Meet Billy Gertz: a fiercely independent playwright, whose newest drama imagines the story of a man waiting to hear if his estranged wife has survived a cataclysmic event. As her life touches three other unforgettable characters, Billy’s play—the emotion behind its genesis and its powerful performance—forms the thread that binds them all together. A moving love story and a tale of connection and loss, The Lake Shore Limited is Sue Miller at her dazzling best.
Excerpted from The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller. Copyright © 2010 by Sue Miller. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Sue Miller is the best-selling author of the novels The Senator’s Wife, Lost in the Forest, The World Below, While I Was Gone, The Distinguished Guest, For Love, Family Pictures, and The Good Mother; the story collection Inventing the Abbotts; and the memoir The Story of My Father. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
Q: The Lake Shore Limited takes its title from the famous train, but it is also the title of a play embedded within this novel—a play about a terrorist bombing of that train as it pulls into Union Station in Chicago, and a man waiting to hear whether his estranged wife is among the survivors. Billy Gertz, the woman who's written the play, has waited in just such a way on 9/11 to hear whether her lover, Gus, was on one of the planes used in that attack. Was there one event in particular that sparked the idea for The Lake Shore Limited?
A: Yes. The spark came from a friend who had a relationship that would have ended sooner than it did had not her lover’s brother died on 9/11. While this situation is not like the one I created for Billy, my fictional playwright, the situation started me thinking about the far reach of such an event; and the variety of responses that play out around it, even at some distance. And the way in which the responses may be based in feelings that might be not the expected one—ie, the way in which sometimes we’re called on to enact something we don’t feel, and the discomfort and sense of alienation from ourselves that comes from that.
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.
Q: Billy Gertz is a playwright. You, Sue Miller, are a fiction writer. There is seemingly much overlap between these two professions. At one point, Billy is having an argument with her lover, Gus. Gus is upset that Billy used a private moment between the two of them in one of her plays. Billy says, “I use me, Gus . . . . I use me up. I need all of me, and if you’re with me, that means I use you, too. I use everything. How could I not? And what I don’t use, I don’t use because it doesn’t work. Not because it’s sacred . . . . Nothing is sacred. That’s just the way it is.” Is this a conversation taken from your own life?
A: I had originally thought of making Billy a director, a director who would be working on a play like The Lake Shore Limited. But then I began to think that I wanted the connection between what she was working on and her own experience with Gus to be more than coincidence, or accident, so I made her the playwright. And while I’ve never had exactly the conversation Billy has with Gus, I’ve often thought about what the limits are for writers in terms of what they use of their own lives, and others’. There are obviously great differences in the way writers work with the material they come by through living in families, having lovers and spouses, children, friends—even pets. I think I probably fall about in the middle in terms of making use of such material—not as close to the bone as some, not as distanced as others seem, anyway. In the end, though, we all call up what we know. Perhaps the greater difference then is in the degree of transformation of the material. And perhaps part of the reason I’ve never had the discussion Billy has with Gus with anyone in my own life is that I’ve transformed what I’ve used. The transformation is the point.
Q: Have you always been a fan of the theatre? Could you see yourself writing a play one day?
A: I’ve always been interested in seeing and reading plays, though occasionally I’ve felt the way the character Pierce, in the book, does—that they’re too damned THEATRICAL. But the form interests me, as dialogue in my books has always interested me, and I could—can—imagine writing a play.
Q: The viewpoint in The Lake Shore Limited flips amongst four characters, two male (Rafe and Sam) and two female (Leslie and Billy) all of whom are at various ages and stages of their life. Why did you choose to cast the book in this way?
A: I wanted the book to look at the way this play strikes a variety of people. I had Billy nearly from the start of thinking about the book, and Leslie came next, because I knew I wanted two versions, two understandings, of what the real story was about Billy and Gus, with the play mediating between them. But I wanted to broaden the impact of the play too—to have it speak not just to the people directly involved, but to others, with other stories. Rafe and his life came next, more or less in a rush of notemaking and writing. Sam’s was last, and most complicated to develop—though I knew from the start about his connection with Leslie.
Q: You so eloquently write about the interior lives of people who are trying to understand their feelings, their relationships, themselves. How do you create such three dimensional characters, each with their own vivid and complicated pasts?
A: Now THIS is the kind of question I like, wrapped neatly in a compliment. And I think I’ve started an answer with my response to the last question. But let me also say that this is one of the most pleasurable aspects of writing for me—the construction of lives and histories. The process of imagining them so deeply as to feel I actually know these other people, these other stories. A way of escaping myself, I suppose.
Q: How do you research the specifics of what you write about? For instance, how did you know the specifics of producing a play?
A:With each book I do, there is usually at least a little research. Sometimes I can get there by reading, and I did do a lot of reading about 9/11 for this book, actually, and the experiences of people who lost family on that day as well as the history of how it happened, the timeline of the planes, the story of the telephone calls—even the book The Commission. A lot of that didn’t make it into the book, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to feel that I could begin to understand it.
As for the play, I sat in on the production of a play at the Aurora Theater in Berkeley in the spring of 2008, watching and making notes from the early stage of talk around a table about what the actors thought was intended, to the choreographing of a fight scene, to the final production. It was fascinating and not just helpful—necessary.
Q: You teach English at Smith College. What is the best advice you give to aspiring writers?
Q: Tell us a little about your writing process—how you write, when etc?
A: I make a lot of notes before I write. I want to know what I’m doing. Where I’m going. I want to feel that I’m working on a whole thing, the idea for which I have clear in my mind—the way perhaps an architect would know what he wanted to do without knowing every detail of it from the start; or a composer might know what he wanted a piece of music to do, the way he wanted it to move, without knowing all the themes in it.
I write in longhand for the first draft, typing it in when I feel ready to work on revision. Sometime that’s a small piece—a chapter—sometimes a longer chunk of the book. I type it in, pull it out and write all over it again in longhand, type it in again, pull it out, etc. etc.
I try to write in the morning, before I get enmeshed in the demands of daily life—though those are all easier now that I don’t have responsibility for a child. Towards the end of a book, I write longer days.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’ve signed a contract with Knopf for a new novel I’ve described to them, so I’ll be working on that for a few years. I’d like to try, anyway, to write Billy’s play—"The Lake Shore Limited". And I have a two-year-old granddaughter I’d like to spend as much time with as I can.
From the Hardcover edition.
“Exquisite. . . . Profound. . . . Moving. . . . Gorgeously drawn and told with stark honesty. . . . Sophisticated and thoughtful. . . . The theatrical performance serves as a surprisingly effective stage for Miller’s rueful reflection on what actors we all are—and how unfairly we convict ourselves for the impurity of our affection.”
—The Washington Post
“Quintessential Miller, touching on the themes that have animated her fiction for the past quarter-century: the potency of sex; the failure of men and women to understand each other; the hunger for a different life.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Richly layered . . . subtle, piquant, satisfying. Reading Sue Miller is like watching an invisible
painter create a lovely, affecting work in smooth, expert strokes.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Haunting. . . . Its power grows from Miller’s intimate understanding of her characters . . . of missed connections, lost opportunities, and closely held memories that mutate slowly over time. . . . Miller gives us a knowing meditation upon the acts of alchemy and theft that constitute an artist’s work: a meditation that sheds light on her own craft, so meticulously showcased in this novel.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Deeply moving. . . . [A] great accomplishment. . . . What [Miller is] doing seems easy, the most natural of narratives. And yet, stepping back to consider how precisely she was able to get any one character from here to there is enough to show us the subtlety of her art.”
“Miller seeks and impressively succeeds in finding what Wordsworth called ‘a plainer and more emphatic language’ to express ‘essential passions of the heart.’ Her art is to find those passions and that language in the streets and parks of the Boston she knows and writes about so well.”
“An engaging, mature book. . . . Immensely satisfying, in concept, content and craftsmanship. . . . Miller is so skilled at the psychological deep-dive.”
“Miller has written gripping novels that shrewdly tap the domestic zeitgeist. . . . [The Lake Shore Limited] continues the trend, exploring the fragility of love—and life—in the post-9/11 era. . . . Another graceful, poignant romance that resonates with the times.”
“Calmly perceptive. . . . Miller is a remarkably graceful writer who sweeps you up in her flow of words, in her ability to make a character seem like someone we know.”
—The Seattle Times
“An ensemble novel about love, loss, and the discontents of middle age.”
“Miller never disappoints and always surprises.”
—The Miami Herald
“Miller [is] among our foremost social anthropologists. . . . The reader can count on spending time with well-intentioned but flawed individuals who slip, hurt each other and are pummeled by the consequences, yet remain hopeful. . . . The characters are so real that it’s startling to close the book on them at the end.”
“Miller takes the reader into cinematic, three-dimensional life where men and women live through realistically complicated challenges in the midst of ordinary lives. Through each character’s self-reflection, she seems to be asking how are we doing now, in this time, in this place? The conclusion is hopeful.”
“With the surety of a master, Miller reveals the intersection of love and fate among [her] characters.”
1. Have you read any of Sue Miller’s other books? If so, does The Lake Shore Limited share any themes?
2. What do we learn from the first sentence of this novel? Now that you know the character Leslie, what does it mean to you?
3. Who did you assume was the main character when you first started reading? Did you change your mind?
4. Do you consider this to be a 9/11 novel? Why?
5. On page 8, Leslie wonders, “But was [possibility] necessary? . . . Weren’t there people, everywhere, who lived without it? Who didn’t imagine anything other than what was?” Ultimately, which of the characters are open to possibility, and which aren’t?
6. Discuss the marriages in the novel. What do they have in common? In what ways are they different? Which seems healthiest to you?
7. On page 50, Leslie realizes that “she had been asking [Pierce] whether he would come with her into what she thought of as this new life—and that he was telling her no.” How does Leslie react to this? Why?
8. In the play, Gabriel says to Anita, “It’s what we all feel. We want. Then we want more. It’s the human condition” (page 53). Is this true for Leslie, Rafe, Billy, and Sam?
9. What do you think Miller is trying to say about the creation of art and its reflection of real life?
10. The notion of playing a role is a recurrent theme in the novel. Who is most true to his or her authentic self? Who has mastered his or her role? Whose changes most drastically?
11. Why is the Henry James reference in the play (page 54) so important? What was Billy trying to say?
12. When Rafe asks Billy if the play is based on her own life, she insists it isn’t autobiographical (page 91). Is she intentionally lying, or is there something else going on here?
13. Why does sleeping with Billy affect Rafe’s performance in the play?
14. Both Rafe and Sam see themselves in Gabriel. Which man do you think is more like him? Why?
15. What does Gus represent to Billy? To Leslie? What role does grief play in the novel?
16. Over the course of the novel, various characters note that Billy looks like a child. What does this signify?
17. Why do Sam and Leslie stop at just a kiss (page 224)? What do you think would have happened if they had had an affair?
18. What is the purpose of the scene between Sam and Jerry (pages 247–254)? How does it affect Sam?
19. Why is Billy so frosty when Sam brings his son to see the play (page 265)?
20. On page 278, Leslie thinks, “But that’s what the play was about. . . . At least in part. The wish to imagine what life could be, how it could change, if you were unencumbered.” What do you think the play was about? Which of the four main characters most wishes for an unencumbered life?
21. Reread the alternate endings Billy considered for the play (page 300). Why do you think she chose to end the play the way she did?
22. On page 319, Miller writes, “Now as Sam sits in his living room, holding the Christmas letter from Emma, thinking of Melanie Gruber, he realizes that he’s called her up in part because he feels the same way about Billy, about the accident of Billy’s arrival in his life—exactly that surprised.” Why does he feel this way? How does it change him?
23. Discuss the ending. Was it satisfying? What do you imagine happens next?
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