Diner Interview with Mary Miller
Enormous snowflakes stirred, shifting the Wednesday reek. A lumpy yellow package arrived at my door. Inside were a flask and a one short story, “Diner” by Mary Miller. I dabbed at the folded pages. An enormous fox squirrel appeared at the window and whined. I filled the flask and finished the story and opened the oven door and dumped in tortillas from the pantry and sat back down again and hit the flask and emailed Mary Miller with some questions:
(Exciting spoiler! This interview debuts an awful Mary Miller poem.)
1. Diners fascinate. They seem archetypal to me. I think of Hopper’s Nighthawks or Hemingway’s “The Killers” and naturally Hollywood’s many diners. It is your title and setting. Could you knock around this idea of the diner?
I like how diners, particularly in small towns, are places where people know each other. I don’t know the woman at my local coffee shop or bar or grocery, but I really like the idea of knowing these people, of calling them by name and asking after their families (okay, so maybe one of the guys at Nomad knows me, but he’s the very friendly one). Once you know these people well enough to ask how their mothers’ foot surgery went and what their kid got for his birthday, it’s like you’ve fully consented to living in a place. I’ve never fully consented to living anywhere but I’m trying to change that—I want to be connected to a place and the people in it.
I also like diner food, though it’s often bad. In the diner in this story, the real man based on the fictional man had the worst chicken fried steak of his life. It was really big and flat and tough. But even bad diner food appeals to me, kind of like how cafeteria food appeals to me—it brings back memories, familiarity. Who doesn’t love those rectangular slices of pizza with the tiny nibs of pepperoni? It’s just so disgusting and processed and good.
2. Months ago you spoke about a novel you were writing about two amnesiacs traveling on a Greyhound bus. How is that going?
Did I? If I started this project, I don’t remember it. And that’s not a bad amnesia joke.
3. Do you like glass bottles or do you prefer cans?
Cans, for sure. I have a tendency to break glass. I’m currently renting a house in Austin from my cousin and I’ve broken five glasses and the tail off one glass bird in four months.
4. There is some term I’m too lazy too lazy to look up, some psychological/sociological term to explain the rise of reality TV. The idea is that we watch and feel the urge to watch as we see people better looking than ourselves and with better looking, more charming friends, and with nice cars and houses, etc. and we think, “Fuck, I am missing out on life. Why can’t that be me?” OR: We watch some crazy-eyed drunk young lady tumble down stairs into a pool of her own blood/emesis and think, “Well, I might have a little drinking problem but at least I’m not that raging dumpster-diva of a coughed-up drunk.”
Your characters (and here, in “Diner”) watch others and use those others as some form or warped mirror. Discuss.
I love reality TV. Yesterday, I spent four hours watching The Bad Girls’ Club and the girls kept saying things like “We run Miami!” and this made them very excited. Of course, they’re really just girls who aren’t ageing well and drink too much, women who can leave their jobs for two months and be hired back no problem (i.e. strippers), but, whatever, it’s reality TV! They also like to call each other followers, as if they aren’t all followers. Who isn’t a follower, anyway? We’re all followers. Intervention is my favorite. And there’s a new show on A & E called Heavy that I’m excited about. It’s just all so pathetic and we’re all pathetic but some of us are on TV about it: trying to find a man who’ll consent to marry them, lose weight, get clean, run Miami, etc. I don’t think I answered your question, but I guess I don’t see the warped part. It’s just some of us are on TV and some aren’t.
5. Have you written poetry?
Not anymore. It was really bad and I tried to turn everything into a metaphor. What’s so bad is that I thought I was pretty good. My friend Dan Crocker read some of my poems once and told me not to ever, ever show them to anyone. So, here’s an example:
I would like to gather up all my former
lovers, place them in a basket, and carry
them with me wherever I go. Everybody
that hates me can get in, too. Once full,
I will take the basket to my room where
we will play toy soldiers. The nearsighted
ones will have to be on the front lines,
also the ones with knee and back
problems. Out of kinship, I will give
the manic-depressives and the obsessive-
compulsives a running start
in the opposite direction. I’m sorry to report
that the vast majority will be killed
in action and buried in mass graves.
The rest—maimed and suffering
from post traumatic stress disorder—
will have to ride around in
my basket forever.
6. “The Diner” was delivered to me as a gift, with a flask and a FREE WHISKEY AT AWP card. It came as one story, folded like an origami accordion. What do you think about the genre of one story?
I’ve been meaning to subscribe to One Story, but then I’m always meaning to subscribe to more lit mags. I don’t think I like it all that much, though. There’s only one shot. I tend to like magazines that have a little bit of everything—poetry, nonfiction, artwork, fiction. They’re good for people who have short attention spans and like variety.
7. Could I ask you some technical questions? How do you actually write out a story?
I have no idea. I write a sentence and then another sentence and pay close attention to the rhythm and words. I don’t understand people who bother to write stories and then they’re full of typos and misplaced modifiers (I just wanted to write misplaced modifiers). I write about what interests me, what I’m obsessed with. Over the holidays, it was: loneliness, texting with a tall stranger, Christmas, and returning home. The stories were repetitive and not very good. That being said, I’m trying out more “real” fiction, writing from the perspective of a man (as in “Diner”) or trying out lives in which I have no experience, and it’s pretty exciting. I still end up in the stories but they are also “totally made up.” My other stories were just “sort of made up.” My brother picked up an issue of Indiana Review over Christmas and read one of my stories and said it was like reading my diary entry and I got mad and told him not to read anything of mine ever again. He doesn’t know what would be in my diary, anyway, he just assumes because the circumstances look similar.
8. It’s a popular supposition that there is everyday communication between you indie/small press writers. That you all hang around in bars and smoke cigarettes and talk about readings and apartments and broken glass and the fog and such.
I hang around with the other Michener fellows and we talk about how lucky we are. We talk about this a lot and probably everyone hates us.
The small press scene is kind of weird in that people feel like they know each other when they don’t—you’ve read their work, you’re Facebook friends. But this isn’t a relationship. Most of us don’t know each other and we don’t hang out and there is no fog and/or broken glass. That being said, I have quite a few small press/indie writer acquaintances, people I like but don’t see very often.
9. What do you think about academia as provider for the artist?
I can’t speak to this, really, because I’ve only ever been a student. Academia has been good to me so far, though. I’m earning a second master’s degree, have no debt, and am able to pay all of my bills.
10. Could you discuss objects in your fiction?
The objects that surround my characters are typically objects that surround me. They like books and swimming pools and hotels. They drink vodka, beer, and Diet Coke. If you read a bunch of someone’s stories, you can piece them together in a way based on these objects. I once pointed out to a friend that her stories were full of snow globes and she didn’t particularly like this; it was like I’d unlocked some code, discovered something she didn’t want known, as if a snow globe collection is a bad thing. I think writers have to be careful, let them drink Sprite, play golf.
11. Holy shit, your book, Big World, is being reissued! I’m not surprised—that book broadsided me like a secret truck. Congratulations.
“Like a secret truck” is the best simile ever. And thanks! I loved your review, and how that one guy said he liked it better than the book. That made me laugh.