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The Good Sermon 

Sue Miller on books past, present and future

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Art by Michael Kupperman

WHILE I WAS GONE | By SUE MILLER | Knopf | 266 pages | $24 | hardcover

I met my good friend Sue Miller about 15 years ago, when we were both at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. This was several months after her first — best-selling — novel, The Good Mother, came out. Since then she has published a collection of short stories and several more novels, including the well-reviewed While I Was Gone, which came out this spring.

While I Was Gone tells the story of Jo Becker, a veterinarian, minister’s wife and mother who, in midlife, must face questionable parts of her past and her character. Eli Mayhew, a former housemate, reappears, rekindling Jo’s memories of communal life and of the murder of another of their housemates, a lively and mercurial young woman named Dana. As with all of Miller’s novels, While I Was Gone traverses difficult moral and philosophical territory, examining the nature of memory, self-invention, rage, forgiveness and aging.

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Miller, who lives in Boston with her husband, novelist Doug Bauer (The Book of Famous Iowans, The Very Air, Dexterity), recently came to Los Angeles on a reading tour for While I Was Gone. We met up for an afternoon.

L.A. Weekly: I remember you saying you didn’t like this book when you were writing it. What didn’t you like about it?

Miller: I felt far away from it. I had a hard time coming into it. I liked the plot, I felt very excited in a certain way, but I was slow to warm up to the character Jo because I knew she was limited, and I found it hard to find a way to like her. She just doesn’t really know herself. She was so alien to me, this person who was a little unconscious. She’s not self-centered, she’s other directed, but still a little frightened of human beings, more comfortable with animals; and she’s not very noticing. She’s very loving, she loves her family — but remember that scene where her husband’s holding the twins, and they’re wailing and he’s trying to get them to wave goodbye to her as she goes to work, and she just leaves? Every day, she just leaves. I think people who do that pay a certain price. So my not liking the book had to do with her, and it also had to do with how scared I was because I’d been working on a nonfiction book about my dad that didn’t work, and I was in such a panicky state.

That book, I believe, was to be about your father’s battle with Alzheimer’s. What happened?

There were a couple of things. I needed to be there as a first-person narrator in the book, and I had trouble stepping forward into that role. I didn’t feel comfortable writing discursively about my own life, and I didn’t know how to write the book without doing so. Also, as a memoir of my father, it was awkward. I didn’t know how much of his background to include, and I put in too much.

There are many things to admire in While I Was Gone, not the least of which is the sermon Jo’s husband, Daniel, gives. A good sermon is not the same as a well-organized essay, or a well-structured story; it’s more a lacing together of abstract ideas and illustrations of those ideas, in such a way that meaning accretes and accretes. It’s not easy to write a good sermon, but this is what you succeeded in doing. How?

Well, I grew up with sermons. I grew up every Sunday listening to sermons and listening to many people give sermons. And that was the first kind of writing I was aware of qualitatively judging. The sermon was the first form I ever heard critiqued. My mother would come home and throw down her hat and say, "Well! That was just not worth going to at all!" Oh, she’d be so mad about this or that. I think those were the first writing lessons I ever had.

Also, I knew certain patterns that people had in making sermons; certain turns they took, and the kind of coming back around that they would be doing. I heard my grandfather preach. I heard my father preach. I heard lots of their friends. And I knew the ones they thought were better than others. Growing up, I just got an ongoing homiletics course. And the sermon is a wonderful form. It can be so direct. You really can turn to people and say, "Think of this. Do this."

In fact, writing that sermon was a real turning point in the book, in terms of involving me in Jo’s character — you know after she hears the sermon she’s in love with Daniel all over again in an active and excited way. She feels that he’s given the sermon to her and that he’s a wonderful man, and she just sort of runs out in the rain thinking, My husband. And that really engaged me. And the sermon itself was also very intellectually engaging.

The opening of the book is so luminous and dark. It hits "the long, beautiful, somber note" Jo mentions, and that sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Jo, in the boat, feels suspended between worlds. She has a sense of being "utterly present and also, simultaneously, far far away."

The opening came right out of that poem of my mother’s I used for the epigraph:

"Cedar waxwings dart among the swallows/ Iridescent fish with wings, Layers of life above the water. Under, the trout." [Judith Beach Nichols]

I wanted to use that image, which is one that I connected to my parents. I saw them in a boat, my mother reading, my father fishing. The birds above, the trout below. That very first image was present from the get-go. And I wasn’t sure I would actually keep it. I thought as I wrote it, Well, this may be one of the things you write out and get the ball rolling and then discard it later because it seems too heavy-handed. It is a little foreboding.

What I wanted to picture was the impatience that resides in happiness. People at midlife, who have done what they wanted to do, gotten what they want and worked very hard to do so, look around themselves and think, Now I have everything, and it’s okay — but where’s the sense of transformation? And then realizing, Oh, there’s just more of this.

I think we all have to come to grips with the fact that transformation doesn’t come from without or from new things that announce themselves to us. And that whatever happens to us doesn’t so much happen to us, but is created by us. Jo is a very happy person who can’t rest with that happiness.

This was a visually strong book. There are some images I still can’t get out of my mind. When Jo comes home and finds Dana stabbed and beaten, she tries to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but the air just blows out the slice in Dana’s cheek. How did you ever come up with that detail?

It was part of a murder that actually took place. Doug works at the Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter, and he was talking to a male nurse there who’d gone out on a call to pick up a guy and tried to give him mouth-to-mouth, and it just blew out of his wound. We were both just so stunned by that fact and . . . well . . . I used it first! [Laughs] So it goes!

You told me after finishing For Love that you were always going to do something when you finished a book to ease the depression of finishing — go to Europe, take a break, not even try to write. What did you do after finishing While I Was Gone?

I read for the PEN/Faulkner award. I’d thought it would be a lot of fun, and it wasn’t that much fun. I thought it would just take up my mind! But I was having to read so fast. It was like someone had a shotgun pointed at my brain, and my brains were moving too, too fast — 250 books!

What are you intending to write next?

I am taking notes for a novel. I don’t intend to start it for a while. I want to write about a woman who marries a very much older man, two people who have very different ways of thinking about who a person is; and it will deal with those two ways of thinking knocking together.

Michelle Huneven’s 1997 novel, Round Rock, is now a Vintage paperback.

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