! g American novelist Sue Miller talks
g to Sue Wilson about mid-life love ' and the epic in the domestic
With The (Irian Mather. a painfully sensitive tale of a woman tom between matemal and sexual love (later
US author Sue Miller pulled offthe rare feat of producing a critically-acclaimed ﬁrst novel which sold in millions. Her second. Family Pictures. examining the break-up of a marriage from the children‘s perspective. was also warmly received and with her third. For Love. she consolidates her position among contemporary ﬁction‘s most compassionater astute explorers of domestic and familial territory.
An ambitious. multi-layered tale. the new novel rests on a ﬁve-character framework: freelance writer Lottie. spending the summer in Cambridge (Mass) clearing out her mother‘s house in preparation for its sale; her twenty—year-old son Ryan. helping her until he goes back to college; Jack. her second husband of a few months. impatiently awaiting her return in Chicago; her brother Cameron and childhood friend Elizabeth (separated from her husband — temporarily. it turns out). who are rapturoust reliving their adolescent affair. Puzzled and disturbed by the
an iffy ﬁlm starring Diane Keaton and Liam Neeson).
quotidian ordinariness of her married life with Jack. as compared to their earlier affair. Lottie ﬁnds herself envying Cameron and Elizabeth the turbulence of their — ultimately destructive - passion. as she ruminates on how. or. indeed. whether. to rescue her already-ailing marriage. In her 50th year herself. Miller is attempting to lay bare the complex emotional truths behind the convention that love‘s early heady ardour. with time. subsides inevitably into a calmer. maybe deeper. but less exciting or glamorous mature form.
‘l was interested in looking at love as it happens to people at a later stage in their lives from the one in which it‘s more commonly depicted. looking at the power it still has. even in that older. more sort of daily world. to be transforming. to offer a person a chance to meet herself anew. and to make herself anew. really.‘ Miller says. ‘But also. it seemed to me that when people fall in love in mid-life. that settled sort of love follows more quickly on the heels of the ﬁrst stage than it does earlier in life. just because
there's so much more going on for people — work. and children. their habitual lives — that they need to make that necessary turn away from each other. back towards whatever it is they‘re about. rather sooner. Lottie is in struggle with whether this can really be love; she comes to love essentially through ideas inherited from books. or from the culture at large. and it‘s very difﬁcult for her to ﬁnd this kind of more mature love as compelling as these ideas about passionate. excessive love.‘
One problem for writers like Miller. who focus their artistic gaze on the dramas of hearth and home. is that their work. however skilled and serious. is often pejorativer regarded as ‘women‘s ﬁction‘. its supposedly small-scale subject matter disqualifying it from heavyweight literary status. Miller. however. remains sanguine about such establishment prejudices.
‘lt is a problem. particularly in the States. where our most serious — male — writers have been writers of
the anti-domestic; it is difﬁcult for women to be
taken seriously in that context. But just as history is ﬁnally allowing for the exploration of what women's daily lives were like. as opposed to people who were redeﬁning political boundaries or ﬁghting battles. I think that's also true perhaps for ﬁction. there may be a kind of a second wind happening for the domestic novel. There are a good many American and Canadian female writers who are using the details of domestic life to make comment on the way we live at this point in time; who are painting what someone else might call miniatures. in the sense that they aren‘t on this kind of epic scale. but which are trying to make something important. with mythic and epic dimensions. out of the domestic.’
For Love is published by Doubleday a! £14. 99; The (Jam! Mather has been simuIranenus/y reissued in Bantam paperback a! £5. 99.
: _ Telling tales
it’s rare indeed for authors to become famous by expunging virtually all visible sign of themselves from their work, but among the many voices in Tony Parker’s books, his is the hardest to discern. ills technique is a simple but uniquely effective one - to approach his subjects (which have included miners, murder, Russia and the army) through people who are in some way directly involved, building up their individual stories, transcribed from interviews, into a larger, composite narrative. His latest work, May the lord in His Mercy be Kind to i Belfast, examines life in the llorthern 3 Irish capital as experienced and seen by its inhabitants, from bus-drivers to bomb-disposal experts, clergy to city councillors, schoolchildren to shop- assistants, teachers to terrorists. ‘it’s a subject that had gradually pushed itself more and more to the forefront of my mind,’ Parker explains,
70 The List 4~- i 7 June I993
‘and when Mrs Thatcher said that the "M shouldn’t be given the “oxygen of publicity”, I think that so annoyed me that it spurred me to try to do something about it.’
The Bil-plus individual accounts contained in the book make quietly devastating reading, by turns moving, inspirational, appalling and illuminating. The entrenched bitterness, the wounds left byhistory (‘history isn’t the past in this country’, says one interviewee), the resilience, the pervasive grief and hurt and human damage, the hatred, the love, the saving humour, the terrible
maker could achieve.
economic and social deprivation which stokes sectarian fires - all is gradually revealed as these mostly very ordinary people talk. By the end, you feel that Parker has shown you the inside of this divided community in a way no historian or documentary-
The key to Parker’s method is an unobtrusive interviewing technique and an almost unthinkable amount of . ' ‘ ' sheer hard graft: the new book was
r ' distilled from more than 200 conversations over a five-month visit. ‘I don’t have a set list of questions when I meet somebody, it’s not really an interview in that sense, it’s more of a conversation, really,’ he explains. ‘l’m not what you call an “Ah, yes, but” interviewer; I tend rather to say “could you tell me a bit more about that?" So then you come back with a great pile of tapes and you sit down and transcribe them all, and you look at it and think, how the hell am I going to make this into a book? i always feel a bit like a sculptor, with a block of stone - he knows there’s a shape in there somewhere if he can just chip
away the outside.’
The finished artefact in this case is undeniably a bleak one; Parker encountered few grounds for optimism during his time in Belfast. ‘It depressed me very, very much,’ he says. ‘The people I met, almost without exception, were very hospitable, very friendly, very wami, but they felt forced into a position where they had to choose between it and B, for instance if they had children they had to decide to send them either to a Catholic or a Protestant school; in by-electlons they felt they had to vote for either a fanatical llnionist or a fanatical Republican - they lost felt trapped. It’s almost impossible to be neutral there, it’s always which side are you on, where do you stand?’ In the search for the understanding which must underpin any solution to Northern lreland’s agony, however, Parker’s book must stand as a landmark
achievement. (Sue Wilson)
May the lord in His Mercy be Kind to Beltast is published by Jonathan Cape at £1 6.99.