January 29, 2014
Few writers can crawl into a character’s head like Mary Miller. In her 2009 short story collection, Big World, Miller’s protagonists were predominately young women in their twenties. With her new novel, The Last Days of California, Miller channels fifteen-year-old Jess, trapped in the back of the family car with her secretly pregnant sister Elise, embarking on a road trip from Montgomery, Alabama to California. Their father’s goal is for them to arrive within four days so they can be among the last American families to be raptured. Along the way, he encourages the family to witness even though “He didn’t really want all 7 billion people on the planet to be saved. We wouldn’t be special then. We wouldn’t be the chosen ones.”
Miller is a recent graduate of the University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers. She’s returning to her native Mississippi in the fall to serve as the Grisham Writer in Residence at Ole Miss. We discussed fantasizing about fundamentalism, writing realistically about teenage sex, and why she can’t quit Mississippi.
You capture many signifiers of modern-day evangelical Christian culture in The Last Days of California – the emphasis on witnessing, publicly praying, a purity ball integrated only because a local black family organized it. Why did you choose to focus on fundamentalists?
The idea came from a newspaper article I read in May of 2011—a man took his family on a cross-country pilgrimage to await the rapture in Pacific Time. There were almost no details, and I became really interested in this family. Since I couldn’t find out anything else about them, I wrote my own story. I knew I wanted to use everything I could, things that I’ve read about or seen, things that I’ve found strange or curious, like these purity balls where very young girls pledge their abstinence, or marry God, or something. They’re like weddings with fancy foods and dresses and cakes.
How deeply did you immerse yourself in fundamentalist culture?
A friend sent me some religious tracts and a prayer-rug Jesus, both of which I incorporated into the book. The prayer-rug Jesus was especially great. It says that He will open his eyes if you kneel on the rug (a piece of paper) and stare at his eyelids for long enough. I read The Book of Revelation and spent a lot of time Googling words like “eschatology.” I also read about the history of rapture predictions—how people prepare for the end of times as well as what happens when it doesn’t come. The nonbelievers throw rapture parties and engage in oddball behavior while the believers convince themselves that man somehow screwed up the math (again); if they’ve made substantial sacrifices, e.g., they’ve given all of their money away, they try to pick up the pieces and move on without losing their faith.
The Last Days of California captures our modern-day geography of nowhere—with interstates connecting run-down towns populated by Waffle Houses, Taco Bells, combination Pilot/ McDonalds. Montgomery is described as being full of “deer and paper mills and fat people.” Attractive characters still have “one or two things wrong with them: acne, thick legs, kinky hair, moles that needed to be removed…” Did you have any influences or instructors?
Oh, man, I’ve had a lot of great instructors. The Barthelme brothers—Frederick and Steven—were my first teachers. Their doors were always open. They were honest, sometimes brutally so, and made me want to be a better writer.
I’m influenced by everything I see and hear and touch. “You’re always looking around with your big eyes” is how one ex-boyfriend describes me. I try to notice the odd, the strange, the beautiful, as well as the everyday. Yesterday, my brother and I were driving on the interstate when we saw a cargo plane that seemed to be completely unmoving—literally just hanging in the air as if on a string. I immediately jotted some details down to use in a scene: the gray plane against the bright blue sky, my brother craning his neck, our repetitive conversation (Is it moving? I don’t think it’s moving. Can you still see it? That thing is not moving). I also like to listen in on people’s conversations. Usually they’re not saying much of interest but then you catch something amazing and can assume it’s yours. They probably don’t write or read, anyhow.
Many books and films idealize teenage sexuality, but you illuminate its banality and confusion. During one encounter Jess thinks “I wanted him to know that I wasn’t the type to go off with a boy I’d just met even though it was exactly what I was doing and nothing could change that.” You also capture the constraints we place on female sexuality. After an incident, Jess goes to the bathroom, digs her nails into her thighs, and calls herself a slut and a whore. It was very touching and revealing. What, if anything, led you to honor these feelings?
Jess wants to see herself as special, to view her encounters with boys as meaningful, which is normal, I think. Don’t we all think we’re more special than other people? That exceptions are made for us?
Sex is confusing and weird and uncomfortable and exciting—so many things at once—especially for a young girl, and I wanted to try and capture that. It’s not a movie. There are no perfectly arranged arms, clean sheets draped just so. I wanted the encounters to feel familiar, like maybe something other girls experienced at fifteen and could relate to. I remember when I was about that age, I went to a dance with this guy I liked who also liked me. At the end of the date, we were kissing and I tilted my neck so he could kiss me there, and he thought I was pulling away, rejecting him. Before I could say anything or do anything, he ran off. I looked up and he was actually jogging back to his car. We hardly spoke for two years. It’s just all so awkward.
You tend to focus on how others’ opinions about Jess, particularly those from males, determine how she feels about herself. “The boys in my class had decided large breasts weren’t attractive.” Jess thinks, “Maybe I was only unattractive in Montgomery because everyone already had ideas about me there.” It reminded me of how I felt growing up in small town Mississippi. How was this reflected in your life?
Jess has known the same people all her life. She’s lived in one town, in one neighborhood, attended one church. She hasn’t traveled much. As a result, she’s deeply affected by how people see her (or how she thinks they see her). She feels severely limited by such a small place.
I think it’s typical for boys early in life to think as a group, to decide who is acceptable to date, among other behaviors. They don’t want to be teased or ostracized, which, at age twelve can feel like the end of the world. Jess is attractive but she’s slightly overweight, or not thin, and she isn’t a cheerleader or on the dance team. Because of this, she doesn’t feel worthy of any attention. She feels invisible.
Like Jess, I always felt a little different as a kid. I wasn’t blond; I was thin but not thin enough; I was Catholic, which wasn’t common in Central Mississippi. My mother is also Lebanese (so I didn’t feel “white” enough). It’s all so ridiculous and meaningless now, but when you’re trapped in a very small world and just beginning to figure yourself out, it feels like everything.
Jess is sexually harassed by an assistant pastor from her father’s church. Her sister encourages her to report it, but Jess doesn’t want anyone to say she is lying. Recently, I read a commentary by Ashley Ford on R. Kelly that reminded me of this scene. Can you elaborate on Jess’ reaction?
The pastor is a person who is respected and powerful in their community, and Jess is just a girl, an average, normal girl. I don’t think she values herself enough to think that someone might want to sexually harass her. Why would he bother with her when there are so many better, prettier girls available to him? The encounter makes her feel bad, like she is at fault, which confirms her worst suspicions about herself. She also knows that telling people what he’s done would probably do more harm to her than him, which is often, sadly, the case.
You did a nice job though of illustrating that impact. I loved how afterwards she dressed up in her sister’s clothes and looked not different but not quite herself.
Thanks. It’s strange, but I didn’t even really make that connection until now. Jess immediately feels the need and desire to be someone else. She puts on someone else’s dress, makeup. It’s something she can do.
And then she does “violate herself” by proxy with some older guy who means nothing to her. This seems, anecdotally at least, a common reaction by young girls who are harassed.
Girls are given so many mixed messages. What does it mean to embrace your sexuality? What does it mean to be taken advantage of? Especially at a young age, it can all feel like a game where someone wins and someone else loses.
Jess’s encounter with her pastor has dredged up a lot of her negative feelings for herself, and being with this guy she doesn’t like is something she can do to make herself feel even worse, more objectified and sexualized. I don’t think she makes this connection on a conscious level, but I do think the scene with her pastor has a lot to do with her actions. And here’s this older, attractive guy who wants her and she’s flattered; at the same time, she knows he doesn’t give a shit about her or her feelings. She knows she’s being used and a part of her wants this, at this time. It confirms what she’s feeling.
How has being a Mississippi writer shaped you? Who or what influences you?
This is such a big question. I think it’s shaped me in every way. I spent a year in Nashville and I’ve been in Texas now for three-and-a-half years, but otherwise I’ve spent my life in Mississippi. I’ve made the grand tour of my home state: Jackson, Starkville, Meridian, Hattiesburg. I think it’s impossible to live in Mississippi and not always be reminded of our past and how we’re continuously falling behind. There’s a lot of history to carry and we’re reminded every time we travel, every time we look at a state-rankings list (fattest, least educated, highest pregnancy rate, etc.).
I think it took me these few years in Texas to really appreciate all that Mississippi has to offer, though. I love our writers: Faulkner, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, Eudora Welty. I love the Delta blues. I love it because it’s my home. And no matter how hard I try to leave, Mississippi keeps dragging me back. I’ll be in Oxford in the fall, serving as the John Grisham writer-in-residence. I have a lot of friends up there and am really looking forward to being part of their community.
Deirdre Sugiuchi grew up in Greenwood, Mississippi. She’s finishing her teenage Christian boot camp captivity narrative, Unreformed.