Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Have Lunch with the Acclaimed Novelist Sue Miller on April 28th--Musings on Her New Novel, The Lake Shore Limited

It's almost time for the Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library Literary Luncheon, a great way to support the Library. Last year's event was one of my first events outside the store. It was Leif Enger talking about his book So Brave, Young, and Handsome. I don't how well the book did elsewhere in paper, but that luncheon's high profile let to solid sales for Enger for the rest of 2009.

This year's guest is Sue Miller, author of many beloved novels, including the new one, The Lake Shore Limited. Not everyone who starts out with the bang of The Good Mother can continue writing strong literary works that also resonate with lots of readers (writer talk for them selling well) but Miller is one of them. Miller's work has continued to win critical acclaim, most recently for The Senator's Wife.

The jumping off point for Miller’s new novel is 9/11. In this case, the story is about a play being performed, one with the terrorist bombing of a train. Don’t think that Miller’s gone all action-adventure, the story is about relationships and memories and regret. Having just finished Let the Great World Spin, I was curious to see how Miller would handle this touchstone tragedy that has been absorbed into so many artistic works. The results are very different, but no less interesting.

Wilehlmina Gertz’s new play is set in Chicago. A professor has learned from his son that the train his wife was travelling on has been attacked by a terrorist group. Let’s just say the family is not particularly happy with his reaction, particularly when they meet his mistress.

As we all make desperate attempts to read the artists’ life into their stories, so are the characters who see the play wondering how much this mirrors Billy’s life, or at least her feelings for her lost lover, Gus, who was on one of the 9/11 planes. And Billy acknowledges in the story a rift she had with Gus, when she lifted a private moment from their lives and put it in one of her earlier works.

The story is almost a chain of regret, jumping from the playwright, to the actor with an invalid wife who slept with her, to the sister of the victim, to a family friend set up with the playwright by the sister, who at one time had a chaste dalliance with him. The story jumps back and forth in time, but not in that present-past kind of way. No, the story keeps moving ahead and jumping back a notch, so that you get the same event from several perspectives.

The play at the center of the book is not just a framing device however. It portends the book itself, which is sort of set up in acts, and you could see that most of the plot action is of the drawing room sort where the action would be retold by the character in a living room or a restaurant or a theater. In fact, the only piece of action would be when two characters have an accident in an Arboretum. It made me curious whether Miller had thought about her novel as a play itself, making the references come full circle.

I found the answer (sort of) in an interview with Miller on the Random House site.

Q: Much of the book centers around the characters’ reactions to Billy’s play, “The Lake Shore Limited”. How and why did you structure the book as, in essence, a play within a play?

A: As I began to include some of the lines from the play and create scenes in rehearsal, it began to seem more important to me. It began to seem central to the book, actually. I began to see the book as at least in part a kind of speculation on how the experience of art can be transforming in life—for those who create it, as Billy and also Rafe, the actor, do; and for those who take it in and ponder it and ask about its connections to their own lives. And then, I suppose, I just got interested in the play, too—in writing it, at least the part you read in the book.

While Miller has not disclosed whether she would turn this novel into a play (which I still think she could do quite successfully), she has thought about writing Billy's play!

I expected one sort of novel and got another. To my surprise, it reminded me much of one of my favorite authors, Alice Adams. This led to me wondering why there was no Adams on my rec shelf, and whether there were any Adams’ books in the store at all. This reminded me of this amazing bookstore I went to in Tucson years ago (long closed) that would carry every book of every author the proprietor liked, as long as they could be obtained (and well after, as many were ostensibly new but out of print).

See? Just reading Miller leads me to that sort of chain-of-events thinking that gives the novel such energy. I’m so excited that Miller will be the guest at this year’s Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library literary lunch on Wednesday, April 28th. You can arrive early to get your books signed—doors open at 11. You can still get tickets by calling 414-286-8720 or email friends@mpl.org.

Read this Seattle Times review.

No comments: