Conversation With Sue Miller

Author says works reflect her thinking, not 'in' crisis of the moment

AUTHOR Sue Miller recalls stealing into her parents' library as a child to pick out a book to read. Back then, she says, none of the selections had jacket covers, so she never had any notion beforehand of what a particular book was about.

That's all changed, she says. ''Now, you don't even buy a book until you know what goes on in it,'' she says. ''Reading is based on reviews and jacket covers. You choose a book because it's a story or theme that interests you.''

Though she says the process of selling a book also is more ''corrupt'' than it once was, Ms. Miller knows it must be done and says she's willing to do it. She recently embarked on a one-month tour around the country to promote her latest novel, ''The Distinguished Guest.''

HarperCollins, the book's publisher, sums up ''The Distinguished Guest'' this way: ''At the heart of every family lies the unspoken truth.''

''I don't even know if that's true or not,'' Miller says. ''But that's their job -- to reduce the book, to make it a pithy, two-sentence thing, the exact opposite of what a writer is trying to do -- to make it utterly irreducible.''

Miller insists she is not complaining, and it's easy to believe her. She's a best-selling author who seems more interested in talking about marriage, the family, human nature, and other people and what makes them tick than about herself.

But she also is the first to admit that she has had her share of success. In 1984, she sold the movie rights to her first novel, ''The Good Mother.''

''It utterly changed our lives,'' Miller says, referring to her son Ben, who was 15 at the time, and her second husband, novelist Douglas Bauer. ''We really thought we knew what our lives would be like forever,'' Miller says. ''My husband and I thought we would teach, struggle, sometimes get a grant or advance to take a year or two off from teaching to write. It seemed like a nice life.''

Once the book sold, there was a long period of readjustment, she says. But there were also greater opportunities.

Miller says most of her novels and stories emerge in one way or another from her own life. She bridles at the suggestion, put forth by some reviewers, that she writes about the ''in'' crisis of the moment: child abuse, divorce, single parenthood, childhood illness, aging parents.

''To the degree that my books are au courant, it is just a reflection of what's going on in my own thinking,'' she says.

The deaths of her grandparents and her father prompted her to write this latest novel. Lily, the book's octogenarian character and the distinguished guest referred to in the title, had been knocking about in Miller's thought for some time, she says.

But it is Alan, Lily's grown son, who is most deeply affected by the events of the novel. And it is Alan whom the reader comes to know best and sympathize with.

Miller says it shouldn't surprise anyone that her strongest character is male. Despite her reputation as a ''domestic'' writer, she says she does not consider herself a women's writer. ''I actually disapprove of that whole notion,'' Miller says.

By reading fiction written by men over a long period of time, women have come to understand male metaphors, she says.

''We understand when we're reading about a thrilling voyage or a road trip that these stand for something else, and that the struggles of the main character mean something about our lives too, even though they're about men,'' Miller says.

Women have to learn the same thing about fiction written by women, she adds. ''Why would you begin an enterprise that would speak only to a certain group of people?''

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