Earlier today, we posted a short excerpt from our April interview with Sue Miller about her forthcoming book The Lake Shore Limited. Now, we offer you a little bit more—some excerpts from the conversation that won’t be in the print edition of BookPage. The interview was conducted and transcribed by BookPage Production Designer Karen Elley.
Tell us in the comments: What’s your favorite book by Sue Miller?
Have you always wanted to write?
As a little girl, I won a high school writing prize, a National Scholastic Award, and I’ve always felt it was something I would do. I didn’t know if I would publish ever, but I always imagined writing being in my life.
What’s your writing schedule like?
I tend to try to work in the morning, the way most writers do, before the business of the day starts to intrude. I have to confess that email has changed that a bit. I’m kind of an addict so I check that first thing before I start to write.
[Editor’s note: Miller writes the old-fashioned way, in longhand, and has a particular kind of pen she likes to use that she purchases by the dozens.]
Your latest novel, The Lake Shore Limited, revolves around 9/11, a web of intricate relationships and a play—a story within the story—written by a young woman, Billy, who is one of the main characters in the novel. What form did your research take?
I’ve read a number of novels about 9/11, including Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, a novel that focused on the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on one New York family. There’s one called A Day at the Beach by Helen Schulman, an intriguing tale of 24 hours in a troubled marriage that uses 9/11 as a backdrop. Then there’s a wonderful graphic novel, American Widow, written by a woman who lost her husband on 9/11 and is pregnant at the time. The couple was going through some struggles—it was all very revealing and helpful to me.
I also read some plays. I think it was useful for me to see the shape of a play on the page. I randomly chose plays that were on Broadway in production, anything I thought sounded interesting. I also sat in on the production of a play from the early days of casting, where they were talking about the parts, to the actual performance.
When you were researching plays were you in any way tempted to become a playwright?
The nice thing about writing the play in The Lake Shore Limited was that I didn’t have to deal with the parts I’m not so sure about. In another book I wrote a sermon and the same thing was true, I could summarize.
I found it compelling and interesting to be reading a number of plays and to be thinking about that as a form and the way in which the writer of a play leaves so much more up to other people than a writer of a piece of fiction does. The gestures, the looks on their faces, these are all things you write about and think you’re controlling, whereas a playwright leaves so much more up to the actors and director and so forth. It’s more of a collaborative effort. They must have a much greater trust in other people. And Billy, the playwright in the book, enjoys that. I’m not so sure I would.
Do you think that the stress and strain of contemporary life has made the family bond stronger or has it driven us farther apart?
I don’t know. The Golden Age of the Family was rather brief. It seems to me that the idea of the family that got created sort of post-World War II lasted about a decade. I had a great-grandfather who married three times. His wives simply died so his children were as scattered and confused as any product of divorce might be today, and they had as much strain in their lives and as much difficulty. Disruption, sorrow and pain have always been a part of family life, although they may happen for different reasons. We have more choice and freedom at this point, but I think that the sorrow and difficulty we experience are not so different from those that came in other times for other reasons.
If you could go back in time, what year, era or event would you visit?
For me, it would be the period in America during the early part of the 20th century, the first couple of decades before World War I. My grandmother was a great storyteller and that was the period of her youth. She grew up in rural Maine, and her childhood sounded very appealing, although there was no modern medicine as we know it and lots of other issues at the time.
What are you reading and working on now?
I’ve started on another book that involves some arson, so I’m reading about that; it’s an interesting subject. There are several things I’m interested in reading. One of them is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, the true story of the African American woman who unknowingly contributed HeLa cells, one of the most important tools in modern medicine, to science. It sounds like a fantastic book, wonderfully written.
If you had to do something other than writing or teaching, what would it be?
If I had the gift, I would certainly love to make music with other people. It would be one of the most pleasurable things I can imagine, but I’m quite mediocre at singing and pretty bad at the piano so that’s not going to be possible for me. But I’ve always thought that musicians have the happy life. I’m sure there are great complications in making a livelihood, arranging and scheduling things and all that, but the process of making music seems to be one of the most joyous in the world.