An Interview with Writer & Novelist Mary Miller

You can read the full article on the NZ Writers’ College Blog:

Born in Mississippi, Mary Miller never thought of writing as a career. After publishing her first short story collection Big World, Miller’s career grew substantially. In 2014 she published her first novel, The Last Days of California which sold over 25,000 copies.

Q: How did you get into the writing business?

A: I started writing at age 27, when I was unemployed and living in a small town in Mississippi. I had written some poetry throughout childhood and young adulthood, but hadn’t really considered it something I might do as a career. But when I found myself without a job and had all of this time to fill, I picked it back up again.

I began to write regularly and graduated from poetry to flash fiction to short stories (turns out I was never a good, or even decent, poet).

After that, one thing led to another: I continued writing; I sent my stories out for publication; I made friends within the writing community. I basically just made it my life.


Q: How do you deal with rejection?

A: I don’t mind rejection so much anymore, though occasionally it’s still painful (for example, when an editor solicits you and then decides not to accept the work). But even then I’m not bothered for long.

There are lots of magazines out there. And it also doesn’t mean that that particular magazine won’t accept something from you in the future.


Q: What has been your greatest writing achievement so far?

A: Publishing a novel has been my greatest achievement, primarily because I never thought I would. I’ve always written short stories and didn’t think I would be able to complete a long project. It felt pretty great to hold the finished product in my hands and know that I had done the work to get there.


Q: How do you get ideas for your books, are they from life experience?

A: Yes, particularly with short stories. My stories almost always begin with things that have happened to me in real life and then veer into fiction as I continue working on the story.

Sometimes they stay pretty close to my own experiences and sometimes they wander far from them, but they almost always represent how I feel and think about things.

With The Last Days of California, I got the idea for the story from a newspaper article, though the fifteen-year-old narrator is largely based on myself at that age. I imagined myself as the narrator of the book, how I would think/feel in her situation.

Though some of my stories could be published as creative nonfiction, I love the freedom that fiction allows.


Q: What advice would you give people wanting to get into the writing business?

When submitting work for publication to a magazine or journal, always follow the guidelines. Keep your cover letter short and don’t try to explain your story or poem.

Be patient, i.e. don’t write the editor asking about the status three weeks after you’ve submitted your work.

Don’t send out sloppy work with typos and weird spacing, etc.; it makes it look as though you don’t care (and if you don’t care, why should the editor?).

Don’t be afraid of rejection. Rejection is the path you have to take to publication. If a magazine sends you a personalized note asking you to submit again, do it. You need to have a lot of persistence in this game. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to think of it as a game.

When I was an editor at Bat City Review, we read a lot of good work that we couldn’t publish for various reasons. Sometimes the theme was too similar to something we’d already accepted; other times the story was good but needed substantial editing and we didn’t have the time or resources to work with the writer.

There are other reasons, none of which are personal, so try not to take it personally.

The editor is not rejecting you, even though it may feel like that. Also, and this should be obvious, but always try to improve your work, to make it better.


More about Mary Miller.

Quotable: “A story works when there’s momentum, life behind the words. Some stories have this and others don’t, and it’s difficult to say why this is. If all stories ‘worked,’ though, writing wouldn’t be much of a challenge; it wouldn’t be art.”


The Last Days of California:


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