Authors & Events
Nov 06, 2001
| ISBN 9780375414237
Oct 02, 2001
| 628 Minutes
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Nov 06, 2001 | ISBN 9780375414237
Oct 02, 2001 | ISBN 9780739300169
From the author of While I Was Gone, a stunning new novel that showcases Sue Miller’s singular gift for exposing the nerves that lie hidden in marriages and families, and the hopes and regrets that lie buried in the hearts of women.Maine, 1919. Georgia Rice, who has cared for her father and two siblings since her mother’s death, is diagnosed, at nineteen, with tuberculosis and sent away to a sanitarium. Freed from the burdens of caretaking, she discovers a nearly lost world of youth and possibility, and meets the doomed young man who will become her lover.Vermont, the present. On the heels of a divorce, Catherine Hubbard, Georgia’s granddaughter, takes up residence in Georgia’s old house. Sorting through her own affairs, Cath stumbles upon the true story of Georgia’s life and marriage, and of the misunderstanding upon which she built a lasting love.With the tales of these two women–one a country doctor’s wife with a haunting past, the other a twice-divorced San Francisco schoolteacher casting about at midlife for answers to her future–Miller offers us a novel of astonishing richness and emotional depth. Linked by bitter disappointments, compromise, and powerful grace, the lives of Georgia and Cath begin to seem remarkably similar, despite their distinctly different times: two young girls, generations apart, motherless at nearly the same age, thrust into early adulthood, struggling with confusing bonds of attachment and guilt; both of them in marriages that are not what they seem, forced to make choices that call into question the very nature of intimacy, faithfulness, betrayal, and love. Marvelously written, expertly told, The World Below captures the shadowy half-truths of the visible world, and the beauty and sorrow submerged beneath the surfaces of our lives–the lost world of the past, our lost hopes for the future. A tour de force from one of our most beloved storytellers.
Sue Miller is the bestselling author of the novels The World Below, For Love, and The Good Mother, among others. She has also written the story collection Inventing the Abbotts and the memoir The Story of My Father. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Miller is available… More about Sue Miller
"Vintage Miller: a quiet, subtle story of longing, loss, and the compensations that, surprisingly, satisfy and endure."–Kirkus Reviews
A Conversation with Sue MillerMichelle Huneven is the author of two novels, Round Rock and Jamesland.Sue Miller and Michelle Huneven have been friends for seventeen years.Michelle Huneven: What was the germ for this book, the firstglimmer you had for it? Where and when did your find theevocative title?Sue Miller: I think the initial impulse came from some diaries Iinherited years ago from my grandmother’s grandmother. Theywere written in 1869 and 1870, and they document her daily lifewith her husband on a farm in Maine. The entries are each onlya few sentences long, and they concern primarily the weatherand the work that got done on a given day, and who came to call,or whom they called on. There’s a kind of fascinating boredomto the document as a whole. And then, on a day in June 1869,there’s an entry that reads:"It has rained all day. I washed in the morning and worked onMrs. (illegible)’s dress in the afternoon. I am doomed to be disappointedin everything that I take pride in. I sometimes wish I wasunder the sod sleeping the sleep that knows no waking."Nowhere else is this feeling expanded on, nowhere is the contextfor this cri de coeur discussed, and the next entry is back to theroutine pattern–the waters having folded over it. I was movedby this, by the notion of a life of deep feeling running under thesurface of this life of daily achievement and steady labor. By theidea of an unacknowledged world living below the world of themundane. This was part of the germ for the book, and certainlythe source of the title.MH: This book seems to be about losses–the loss of ancestors,grandparents and parents, the loss of children, marriages,ways of life, and even parts of ourselves. Cath is at atime in her life when she can actually face her losses–isn’tthat what she’s doing by going back to her grandmother’s oldhome? Is there a value to facing losses?SM: I think it’s not clear that that is Cath’s intention in goingback–her motives seem more confused than that to me–butfrom the start of her visit, with her arrival at the altered house,that’s what she’s dealing with. And certainly once she begins toface the reality that Georgia’s life also held such enormous loss,she finds a kind of consolation for her own, and a way to live withthem.MH: There is much talk of starting over in this book, andof the idea that people can re-create or change their lives–Georgia going to the san, Cath going to Vermont (severaltimes, as a child after her mother’s death, after bothdivorces) and to France. Do you think people really can startover?SM: I think there may be a few times in life, times when you’renot really formed, as in adolescence, when you can consciouslyredirect it. And maybe sometimes later in times of great crisis,when you actually learn or see something about yourself thatyou hadn’t known or recognized before, that access of consciousnessmay make some small changes and shifts possible. But I dothink we are, largely, who we are, once we’re adults. It’s difficultto do more than change certain behaviors.MH: Do you think that divorce happens now whereas in thepast couples used to have to be more resourceful and findways to live together and begin again?SM: Certainly once divorce becomes a possibility, becomes asocially viable alternative to marriage, it undercuts the sense thatone must work things out, no matter the personal costs. And that’sno doubt both bad and good. I used to love to read the "Can ThisMarriage Be Saved?" column in my mother’s Ladies Home Journalwhen I was a kid, and to think about the compromises recommendedto the couple in trouble–whether I could make them,whether it seemed to me they ought to be made. And this is aquestion I’ve asked fictionally more than once, too. The enduringmarriage is a mystery. Not always a happy mystery. But a mystery.MH: The World Below also concerns itself with secrets–familysecrets and how they eventually surface, and also howthey’re resisted. John, when he’s told Georgia’s secret (aboutSeward), actually hears something else, something far easierfor him to assimilate. The times that Georgia tries to talkabout her experiences in the san to Cath, Cath can’t drawher out–she doesn’t want to know so much about her grandmother.And yet, you seem to say that there comes a timewhen knowledge is necessary and illuminating . . . ?SM: To take up Cath’s resistance to understanding her grandmother’sstory, I’d argue that she has a deep emotional stake inwanting to see her grandparents’ marriage in a certain way, asthat image of their gathering the laundry together in a stormsuggests. And it’s a mark of her growth, I think, that she acceptsthe complexities and compromises they’ve made, and is able toimagine some of the cost to each of them in that. So, yes, pushingthrough to knowledge and understanding of the emotionaltruths that surround us can be important.MH: Because I know you always have strong opinions aboutyour characters as you are writing them, I’m curious to knowhow you felt about Cath, Georgia, and John.SM: Cath was certainly less clear in my mind at the start of mywriting than the others were. In a certain sense, she was my lens,my way of looking at the others. About them my feelings wereclearer. I saw Georgia as a strong, rather fixed person, a personwho has needed to be authoritative and in charge from a veryearly age, and has lost, to a degree, the ability consciously to registercertain feelings on that account–though they are there,and surface from time to time. John I saw, and wanted to draw, asmore open, more flexible. I wanted to have him growing andlearning and asking questions all his life. I love the scene inwhich he offers Cath the trip to France, and then openly speculatesabout whether it’s a good thing or not that he’s interferingin her life. This kind of questioning, his openness to it, endearedhim to me as a character.I learned about Cath more as I went along, as I recorded the subtleshifts and changes in her that occurred as she discovered thetruth about Georgia and John’s life.MH: There are several moments that really hit me hard–the one that really lingers is when Joe can’t believe that Cathhas been happy in their relationship when he’s been so restless.Was Cath wrong to feel content?SM: I don’t know whether she was wrong or right. It was certainlypart of who she was that she saw and understood a serenedomestic surface as enough–so disordered was her early life inher own family, and so troubled her first marriage. And hermodel for happiness, of course, was what she understood abouther grandparents’ marriage, which had that same apparent qualityof serenity, contentment.MH: So what about marital happiness and contentment?Georgia and John’s marriage was held together by mutualrespect and history, but also by rituals and an almost formalstructuring of the days that is far less common in today’shectic world. Is ritual an ingredient for marital happiness?SM: I do think that one can signal a great deal with ritual, andthis certainly happens in that breakfast scene after Georgia andJohn have their terrible moment of recognizing the errorsthey’ve both made in coming together. So I think you’re right tosuggest that ritual–some rituals–and people’s ability to sharethem may actually make their sense of happiness togetherstronger. May bind them, in a variety of ways.MH: Memory is another theme in the book–its reliability,its emergence, what it offers us. Cath and Samuel’s possibleromance breaks down, in part, over their differing views ofmemory. Samuel sees memory as hopelessly subjective andself-serving. Cath, however, believes in the truth of hermemory.SM: I think the issues between them are less important to theirromance’s breaking down than the way each of them approachesthe issues. Each is bothered by the other’s insistence on his/herown infallibility about this. Probably Samuel is less bothered–it seems clear he would wish to continue to be involved withCath, in spite of what he sees as her stubbornness. But for Cath,his absolutism is fatal to the possibility of a romance betweenthem, partly because she sees it as connected to his age, to akind of rigidity born of age; and also perhaps partly becauseshe connects it to an attitude toward women born of theperiod Samuel grew up in and was part of. I thought of myself aspushing the reader to think a little about the differences andsimilarities between Cath, as a "modern" woman, and Georgia,as an "old-fashioned" one, when confronted with this kind ofassertiveness on the part of the older man each is involved with.And perhaps, too, to think of the differences between John andSamuel.On the other hand, Cath implicity learns a great deal aboutmemory from talking with Samuel; and perhaps part of herbeing able to imagine the passages in the book about her grandparentsis as a result of thinking with Samuel about history andits meaning, the imaginative entry we need to make into it tounderstand it.MH: You make numerous references to books the charactersread or are given–Willa Cather and Edith Wharton areboth mentioned several times. I know you’re not suggestingthat the reader of The World Below read these books, but ifhe or she did? What ties or connections might be seen?(Except, of course, with the dreaded Ethan Frome.) Whatdoes it say about Georgia that she loved Song of the Lark?SM: I hoped that it would suggest that she was thinking of thepossibility of a more expansive life for herself, that this experiencein the san had opened her to the notion of a life lived onterms different from the ones she has understood up until now tobe the necessary ones.As for Ethan Frome–well, maybe all that needs to be said is that Idislike that book intensely. I think that Wharton is particularlyheavy-handed in that book about the inescapability of one’slot–though this is often her theme. And in a sense, it is thetheme here, though I’d argue that the tone is quite different.MH: The World Below seems a very natural progression fromyour last book, While I Was Gone, which was also about memoryand marital happiness, but this book is more introspec-tive,quieter in content. In your body of work (six novels, onebook of short stories)–where does this book sit with you? Ifsomeone loved The World Below, which of your books wouldyou have them read next?SM: I do think of this book as quieter, as you suggest, than someothers–mostly about an internal process in Cath triggered by"the story" of Georgia’s life as it gets revealed. In that sense I feelit’s different from While I Was Gone, which is very dramatic, veryplot driven–as The Good Mother was, too. So I think I’d suggestperhaps Family Pictures to someone who liked this book. Or perhapsThe Distinguished Guest. Both of them have less "action,"more dwelling in thought.MH: I understand that after finishing The World Below, youfinished a memoir of your father that you had been workingon for years. Did writing The World Below give you any cluesor help in finishing that book?SM: I think it was rather the reverse: that writing and thinkingabout that book–I had been working on it between and amongnovels for years–fed this book. In part with the sense that I hadof learning about my father, changing in my thinking about him,long after his death.MH: Any new novels on the horizon?SM: I am beginning to make notes. I hope truly to launch myselfthis summer (the summer of 2002). I haven’t written any fictionin over a year now, and I feel as though I’ve been deprived ofsome nearly chemical processes in my brain–the way, perhaps,people deprived of REMsleep are said to feel.
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