Kitty Snacks Guest Post: A conversation between Mary Miller and John Brandon

Posted by @ 1:36 pm on February 1st, 2010

[Guest post from contest winner David Swider of Kitty Snacks.]

Kitty Snacks contributors Mary Miller and John Brandon sat down (at their computers) and emailed each other back and forth for about a week discussing different topics from writing to hanging out in their respective towns in Mississippi. John Brandon, the author of Arkansas (McSweeney’s), lives in Oxford, Mississippi (the home of Kitty Snacks magazine) where he is the John Grisham writer in residence, which means he gets a sweet house to live in, a few classes at the University of Mississippi to teach, and time to write. He has a new book coming out on McSweeney’s this summer. Mary Miller is the author of Big World (Hobart) and lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi where she studies under Frederick Barthelme at the University of Southern Mississippi. Both writers were featured in Kitty Snacks #2 and they both have stories forthcoming in Kitty Snacks #3, which is out in a few weeks. — DS

Mary Miller asks John Brandon 7 questions

1. I was particularly interested in your story “Naples. Not Italy.” (which was published in Subtropics) because it’s excellent, but also because I’m currently writing a story in first person plural.  I thought this POV was obscure but it seems like I’m finding it all over the place lately, particularly in flashes by contemporary writers.  Do you write in this point of view often?  What do you think you’re able to achieve using this perspective as opposed to first person singular, or third person?

John Brandon

I went on a first person plural kick.  I wrote three stories in it, if that’s a kick.  I think there’s something mysterious about that POV because the reader can’t pinpoint the origin of the information they’re receiving.  And there’s an authority to it.  Somebody may argue with you, but will they argue with you and a bunch of your friends?  I read a Tom McGuane story where he uses first person plural to characterize a town’s sensibilities.  I think that’s when I became interested in it.  Yeah, mystery and authority.

2. I really like your off-kilter, precise descriptions, i.e. “We cooked her into a person and then overcooked her and then left her.”  I thought about that for a long time, how a person can be cooked just right and then overcooked and then left, and it’s odd, yes, but it works really well in the context of the story.  How do you know when you’ve gotten it right, or when you’ve maybe gone too far and it needs to be cut?

Tough question.  I’d say that maybe those strange-type statements work best when there’s a gap between the statement and everything else the reader finds out.  That way, the statement feels sort of necessary and the reader is actively participating.  The reader has to bridge the gap, has to figure the precise meaning of a vague statement.

3. You and your wife traveled around a lot before landing in Oxford, Mississippi.  How do you like it there, and being settled in general?  Do y’all plan on staying?

Being in one place for more than three months has been luxurious.  We’ve gotten all rested up.  We’re used to studio apartments and they gave us this big house for the year with all these redundant rooms.  We had to designate each room before we could get comfortable.  The breakfast room.  The reading room.

As for Oxford — you know, you’ve been here.  It’s a town that seems centered around books and writing.  There’s always a reading going on and people going out afterward to drink and talk literature and football.  Square Books.  Barry Hannah.  City Grocery.  Ajax.  We’d never lived in Mississippi.  We were pleased to find out that one could order the four-vegetable platter and not have to eat anything that was technically a vegetable.

4. In an interview you said, “If you value sentences enough to revise and revise, to labor over rhythm, after awhile you don’t have to revise as much.  It starts coming out right the first go.”  Were you lying when you said this, to make the rest of us feel bad, or do you find this always to be the case?  I guess sometimes I feel this way, like a story just sort of “writes itself,” but mostly I think writing is ridiculously hard and tedious and best avoided.

I still revise like crazy, but I find that most of my troubles these days are on the macro level.  I end up cutting whole scenes out, whole characters.  I think I’m so interested in the sentences that I forget the big picture sometimes.  I have gotten to where when I’m writing a sentence the first time through I can hear if it clanks, if it drags on and finishes with a whimper or if its too choppy or whatever.

5. Tell me a bit about your Graustarkian romance (published in McSweeney’s Quarterly 31).  The piece is quite complex and you deftly juggled several different story lines at once.  How much research did you do before you began?  Have you written anything like it before?

It was kind of nice having a writing project assigned to me, having parameters.  I’ve always liked that, even back in school when they gave you writing exercises with very specific instructions.  What a relief, not having to face that white paper all by yourself.  McSweeney’s sent me this old, dusty book, a Graustarkian Romance from 1911 or something.  Then they gave me broad guidelines outlining some elements that were common to all GR’s.

I like writing stuff with elements of magical realism and I’ve always liked writing crime, so I guess the assignment was a good fit.

6. I’m curious as to what your duties are as a visiting writer.  Do you teach workshop, give readings, meet with MFA students?  Hopefully, whatever your duties, it leaves a lot of time for your own work.

Yes, I taught an undergraduate fiction class in the fall and now I’ve got a grad workshop.  I got to read for Thacker Mountain Radio, which is as close to show biz as we come, for VOX, and I’ll be reading at the beginning of March for the Faulkner Festival.  Or the Faulkner Conference.  Something about Faulkner.  I get plenty of time to write.  I usually do, though.  I can only write well for maybe 3 hours a day.

7. You published a story in Kitty Snacks 2, which is a literary magazine started by David Swider and Michael Bible in Oxford.  How did you get hooked up with these guys?  It seems like they’ve added a youthfulness to the literary community that wasn’t there previously.

I came through and did a Thacker a couple years ago, touring for ‘Arkansas,’ so I’d met David.  When they got the magazine going he got in touch with me and I was excited to give them something.  I think they could have an institution on their hands if they can manage to stick with it long enough.  You and I are in on the ground floor.  And I know what you mean about the youthfulness.  They bring an underground element.  And they’re always looking to involve film or music or the graphic arts.  The scene around here probably was a bit old-fashioned before them.

John Brandon asks Mary Miller 7 questions

1. You have a nimble style.  There’s a quickness in your writing from sentence to sentence, a refusal to drag things out — sometimes it’s speed, sometimes just a swerving feeling.  It reminds me of Joy Williams.  To what degree is this achieved in revision?  Are your first drafts as plodding as anyone’s, and then you just revise more diligently than other folks?  It’s the whole wit through brevity thing you have going.  Besides answering directly to that, could you just describe your revision process, your relationship to revision.

Mary Miller

The speed is partly due to my tendency to neglect physical description.  My stories are often fairly bereft of the physical world and I have to be conscious of adding enough detail so that it doesn’t feel like the story is taking place in a vacuum.  As far as my revision goes, it’s pretty minimal, or I’m confused about what revision actually means.  Does it mean you finish a story and put it in a drawer for three months and then totally revise (resee) it, or does tweaking a sentence every time you open the Word document count?  I write a story very carefully, going over the sentences until I feel like they’re right, and then, once I’ve made it to the end I don’t like to go back and fool with anything.  I do, sometimes, of course, but I don’t like to.

2. How did you get hooked up with Hobart and end up publishing your collection with them?  I think people are interested in tales of unconventional publishing.  Do you have an agent?

I knew both Aaron and Elizabeth online, from Zoetrope and from publishing in some of the same magazines.  After Elizabeth read one of my flashes in Quick Fiction, she asked if I had a short story manuscript she could look at so I got some stuff together and sent it to her.  They’ve both been really supportive and it’s been a great experience.  It’s fun working with people you consider friends — you get to stay at their houses and travel with them and it doesn’t feel like work.  Re: the agent: I don’t have one, and I’m not going to bother getting one until I have a novel to sell, which is unlikely anytime soon.  Maybe ever.

3. What went into your decision to not use quotation marks for the dialogue in any of the stories in Big World?  When did you make the switch from quotes to no quotes?  I want to write something without using quotation marks, but I have no reason except that it seems cool when people like you do it.  I think maybe it makes your writing even faster.

I think a few of the stories use quotation marks (like “Fast Trains” and “Pearl”) and I use them more often now than I used to.  I don’t really know why I leave them out.  I’ve heard people say it makes the writing more seamless–that quotation marks are just one more thing that takes the reader out of the story — but I don’t know if this is true.  Sometimes the story just seems to work better with them not there.

4. I enjoy your milieu.  The Miller milieu.  It’s Southern but not SOUTHERN.  It’s not rural or juke-jointy or gothic.  The core of the characters’ problems could fit in Sacramento or the East Village, which is a good thing.  Is the milieu you write about similar to the one you grew up in?  How would you describe it, your milieu, if pressed?  Like now, in an interview.

First of all, I had to look this word up.  This is the kind of word I don’t use for fear of mispronouncing it.  I definitely write about the environment I grew up in.  “Leak,” in particular, was similar to how I grew up, though I have two parents and three siblings and my aunt and uncle didn’t live next door.  So that sounds like a complete overhaul, but it’s not.  My dad is like this dad (he wasn’t happy with the story), and I had close contact with my relatives, and we had a maid.  I know that’s not the politically correct term these days, but that’s what we called her.  How would I describe the aesthetic, if pressed?  Maybe New South, where the children aren’t Southern, like their parents are Southern (i.e. the fathers hunt and drink whiskey and work jobs they hate while the mothers are busy gossiping and keeping up with the Jones’s), but the remnants of that life are still there.  Parents are often disappointed in the New South, especially when three out of four children grow up to be artists.

5. I wanted to delve into your milieu a bit more.  Maybe I can set a record for using that word.  I’m wondering if, when you’re writing a scene, you like to think of a specific place — specific house, bar, stretch of road, restaurant (like in Not All Who Wander Are Lost) — or if you naturally combine a bunch of places into one.  Do you ever start with setting, or is something that’s there by necessity?  Somewhere in between, I guess.

I always have a specific place in mind — if I don’t, I feel lost.  I need to know exactly what something looks like in order to feel oriented.  Then I pretty much ignore it.  I don’t start with setting, no.  I would like to meet someone who does, though.  They would be pretty much the exact opposite of me.

6. What are ten of your favorite movies, in no particular order?

I don’t watch a lot of movies, or I watch them but I fall asleep halfway through.  I really, really enjoy watching a movie with someone and falling asleep halfway through.  That was my disclaimer, of course.  Now, for my list: American Beauty, The Virgin Suicides, Heathers, The Big Lebowski, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Capote, Revolutionary Road, The Truman Show, Secretary.  Surely no one will have a Mary Miller movie marathon and then write me a mean letter.  That would be kind of awesome, though, if they did.

7. Tell me about Hattiesburg.  Never been.  You’re down there at Southern Miss doing a PHD in creative writing, if I’m not mistaken.  Am I mistaken?  Tell us the best bar down that way, in case anyone reading this passes through.

Yes — I’m in my second semester of PhD work at USM.  I really like working with the Barthelmes and my friends are great, but Hattiesburg is a giant strip mall: dozens of inter-connected parking lots and chain restaurants.  It’s not terrible, though.  I live downtown in a big old house with enormous windows and I can walk to 206 Front Street, which has great food and an excellent happy hour.  And if you like karaoke dive bars, may I recommend Shenanigan’s?  It’s like all the men in there have just been released from prison.  Sometimes I’m in the mood for that kind of thing.

[Thank you Mary Miller, John Brandon, and David Swider for giving us your time. We really appreciate this. More info on Kitty Snacks Issue 3 and download of Issue 1 here.]

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