Mississippi native Mary Miller talks about her new short story collection Always Happy Hour, filled with unhappy couples and women who don’t want to turn out like their mothers.
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Although Mary Miller has one novel, The Last Days of California, under her belt, she says her true love is the short story form. The truth is, her work ethic just isn’t that great and she likes the flexibility of being able to write about many different people’s lives at any given time.
Her debut book was a short story collection titled Big World in 2009. Its characters have been described as “at once autonomous and lonesome, possessing both a longing to connect with those around them and a cynicism regarding their ability to do so.” Published in 2014, The Last Days of California has a teenaged girl and her unraveling family traveling across the country in preparation for the Rapture. Always Happy Hour releases January 10 and includes stories Miller wrote over the course of seven or eight years while a James A. Michener Fellow in Fiction at the University of Texas and John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss. She is currently on the faculty at Mississippi University for Women.
Most of the 16 stories in Always Happy Hour are written in the first person, making the book feel both intimate and a bit voyeuristic. Miller’s characters remain lonesome and unsure about what to do with their lives. She describes her female narrators as “new South” women who don’t want the house, husband, three kids and a dog lives their mothers and friends have. They drink, have sex, make poor decisions about men and can often be found frequenting gas stations, public pools and dive bars.
While Miller never stops writing short stories—and is currently enjoying reading story collections by Deb Olin Unferth, Jean Thompson and Susan Steinberg—she is working on another novel told from the point of view of an older man. Stepping out of the comfort of her favorite genre once again shows Miller’s willingness to challenge herself and further cement her place as a strong Southern voice. Maybe her work ethic isn’t so bad after all.
EZB: You said in a 2011 Rumpus interview that the narrator in your short stories is nearly always a thinly veiled version of yourself. Is that still true for this book? With your stories being in the first person, it certainly feels that way, but I don’t know you personally.
MM: The collection as a whole, most of the stories are in first person. Many people really don’t like first person or consider it what beginners use. Unless you want to sound like a novice, you should use third person. I’ve written these stories over the course of seven or eight years, if not more, so some of them are a lot older like “Love Apples” and “Big Bad Love.” I think I usually do take some real-life experience for the most part and then fictionalize it. Stories like “Little Bear,” I don’t have a child, but I saw a woman at the park while I was out walking my dog and imagined myself as her. A lot of the narrators are kind of like me certainly in many different ways.
EZB: As a teacher, do you tell your students to “write what you know?”
MM: I’m teaching a lot more nonfiction workshops. Because they are beginning, they don’t have sort of the tools needed to write good fiction yet, but sometimes their nonfiction just blows my mind because it’s so good. Right now, I’m teaching online and a lot of times I don’t get to see my students. We have video conferences, but everybody is writing something different. The best thing you can do as a teacher is meet your students individually where they are. I can encourage them to try to put more of themselves in their work.
EZB: After your first short story collection, you did The Last Days of California. Can you talk about making the transition from short story to novel and why you returned to short stories?
MM: I’ve been writing short stories the whole time so it’s never like I left it behind, and I think the short story form is still the one I’m certainly most interested in because I guess I get distracted pretty easily. If you’re working on a novel, it takes so much concentration to get a draft down. For The Last Days of California, I probably wrote a draft in four or five months and I became invested in those characters fairly quickly. Because I had them starting out on this road trip, there came to a point where I felt bad, like I couldn’t let them down. I had to see it play out … I never really thought I would write a novel. It just kind of happened, and I’m glad it happened. My true love is still the short story and it’s the form I definitely like best.
EZB: Why is that?
MM: You can write so many of them for one. You can write about a bunch of different people’s lives at any time. With a novel, it does become tedious, especially staying in one point of view. It has to be linear, it has to make sense, you have to keep up something that feels cohesive. With a short story, I can just write about something that happened. Some of these stories probably occur within an hour, like “Little Bear.” There’s something really satisfying about being able to complete something in four days, whereas you know a book can take years and years. Novels just feel so much harder. You also have to have a good work ethic. You can’t just leave it for a few weeks. My work ethic is just not that great. So, the short story just suits me for a variety of different reasons.
EZB: You mention the cohesiveness of a novel, but Always Happy Hour does feel very cohesive. Do you get to choose the order that your stories are in is that something your editor does?
MM: I think we started out with maybe seven or eight more stories and kind of had to figure out which ones to cut, which ones felt too repetitive or weren’t really working with the same sort of ideas. You just kind of have to hope and pray and try to mix them up a little bit. I think you think a lot about your first and last stories and kind of a bookend. When you are working with a story collection, you see things. Like, I didn’t know that I was a Cameron Diaz fan, and I’m not, but in two of the stories, Cameron Diaz movies are in here. It’s like I can’t have Cameron Diaz in back to back stories. It’s little things, but it does ultimately feel pretty arbitrary.
EZB: It also felt like some of your characters repeated in the stories.
MM: “Always Happy Hour” and “At One Time This Was the Longest Covered Walkway in the World,” those are sort of the same characters for me. There are probably three sets of repeating couples.
EZB: Will any of those couples ever make their way into a novel?
MM: I have, on a number of occasions, attempted to turn short stories into novels and it hasn’t worked. There has to be some tension or some question at the beginning of a novel, and here’s an unhappy couple is not a good start for a novel. What happens when they get home? Oh, guess what, they’re still pretty miserable.
“Big Bad Love,” a lot of people like that story, and I did try to write more on that. I had written a couple of stories about this home for abused and neglected children, but ultimately I couldn’t really turn that into a novel either. I could see a situation in which I could, there’s a lot going on in that home and the narrator does become obsessed with this little child. The thing about a novel that’s so hard is shit has to actually happen.
EZB: “Proper Order” (about living in a famous writer’s house in Oxford) was one of my favorite stories. How much does your home state of Mississippi influence your writing?
MM: I’m asked this question a lot, just sort of what makes your writing Southern? I feel like it’s really hard to say because I went to graduate school in Texas for a little while, but otherwise I’ve lived my entire life in Mississippi and most of the people I know and all of my family’s from Mississippi. This is all I’ve ever known and so the particulars of why it’s regional or how it’s Southern—it just is. “Proper Order,” it’s heavily fictionalized, but it’s based on my fellowship at Ole Miss and when I was living in John Grisham’s house. He donated his home and land to the university right before my fellowship began, so I was living out on Hwy. 6 on 80 acres and it was really a sort of isolated feeling.
EZB: I wouldn’t say that your stories feel particularly Southern. Some of them could be anywhere.
MM: I think it’s sort of the “New South,” with the narrator in a lot of these stories, they don’t want to do what all of their friends from high school are doing. They don’t want to move into a house in their parents’ neighborhood and have a husband and three kids and two dogs. They’re not very traditional, but as far as where they really fit in, they don’t know. She’s certainly not the typical Southern woman, but she’s trying to figure out kind of how she does fit as a Southern woman.
EZB: To return to that Rumpus interview, you also said that you struggled with going too far, typically at the end of a paragraph. I liked how you ended most of your stories with a life lesson or the narrator coming to terms with the reality of her life: “Don’t fuck things up” or “Nothing in this life is free.” Is this something you’ve improved at or did you just stop worrying about it?
I think endings are always really tough. It’s like how do you get out of a story and make it feel somewhat satisfying. It has to sound right or sort of feel right. I play around a lot with endings. I think I was talking about at the end of paragraphs where maybe I go too far [in the Rumpus interview]. Like I’ve already said something or described it and then sort of have another sentence to explain what I’ve already explained, so I do try to cut a lot of that. But as far as endings, I just play around with it until it feels right and sometimes it takes a long time. There’s nothing huge happening at the end generally. I don’t know how you do it. It’s more about the feeling of it and the rhythm of it. You never really know if you’ve nailed it.