The Last Days of California
Mary Miller is the author of the new novel The Last Days of California (Norton/Liveright, 2014) and the story collection Big World (Hobart’s Short Flight/Long Drive Books, 2009). She has been granted a Michener Fellowship at the University of Texas and the John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. The Last Days of California follows the family of 15-year-old Jess as they leave their home in the South to drive to California to await the rapture prophesied to come in just four days. The book’s emotional core is the relationship between Jess and her older sister Elise, as well as Jess’s attempts to share her father’s faith that has put them on the road. This is a coming of age story hurried into the last gasp before a supposedly coming end, with Miller’s sharp prose moving us fast across our apocalypse-obsessed country, this roadside America of faith and faithlessness, angst and love, rest stops and hotel pools and Waffle House.
Matt Bell (Rail): In an interview in 2011 in The Rumpus, you said, “I’ve given up on novels for the time being and I feel very happy about that.” I read somewhere else that you tried to adapt two stories from Big World into novels, without success. What was getting in your way? What changed that made The Last Days of California possible?
Mary Miller: I had no intention of attempting another novel. Trying to turn a short story into a novel was a really bad idea in my experience. I’m sure others have done it successfully, but I certainly wasn’t able to. They were wandering and episodic and had no trajectory, no momentum. In the end, all of the material was unusable and it just felt like a gigantic waste of time.
With The Last Days of California, I found a story I wanted to tell and knew it would have to be rather long in order to do it justice. It was inspired by a newspaper article I read in May of 2011, about a man who’d driven his family from the east coast to the west coast to await the rapture in Pacific Time. There were few details and I became very curious about this man, what his real motivations were. I wanted to write the story of this family since I couldn’t know. Due to the structure—road trip, four days—time was more easily manageable. It suddenly felt possible. It was also a reminder that a story will determine its own length; maybe it’s 300 words and maybe it’s 70,000.
Rail: One of the blurbs for the novel called the book “pre-apocalyptic,” which I like a lot. We’re definitely living in an apocalypse-obsessed country right now, and writing in an apocalypse-obsessed literary culture. What is it about this family’s journey to meet the rapture that caught your attention?
Miller: I had just finished my first year at the Michener Center for Writers and was home in Mississippi, between apartment leases. I had nothing but time on my hands so I began following the rapture coverage on the news and in the paper. People were giving away their life savings, abandoning their families; they were preparing themselves for the end. Of course it was a very small segment of the population, but they were making a lot of noise. As someone who grew up Catholic, I found it bizarre and unbelievable and, well, kind of wonderful—all this passion, desire. I was intrigued but had no idea I’d write about it until I read that particular article. I started writing the same day, placing the family in a Waffle House in western Louisiana, an area of the country that I know best. To my surprise, the words came easily, and I worked on it every day for months.
Rail: Writing about people you didn’t know yet but starting them off in a place you knew well seems like a smart way to give yourself a point of entry, to be sure that you start from your own authentic experience even as you’re entering into the mystery of the story. Is place separate from character for you, or are the two always intertwined? It seems to me that in your stories much of the setting was conveyed in the voice, if that makes sense.
Miller: Some stories simply require a kitchen or a living room and the particulars don’t matter that much. Of course details are important—we’d know more about the characters if the TV was really old with no remote control as opposed to a 50-inch plasma—but it wouldn’t affect the actual narrative. Other stories could only be set in one time and place, which becomes integral to the characters and action. More and more, I’m becoming interested in place as character, and find myself drawn to movies, TV shows, and books that rely heavily on it. A few that I’ve recently loved: Lilyhammer (a Netflix original series), Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida, and Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois.
Rail: You’ve always had a fantastically economical and tight prose style, and it seems to me that style has made it into the novel intact, if not better than ever. When I was in grad school, one of the truisms that seem to float around was that the novel couldn’t sustain the same intensity of language that the short story or poem allow, as if readers needed an easier prose if they were going to be expected to read 300 pages of it. I always hated that idea, and it seems sort of obviously untrue, as a reader. But as a writer, it is obviously more challenging to sustain a certain kind of tightness or syntactical surprise over longer spans, which for me mostly meant that novel-writing required even more revision and rewriting than ever before, in order to get the whole of the prose where I wanted it. Was that a struggle for you in any way, or was it simply a matter of writing longer, writing more? Did you face any other technical challenges in writing The Last Days of California? What got in your way, and how did you get past those obstacles?
Miller: I think this is one of the difficulties I had in turning short stories into novels—not the main reason, the main reason was that I didn’t have a story that required so many words—but I was trying to use the same prose that I would in a 2,500-word story. The sentences in my short stories are choppier and often more bizarre/unclear than they are in the novel. I just read a few passages from Big World and The Last Days of California to compare. The difference is subtle, but it’s there. In the novel, I worked at making the sentences as fluid and as clear as possible. Now I want to gather statistics, like average sentence length. It would be interesting to actually quantify the differences.
My prose has gradually changed over time. For a long time, I wrote only flash fiction and very short-short stories, and it was important for a sentence to do as much work as possible. Now I don’t feel like there’s such a hurry. I don’t have to cram as much meaning into a sentence as possible; I can take a paragraph if I need to, or three. I didn’t have any technical challenges. It was a challenge to make myself work every day, but that’s about it. That’s always a challenge.
Rail: Was that a change in your writing process, from when you were writing stories? Or was that a daily discipline too? I know you’re working on another novel already: Is that a continuation of that discipline? Is there anything you’re approaching differently, from a craft perspective, having succeeded at the novel once before?
Miller: I was working on another novel, but I’ve put it aside for the time being. I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever complete another one. I hope I do, but I don’t know. The Last Days of California seemed to write itself, as trite as that sounds. But it came easily. The novel I began this past summer, however, grew more and more difficult by the day. I started to really stress out about the “moves” I needed to make, and it all began to feel like so much work. After a few months, it simply wasn’t fun to work on and I told myself if I wasn’t having fun writing it, the reader wouldn’t have fun reading it, either. I don’t know how accurate this is. I’m new to this whole novel-writing business. I’ve always felt that way with writing, though, to one degree or another—if I’m working too hard to get words on the page, perhaps I’m trying to tell a story that doesn’t need to be written. I think it’s something to consider. I’m back to writing short stories now, and the occasional essay.
Rail: Speaking of your stories, the ones in Big World often revolve around relationships between sisters, a trend that continues in The Last Days of California, with Jess frequently measuring herself against her older sister Elise. What is about the relationship between sisters that keeps you coming back? Would you say that Jess is a continuation of the kind of narrators you were working with in Big World?
Miller: That’s a great question. Jess is definitely her own person—someone I haven’t written about before, but I do love writing about sisters. I feel kind of bad because I have two brothers and my narrators hardly ever have brothers. As much as I love them, the relationship with my sister has always been closer and more fraught. As kids, we slept in the same bed because I was afraid of the dark. We’re taking a month-long trip to Ireland and Spain together this spring. It’s complicated, though, because we want so much for each other and don’t always live up to the other’s expectations. At this point, I think we’ve let a lot of that pressure go, but it took a long time. My sister is great—funny and bossy and an amazingly good songwriter. And she loves it when I put sisters in my stories, so long as they aren’t fat.
Rail: How you characterize your own relationship with your sister—“because we want so much for each other and don’t always live up to the other’s expectations”— feels like it could describe Elise and Jess’s relationship too. In my own writing, it often seems I have to go pretty far in writing a life very unlike my own before my personal or autobiographical experiences become usable on the page. And of course, by then they’re usually warped by the new context I put them in, so no one’s going to mistake them as my own. Obviously, The Last Days of California isn’t autobiographical in origin, but I’m curious what it made possible that the stories in Big World and the stories since weren’t allowing you to do. Did writing this rapture-destined road trip allow you to get somewhere new too, as a writer? What I mean is, were there ideas or situations or themes you wanted to explore that your stories weren’t allowing but this novel did
Miller: When I’ve written about sisters in the past, the girls/women are often quite similar (“Cedars of Lebanon,” “Even the Interstate Is Pretty,” “Big World”). They’re more alike than different, they might even be twins. I wanted more contrast between the girls in the novel. I wanted them to be close and intricately linked while also being different in very measurable ways. I recalled the times men have been talking about other women to me and said, “she’s a knockout,” and how there was nothing to say to that. It was like they were pointing out that I wasn’t a knockout, which I’m perfectly aware of, thank you, and I wanted Jess’s relationship with her sister to be complicated by that. My sister and I are similar in a lot of ways and never really felt competitive. People still confuse us, though we don’t look all that much alike. Jess and Elise would never be confused. Jess will always feel unattractive and uncool next to her sister; she’ll never be able to see herself objectively.
As far as other ideas or situations I’m exploring here that I haven’t before, not really. I’m always interested in dependency issues and obsessive tendencies, familial relationships, and young narrators who are trying to figure out how they fit into the world. I was, however, able to delve deeper than ever before.
Rail: I absolutely felt that more distinct difference between the two sisters, as opposed to the sisters in Big World. I thought that one smart thing you’d done in setting up the sisters’ relationship was making the older sister so much more attractive (at least by Jess’s telling), which changed the dynamic between them, and which absolutely rewrites the stakes in certain parts of the novel from what they would have been with Big World sisters, especially those in the stories you mentioned. One of the other aspects of the novel I enjoyed the most was how fresh it felt as a road trip novel, in part because I feel like the road trip is one of the most typical first novel structures—the coming of age story, but in motion—but it seems like it’s rarely pulled off this well. What drew you to the form?
Miller: I love road trip novels. Mostly, I like it when the characters are on the run (check out the first three novels by Willy Vlautin). But I didn’t set out to write a road trip novel, or any novel. It was just this story that interested me, or, I should say, the lack of story. I had the urge to fill in the blanks. And I’m sure the family who took that trip is nothing like the Metcalfs, but that’s okay. And what if one of them read it and contacted me?
Rail: What if they did? It seems like their story could have easily been played for a certain kind of cheap mocking, and probably was by some of those who reported on it. Obviously that’s not the direction you’ve taken, but are there any other anxieties, or a lingering sense of responsibility toward the seed material? Is there an ideal reaction you might hope for, if they someday read the book?
Miller: Other than the idea—driving cross-country to await the rapture in Pacific Time—I used nothing else, because there was nothing else available. There’s a part of me that’s a little nervous about talking about the real man, Harold Camping, who predicted that the rapture would occur on May 21, 2011, but I haven’t said anything other than this man did this thing. I don’t know. I would find it incredibly surprising and unlikely if someone from that family picked up The Last Days of California in a bookstore. They’re probably very religious people who only go to religious bookstores or something. I seriously doubt they’re anything like the free-wheeling daughters or the half-hearted parents in my novel, but I don’t know. Maybe they are. Maybe I’ve gotten more correct than I could ever imagine.