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 and need.
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 fiction's history.
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 significant?
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 particular, responded?
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 daughter.
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.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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