraction to her – although it isn’t until very late in the book that she comes to understand that as a necessary part of her love for him.

How does Annie come to know Graham differently after his death?

Well, certainly understanding that he’s been unfaithful to her alters her sense of safety in their relationship, her sense of the assuredness of his love. But I think the jolt of just that shock pushes her, almost by accident, into an understanding of herself that makes her more keenly aware of the great differences between them, and of the amount of work he did all along to bridge those differences.

How does Annie’s career as a photographer play into her sense of who she is and what she wants to see, what she wants to remember? Can you discuss how both Annie’s photography and her sense of self evolve throughout the novel? And can you comment on the differences between Annie and Graham’s ambition?

In some senses, Graham and Annie have wanted the same things as they moved into adulthood – to be remarkable, as Graham thinks of it; to be gifted, as Annie does. Graham imagines this happening to him through writing, since he loves books, and loves living around them; so, his decision to own a bookstore instead of finishing his novel is not so much a compromise for him as it is an alternate way to be connected with that world.

Annie’s yearning for a life in the arts, a life connected to the creativity and self-discipline involved in that life, seems more possible to her, and starts off well as she moves from what is essentially highly skilful photojournalism to a kind of exploration of personhood – a photographic essay of her mother as she loses herself in Alzheimer’s disease. And then, for a variety of reasons, including having a child, things stall for her, and for some years she feels she’s floundering. But unlike Graham, she is unwilling or unable to give up her ambitions for herself.

Until she’s rescued from her sense that she’s using other people, perhaps even damaging them, through her work and begins to photograph empty spaces, but spaces full of the suggestion, as she sees it, of the lives lived within them.

Her final turn, to photographs of the people she loves, comes after Graham’s death, and is, perhaps, a step toward what I thought of as a kind of revelation for her, the note the book ends on.

What books are on your reading list?

Many are books I’ve begun and then set down, partly a result, I think, of the pandemic; and partly also of my distracted state as I’ve talked and written endlessly about my own book during an odd, virtual book tour that’s just about over. But I’ve been carrying around Michael Crummey’s Galore for a while, and The Parisian, by Isabella Hammad. I’m excited to finish Kay Ryan’s Synthesising Gravity, and to begin Henri Cole’s Blizzard. I want to read a short story collection that Karen Joy Fowler recommended to me when I asked her to name her favourite work of her own in that form – What I Didn’t See. I just finished L.P.Hartley’s The Go-between, and I want to re-read Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon.

What’s next?

I’m not sure what’s next, which has been more and more true for me as I’ve gotten older – that there’s not something waiting for me after each book, something that I feel ready or eager to turn to. This time around I’ve been puzzling, with great uncertainty, about something more directly autobiographical, but this terrifies me as much as it excites me. Maybe more.

– Sue Miller, interviewed by Elena Bowes

Photo credit: Adrianne Mathiowetz

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