Big World: An Interview with Mary Miller
“I liked to say things to shock him, the truth. Like my father, he had sent me out into the big world all alone and I was going to show him how ugly it was.”
—from the story “Big World”
Mary Miller’s short story collection, Big World, was published by Short Flight/Long Drive Books in February 2009. Though previously known mainly for her pitch-perfect flash fiction, Miller’s debut collection of full-length short stories is already receiving some wonderful praise. Kim Chinquee notes that, “Big World is a world of wonder. A powerful collection by an amazing writer.” Johnathan Messinger adds in his review for Time Out Chicago that the stories construct a “sense of claustrophobia [that] never lets up.” HTMLGIANT is unequivocal in praise, stating simply, “I am, without a doubt, profoundly envious of her work: I wish it were mine.” Miller’s stories have been published in Black Clock, Mississippi Review, Oxford American, and New Stories from the South 2008, among other places, and more stories are forthcoming in such magazines as McSweeney’s Quarterly, Opium, and Versal. She is the author of the chapbook Less Shiny and is an associate editor at Quick Fiction.
LUNA PARK: First, congratulations on the publication of your first full-length collection of stories last month, Big World, published by Hobart’s book imprint, Short Flight / Long Drive Books—with some stunning David Kramer original cover art to boot. And then congrats again for your recent chapbook of stories, Less Shiny, from Magic Helicopter Press. But well before these books came out, I read and was delighted by your stories in literary magazines, first in an issue of Mississippi Review when I was on staff there, and later in Quick Fiction, Black Clock, Oxford American, and a dozen others. How did the Big World collection finally come about? Did Aaron [Burch, editor of Hobart] get in contact with you after you had a story in the magazine?
MARY MILLER: Aaron and Elizabeth actually accepted the manuscript before they published “Pearl” in Hobart 9. Elizabeth Ellen contacted me early last summer, asking if I had a short story manuscript they could look at. She’d read some of my flashes in Quick Fiction and Noo Journal and had liked them a lot (but didn’t want to publish a collection of flash). At the time, I didn’t really feel like I had a short story manuscript ready, but when I put it together, I had more stories than I thought, and I liked them better than I remembered. Things moved pretty quickly after that. We started looking at cover art almost immediately, and decided on the title Big World. It’s kind of funny, but it took me a long time to realize how ironic the title is.
LP: You mean ironic because it is a book of short stories? Or maybe ironic regarding the actual dimensions of the book—much smaller than even your standard genre/airport paperback today. The size of Big World is reminiscent of pulp paperbacks of the early 20th century, dime store novels and detective fiction and the like.
MM: I guess there’s irony on that level, with the actual size of the book, which is smaller than normal. But mostly I mean ironic in the sense that the people in these stories are living very small lives. They feel trapped, and locked into situations in which they have willingly placed themselves. These two sentences (from a short-short of mine called “Los Angeles“) kind of sums this up: “I was looking for a way out. Once I found it I would find my way back in.” I’m thinking in particular of the woman in “Animal Bite.” She has a house and a job and a husband and a dog and, while these things are all perfectly nice (except maybe the dog), she doesn’t want any of them anymore, but she doesn’t really not want them, either, and she knows if she manages to extricate herself from them she will only go and replace them. It’s sort of like when you clean out your closet and haul it down to Goodwill and then go shopping for things you will want to dispose of six months from now.
LP: All of your stories are told from the point of view of a young woman. Is there something that particularly interests you about this way of telling stories? Or, is this more like a default access point to the world of fictional imagination, as you are a young woman yourself?
MM: While my stories aren’t autobiographical, I really do believe in the whole write-what-you-know thing. One time I wrote a story from the point of view of an old sick man and it was just terrible. It was like really bad Carver. The man sat around watching daytime television and eating pie and it was just so bad. I guess I prefer to read stories where you can tell the author is invested in some way and hasn’t just sat down and thought, “Today I’m going to write a story from the perspective of a homeless Haitian boy,” when that person has never been to Haiti, been homeless, been a boy. It just doesn’t seem like it would feel authentic at all. Or maybe I just lack imagination. This is entirely possible.
LP: You mention your stories are often about people living, as you say, “small lives,” but the stories’ female protagonists seem at the same time very heroic in their constricted lives. I am thinking of the girl in “Leak,” living with her father after her mother dies, or the young woman in “Big World” dealing with her uncle’s death and loss and growing up.
MM: That’s interesting. I’ve never thought of the narrator in “Big World” as heroic. She gives her sister advice (like not to sleep with everybody) even though she’s in a relationship with a man who is abusive, who doesn’t care about her at all. If she’s heroic, I think it’s in the way she wants things for her sister that she can’t even want for herself. I’ve never thought of the girl in “Leak” as heroic, either. She’s just in a situation she has no control over and she’s dealing with it the best she can, which is what we all do, I think.
LP: You are studying now under Frederick Barthelme, a writer whose fiction—along with that of Ann Beattie, Richard Ford, and many others—was described by Bill Buford in a now famous issue of Granta as American dirty realist writing. Buford said of these writers—and this is sort of a long quote:
It is not a fiction devoted to making the large historical statement. It is instead a fiction of a difference scope – devoted to the local details, the nuances, the little disturbances in language and gesture….about people who watch day-time television, read cheap romances or listen to country and western music. They are waitresses in roadside cafes, cashiers in supermarkets, construction workers, secretaries and unemployed cowboys. They play bingo, eat cheeseburgers, hunt deer and stay in cheap hotels. They drink a lot and are often in trouble: for stealing a car, breaking a window, pickpocketing a wallet. They are from Kentucky or Alabama or Oregon, but, mainly, they could just about be from anywhere: drifters in a world cluttered with junk food and the oppressive details of modern consumerism. This is a curious, dirty realism about the belly-side of contemporary life…
It seems to me he could have been writing about your stories in Big World. There is certainly a fair share of drinking and shopping and staying in hotels in your stories, and you seem to be very concerned with gesture and nuance—such as the final image of “Pearl,” which is simply: “I filled a coffee mug with water and drank it and I stood there and listened.”
So I guess my question is: Do you feel influenced by the American dirty realists? If not, then who do you see as your main influences as a fiction writer?
MM: What a great quote. This is sort of embarrassing, but I’m woefully under-read. I grew up reading Stephen King and got a B.A. in psychology, and I’ve always just read whatever the heck I wanted to until now. I’ve never read Richard Ford, and have only recently read stories by Ann Beattie and Frederick Barthelme. My influences are mostly contemporary women writers who take risks—Susan Minot, Beth Nugent, and Mary Gaitskill. I think Beth Nugent’s story collection City of Boys is the most brilliant book ever.
LP: I love the stories of both Gaitskill and Minot, and so will definitely pick up Nugent’s book. Are there any current literary magazine writers you are particularly interested in? Whose names you are drawn to? Such as, if I see Ander Monson’s or Blake Butler’s name in a new magazine I always take a look. I’m curious to see what these writers might be up to now.
MM: I think Nugent’s book is out of print but you should be able to find a used copy online. If not, let me know and you can borrow it.
My reading is so scattered. I think this is why I like literary magazines so much. You can open it at random and read a poem and then close it and you haven’t read out of context or anything. It’s funny you mention Blake Butler, though. I read a story of his today in Fence‘s Fall/Winter 2007-08 issue titled “List of 50: Rain,” and dog-eared it. Some of the names I look for are Myfanwy Collins, Elizabeth Ellen, Hannah Pittard, Kuzhali Manickavel, Darby Larson, Claudia Smith, Aaron Burch, Andrea Kneeland, and Mazie Louise Montgomery.
LP: Are you reading any literary magazines at the moment? Have any favorites? Last time we talked I think you were saying how impressed you were by what Brigid Hughes and company were doing at A Public Space. What do you like about APS?
MM: I’ve been flipping through this Fence, and while some of the pieces are really good (like Butler’s), I’ve been generally underwhelmed by the poetry. I’m a fan of Alaska Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s, Hobart, and so many others, and I read online quite a bit, as well—Coconut, Wigleaf, FRiGG, Dogzplot, etc. There are just a ton of people doing really inventive and interesting things in the online lit mag scene.
Yeah, I really like APS. The stories they publish are never boring and I love the first section, “If You See Something, Say Something.” I like the smallness and randomness of the pieces. I think A Public Space manages to be fun and smart, which is a tough combination to pull off; it feels like you’re learning but you don’t really mind because it’s so palatable.
I still miss Swink.
LP: What new projects, if any, are you working on?
MM: Um, again, scattered. I’m editing a manuscript of flash fiction and working on a novel in which nothing is happening, but I’m about to start smashing some shit up. I’m writing stories here and there. I have some stuff coming out soon in McSweeney’s Quarterly, Opium, Versal, Indiana Review, and Whiskey Island, and I’m excited about these because it’s been a while since I’ve had anything published in a print journal (early last fall, I think).
LP: In bookstores, what section do you go to first: the bookshelves or the magazine rack?
MM: Magazine rack. Some stores don’t know where to put the lit mags that look like books, though, and you’ll find them in random places, like with the literary criticism or the anthologies. This bugs me.