I meet Rebecca Miller in a Dublin hotel on a day when torrential rain has caused traffic gridlock. We’ve both travelled from County Wicklow and have arrived a few minutes late. We’re here to discuss Total, Miller’s new book of short stories.
It’s a masterful collection showing characters in extremis and is both comedic and dark. Drawn from inspiration over many years, she wrote the bulk of the stories during the first lockdown, in New York. Did some of the darkness of that time seep into the stories?
“I think so, yes,” she says, after a pause for thought. “I don’t see how it could not have. I mean, we were all washing our groceries, and had a terror of touching. And to think that there was no vaccine – it was terrifying! Death was everywhere and the sense that outside your circle of life there is darkness is definitely present in the stories.”
This collection is the first Miller has produced in over twenty years. (Her first, Personal Velocity, a Washington Post Best Book of 2001, was the basis for her award-winning film of the same name.) But that’s not to imply that Miller has been idle in the interim. There have been two novels, four other feature films, and a documentary film about her father, the playwright Arthur Miller.
When I remark on her brilliance and versatility, she says that there was no other career she could have done. But I don’t let her away with that; because, starting life as an artist and sculptor, Miller also spent a decade performing as a stage and film actor.
“But that was years ago,” she says, claiming that most of it came about by accident.
Miller started writing in her teens, but art became her passion.
“In fact, I was heartbroken when I realised I wanted to make a film,” she says. “I started with short films which were really like art pieces. Then, after a dream about my two best friends, I wanted to make a large sculpture with a motor, and I wanted to film it. I priced it out, and realised I needed 30,000 dollars for the project.
“By a weird series of events I got the opportunity to audition for a part for TV. I’m not an actor, but I could get by, and I got the part. I got paid 30,000 dollars and made the sculpture. After that I worked with some great directors, including Peter Brooke for the Cherry Orchard. But I was never a great success in film, and that was great, because I never became famous.”
And that was good?
“Yes, fame would have been bad,” she says, “because acting is not the thing I’m best at and I wasn’t as talented as I wanted to be.”
All this, she says, was interwoven with her filmmaking. Her big break came in 1995 with her first feature film, Angela. But although the movie won her both acclaim and awards, it failed to make money – and she couldn’t raise funds for a follow up film. And that’s when she turned to fiction.
All her publications have been wonderfully received, but Total sees her at the top of her game. The startling first story, Mrs Covet, gives the reader a rollercoaster ride. It starts with an infestation of ladybugs. The narrator, a woman pregnant for the third time, can’t bring herself to deal with the so called ‘Lucky’ insects.
Instead, she ruminates about her life, and sex, wondering, idly, if she has time for a quick orgasm before picking her elder son up from school.
When her mother-in-law provides her with help, in the form of the motherly Mrs Covet, she happily relinquishes the care of her children. There are hints that all might not be well, but the shocking dark denouement, is narrated with a true sense of humanity, understanding and forgiveness.
Where do such stories spring from?
“I first wrote Mrs Covet when I was breastfeeding my youngest child, who is now 20. I was in that mindset, and in the conflict of wanting help, but also wanting to protect your kid. And also, how frightening the world suddenly becomes when a baby is so vulnerable. And there was, actually, an invasion of ladybugs.”
Writing in the dark, with little flashbacks, Rebecca doesn’t necessarily know what will happen next, or how the story will end.
“Usually I know nothing, and I start with a character or an event,” she says. “Sometimes, as a younger woman, I couldn’t figure how to put clothes on an idea. They’re like little souls that need bodies, and that’s what takes the time. That took me many years, but during the pandemic I was able to sit down and work it all out.”
A story set in Dublin, She Came to Me, features Ciaran Fox, a middle-aged writer who fears he will never have a new idea for a novel. The spark for this one, was a period when Miller suffered from complete writer’s block.
“I think that is something all writers can connect to in a way,” she says, “and especially if you’ve had a measure of success. Are you writing something that has any value to anybody? Or enough value that it can cause a shadow in this world?”
It happened to Miller when she was making the transition from writing screenplays to short stories.
“It was a genuinely frightening thing,” she says. “I was here in Ireland, and I didn’t have any other job, and I didn’t have kids yet, so, to distract myself I volunteered in a woman’s shelter, working in the creche. A little bit later, a short story came to me, and I gradually built the entire Personal Velocity collection round that story.”
Having lived around creatives her entire life – her mother, Inge Morath, Arthur Miller’s third wife, was a photographer, and she’s married to actor Daniel Day Lewis – Miller can’t imagine another life.
“You think, wouldn’t it be interesting to have a mother or father who was a banker?”
She’s happy with her choices, liking the way films and writing naturally dovetail.
“The two things, films and writing feel like breathing in and out,” she says. “Filmmaking is brutal on many levels – getting it all together can destroy your sanity, but you can control your writing. You can write a story with 3,000 people in it, and nobody can tell you they can’t afford it.”
Miller is a delightful interviewee. She laughs easily and often, and seems utterly content with her life – living, as she does, between Ireland and America. She loved writing the stories, as it gave space to all the characters who had been knocking on the door of her head.
“It gives relief to all those people who are in there and want out.”
But writing isn’t pure joy.
“There is a lot of joy involved, but it’s more like being a slave, albeit a willing slave to one’s imagination,” she says. “Once you sign up, you are in it, whatever the medium is.”
A film, She Came to Me, is in process – she’s off to her home in the states for that one, but she hopes to write another novel soon.
“It’s a question of, what will the subject be, and when can I have my whole brain back, so I can focus,” she says, laughing. “Because novels are immense. It’s not just hacking out the first path. You then have to go through it all sentence by sentence and that is going to be hard. One of the things I have learned is to allow the rhythms of life to happen. If I have another novel in me, it will arrive.”
Total by Rebecca Miller. Canongate: €16.76Kindle: €8.67.
Published in the Irish Examiner on 15th October.
© Sue J Leonard. 2022.