A CONVERSATION WITH SUE MILLER
Michelle Huneven is the author of the novels Round Rock and Jamesland. She and Sue Miller have been friends for twenty-two years.
MICHELLE HUNEVEN: You’ve been writing books from varying points of view. While I Was Gone is in the first person, as was your first novel, The Good Mother. Is there a reason for your return to a first-person narrator?
SM: I thought first person would carry me into it much faster. And then, I wanted to call it While I Was Gone and I didn’t see how I could write it in the third person and turn around and call it that. (Laughs.) This is the way decisions get made. I do think the first person is always more immediate for the reader, who feels that someone is buttonholing him and telling him a story. If the voice is compelling, the reader is locked in. But the first person is also more compelling for the writer. If you know the story you want to tell, once you get launched in the voice, it’s very uncomplicated in a certain way: You have just this limited perspective in which to tell the tale. You don’t entertain a lot of other points of view; you don’t have to account for facts beyond the blinkered vision of the narrator. For me, with this book, I wanted that ease. I’d been having trouble writing a different book, a memoir of my father and his Alzheimer’s that I’d given up on, and I wanted to be in the midst of something, fast, in part to reassure myself about my writing generally.
MH:Although your opinion eventually changed, while you were writing While I Was Gone you remarked several times that you didn’t like it very much. What didn’t you like about it?
SM: I felt far away from it. I had a hard time coming into it. I liked the plot. I felt very excited in a certain way. But I was slow to warm up to Jo as a character because I knew she was limited. I found it hard to like her.
MH:Hey! I really liked Jo, I identified with her. I’m confused when you say she’s limited.
SM: By that I mean simply that she doesn’t really know herself. She was so alien to me, this person who was a little unconscious of things around her. She’s not self-centered, she’s other-directed, but she’s a little frightened of human beings. She’s more comfortable with animals. And she’s not very noticing. She’s very loving, she loves her family—but remember that scene where her husband is holding the twins and they’re wailing and she just leaves? I think that stands in for a pattern in her life. Every day, she just leaves. She turns away from what’s complicated. I think people who do that pay a certain price. Jo’s not at a stage of her life where she’s changing radically or growing. She’s done what she’s wanted to do, and she’s not at all unhappy with herself. But there are aspects of her character that have remained unexamined, blind spots that she never discusses.
MH:Yes, this book seems to be about those unexamined aspects rearing up, demanding attention. From the first chapter, there’s a sense that something is about to surface. Her kids have left, her husband’s busy, she’s suddenly thrown back on herself more than she has been.
SM: Yes, I very much wanted her to be restless before Eli got there, which is why the book starts with the scene it starts with. Jo was someone who hadn’t looked at her life with a great deal of care; she was a person of action. She’s a very decisive person. That is some of what’s appealing about her but also what makes it hard for people around her who care for her deeply to feel close to her at times. She just moves fast, without fully taking into account the
widening circle of effect she has on people. She’s quite startled to hear it’s become Dana’s great quest to find out more about her. She doesn’t consider the effect her name change has on anybody, or the effect of never having discussed certain things with her children, or how they might feel when they do find out about her first marriage and other details of her life before them. Then there’s the fact that she doesn’t share her thought processes with her husband at this very critical moment in her life. That is hard on him.
MH:The opening of the book is so luminous and dark. It hits “the long, beautiful, somber note” Jo mentions and sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Jo, in the boat, feels suspended between worlds. She has a sense of being “utterly present and also, simultaneously, far far away.”
SM: The opening came right out of that poem of my mother’s I used for the epigraph:
Cedar waxwings dart among the swallows
Iridescent fish with wings,
Layers of life above the water.
Under, the trout.
I wanted to use that image, which is one that I connect to my parents. I saw them in a boat, my mother reading, my father fishing. The birds above, the trout below. But with it, I wanted also to picture the impatience that resides in happiness. And, in this particular book, the impatience that resides in people at midlife, who have done what they wanted to do, gotten what they want, and worked very hard to do so. People who look around themselves and think,
now I have everything, and it’s okay, but where’s the sense of transformation? And then realize, oh, there’s just more of this. Jo is a very happy person who can’t rest with that happiness.
MH:And what about Daniel? Where is he in his life?
SM: It’s lots less clear, in part because Jo is the narrator and she doesn’t really think about Daniel all that much. At one point she’s talking about the series of near-flings she’s had, the times she’s been tempted sexually in her life before Eli, and she says, “I assume Daniel has had the same thing.” She is simply not that curious, so she doesn’t really know. For one thing, she’s very confident of his love. But she just hasn’t ever asked him. That, in a way, is symptomatic of what we can’t know about Daniel because the book is written in the first person. But he seems to be very content in his life and not to be undergoing the same kind of questioning that Jo is. Lots of people have talked and written to me about the book and there’s a range of opinion about Daniel, but one opinion that quite a few people have expressed to me is that he’s simply too good to be true.
MH:Well, I see big flaws. I think he’s a workaholic like all ministers are.
SM: I thought so too. And I thought he was a little abstracted in his approach to Jo. His approach to life is that we can talk this through, we can work this through. There’s a distancing quality in that, an unwillingness to sit with someone in the ambiguity of her life, which could be very irritating to another, and is part of why Jo withholds certain things from him. But I think, from what we know of him, and from what I was able to show of him, Daniel is someone who is really quite fulfilled and quite happy. I think he is much more wounded by what Jo does because he does feel so content with her and is not restless or questioning his life.
MH:And he gets so angry at her. Even though we know he’s going to forgive her, he really takes his time. As readers, we’re impatient with him: Get over it already!
SM: (Laughs.) Yeah, a lot of people feel that way. As Jo points out, she hasn’t actually done anything.
MH:Although he points out that the only reason she didn’t is that her potential lover turned out to be a murderer!
SM: Yes. Daniel is put in this incredible position where he’s actually grateful for such a thing, which he feels very horrible about. He feels almost as horrible about that—that he’s happy about Eli’s being a murderer—as he is about what Jo has done! He feels very compromised. And in addition, he’s someone who believes, deeply, that her intent to sleep with someone else is nearly as serious as doing it.
MH:Although if she’d been really focused on it, she probably wouldn’t have talked so much to Eli but just pulled him upstairs to the room.
SM: Except that Eli’s focus was entirely on the talk. I was trying to suggest very clearly that she misread Eli’s every step toward her. For him, everything was leading to the moment when he could say this thing to her that had been inside him for so long.
MH:And that’s one of the delicious things about the scene in the hotel.
SM: In writing it, it was too. Each character was feeling better and better about the other person for these different reasons. A complete misunderstanding on both sides working to push the whole conversation further and further. It was very pleasurable to write.
MH:There are many instances of such virtuosic writing to admire in While I Was Gone, not the least of which is the sermon Daniel gives. A good sermon is not the same as a wellorganized essay, or a well-structured story; it’s more a lacing together of abstract ideas and concrete illustrations in such a way that meaning accretes and accretes. It’s not easy to write a good sermon, but you succeeded in doing it. How?
SM:Well, I grew up with sermons. I grew up every Sunday listening to sermons and listening to many people give sermons. And that was the first kind of writing I was aware of qualitatively judging. The sermon was the first form I ever heard critiqued. My mother would come home and throw down her hat and say, “Well! That was just not worth going to at all!” Oh, she’d be so mad about this or that! I think those were the first writing lessons I ever had. Also, I certainly knew patterns that people used in making sermons; certain turns they took, and the kind of coming back around that they would do. I heard my grandfather preach, I heard my father preach, and lots of their friends, and I knew the ones my parents thought were better than others. Growing up for me was a kind of ongoing homiletics course. And then the sermon is such a wonderful form, it can be so direct; you really can turn to people and say, think of this, do this. In fact, writing that sermon was a real turning point in the book, in terms of involving me in Jo’s character—after she hears the sermon she’s in love with Daniel all over again in an active and excited way. She feels that he has given the sermon to her and that he is a wonderful man and she just sort of runs out in the rain thinking, “my husband.” That really engaged me. The sermon itself was also very intellectually engaging.
MH:This is also a visually strong book. There are some images I still can’t get out of my mind. When Jo, as Licia, comes home and finds Dana stabbed and beaten, she tries to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but the air just blows out the slice in Dana’s cheek. How did you ever come up with that detail?
SM: It was a detail from a murder I knew of that actually took place. Doug (my husband) works at a homeless shelter, and he was talking to a male nurse there who’d gone out on a call to pick up a guy who’d been stabbed. He tried to give him mouth to mouth and the air just blew out of a wound on the man’s face. We were both just so stunned by that fact—how real it made it, how awful—and I used it.
MH:In an interview you gave, you talked about how you intentionally had some images reappear and shift in meaning throughout the book. For example, the image of blood: The first time Jo gets spattered by blood is when she witnesses a bar fight and is thrilled; then she finds Dana bleeding to death and, of course, is horrified. Finally, in a related image, Daniel throws a tomato at her and again she gets spattered. Did you really set up the two blood spatterings and the tomato consciously?
SM: Yes. First there’s the blood she takes all this pleasure in, feeling that she’s experiencing something raw and tough and real. And then there’s the real blood, the terrible blood of someone she loves and can’t help, which shows her some of the risk of being in life, that it’s not something you necessarily control. Then with the tomato, I wanted to depict a nearmurderous rage in a safe relationship, which is the one she has with Daniel.
MH:Which provides a remarkable juxtaposition between Eli and Daniel: Eli gets mad and kills someone; Daniel gets mad and throws a tomato.
SM: And Jo is splattered as she was with the bar fight. But this time, she’s able to perceive Daniel’s ability to choose whether to hurt her or not, and of course he doesn’t. He wants to show her how angry he is, but he’s also capable of showing that without hurting her, without injuring her with his anger. So those were intentional moves—those three bloody scenes which echo each other—although I’m not sure you think of these things absolutely ahead of time. But as the images come up, you see the usefulness in them. I do think there are mysterious processes at work in fiction that have to do with connections made unconsciously or on some preconscious level that need to be allowed to happen. I’d rather overwrite and then cut down, letting stuff occur to me that I may choose not to use in the end, rather than never allowing something to bubble up to the surface.