Keith Lesmeister

Mary Miller Interview


Mary Miller’s debut novel The Last Days of California released in January 2014 to critical acclaim.  An accomplished short story writer, Miller’s collection, Big World, was published in 2009 by Short Flight/Long Drive Books, a publishing arm of the independent literary journal Hobart.  The Last Days of California is published by W.W. Norton & Co.  She is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas and will serve as the John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss for the academic year 2014-15.  Keith Lesmeister spoke with Mary Miller.  They discussed, among other things, food, humor, road-tripping and stand-up comedy.


Congratulations on your novel The Last Days of California. You capture so well the life and mind of a teenage girl struggling with all the things teens (everyone, really) struggle with: image, insecurities, communication with siblings, opposite sex, parents, and wondering what on god's earth my life is all about, etc. Jess, the protagonist, has some very keen insights and observations, and she's often very funny. How long did it take you to find this character and render her on the page in a way that you wanted?


Jess came to me easily. She’s largely modeled on myself, or how I saw myself at fifteen—I spent a lot of time looking in the mirror, totally stuck in my head. I just couldn’t get out of it. It was awful, really, being a sensitive artist type without any art to speak of. I was reading Stephen King almost exclusively and writing in my journal, but only the kind of vague and clichéd stuff that teens write. And of course I’d only write when I was sad. What was worse, in a way, was that I had no reason to be sad; I had a nearly idyllic childhood. My family, God bless them, recognized my intense sensitivity and were very kind to me.


In previous interviews you've mentioned that you support or believe in the idea of "write what you know." And you've been forthright about that influence in your short work. To what extent did that notion influence your novel?


By “write what you know,” I mean write about the things that interest you. Don’t feel the need to expand your repertoire in order to be relevant to society or to show your range. That being said, you should definitely challenge yourself—learn new things, develop new interests. It’s hard not to get stuck writing the same narrator, loosely based on yourself, even though these will probably be your most meaningful and profound stories.


The family in Last Days—Jess, Elise (Jess’s sister), and Mom and Dad—they’re on a vacation of sorts, road-tripping to California so they might take part in an end-of-the-world rapture-rally as led by a prophet named Marshall. The father, we learn, has been dismissed from his job which, in addition to the family’s evangelical leanings, prompts them to head west. Lack of work, or being dismissed from a job, can cause people to act in desperate ways. Can you speak to this lack of work and perhaps this kind of desperation in Last Days?


I really feel for the dad in this book. He means well, but there’s so much pressure on him to provide and to be the leader of his family, and he’s simply not cut out for it. He feels helpless, emasculated; the only way he knows how to deal with the situation is by leaning heavily on God. Religion becomes a way of escaping his struggles and failures. Everything the father in this story does is because of his inability to be the man he wants to be. I have a lot of compassion for him. And I wonder about him more than any of the characters. What does he think about in his quietest moments? Does he believe the story he’s created?


Your skills as a short story writer really serve you well in this novel. A couple of examples:


“While we got our luggage, a man on a bicycle cruised around us in wide circles.  His pants were so short his skinny brown calves showed.  One of his irises was whitish, terrifying. He rang his bell, nearly losing his balance, and my father pulled a tract out of the trunk.  We must have had a thousand of them, stashed all over.

‘Hey,’ he called, flapping it back and forth at him. The man looked alarmed and circled wider before pedaling off.

‘I bet this place is full of hookers,” Elise said.

‘I don’t see any hookers,’ our mother said.

‘That’s because they’re all busy.’

My father handed me some tracts. Then he took the cooler out and opened the plug to let the water drain.”


And later, in a hotel scene:


“Gabe introduced me to the others. They were all attractive but still had one or two things wrong with them: acne, thick legs, kinky hair, moles that needed to be removed, hook noses, gums that showed too much when they smiled, eyes that were too far apart or close together.  I didn’t have to be perfect—hardly anyone was perfect.” 


I love these passages. And, again, I think this is where your skills as a story writer really come through: the economy of language, the perfectly placed dialogue, the humor, the insight and the strong, specific, unique details. Could you talk about the difference, for you, in writing the novel versus writing stories?


There are a lot of similarities, at least on the sentence level. A writer’s job is to create vivid scenes, meaningful and entertaining dialogue. You have to be as precise as possible. I read and reread my stories dozens of times in order to get the language exactly “right.” And something is only truly finished once you’re cutting commas and then putting them back in. It’s tedious stuff, really, trying to make it look easy.


Do you have future plans with long fiction/novel?


I was working on another novel for a while (inspired by the story of Typhoid Mary), but I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know what it was about, what story I wanted to tell, and I’m not sure if I’ll go back to it. While I still like the premise, I’d probably have to start over, and I’m just not ready to do that. I’m trying to write daily, or as much as possible, even if it means editing or jotting down bits of conversation I want to use. The time between acceptance of a book and its publication is a strange, anxiety-filled time. For months, you’re focused on edits and then you’re focused on promotion and how the book will fare in the world, and it can be easy to forget the actual writing part.             



Some of your stories (Temp from your collection Big World) and parts of your novel were laugh-out-loud funny. For me, that's a rare but very satisfying occurrence while reading. Do you make intentional efforts to write humor into your work?


Humor is really subjective. I’ve had people tell me a story was totally bleak and humorless, while another called the same story hilarious. I think my work is humorous in a self-deprecating, in-on-a-terrible-joke kind of way. I appreciate humor. My siblings and I compete with each other to see who can deliver the best one-liners (though sometimes we go too far and it backfires, i.e. somebody ends up hurt; it’s just not funny at all). Humor has a lot to do with honesty. It’s like a comedian articulating a thought/experience you’ve had but never put into words. It’s funny because you recognize yourself.


Would your friends describe you as a funny person? Have you considered stand-up?


My close friends would say I’m funny, but I’m a pretty shy person so people who don’t know me well wouldn’t see me this way at all. I have considered stand-up, but I don’t think my timing is good enough, and I still have pretty bad stage fright. It used to be really bad. During my first week of graduate school, we had to give a five-minute presentation to our peers. When it was my turn, I went to the front of the room and started talking and then I had to excuse myself and sit back down. Everyone felt sorry for me. It was awful. In my defense, the topics assigned weren’t worthy of five minutes. I think this was my biggest problem—how to turn a one-minute presentation into a five-minute one via bullshit. What I’m saying is that I would probably get booed off stage and then I’d cry a lot.


In addition to the humor in your work, you capture so well those tender moments shared by two people. You do this in your short work as well as your novel. The sisters—Jess and Elise—have their sisterly spats: bickering, disagreements, envy issues. But there are also some very loving and tender moments in which they support each other both physically and verbally. I’m not sure what I’m trying to ask here. I just love the way you so naturally capture those intimate moments.


Siblings know each other so well that they don’t feel the need to be polite. They say what they want and sometimes these things are insensitive or downright cruel. They also love each other immensely (in my experience). There’s a line at the end of the novel that sums up my thoughts on family, particularly siblings: “It could be terrible having a family—you had to suffer their pains and disappointments along with your own—but the good stuff couldn’t be shared, at least not in the same way.” Jess and Elise are kind to each other when it counts, when they know the other needs it.


Novelists talk about "taking a vacation” from writing their novel. On their vacation they’ll write eighty-five short stories, twenty-six poems, and three personal essays—all of which took place over the course of two-three weeks. Did you take a vacation from your novel? If so, what did you work on?


Well, I don’t like these people, whoever they are. While I was writing the novel, I wasn’t doing much else, though I wrote a draft over a brief period, perhaps four-five months (don’t hate me—it’s a short novel and I wasn’t working at the time). It’s possible I also worked on a story or two over the course of these months, but I don’t recall. I seriously doubt I finished anything.


Food/restaurants take on prominent roles in both your short fiction and your novel. Jess’s family, for instance, eats a lot of fast food (Burger King, Taco Bell) and gas-station food. In your short fiction, food references are also frequent: chicken casserole, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, bacon, diet Coke, sandwiches, etc. There are obvious reasons for these references in writing. Such as informing character, but also the more obvious point that we all need to eat. Still, food's role in your writing seems to go beyond these two ideas.


On a road trip, food becomes more important. Long car rides are so boring, and you’re confined to a small space with very little to do. When I’m driving, I find myself thinking about lunch an hour after breakfast. Unimportant as it is, it’s something to think about.
As far as food playing a prominent role in all of my stories, it’s the everydayness that I like. The characters are also using the bathroom and showering and watching TV and doing other mundane things. Food is particularly great because it conveys information about region, class, time period, etc. I’m also interested in people’s diets—what they’re allergic to, what they like and don’t like, what they like but won’t let themselves have. I know a number of men who almost exclusively eat plain hamburgers and spaghetti. It’s so strange to me, but then I have my own dietary restrictions.


If you were planning your own road trip… Which CDs make it into your CD case? Which restaurants or food do you stop for? What time do you stop driving for Happy Hour, and what might you order?


I’d probably depend a lot on my old driving standbys: Lucinda Williams, Bruce Springsteen, Weezer, Aimee Mann, CAKE, Tom Petty, Wilco, Kathleen Edwards, The Sundays, Fiona Apple... It also depends on the time of year, i.e. The Sundays and Kathleen Edwards are much better in summer.
I don’t eat red meat or chicken so I’d be pretty limited at someplace like Wendy’s. And there’s no way I’m eating fast food fish, ever. Taco Bell’s bean burritos are a possibility. I’d stop at the gas station and buy nuts and perhaps a candy bar if I was feeling skinny that day. At happy hour, I’d order a draft beer and possibly a mushroom quesadilla or a veggie burger. I’ve been trying to switch from beer to wine because of MTV’s Girl Code. Apparently beer just isn’t ladylike. Maybe I’d have a glass of merlot instead of the beer, but probably not.


When you first started writing, which books or stories or authors most influenced you?


Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, the slim volumes of Amy Hempel, Laura Kasischke’s poetry. I was also reading a ton of literary magazines—Tin House and Swink were particularly inspiring to me. I got an acceptance from Swink, but they went defunct before the fourth issue was released. This was a real heartbreaker.


Will you do a book tour? Where might people see you and hear you read?


I’ll definitely read in Austin and then a bunch of places in Mississippi (Jackson, Oxford, Greenwood, Vicksburg). I’ll probably read in Houston, New Orleans and Memphis. If you’re in the Deep South, it should be easy to find me. I also really want to read in New York, mostly just to go to New York.


You are, as Roxane Gay might say, a very fine "literary citizen.” You’ve written a novel, a collection of stories, a collection of flash, you’ve edited journals, conducted and given interviews, you host a blog, etc. What are you writing now? What are you reading?


Thank you. I don’t feel like such a fine literary citizen lately, though I do try to promote the work of writers I love. I’m not editing a literary journal at the moment, and I miss it, but it’s also such a huge commitment of time and energy, and more and more I find myself unwilling to work for free. I blog about short stories at, but I’ve been lax about updating as of late. Lately I’ve been writing essays and revising a few stories, and I’m reading a lot. I recently finished Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (insanely good). I’m also reading Mary Karr’s Lit, The End of Free Love by Susan Steinberg, and Bobcat by Rebecca Lee. Okay, and The Hunger Games trilogy (again). I’d guess about 2/3 of the books in my house are by women.


Keith Lesmeister lives and writes in rural northeast Iowa, and teaches creative writing at the Northeast Iowa Peace and Justice Center. In February 2014, while most everyone will be at AWP, he'll be the featured artist at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Conference where they host poetry readings for farmers.  His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Meridian, River Teeth, The MacGuffin, Midwestern Gothic, Monkeybicycle and elsewhere. A former college athlete, Lesmeister's mid-range jump shot is a work of unprecedented beauty.