Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
At 76, when many people are hunkering down or improving their golf game, Nina Miller is rediscovering her writer’s wings which got clipped by life—by marriage, kids, a career as the executive director first of a suicide prevention center, then of Planned Parenthood, and finally of a hospice.
After her husband of more than 47 years died unexpectedly, Miller knew that she would have to invent a new way of walking in the world. In early 2015 she completed her first novel, The Mother of Invention. Very much a realist, Miller confronted the fact of her age and the time it might take to find an agent and a publisher. She decided to self-publish, and has yet to regret that decision.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I started writing short stories when I was seven years old; in fact one of them is described in my new novel. In high school I edited and published fiction in our literary magazine, and worked both as writer and literary editor of The Penn Review at the University of Pennsylvania. My first break came shortly after I took a seven year sabbatical from my work in human services: the infamous Gordon Lish accepted and published a story in his experimental literary review, Q.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
Having just published my first novel, The Mother of Invention, I am now spending a considerable amount of time arranging readings and marketing the book.
I am also busy revising several short stories as well as working on two new ones, and hope to bring out a collection within the next year.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
At 46, I took an extended writing sabbatical and that was probably the most productive time in my writing life. I rented a small room downtown, went there every morning at 9 a.m. and worked until mid-afternoon Monday through Thursday. Friday was devoted to the business of writing: researching markets, sending out manuscripts and tracking responses. It was during this seven-year period that I published twenty stories in literary reviews (two of them received honorable mention in competitions) and anthologies.
Now, with an empty house, I work, though less productively, in a slightly chaotic study, my dog at my feet waiting for a speck of acknowledgement.
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
I am a morning writer. If the fire is burning in my belly (oh, that blessed fire!) I may keep going through early afternoon. From then on I have meetings (I am on several boards including the Hospicare Foundation and our local art cinema) and often have dinner with friends.
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
I am a passionate rewriter. I try to lock the judgmental part of my brain out of the room when I am writing, with the understanding that it will be invited in at a later time. So I try to let the words flow, and then come back and dig into the editing process. I love that engagement: reviewing, altering, changing tenses, trying out the shift from third to first person, sweeping out dead metaphors, watching for anachronisms, expanding character, etc.
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
I write because I can’t NOT write. Even when I was not working on fiction I created newsletters and wrote interviews with patients and their families, wrote a book about crisis intervention, wrote letters to the editor, wrote complaints to companies putting out inferior products, wrote to legislators about their screw-ups. One thing I can assure you is that I do NOT do it for the money—fortunately! The biggest payment I received for a short story was $250.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Like Richard Ford, I am an avid eavesdropper, which makes writing dialogue relatively easy for me. Fragments of conversation can send me off into a world of fictional possibilities. Also, having worked with people during fragile moments in their lives has been an inspiration. And because I have lived and worked in a relatively small college community, I am intimately acquainted with its delights and its foibles, its idealism and its smugness. While I try very hard to respect the privacy of my now adult children, being a parent and now a grandparent also serves as a source of inspiration and a treasure trove of ideas.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
I find the most difficult part of writing is the initial commitment of words to the page. That judgmental part of my brain keeps knocking at the study door, wanting to come in and say “This is crap!” or “Why are you saying it that way?” There are also the endless interruptions, which I expect many women writers experience, even with “a room of one’s own,” and the need to persuade people that writing truly is work that demands time and attention and quiet.
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN WHEN YOU STARTED?
Heavens! This is the most difficult question! I wish I’d had a computer when I started. You can imagine what a time-consuming chore it was to do all the cutting and pasting by hand! I wish I’d known how to create more space and silence in my life, without shortchanging my wonderful husband and kids. I wish I had read more analytically, paid closer attention to how other writers achieve their goals. I wish I had known in my deepest being how quickly life passes, and how little we can afford to waste time.
WHAT IS YOUR ARTISTIC VISION?
My personal vision is to convert life experience, using the filter of imagination, to see more deeply into the human condition, into the complexity of our life decisions, and our struggles to maintain some control in a world that sometimes seems utterly out of control. But I believe in achieving this with a light touch rather than a hammer.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
Among contemporary women writers I have to put Penelope Lively way up on the list; I love the way her subtle humor gently opens one’s eyes to deeper levels of experience. I would include Nicole Krauss, Jane Gardam, Lily King (especially for Euphoria), Alice Monro, Julia Glass, Alice Mattison, Pat Barker (for her World War One trilogy). Looking to the past, Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf and Virginia Woolf.
WHICH FEMALE AUTHOR WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Alice Mattison, who is a novelist herself, teaches writing in an MFA program at Bennington and is working on a book about writing.
Thank you, Nina Miller!
— Nicole Melanson
* Author photo by Dede Hatch
NB: This is the final feature of our Indie Week 2. Read back to catch up with Kim Cleary and Virginia King!
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