Tag Archives: Sue Miller

An Evening with Sue Miller

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.

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Sue Miller to the Rescue

It must be the NaNoWriMo effect, but writer’s block is on my mind these days. Last week, I wrote about the “creative pause,” the positive effect  a short break can have on stimulating your creativity. Stepping away from my work in progress when I’m stuck has worked for me. Try it sometime.

Another winning strategy for unlocking my creativity is to have a “go to” author to read. I have several, depending on the nature of the story in progress. In my NaNoWriMo novel, there is a romantic relationship between the main character and a woman who, years earlier, was accused of murdering his baseball teammate and best friend. Through a series of circumstances, the main character tracked down the woman years later and they ended up in a relationship. I was having trouble writing the scenes where the two characters were together. I turned to author Sue Miller.

There are few authors better than Sue Miller at writing these types of intimate scenes between two people involved in a complicated relationship. A lot of writing coaches and bloggers talk about authors who pay attention to the small, precise details that make a scene come alive and propel a story forward. That’s one of Sue Miller’s greatest strengths.

An author and creative writing professor, Miller has written a number of best-selling novels. These include The Good Mother (1986), Inventing the Abbotts (1987), While I Was Gone (1999), The Senator’s Wife (2008) and The Lakeshore Limited (2010). She writes in the genre I like to read and the one in which I like to write. Her stories focus on families in conflict.

In an online interview, Miller lamented the decline in the number of novels that centered on families. “It seems both a more fragile and more important 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 of serious fiction. American fiction in particular was for awhile 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…”

When I got stuck writing a scene for my NaNoWriMo novel, I drove to my local library and checked out While I Was Gone. The protagonist is Jo Becker, a veterinarian who is happily married to a minister. They have raised three daughters together and finally have an empty nest. Jo is content but feels somewhat unsettled, when a man from her past re-enters her life. He triggers memories of a time of personal upheaval, capped by the mysterious murder of her closest friend.

Read more about Sue Miller here.

Miller is among several “go to” authors I read, a list that includes Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munro, and Alice McDermott. I have read and re-read their work, with an eye toward how they set up scenes, develop characters, move the story along, and deal with large themes.

Eight days to go and I’m at 46,200 words.

Do you have a ‘go to’ author you read when you get writer’s block?

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