An Interview with Sue Miller
Since The Good Mother was published in 1986, your novels
have chronicled a tumultuous time in American family life. What's drawn you to
Probably the tumult itself. I think it's fair to say that's what a fiction
writer is most often drawn to -- tumult of one kind or another; and in that
sense the family in the last quarter century seems to me to be among the most
fascinating of human social or economic inventions--more than business or real
estate, no matter what Tom Wolfe says, more than the church or the law or the
hospital. It is of course, open to and impinged on by all of those -- another
great draw for the writer -- and also by belief and passion and irrationality
It seems both more fragile and more important an institution than it ever has
been, more multifarious, more invented as it goes along, more necessary. It's
been too easily dismissed as the subject or setting for serious fiction;
American fiction in particular was for a while pleased to think it had moved
beyond the family, left it behind as a kind of low topic, suited only to women
and children. But it comes around, again and again, as it has throughout
You have been divorced and raised a son by yourself. How has this
experience affected your writing?
My divorce and my raising my son by myself for many years have played about
the same part in shaping my subject matter that any other part of my life's
history has. I use them, as I use the fact of having been raised in an
ecclesiastical family with many children and aunts and uncles and cousins
around, or having worked as a waitress for a few years, or having had a
histrionic, hard-drinking mother. I don't think I've ever exploited any of that;
I don't think anyone I know would ever come to me and complain that I'd written
his or her life. But I've certainly been made the writer I am by what I've lived
through -- who hasn't? Though I hope as much as any writer does that all of it
has been transformed by the dream-like remaking of life that happens when you
create a story.
Jo Becker, the main character in While I Was Gone, nearly begins an affair
even though she is basically happily married. What are you saying about the
institution of marriage?
I don't think that marriage is a cure for human restlessness, human yearning.
For my character Jo, that sense in midlife -- in mid happy life, it might
be said -- of doors closing, of the falling away of the possibility of surprise,
of being taken over by something, taken up, that is painful, and her pain
has nothing to do with her marriage, beyond the predictability of its being
comfortable, "good." We all have a great deal we must struggle through
alone in life, married or not. I think we burden a good marriage by assuming it
resolves everything. It doesn't, it can't. Jo speculates about this near the end
of the book when she muses that her husband, a religious man, has God to ask for
forgiveness, whereas she must burden him (her husband) -- unfairly, as she sees
it at this point in the novel.
Most people think of men, not women committing adultery. Why did you
choose a woman as the one who strays?
Well, of course I had some good literary models -- Emma Bovary and Anna
Karenina among others. But it also occurs to me that one of the things that is
true for many women's lives now is that they are shaped more like men's -- women
go to work, they explore the world independently, they have been freer sexually
than western women in most periods before us. And so perhaps it's not so
unlikely anymore that women too should experience the sexual restlessness that
we've more understood to be typical of men (maybe because men were writing about
it.) In any case, I was interested, with Jo, in looking at the fulfilled life,
the happy life, and the human impulse to mess it up, as it were.
The most well-known case of adultery in contemporary life is, of course,
President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. What does the fallout from this
affair say about America's attitudes toward marriage and adultery?
The fallout is multiform, and it reveals, I think, how disparate we are in
America in these attitudes. But I think it also reveals that those most
impassioned are galvanized by their sense of offense, of affront; and they're
the most vocal and perhaps the most likely to vote. At least the Republicans
seem to have bet the farm on this.
In The Good Mother, female friendship plays an important role, yet in
While I Was Gone, Jo Becker doesn't have a close girlfriend. Is this
I honestly didn't think much about this while I was writing the book. There
were enough characters to manage and enough ways to get at what was going on,
which was a primary issue for me, without a confidante. When I did consider it,
later, I thought Jo's friendships were more implicit, perhaps. She talks daily
to the two women she works with; she has friends over for a party at
Thanksgiving and among them are people with whom she's raised children, talked
about life, work, marriage, and so on.
But I do think that some of her isolation when the events of this novel happen
to her have to do with how isolating such events are -- one cannot easily talk
with others about betraying everything one has shared with them, too. And I also
think that it reflects one aspect of the kind of work life that Jo and so many
women lead now -- that between the demands of home and career, there isn't a lot
of time and room for deep friendship. Once you are beyond the stage when your
children's lives pull you into daily contact with other women situated as you
are, it's harder to invent that or create it.
What is the most common response to your work? How have feminists, in
The response to my work has been all over the map. It has generally been
critically and popularly well received, but there have always been those who've
taken exception to it -- with each book. And even the feminist world has divided
into several camps about it -- The Good Mother in particular. Some
feminists thought that book depicted for the first time in contemporary fiction
the strength of the bond between mother and child; some thought it betrayed that
bond by having the main character allowed a "phallic interloper" (I
kid you not) come between mother and child, or by my not having my main
character question her lover's version of what went on between him and her
Some thought the novel sympathetically portrayed the demand to be asexual, if
not anti-sexual, imposed on mothers by the law and other societal institutions;
others thought it reinforced that demand by not having the main character be
tougher, more defiant about it; or by not having them emerge victorious over the
judgments connected with it. Later books were perhaps less divisive, but I'm
keenly aware of a whole sector of the feminist movement mightily offended by my
work. I think it may have been a gift, actually, to learn so early on in my
public writing life that people read your work how they will; that you cannot
write for others, in that sense.
Reproduced with the permission of Random House Inc.
Copyright Random House Inc.