The stories in Mary Miller’s new collection Always Happy Hour unfold along unpredictable lines, whether she’s writing about the way that questions of class fracture a friendship or chronicling a young woman becoming peripherally involved in a sinister crime. I’ve been an admirer of Miller’s work since reading her first collection, Big World, especially the way that she’s able to take the reader into the minds of characters in unexpectedly, somewhat askew situations. We conversed via email about her new collection, story titles, and more.
Always Happy Hour abounds with great titles, from the title story to “At One Time This Was the Longest Covered Walkway in the World” to “He Says I Am A Little Oven.” When in your process of writing does the title come into focus?
That’s nice of you to say. I used to be much more inventive. I’m looking at some of my more recent titles and they’re all one or two words, and super dull: “Lake Charles,” “The Backfield,” “Stray.” There has to be some happy medium… No one would ever recall “At One Time This Was the Longest Covered Walkway in the World,” though. It’s just too damn much. It’s an entire sentence!
I titled many of these stories so long ago that to change them felt like changing the story in a way I didn’t like, or want.
Titles are tough. They can’t be too on the nose or too off of it. They can’t be trying to do too much or too little.
Your story “Uphill” has a fair amount of crime fiction in its DNA. Have you ever thought about going further in that direction?
I love reading, watching, and listening to crime/prison-related stuff. At the same time, this doesn’t help me write it. I’m no criminal. I just don’t have the mindset for it. If I were to try to buy drugs—even marijuana—I’d probably make a big scene and get myself killed. I would be like ‘hello, I would like to buy some of your best drugs, please sir.’
In this story, there’s a felony-related premise: a couple driving to another town to “take a picture of a lady,” a lady who is pretty clearly marked for very bad things, but I didn’t know what to do once I got them to their destination. I ended up falling back on what I know best: my character orders room service in a hotel room while watching TV and waiting for her more worldly man to return.
One of the many things that impressed me about Always Happy Hour was its handling of complex social dynamics–especially in “First Class.” With that story, did the characters come first, or did the setting and setup?
This story is based on a friendship I have (had?) that’s quite a bit like the one in the story—a wealthy friend paying for vacations and jewelry for a middle class friend, a person who could maybe afford these things, but wouldn’t spend her money because she’s middle class, and because who knows what might happen if you spent your disposable income on a fancy vacation to Miami and then your car breaks down or you couldn’t adequately save for something necessary?
I’ve always had a fascination and preoccupation with class. I went to a prep school where many of my friends were quite wealthy. I also have three siblings and was a quiet middle child who didn’t ask for things because I didn’t want to cause any additional stresses on my parents. Because of these things, I felt like I didn’t have what other people had access to, was deprived in some way. But I’m also the type of person who could live nearly anywhere so long as I have my own space. Even in a household with six people, I had my own room. I could just shut myself off from everyone and have my own world.
I’m incredibly fortunate, privileged.
Looking back on it, though, I can see things more clearly: the rich people married other rich people, and it was clear who we all were from the beginning. There were those who struggled to send their children to a fancy school and those who belonged, and everyone knew who was who. I couldn’t articulate that then. I was under the impression that we were all equal.
When you write, do you generally begin with setting, scenario, or characters?
It’s usually a line of dialogue, but a line of dialogue that is clearly attached to a character. Something will strike me—often something that doesn’t seem remarkable at all, and a story takes off from there. I wrote this first paragraph recently: He says I’m mean. I’m not mean, I tell him, I’m just not nice.
I’m most interested in the ways in which people talk to each other. I’m always looking for hidden meanings, assuming things I shouldn’t. No one could say good morning to me and get away with it.
“For my exes” is one of the most memorable dedications I’ve seen in a while. When did you know that you wanted to use that for the book?
I suppose it came to me as I was sitting on the couch of a boyfriend who would soon be an ex, realizing that all of the stories in this collection were based, at least in part, on men that I once knew intimately but no longer talk to, that I no longer know, which is such a weird thing.
Frederick Barthelme says it best: “If you’re mad at your mother, husband, boyfriend, wife, lover, neighbor, dog, take it out on a mother, husband, etc. and put it in the mouth of one of your characters.”
John Grisham said it well, too: “The good thing about writing fiction is that you can get back at people. I’ve gotten back at lawyers, prosecutors, judges, law professors, and politicians. I just line ‘em up and shoot ‘em.”
You’d mentioned a few months ago on social media that your earlier collection Big World was going out of print. Do you have any plans to do a new edition at some point?
I’d love for it to remain in print. I know it sold okay for a small press collection, and I still really like it. I was told that Short Flight/Long Drive was going toward a limited-time release model, and I read in one of Elizabeth Ellen’s interviews that she didn’t want her book, Person/a, to be distributed via Small Press Distribution so she could pull it if she wanted. (I don’t know if their other books were pulled from SPD.)
I’m just grateful that they kept it in print for nearly a decade. Ten years! A small press book in print for nearly ten years! This is astounding, really, and Elizabeth Ellen and Aaron Burch are both incredibly generous and hard working; the small press business is difficult, to say the least. Seriously: so much work and so little reward. They deserve all the love.