It is a rare treat to attend a reading and lecture by one of your favorite authors. On April 15, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Sue Miller at the West Hartford Town Hall, sponsored by the Friends of the West Hartford Public Library.
The reading occurred just hours after the bombing at the Boston Marathon, which was not lost on Miller. She noted she lives in Cambridge, about three miles from the blast site, and made sure her friends were okay. Miller read several passages from her 2010 novel, The Lakeshore Limited, which is ironically about two terrorist bombings, 9-11 and a fictional explosion of a train. Gus, the fiance of the main character, Billy, is killed in the 9-11 attack, and Billy lives with the guilt that she was going to call off the engagement. A playright, Billy deals with her feelings by writing a play about an explosion of the Lakeshore Limited train in which the fate of the wife of the main character, Gabriel, is unknown, and he feels remorse over his unfaithfulness.
Following the reading, Miller was asked if she had ever written a play. She said she’d never written a play, but wrote about 20 lines of dialogue for the fictional play in the novel. “I’ve always liked writing dialogue a lot, but I’ve never thought about writing a play,” she said.
Asked how she approaches character development, Miller said she works out the structure of the story first and then focuses on the characters. “I like to understand why people do the things they do,” she said. One of the fiction writer’s pleasures is the opportunity to escape into other people’s lives, she noted.
Miller observed that writing is a lonely life. “I think there is a great tension between wanting to be with other people and the writer’s need to spend lots of time alone,” she said.
Asked if she maintains a daily word count, Miller said she is somewhat sporadic in her output. “I sometimes don’t write for several weeks, but when I was on deadline recently with the book I just sent to my editor, I went to a house in the country and just wrote all morning, took a break for groceries and lunch, and then wrote more…My writing schedule tends to be quite variable, depending on what stage I am at in my book.”
Describing her process for developing a story, Miller said she will write a whole scene very quickly and then fill in and revise several times. “Revision is really everything to me. If you saw the first version of some of my scenes, they are really bad. I’m constantly adding things, making it richer, adding more texture.”
She said she usually works out the ending of her stories before she starts to write. “I always like to know where I want to end up, but along the way, ideas come out of the blue, so it’s really a combination of planned and unplanned parts, but all of the parts need to click for it to work.”
Miller is the author of ten novels, including “The Good Mother,” “Inventing the Abbotts,” “While I Was Gone,” and “The Senator’s Wife.” In addition to her writing career, Miller is a professor at Smith College in Northampton, MA.