I’ve been an admirer of Mary Miller’s fiction ever since I read 2009’s Big World, a taut and potent collection that fell firmly in the “buy copies for literary-minded friends” vein. Miller’s first novel, The Last Days of California, follows four members of a family as they travel from the Southeast to California by car in anticipation of the coming Rapture. The novel’s teenage narrator, however, is less concerned with theological matters and more focused on the quotidian concerns of young adults everywhere. I reached out to Miller to learn more about the origins of The Last Days of California, as well as her thoughts on road trips, fictional denominations, and more.
In The Last Days of California, you write about yourself that you “said [you] would always and only be a short story writer.” Did this novel arise out of a short story — or did the scope of it emerge fully-formed?
After trying to expand a couple of short stories into novels, I had given up on the idea of writing anything longer than seven or eight thousand words. I embraced the idea of being a short story writer. I read bios in literary magazines and noticed how many of them ended with “He/she is currently at work on a novel” and decided I would not be one of these people. As a short story writer, you can work on something different every week — every day, even. There’s a lot of freedom in that.
The Last Days of California came as a surprise. When I began, I knew right away that the narrative would require a longer form. Because of the timeline and structure — a family making a cross-country road trip, needing to get to California in a few days — it was a lot easier to see it as something doable. It gave me a trajectory to follow, an outline. Suddenly it seemed within the realm of possibility.
The narrator’s first name, and the surname of her family, aren’t revealed until partway through the novel. Was that a conscious choice, or did it come about organically as you wrote the novel?
Because I write primarily in first person, my narrators often go unnamed, or I have to make a conscious effort to work their names into the story. When people know each other well and are sharing the same space, they generally don’t say each other’s names all that often—it’s unnatural—and I want the dialogue to be as authentic as possible. But there’s also something else. When I reread one of my stories and the narrator’s name is mentioned, I’ll think, ‘she doesn’t feel like a Jillian/Sara/Lori/Amelia,’ and from that point forward, she becomes more of a character to me, made up. Whereas a name may make a reader feel closer to my narrators, it pushes me further away. I recall all of the other people I’ve ever known with that name. I imagine Jillian Michaels from The Biggest Loser or my pageant-loving college roommate who grew up on a pig farm.
As far as the family’s surname, Metcalf, I believe it’s only mentioned once, and I inserted it at the last minute. It’s the maiden name of one of my close friends.
The church to which the family belongs plays a major role in setting the novel in motion. How much background detail about it had you figured out before you began writing?
I grew up Catholic and don’t know much about the rapture or evangelical Christians. The novel was never about religion for me; it was about this particular family. I did just enough research as I went along—I didn’t do any before I began—that hopefully someone who did grow up in a fundamentalist Christian environment wouldn’t think I was completely full of shit. I also never mention the family’s denomination, so no one could ever really say I was wrong. In the South, particularly in more rural areas, thirty people might get together to form a church and who knows what goes on there? I once worked in an office where three out of four of the men were preachers (this is an exact statistic; there were four men in the office and three of them were preachers).
The narrator’s father emerges as a sometimes contradictory figure: very conservative in his politics, yet somewhat oblivious to what his daughters are doing as they travel across the country. Did you envision him as someone born into his faith, or someone who had converted to it at some point in his life?
The father was born into his faith, though he’s become more religious as he’s gotten older. He’s definitely a contradictory figure — his words and actions couldn’t be more at odds. He drinks alcohol and gambles; he eats terribly, is bad with money. He’s consumed with himself, with his problems, and sees religion as the only way for him to have some measure of control over a situation that feels increasingly unmanageable.
Do you plan on returning to any of these characters in the future?
No, I’m done with these characters. I’ll continue to write stories about sisters, but not these particular sisters. Now that you ask, though, I’m tempted to write about them as adults. I’m curious about the grownup lives of beautiful, popular kids, perhaps because there’s some element of wanting to see them get knocked off the pedestals they were placed on so early. That being said, I don’t know what I’d find once I started writing and I really like Elise. I wouldn’t want to see her living in a doublewide with two kids and an alcoholic husband.
There’s a car accident at the beginning of The Last Days of California that helps to set the unpredictable, emotionally raw mood for the story that follows. Where did the idea to have this random, horrific event come from?
I wrote the car accident into the first draft, though it became more detailed and intense with each rewrite. I’m not sure where the impulse came from, or why I wrote it into the story so early. I’ve never seen such an accident. I think a part of me wanted to imagine how I would react if I not only witnessed a fatal car accident, but actually became involved. Would I be emotional? Would I see them as people like me, simply running to the grocery store or the post office, or would I distance myself from them? Would I think of them after the fact? It was an opportunity for me to consider these things.
Given that this is a novel set on a road trip, I’m curious: what’s been your favorite road trip to date?
In my senior year of college, my friend Jane and I drove from Tupelo, Mississippi to Denver to visit her sister. We were twenty-one-years-old and had barely been out of Mississippi. We swam in an indoor pool somewhere in Oklahoma, counted the tumbleweeds that bounced across the roads. Poor Jane had to drive the whole way because I couldn’t operate a stick shift. I had a boyfriend at the time and made her stop every few hours so I could call him from a pay phone, which must have been completely insufferable. Jane and I always exacerbated each other’s incompetence—we were always getting lost, drunk, running cars into ditches — but this trip went incredibly smoothly. Not even a flat tire. It was sort of our “coming out” as adults.
Photo: Dolores Ulmer