Author Mary Miller on ALWAYS HAPPY HOUR: STORIES

[Interview by Bina Perino.]

Image Courtesy of Mary's Facebook. 

A few days prior to the release of Always Happy Hour, I had the opportunity to interview American fiction author Mary Miller. Miller has published another book of short stories, Big World, and a novel, The Last Days of California.

After reading a pre-release of Always Happy Hour, I came up with some questions that readers may be asking themselves. I was curious about the characters, settings, and themes that occur throughout the collection of short stories. 

What’s more challenging: writing a novel or a book of short stories? What were those experiences like?

This is a question that writers get asked a lot, and the short answer is that they’re both very difficult to do well. I tell my students to let their stories be the length that the story requires; in some cases, it’s 400 words. In others, it’s 90,000. 

I like this quote by Lydia Davis: “I did not, first, say to myself that I wanted to write a novel and then, second, look for a subject. The subject was there first, and it required a novel.”

I prefer writing short stories; they’re simply less taxing and more manageable, and you don’t need an inciting event—someone found murdered or kidnapped, for example—in order to begin. And the “ticking clock” doesn’t need to tick so loudly in a story. It can just hum a little. 

How did you decide which short stories to use for your book? Were there others that didn't make it?

I tried to select the strongest stories while also keeping in mind that I wanted them to echo each other without being exceedingly repetitious. And the stories couldn’t be too different, either, for a collection that is as thematically similar as this one.

There are a few stories that I wish had made the cut, but they weren’t right for Always Happy Hour. 

For these short stories, where did the ideas come from? Were there settings in real life that provided inspiration? Or circumstances in your life that you drew from?

The stories were often inspired by real events, people, and situations, etc., but I fictionalized them, complicated them more. That’s one thing I love about short stories. You can write about your life but make it more interesting. For example, in “Uphill,” a woman goes on an impromptu road trip with her on-again-off-again boyfriend to commit a crime. In real life, I’ve dated men I shouldn’t have and something like this might have happened, but it didn’t because I’m much too boring. In the story, however, I could imagine it.  

Were your characters inspired by people you've known or interacted with? 

Sure. Real life and the real people in it inspire me all the time. I can take my dog out for a walk and see something or overhear a conversation and all of a sudden I’m rushing back to the house to write it down. I once saw a pig and a dog frolicking on the side of the road—they were seriously having the best time—and wrote a story about it. 

This is another significant difference between short stories and novels: with a novel, writers may think about and research them for years before putting a single word on the page. 

Who are some of your favorite short story authors or books? Were those sources of inspiration as well? 

My favorite short story writers are all women: Jean Thompson, Mary Gaitskill, Joy Williams, and Beth Nugent (though Nugent only published one collection, City of Boys. I still reread it every few years). There are so many women killing it in the short form right now, though: Rachel Yoder, Rebecca Schiff, Susan Steinberg, Rebekah Matthews, and Deb Olin Unferth are other favorites. 

I like men, too: Frederick Barthelme, Denis Johnson, and Kevin Canty, in particular. 

What was the purpose of the book? As far as I could tell, the narrators were all women, and I was interested to know why. Was there an explicit reason for that? Is there a sort of "message" you're trying to convey to female readers?

There’s no “purpose,” or I don’t think in terms of purpose or message or points or whatever. Though I do occasionally write from the perspective of men, I typically write from the point of view of women. I’m a woman. It’s certainly the POV I understand best. I also, of course, understand the human perspective, but I can’t pretend that my life isn’t dramatically shaped in every way by the fact that I was born a woman and continue to live as a woman. 

I hope people read and like the book. I hope it sells well so I can continue to write books. Other than that, I don’t have any message/advice to bestow upon female readers or anyone else. 

What’s next for you? Are there any up-coming projects or budding ideas?

I have a novel under contract with Liveright, who published Always Happy Hour as well as my novel, The Last Days of California. I’ve loved working with everyone there, and especially my editor, Katie Adams. So, yes—I’m working! There’s not a publication date yet, but stay tuned. 

ALWAYS HAPPY HOUR: STORIES is now available.