There’s no cell service at the tiny Vermont house where author Sue Miller and her husband spend their summers, so she’s crossed the Connecticut River and is sitting on a leafy street in Hanover, New Hampshire, for our phone call to discuss her breathtaking new novel, Monogamy. She hopes no one comes along with a loud lawn mower while we’re trying to talk.
“For a lot of writers and photographers, there’s something temperamentally that makes you more comfortable at a slight distance.”
I remind her that we spoke back in 2003, just before the publication of her memoir, The Story of My Father. The experience of writing that book, she tells me, was the wellspring of Monogamy. “As I wrote that book about my father, I came slowly to understand him differently and to understand myself differently,” Miller says. “I felt I was in communication with him in some sense or another and was changed by him. My ideas about him changed as I discovered things as I worked through the book. I wanted that to happen to someone in the marriage in this book.”
In Monogamy, after a long, full, mostly happy life together, Annie’s husband, Graham, dies unexpectedly one night in bed beside her. Graham, a bookseller in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was a large, charismatic, needy man with a big “appetite for people, for music, for food.” And for Annie. At first she is numbed by his death, but soon she is alienated from him and from her grief when she discovers that he’d had a recent affair.
“I wanted her, for some reason, to retreat from the marriage after the death of her spouse,” Miller says, “and then find a way, just through life experiences, odd things that happened to her, in sequence somehow, to rediscover him and rethink who she was and who he was. But to come to understand all this not through grieving.”
At the time of Graham’s death, Annie is preparing a local show of her latest photographs. Miller describes Annie as “quite a good photographer, but not great, not famous. Maybe she could have been better. I don’t know,” suggesting how independently her characters come to live in her imagination.
“I was interested in having her be a bit like me,” Miller says. “I thought of photography and the distance you spend from the things, mostly from other people, that you’re taking pictures of. That way of looking at life has some parallels to a writer, who is always looking and always using other people’s lives and thinking, oh, that would be good. I could use that. I think for a lot of writers and photographers, there’s something temperamentally that makes you more comfortable at a slight distance.”
While doing research for Monogamy, Miller spent a lot of time with a friend who is a professional photographer, talking about cameras and picture taking. In the six years it took Miller to write the novel, she read widely about photographers like Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, William Eggleston, Sally Mann and others, and she saw their exhibitions when they came to her hometowns of Cambridge and Boston.
“I think my interest started with Sally Mann, when she created such a stink with photographs of her children,” Miller says. She notes how Mann’s focus and interests have changed throughout her life. Like Mann, “Annie doesn’t have a singular vision she’s working with,” Miller says. “She changes. She moves around in terms of what she’s interested in taking pictures of, what she sticks with and then moves off from. I think more women photographers do that than men. It seemed to me when I was looking at men’s photographs that they didn’t change much over the arc of their photographic life, whereas with women, there’s this strange richness in what they are doing. I think that’s from their lives being so chopped up in some ways.”
In a certain way, this is true of Miller’s own writing career. “The first couple of books I wrote were about children in families, younger children,” she says. “Then I moved on from that, doing things dealing with adults.”
Maybe this observation helps explain an underlying theory of process Miller seems to have. The emotional beauty of Monogamy arises from the impact of her characters’ interactions on one another, and how their memories of those interactions and of other events shape, shift and reshape.
“Back when I was doing a psych course, we would do sociograms, where you draw a circle and put people around the edge of the circle,” Miller says. “Then you take one person and have something happen to them or have them act in some way, and you draw lines to who is affected by that. Then you would see how their responses affect other people in the circle. You end up with a sort of spiderweb of crisscrossing lines of connection. I think that is, in a way, what this book is like.”
Indeed it is. In Monogamy, what a wonderful web Sue Miller weaves.