Excerpted from While I Was Gone by Sue Miller. . Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. 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 Lake Shore Limited, 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 Cambridge.
A CONVERSATION WITH SUE MILLER
Michelle Huneven is the author of the novels Round Rock and Jamesland. She and Sue Miller have been friends for twenty-two years.
MICHELLE HUNEVEN: You’ve been writing books from varying points of view. While I Was Gone is in the first person, as was your first novel, The Good Mother. Is there a reason for your return to a first-person narrator?
SM: I thought first person would carry me into it much faster. And then, I wanted to call it While I Was Gone and I didn’t see how I could write it in the third person and turn around and call it that. (Laughs.) This is the way decisions get made. I do think the first person is always more immediate for the reader, who feels that someone is buttonholing him and telling him a story. If the voice is compelling, the reader is locked in. But the first person is also more compelling for the writer. If you know the story you want to tell, once you get launched in the voice, it’s very uncomplicated in a certain way: You have just this limited perspective in which to tell the tale. You don’t entertain a lot of other points of view; you don’t have to account for facts beyond the blinkered vision of the narrator. For me, with this book, I wanted that ease. I’d been having trouble writing a different book, a memoir of my father and his Alzheimer’s that I’d given up on, and I wanted to be in the midst of something, fast, in part to reassure myself about my writing generally.
MH:Although your opinion eventually changed, while you were writing While I Was Gone you remarked several times that you didn’t like it very much. What didn’t you like about it?
SM: 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 Jo as a character because I knew she was limited. I found it hard to like her.
MH:Hey! I really liked Jo, I identified with her. I’m confused when you say she’s limited.
SM: By that I mean simply that she doesn’t really know herself. She was so alien to me, this person who was a little unconscious of things around her. She’s not self-centered, she’s other-directed, but she’s a little frightened of human beings. She’s 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 is holding the twins and they’re wailing and she just leaves? I think that stands in for a pattern in her life. Every day, she just leaves. She turns away from what’s complicated. I think people who do that pay a certain price. Jo’s not at a stage of her life where she’s changing radically or growing. She’s done what she’s wanted to do, and she’s not at all unhappy with herself. But there are aspects of her character that have remained unexamined, blind spots that she never discusses.
MH:Yes, this book seems to be about those unexamined aspects rearing up, demanding attention. From the first chapter, there’s a sense that something is about to surface. Her kids have left, her husband’s busy, she’s suddenly thrown back on herself more than she has been.
SM: Yes, I very much wanted her to be restless before Eli got there, which is why the book starts with the scene it starts with. Jo was someone who hadn’t looked at her life with a great deal of care; she was a person of action. She’s a very decisive person. That is some of what’s appealing about her but also what makes it hard for people around her who care for her deeply to feel close to her at times. She just moves fast, without fully taking into account the
widening circle of effect she has on people. She’s quite startled to hear it’s become Dana’s great quest to find out more about her. She doesn’t consider the effect her name change has on anybody, or the effect of never having discussed certain things with her children, or how they might feel when they do find out about her first marriage and other details of her life before them. Then there’s the fact that she doesn’t share her thought processes with her husband at this very critical moment in her life. That is hard on him.
MH:The opening of the book is so luminous and dark. It hits “the long, beautiful, somber note” Jo mentions and 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.”
SM: 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.
I wanted to use that image, which is one that I connect to my parents. I saw them in a boat, my mother reading, my father fishing. The birds above, the trout below. But with it, I wanted also to picture the impatience that resides in happiness. And, in this particular book, the impatience that resides in people at midlife, who have done what they wanted to do, gotten what they want, and worked very hard to do so. People who look around themselves and think,
now I have everything, and it’s okay, but where’s the sense of transformation? And then realize, oh, there’s just more of this. Jo is a very happy person who can’t rest with that happiness.
MH:And what about Daniel? Where is he in his life?
SM: It’s lots less clear, in part because Jo is the narrator and she doesn’t really think about Daniel all that much. At one point she’s talking about the series of near-flings she’s had, the times she’s been tempted sexually in her life before Eli, and she says, “I assume Daniel has had the same thing.” She is simply not that curious, so she doesn’t really know. For one thing, she’s very confident of his love. But she just hasn’t ever asked him. That, in a way, is symptomatic of what we can’t know about Daniel because the book is written in the first person. But he seems to be very content in his life and not to be undergoing the same kind of questioning that Jo is. Lots of people have talked and written to me about the book and there’s a range of opinion about Daniel, but one opinion that quite a few people have expressed to me is that he’s simply too good to be true.
MH:Well, I see big flaws. I think he’s a workaholic like all ministers are.
SM: I thought so too. And I thought he was a little abstracted in his approach to Jo. His approach to life is that we can talk this through, we can work this through. There’s a distancing quality in that, an unwillingness to sit with someone in the ambiguity of her life, which could be very irritating to another, and is part of why Jo withholds certain things from him. But I think, from what we know of him, and from what I was able to show of him, Daniel is someone who is really quite fulfilled and quite happy. I think he is much more wounded by what Jo does because he does feel so content with her and is not restless or questioning his life.
MH:And he gets so angry at her. Even though we know he’s going to forgive her, he really takes his time. As readers, we’re impatient with him: Get over it already!
SM: (Laughs.) Yeah, a lot of people feel that way. As Jo points out, she hasn’t actually done anything.
MH:Although he points out that the only reason she didn’t is that her potential lover turned out to be a murderer!
SM: Yes. Daniel is put in this incredible position where he’s actually grateful for such a thing, which he feels very horrible about. He feels almost as horrible about that—that he’s happy about Eli’s being a murderer—as he is about what Jo has done! He feels very compromised. And in addition, he’s someone who believes, deeply, that her intent to sleep with someone else is nearly as serious as doing it.
MH:Although if she’d been really focused on it, she probably wouldn’t have talked so much to Eli but just pulled him upstairs to the room.
SM: Except that Eli’s focus was entirely on the talk. I was trying to suggest very clearly that she misread Eli’s every step toward her. For him, everything was leading to the moment when he could say this thing to her that had been inside him for so long.
MH:And that’s one of the delicious things about the scene in the hotel.
SM: In writing it, it was too. Each character was feeling better and better about the other person for these different reasons. A complete misunderstanding on both sides working to push the whole conversation further and further. It was very pleasurable to write.
MH:There are many instances of such virtuosic writing to admire in While I Was Gone, not the least of which is the sermon Daniel gives. A good sermon is not the same as a wellorganized essay, or a well-structured story; it’s more a lacing together of abstract ideas and concrete illustrations in such a way that meaning accretes and accretes. It’s not easy to write a good sermon, but you succeeded in doing it. How?
SM: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 certainly knew patterns that people used in making sermons; certain turns they took, and the kind of coming back around that they would do. I heard my grandfather preach, I heard my father preach, and lots of their friends, and I knew the ones my parents thought were better than others. Growing up for me was a kind of ongoing homiletics course. And then the sermon is such 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—after she hears the sermon she’s in love with Daniel all over again in an active and excited way. She feels that he has given the sermon to her and that he is a wonderful man and she just sort of runs out in the rain thinking, “my husband.” That really engaged me. The sermon itself was also very intellectually engaging.
MH:This is also a visually strong book. There are some images I still can’t get out of my mind. When Jo, as Licia, 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?
SM: It was a detail from a murder I knew of that actually took place. Doug (my husband) works at a homeless shelter, and he was talking to a male nurse there who’d gone out on a call to pick up a guy who’d been stabbed. He tried to give him mouth to mouth and the air just blew out of a wound on the man’s face. We were both just so stunned by that fact—how real it made it, how awful—and I used it.
MH:In an interview you gave, you talked about how you intentionally had some images reappear and shift in meaning throughout the book. For example, the image of blood: The first time Jo gets spattered by blood is when she witnesses a bar fight and is thrilled; then she finds Dana bleeding to death and, of course, is horrified. Finally, in a related image, Daniel throws a tomato at her and again she gets spattered. Did you really set up the two blood spatterings and the tomato consciously?
SM: Yes. First there’s the blood she takes all this pleasure in, feeling that she’s experiencing something raw and tough and real. And then there’s the real blood, the terrible blood of someone she loves and can’t help, which shows her some of the risk of being in life, that it’s not something you necessarily control. Then with the tomato, I wanted to depict a nearmurderous rage in a safe relationship, which is the one she has with Daniel.
MH:Which provides a remarkable juxtaposition between Eli and Daniel: Eli gets mad and kills someone; Daniel gets mad and throws a tomato.
SM: And Jo is splattered as she was with the bar fight. But this time, she’s able to perceive Daniel’s ability to choose whether to hurt her or not, and of course he doesn’t. He wants to show her how angry he is, but he’s also capable of showing that without hurting her, without injuring her with his anger. So those were intentional moves—those three bloody scenes which echo each other—although I’m not sure you think of these things absolutely ahead of time. But as the images come up, you see the usefulness in them. I do think there are mysterious processes at work in fiction that have to do with connections made unconsciously or on some preconscious level that need to be allowed to happen. I’d rather overwrite and then cut down, letting stuff occur to me that I may choose not to use in the end, rather than never allowing something to bubble up to the surface.
1. In the novel's first scene Jo describes the movement of her boat upon the waters: "In the air above us swallows darted--dark, quick silhouettes--and once a cedar waxwing moved smoothly through them. Layers of life above me. Below, I could hear the lap of the deep water through the wall of the boat." How does this reflect the book's epigraph? How do this passage, and the epigraph, work together to express the novel's themes? In what sense are the "trout" in the book's epigraph, and the "deep water" in this passage, metaphors for a universal experience? What do you think they are meant to represent, and how do they foreshadow the novel's events?
2. One of the notions Miller returns to throughout the novel is the fracturing of identity, and the disparity between past and future selves. On page 11 she notes, "The impossibility of accepting new versions of oneself that life kept offering. The impossibility of the old version's vanishing." What does she mean by this? How does this relate to Jo's experience in Cambridge? How does it contribute later to her attraction for Eli?
3. The first lie Jo tells about herself when she moves into the house on Lyman Street is her name--she calls herself Felicia Stead. Is this an important lie? What about the stories Jo makes up about her background? How did you feel about this section of the novel, and about Jo/Felicia during this period? Do you think the liberties she takes with these and other details about her previous life enable her to be more herself--more honest, in a way, because this reinvention of herself is truer to her heart than the life and the identity she fled--or do they engage her in falsehoods and deceptions that undermine the possibility of truth, and of true friendship?
4. Discuss Jo's feelings after Daniel's sermon. She has not seen him since their disagreement the night before; yet as she leaves the church she feels "such a wild reckless joy and excitement that I wanted to yell, to dance under the pelting rain. Daniel! I wanted to shout . . . Daniel, my husband!" What's changed?
5. Discuss the sermon itself--in particular, this notion of "memory as a god-given gift." How do themes of memory and forgetfulness reverberate in the novel as a whole? What relationship, if any, does memory have to morality? How and on what levels do you think Jo was moved by Daniel's sermon? How were you moved by it as a reader?
6. After Eli's confession Jo has to make a series of difficult choices. She could have shielded Daniel from the knowledge that she had been prepared to commit adultery, but to do so she would also have had to shield Eli. Should she have turned Eli in to the authorities? Should she have confessed her romantic intentions with Eli to Daniel? What should Jo have done? What do you think the author believes Jo should have done? What would you have done?
7. After he confesses to the murder, Eli makes the argument that his scientific achievements counterbalance his crime. "I've worked the rest of my life to assure that who I am has some meaning, some value beyond this part of my past . . . And I have lived my life that way: making sure every day of its usefulness, of its meaning. I wrecked one life, yes. Dana's life . . . but I've given, I'm giving now, to thousands, to hundreds of thousands, of other lives." Has Eli redeemed himself? How is your response to this shaped by the fact that--financially, in stature, in his notion of his own self-worth, in the pleasure that he derives from it--Eli has benefited from this work? Can a person who has committed a murder ever be redeemed? What do you think the author believes, and why?
8. Long before Eli's confession to Jo, Eli and Jo meet for coffee and Jo makes a similar comment about her own guilt about having treated her first husband so poorly, and how her work has helped to ease her conscience: "It made me feel I'd earned my way back to a normal life." Is this legitimate? More legitimate than Eli's argument? Do you feel that either of them ever really has to face the consequences of their mistakes? Discuss the differences--and the similarities--between the ways in which the two have lived their lives.
9. After Jo's description of her second meeting with Daniel, she says, "We were married six weeks later, and I would say we have lived happily, if not ever after, at least enough of the time since. There are always compromises, of course, but they are at the heart of what it means to be married. They are, occasionally, everything." What does she mean by this? What kinds of compromises have she and Daniel made for each other? Discuss this in relation to the end of the novel. Look in particular at the scene where Daniel waits in the shadows for Jo to depart ("He's seen me in the car, and he's stopped there, waiting. He doesn't realize I've seen him. He doesn't want me to see him."), and the scene with Daniel and Jo at the airport ("I made myself register consciously the expression that had passed for a moment over his face as he moved forward to hold me: a sadness, a visible regret.")
10. When her children were young, Jo used to tell them bedtime stories about a character named Miraculotta. One night Cassie said to Jo, "I know who Miraculotta really is, Mom . . . she's you." Later, as an angry, disaffected fourteen-year-old, Cass's awe for her mother has changed to contempt: "You're so limited," Jo recalls Cass telling her, and in response, Jo thinks, "Well yes, of course I am." What does Jo mean by this? Is she referring to herself specifically, or to all parents? What do you feel about Jo as a mother?
11. "Deliberately, playfully, I fed fantasies about Eli. I allowed them to become sexual, I gave them specific flesh. I imagined us in sundering, tearing passions in hotel rooms in Boston, in nondescript motels or inns in towns twenty or fifty miles away . . . It was all right to imagine this, I said to myself . . . as long as I understood it wasn't going to happen." Do fantasies have a morality? Is it all right to imagine, as long as we don't follow through? Are thoughts, in and of themselves, dangerous? Immoral?
12. What do you think of Daniel and Jo's marriage? Would Jo's betrayal of Daniel have been more profound if she'd actually had an affair with Eli? What do you think the author thinks, and why?
13. At the end of the novel, several people are confronted by revelations they find shocking about people they thought they knew: Sadie discovers the murder in her mother's past; Jo discovers that her father had a previous marriage; and Daniel, of course, discovers his wife's near infidelity. In her letter to Sadie, Jo writes, "Now there's a different message, I guess, something having to do with our inability to know or guess at the secret depths of another person." Later she makes reference to a similar feeling on Daniel's part--"the momentary possibility that he didn't know me at all"--and she recalls her mother's words after her mother's confession: "We're the same, aren't we? It hasn't changed us in your eyes to know this." Is it possible to ever really know another person? Should all secrets be told?
14. Using Jo's reflections after her mother's confession ("It seems we need someone to know us as we are--with all we have done--and forgive us . . . ") and, most particularly, her reflections in the novel's closing pages ("Perhaps it's best to live with the possibility that around any corner, at any time, may come the person who reminds you of your own capacity to surprise yourself, to put at risk everything that's dear to you. Who reminds you of the distances we have to bridge to begin to know anything about one another. Who reminds you that what seems to be--even about yourself--may not be. That like him, you need to be forgiven."), discuss the theme of forgiveness in the novel.