The problem with Sue Miller is that she’s a writer. She’s not an ex-cop, or a moonlighting lawyer, she’s not a mistress of horror or suspense or romance, nor is she a recovering addict, celebrity or multiple personality. She’s a writer. A novelist and short story writer, if specifics are necessary, and it would seem they are. So necessary that reviewers and their ilk, casting about wildly for some way to categorize Miller, for some way to boil her down to a sub-genre, have decided she is a family writer. A “doyenne of domesticity,” to quote the New York Times.
Which means there are families in her books. A wide assortment of families, dealing with myriad personalities and plots. In her latest, “While I Was Gone” (Knopf, 1999), there is a rather gruesome murder, a commune and a lot of mystery and deception--but apparently that doesn’t soften the fact that when you open a book by Miller, by gosh, there’s another family staring at you.
Of course, no one ever called Cheever or Updike or Tolstoy, for that matter, a duke, or even an earl, of domesticity.
“I don’t understand it,” Miller says, shaking her head. “Yes, there is usually a family in the middle of my books, but most of us live in families, that’s how we came into the world.”
She says this very nicely; she is, after all, a minister’s daughter from Chicago.
“And I realize that I’m up against the post-Hemingway turn American fiction took,” she continues. “Characters that are exclusive of background, that are on the road or in the middle of the war. A very male way of writing. It was wonderful, it made American fiction truly great, but people seem to think you’re a less good writer if you return to the more rooted fiction.”
Clearly, these are issues she has mulled over a bit, being a writer, and on the last stop of a 10-city book tour. Well, really a nine-city book tour; she came down with the flu and had to skip St. Louis.
“I thought maybe I should just go home, skip the rest of the cities too,” she says, coughing a bit. “But so many people had gone to so much trouble, I would have felt so guilty.” She smiles and fiddles a bit with her napkin.
“Though I’m not really sure about book tours, in general. I don’t think people are as interested as they were back when my first book was out. Back then it seemed author readings were a rarity. Now they’re so commonplace. People are inundated. They probably feel like, ‘Too many famous people. Get away from me, famous person.’ ”
Sue Miller is certifiably famous. Her first novel, “The Good Mother,” received phenomenal acclaim and was made into a movie starring Diane Keaton and Liam Neeson. Her subsequent three novels and collection of short stories were also critically successful and spawned another movie, “Inventing the Abbots,” and a miniseries, “Family Pictures.”
But she’s not posey famous--no designer sunglasses or publicity-seeking hats--or bored famous--none of that desperately-seeking-someone-important room sweep. She doesn’t even check her watch. Instead, her green eyes open wide when she speaks, her hands move in fleet and open gestures, and even with the audible cold and fatigue, her voice warms the words with sincerity.
“There is an ecliptic factor in early success,” she says. “ ‘The Good Mother’ is still The Book. People will say, ‘Oh, I read your book,’ and they always mean ‘The Good Mother.’ I’m very grateful,” she says, “but sometimes I want to say, ‘You know, there have been four more. . . .’ But I don’t. I say, ‘Thank you.’ ”
“While I Was Gone” has ascension potential, dealing as it does with themes of deception, betrayal and forgiveness. Much of the book is spent detailing the seemingly idyllic life of protagonist Jo Becker. A veterinarian married to a kind and patient minister, mother of three grown daughters, Jo has that frosted-window-pane, dogs-lying-by-the-crackling fire existence that just begs to be shattered. Which, just as the reader is becoming envious of all the brisk walks and homemade risotto, it mercifully is. It is shattered by a figure from Jo’s past who causes her to reexamine not just life as she knows it but her identity.
Self-centered and seemingly oblivious at times, Jo is a less than heartwarming character.
“She was a difficult character to inhabit,” Miller says. “By the end I was really champing at the bit to get out of her. I found her a slightly unreliable narrator, she just didn’t notice a lot of what was going on around her even as she struggled to examine things.
“My agent,” she adds, “always wants me to write about ‘nice’ people. And, obviously, I want people to like Jo enough to be somehow complicit with her. But I really wanted to fool around with someone who had a confused sense of self.”
Jo’s confusion seems at first to be self-inflicted. The reemergence of Eli Mayhew, a friend from the past, trips a detailed remembrance of Jo’s pre-idyll life. Married young, she suddenly abandons her husband and flees to Cambridge, where, complete with a new name and persona, she moves into a commune (it’s the ‘60s). Acting as foil to the commune’s emotional center, a hungrily confiding woman called Dana, Jo refines her mystique, unaware that she is falling victim to her own con.
When Dana is killed, the commune, which includes Eli, falls apart and Jo begins the third stage of her now-unconscious self-invention. By the time we meet her, she is a figure of some mystery even to her daughters, intimate only with her spiritually grounded and endlessly patient husband, Daniel. It is this relationship, besieged by the choices Jo makes after reconnecting with Eli, that in the end provides a foundation for her true identity to emerge.
“Jo’s lies are not so big,” Miller says. “And we all have a desire to invent things, to shift things about a bit. When I was in college, I would take the bus from Chicago to Boston, and every trip I’d try out a new persona, experiment with accents, tell a different story.”
She has been many things. Born and raised in Chicago, she took her lifelong love of reading to its natural conclusion--a degree in English literature from Radcliffe. Married young to a med student, Miller filled in the novelist’s requisite diverse employment background--high school teacher, cocktail waitress, model--before divorcing and taking up the full-time occupation of single mother to son Ben, now 30.
She never lost her academic connections--for many years she worked in the Harvard Day Care center as a preschool teacher--and a series of fellowships allowed her to pursue a writing career. She was 35 when “The Good Mother” was published, and 11 years later, she has put her literary degree to good use--she just finished reading 300 novels as a judge for the PEN Faulkner Awards.
“I felt very encouraged,” she says. “There was a lot of dreck, but there were books I would begin and just settle back, thinking, ‘OK, this is what it’s about.’ ”
When she talks about reading, she does settle back. Her shoulders relax, even her voice spreads out a bit, allowing a bit of Chicago to come through. She talks about weeping through “Jane Eyre” year after year, crowding into a rare Alice Munro reading (“she had such a prim voice, so at odds with the world-wise tone of her books I thought it must be an impostor”), the lavish generous writing of Christina Stead, of days and nights spent lost in the visions and poetry of other writers.
She talks about writing too, but somehow the conversation shoulders its way back to reading, which, she says sadly, has become a rare pastime.
“It’s hard to read now,” she says, “because there’s always something else to do. You have to say no to what is normal American life. Thank God for air travel or none of us would be able to publish anymore.”
It’s actually easier for someone like her, she says, someone who is perceived as a women’s writer, a family writer.
“Women are at least still reading. No one has much of a male readership. What are they doing, those guys?” she asks, tones flattening like the surface of Lake Michigan. “Where are the people who were reading [Philip] Roth and [Norman] Mailer? Tell them to come back, we need them.”
Times staff writer Mary McNamara can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.