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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.

201303-orig-botw-goodman-284xfallThursday Night – John

Kidnap was not the right word. John had simply meant to take Clara to breakfast at the corner diner, where they had good poached eggs and were especially kind to babies. But in the end he couldn’t explain the inexorable pull, the electric thrum that made him rise from the bed, strangely untethered, and begin to shave with scalding water, or the innocence of his motive — he just wanted to be with her. He couldn’t describe the indefinite urgency that had propelled him. Yes, he took the baby with him, but she was his daughter.

*

My father said, “The decisive moment is overrated. I can’t tell you how many students of mine have wasted God-knows-how-much film trying to capture it.” Fifty or so wannabes stood outside the auditorium pretending to be cool, listening to him as if his talent would wear off on them. I leaned against the wall feeling forgotten.

He spoke to the crowd, but it was my sister Victoria who grabbed people’s attention, sneaky looks. The blond hair, red lipstick, white skin, four-inch heels: she was runway model-pretty. Her black widow dresses made her head float. Stylists across the city drooled over her sculptured hair.

She was next to me on the wall, listening, with a plastic glass of wine in her hand. I whispered to Victoria, “You know he’s full of shit.”

“This is his game, Tom,” she said under her breath.

“He’s selling the brand,” I said.

“I’m not buying,” she said.

And at that moment my eyes opened. It was involuntary. I heard my name and reacted to it. Everything came slowly into focus; light coalesced into shapes, shapes coalesced into figures; figures coalesced into my entire family, crowded into my hospital room, none of them paying me the slightest bit of attention. Even my father, who’d asked the question, wasn’t looking to me for an answer.

“Terrible,” my mother said.

Actually, I thought, I’m feeling a lot better.

My father nodded and translated the answer. There was a lot of shaking of heads. Here I am, I thought. Somebody look over at me.

Chapter 24

“Yes,” I said, “I am a member of Joseph DeLucca’s immediate family.”

“And exactly how are you related?”

“He’s my brother.”

“Why is it, then, that you have a different last name?”

“We’re half- brothers.”

“I’m skeptical,” the hospital Nazi said.

First of all I’m afraid to read your book because the thought of reading it makes me feel the same way I feel when I’m notified that someone has tagged me in a facebook photo: simultaneously full of dread and incredibly curious to see what it is. What is the book about?

A man’s wife disappears and he thinks about who he thought she was versus who she might have been.

PROLOGUE

At the heart of a story like this, The Kurd told me, there should be love—a man and woman, or friends, two people, anyway, who, amid the destruction, find in each other what may be worth dying for, what may even require it. As the city burns, imagine them at the kitchen table with cups of coffee, an atom of intimacy in a galaxy of waste. Watching the ashes drift, they might still speak of another life in another place, certain that if such goodness between two people were possible then all was not lost, even if all might be destroyed.

Kris D’Agostino’s debut novel, The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, captures perfectly that anxious time after college graduation — the time when you realize everything you’ve been told about your education is wrong. Many of us, especially among the middle class, are raised to believe that with a college degree in hand the world is yours. For the majority of us, it doesn’t quite work out that way.

They were lined up outside the door to the Actor’s Union, seated in chairs on either side of the hall. There was Dima and Tolya, Ilya and Luka, and that bore Vladimir Antonovich Pugachov, who would never cease to remind you that he had studied at the feet of Stanislavski himself. Boris Nikolayevich lifted his hat to say hello, but he received only a few nods of recognition in return. Everyone was going over their lines. The hallway buzzed with that earnest mumbling peculiar to Jews in prayer and actors before an audition.

Zach and Amber’s baby was born with a rare condition which the doctors told them was called craniopagus parasiticus. This meant that their baby had two heads. Or–more properly–it meant that there had once been two babies, conjoined twins, but the second one had failed to develop completely. They were connected by the fused crowns of their skulls, and shared a small portion of the parietal lobes of their brains.

The second twin, which was called the “parasitic” twin, had a head and a neck but didn’t really have a body. The neck stump below the head contained fragments of bone and vestiges of a heart and lungs, and there were tiny buds attached to the neck that were the beginnings of limbs.

The day after his brother left the house for good, Marty Hanson picked out the smallest boy in his sixth grade class and waited until the boy was alone. He approached him, telling him that he’d found a dead dog decomposing in a far corner of the school’s courtyard. The boy, who was new at the school and whose name Marty could not remember, stuffed his hands deep into his pockets, nearly to the elbows, and said, “So?” He was looking at a dandelion near his sneaker’s toe.

Many early reviews have mentioned that your new collection, Stay Awake, is disturbing and depressing. One Amazon review says: “For those wanting to float in a dark world of unsettling edges and places you want to leave quickly, I’d highly recommend this book.” Another Amazon reader asks:  “I would just like to know what, if anything, makes Dan Chaon laugh.”

I do not know this word, ‘laugh.’ What is it? The sound of this word has an unsettling edge that I find disturbing and depressing. It makes me want to leave this place quickly.

Her disappointment about Nishta not coming was still too raw to discuss with Diane. “No,” she said shortly.

“Why not? What’s the problem?”

Armaiti couldn’t keep the frustration out of her voice. “The problem is her husband. He won’t let her come, it seems.”

“Why not?”

You wouldn’t think this would be so hard since you spend so much of the day home alone talking to yourself.

That’s true. I, we rather, have had plenty of practice.

 

So on with it then. What’s new?

The cereal kick I suppose, but you already knew that. I’m going on like three months of this bizarre cereal kick. In fact…I’ll be back in five…

Not long after that conversation, I dropped by my mother’s internist to get a prescription for a calming pill. My mother’s doctor, a half-retired guy named Dr. Rattner, refused to see me, but the secretary said she could squeeze me in to see his partner, Dr. Klug. I don’t know why, but when the rap came on the examination door, I was expecting Dr. Rattner’s wizened twin to walk in. Instead a chisel-cheeked, healthy, blonde woman, ten years my senior, stood at the foot of the table, ordering me to swing up my feet. I swung them (gladly).