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All Narrators Are Unlikeable: Elizabeth Ellen Interviews Mary MIller photo

I can’t remember when I first met Mary Miller. Maybe it was on Zoetrope.com in 2005, 2006 – something like that. We were all still trying to figure out how to be writers, via the internet, then. I can’t remember the first story I read by Mary, either, though I know by 2008 I was asking her if I could put together a collection of her stories for my new book publishing venture: Short Flight/Long Drive (SF/LD) Books. Mary’s would be the second book I published (after Michelle Orange’s The Sicily Papers).

Big World is still one of my favorite books. I recently read it again and was as in awe of it in 2019 as I was in 2008. But I’m not its only fan. Roxane Gay recently named Big World as one of her ten favorite books of all time, along with other such classics as The Age of Innocence and A Little Life (I think Roxane and I share a certain taste in literature). Big World has been sold out for a few years now and is something of a collector’s item, so if you have a copy, hold onto it for dear life! And if you don’t, well, tough luck!

I love Mary’s new book Biloxi for many of the same reasons I loved Big World: it’s real and seemingly small and seemingly not trying to impress you while actually blowing your mind, while actually being about everything that counts in life. It’s relatable and funny and endearing and a little depressing: just like all our lives.

Mary and I have been friends a long time. She's my sister from another mister. She's maybe my oldest writer friend. And I’m thrilled she and Juliet Escoria asked me to go on a little Midwest tour with them this summer. So if you’re in Columbus, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Madison or Milwaukee: please look for us in July and come out if you can! The three of us will try to make it well worth your time. And by the end of July we’ll all have southern accents, y’all.


Let’s begin – haha, pun intended - with the epigraph. I was so surprised when I saw it. You and I have never discussed Bukowski. I wouldn’t have thought you’d be someone who would read him. But it’s a quote from his novel Post Office. And I instantly fell a little more in love with you when I saw it in your book. “The moment I decided to quit I felt much better.” Having just finished Biloxi, I think it’s the perfect opening. But what made you think of it for your book?

I wish I had a better reason, but I just happened to be rereading Post Office around that time and was on the hunt for an epigraph. Epigraphs seem erudite—or they’re supposed to make your book seem erudite—but they’re pretty random, like we’re all just fishing around when the time comes because it’s standard to have one (or two or three). It’s also possible that others have much more refined and analytical reasons, in which case I’d like to hear them.

I’ve always been a fan of Bukowski’s novels: Women and Ham on Rye and Post Office. It’s fashionable to hate Bukowski, but I find him funny and readable and curmudgeonly, which is perfect for Biloxi.   


I was recently in a hotel with the writer (and our friend) Juliet Escoria and she had just read Biloxi (I hadn’t yet) and was saying how much she enjoyed it and how it made her like you more, because you wrote it, because (I’m paraphrasing Juliet here) of all the things to write about today, you wrote about a sixty-three year old man and his dog. I didn’t quite get it, what she meant by that at the time, until I read it, but now I get what she meant. Most people seem to ‘go big’ with novels now. The plots and themes and such. One could conceivably say the plot and themes of Biloxi are quite small. But then you take a step back, and maybe they’re not so small, after all. Maybe they’re deceptively large. What do you think about that? Did the initial idea for Biloxi feel big or small to you? Were you worried it wasn’t big enough? Or were you confident or did you just not care?

I had plans for a ‘big novel,’ but that’s not how things worked out. Perhaps that novel will come to me one day, but it wasn’t that day. There’s this Barry Hannah quote that I think about when I’m fretting over a story coming too easily or not seeming ambitious enough: “The better things that I’ve done have come to me by instinct.” Louis came to me by instinct. I’m not saying that this is my best book, but Louis felt real and present from the first sentence.

To answer your question, though, his life did feel quite small, and his story felt small, but we’re all small, aren’t we? We’re all trapped inside our own heads, with worries and fears and hopes that often go unexpressed. I also believe that the only way to capture the world is to fully capture the experience of an individual. Or that’s what I used to tell my comp students, anyhow.

I was thinking while reading Biloxi how every female writer I know right now has said to me, “I’m writing stories with unlikable female characters.” And how what always starts out great, turns into a fad/overdone, and becomes less great just due to sheer numbers. You sort of zigged where everyone else zagged. I read a Goodreads review of Biloxi in which a woman reviewer says, “I was expecting a heartwarming story about an old curmudgeon finding love ... He’s weird and mean and a pervert.” Ha. If he were a woman everyone would probably cheer. Not to toot our own horns (toot toot) but you and I have been writing unlikable female characters (meaning women like ourselves) from the beginning (meaning 2003 onward). Are you bored of writing about unlikable women? Are you bored of writing about ‘yourself,’ even if the women in your stories and previous novel aren’t really ‘yourself’?

I don’t think much about ‘the unlikeable narrator’ anymore, if I ever did. All narrators are unlikeable or else they wouldn’t be interesting enough to narrate. Show me a likeable narrator. That’s where the conversation should go—show me likeable narrators! I can think of likeable characters, but all narrators are flawed, i.e. not one-dimensional.

And you’re right: it’s women who have to contend with this question most often, though I think things are changing in this regard. This past semester, for example, I wrote something about an unlikeable narrator in my online fiction workshop and my students were like, ‘we don’t want to talk about likeability; let’s focus on reliability. Is the narrator reliable? Why or why not, and what does that mean for the story?’ So they’re pretty dang smart. They’re also mostly women.

As for your last question, I’m always bored with myself but that’s separate from fiction. Fiction is exciting. Anything can happen in fiction.


What was the most challenging part of writing in first person as a sixty-three year old man? Did you do any ‘research’ first? Did you shadow any sixty-three year old men to get into their heads? or did you – paraphrasing Sir Laurence Olivier commenting on the method acting of Dustin Hoffman who famously stayed up for days to play a man who has stayed up for days – just write? (Sir Laurence Olivier said something like, “in my day, we just acted.”)

It wasn’t challenging, as I’m fairly grumpy by nature. I’ve also been around my dad a lot and have uncles and grandfathers and some of them were/are pretty testy. My mother’s father used to open the door and say, “Thanks for coming!” and shoo us right back out. He just wanted to watch golf on TV in peace and I didn’t blame him.

Louis and I have a number of things in common: we like dogs and reality TV and we’re ambivalent about socializing, wearing real clothes, and leaving the house. We also like it when tasty food is delivered right to the door. Perhaps Louis is also a writer; he just doesn’t know it yet.


Do you think it’s true men are from Mars and women are from Venus? Or are we really all pretty similar in our heads? Reading Biloxi I became sort of convinced we’re not that dissimilar. (this is dumb. You don’t have to answer this.)

Hahahahaha! I don’t know. It’s not like I was a psychology major (though I totally was, I was a psychology major).


I think Biloxi made me feel strangely more … endeared to and /or empathetic to… men ‘like Louis’, men of Louis’s age (63/64?). is that weird? Given that he was created by and given words by, you? a not old, not male person?

 Aren’t we all angry old men in our hearts?


We haven’t always gotten along perfectly. We’ve had our share of…shall we say, skirmishes? One rather infamous public one. You wrote a story ‘loosely based on’ me called “First Class” that basically made me sound like Regina George from Mean Girls* and you’re in Person/a as the character, Enid, a name you’ve said publicly you hate.** I think we can both be sort of hotheaded and act like only children (even though you have siblings). What can we say, we’re temperamental artists. We’re unlikable female characters. But we always make up and end up friends again. Do you think it’s harder to stay friends with other female writers? Than it is with non-writer females, I mean. And also, is it worth it, in the end?

*maybe it’s the narcissist in me, but I think it’s one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read

** for the record, it was going to be Julia but then I became friends with Juliet Escoria whose ‘real name’ is Julia and it felt weird to have a character named Julia in Person/a after that. Also, Enid was a cool, British groupie in the 60s, I think.

We’ve had a few spats over the years while traveling together, but in our (my) defense, some of those trips were really intense: lots of ladies sharing a hotel room, vying for each other’s affection and attention. And we were ‘young writers’ then, if not actually all that young. I remember feeling competitive at times, like there was a finite amount of success and only a few of us would make it. This is short-sighted and silly, and I feel badly about it now.

Nearly all of my friends are writers, at least the ones I see on a regular basis, and it’s pretty great. You have people with whom to commiserate, ask advice, and swap work. You can also take walks or go out for drinks like you can with regular friends! When I first started writing, I didn’t know any writers. I’d never taken a class and had no idea what I was doing and relied on craft guides from Books-A-Million to teach me. If I hadn’t found the workshops at Zoetrope.com I’d have been completely lost.


Related, Joy Williams quote (via Chuck Palahniuk on BEE podcast): “You do not write to make friends.” true? False? Other?

Most people don’t want to be characters in my stories, which is fair. I don’t want to be a character in someone else’s story, either. You have no say over how you’re portrayed and it’s someone else’s dream (to quote Cat Power ;), so putting fictionalized versions of people into your stories does not generally make friends.

I have to say, and I’m fortunate in this regard: my husband loves being a villain. I wrote him into Biloxi using his name, profession, and other identifying details like his boring-ass beige office. But people only want to be certain kinds of villains. So far he’s liked my portrayals of him, but that’s subject to change at any time and I’m afraid I’ll find out too late.


Going back to epigraphs, I had forgotten the Big World epigraph, which is:

“I wanted it to be harder. I wanted my photo taken. These would be my dominant reactions to many situations for the rest of my life.”

It’s a quote you attribute to Heather Sellers, though I don’t know if it’s from an interview she gave or a book she wrote. Do you still feel that way?

I don’t like having my photo taken, and I never want anything to be harder. Who wants anything to be harder? I don’t know why I chose it, honestly, but I really like Heather Sellers, so perhaps I was reading Georgia Under Water at the time.

I’d love to see Big World back in print. I still remember where I was when I got your email asking if I had a collection you could consider. I didn’t think I had anything that might resemble a book, but you encouraged me to put my stories together and begin thinking in terms of a collection. Y’all also did a great job with it—it’s so damn cute—and it came together in a way I never could have anticipated.

I kind of skimmed my way back through Big World and Fast Machine, recently. And I love Big World still so much (I think I sound like a sociopath in Fast Machine, but, whatever). The stories in there still speak to me just as much and there are so many fantastic lines.

 (As a quick example, from your story “Leak”:

The people got trashier the farther south you went. We pulled into a gas station in Navarre Beach and my father pumped gas while men toted cases of beer to their trucks. They smoked without hands …”

That’s the part that killed me: they smoked without hands. So perfect. I love that a lot. that image. And when men do that. when they are smoking but their hands are busy doing physical labor, like, carrying cases of beer or rolling joints or removing your clothing, say.) 

But I noticed a freeness to both your writing and mine. A freeness I don’t think anyone feels in 2019 when writing. Do you feel the difference? The … self-censoring, the “I can’t say that out loud,” meaning, in writing, voice in the back of your head? what do you make of it? of this time we’re living in and its effect on artists and its effect on self-censorship? I remember Juliet also saying you could write freer or more freely in the voice of a sixty-three year old man. Did that have anything to do with your choosing to write Biloxi from an older man’s perspective?

I don’t think it’s about self-censoring for me. I just didn’t know what the hell I was doing; many of my sentences weren’t even grammatical! There were misplaced modifiers and images that seem weird to me now, like this description of a man in a hospital waiting room: “I examined the back of him, the ass shifting in his jeans, the occupied loops and wedge of hair…” Occupied loops? Why would I comment on a man wearing a belt? A wedge of hair?? What the hell is that, even?

Maybe this is wishful thinking, though, and you’re right: there’s a freeness that’s gone that we’ll never get back. There are certainly stories I’d hesitate to publish now because I have a husband and a mother-in-law and curious parents, as well as an easily offended sibling. There are a lot of mental calculations involved—the chances of the person you don’t want to read it reading it, the possibility of hurting someone’s feelings and how easily they might forgive you, etc.— they weren’t there before, or I could ignore them because no one cared about this little hobby of mine.

Thinking more about this… it’s primarily about the sentences, isn’t it? There was a wildness that I can no longer replicate. My style has changed, and the way I compose stories has changed. Some things have been lost while others have been gained. I know I have a much better concept of structure, for example, but it’s come at the expense of an unruliness that was appealing to me on many levels.

My initial thought, when reading Biloxi, was that it was going to be a modern day Travels with Charley. Did you ever read that book, by Steinbeck? Was it at all an influence?  Do you think you’d ever write a nonfiction book like that?

I haven’t read it. It was on a long-list of books I considered when I taught a travel-writing class, but it didn’t make the cut. (I went with Fitzgerald’s The Cruise of the Rolling Junk instead (because one only needs so many dead white men on a syllabus)).

I have little interest in writing nonfiction. I don’t like being fact-checked. I don’t want readers and reviewers to talk about me/my life. The last time I wrote a short nonfiction piece for a magazine, the editor called my brother to confirm some basic information and he lied a lot and then called me up to tell me he’d lied a lot when there was no reason for it at all. He’d thought he was protecting me or maybe he was just day-drinking and got confused? I don’t know. Anyhow, the whole thing was stressful and I didn’t like it at all. No one’s going to call up your ex/sibling/friend you haven’t seen in years when you’re publishing fiction.

I do, however, love reading essays and memoirs, and I’m incredibly impressed with writers who are willing to say, ‘yes, I did this, I feel this way, I own this,’ but I’m not one of them. In other words, I’m a coward and I’m fine with that.


The Germans… they sure love them some white trash female writers! Is that what they called us? [Mary and I shared the same German agent for a while.] I was in the German version of Rolling Stone magazine and you had a whole little documentary made about you for German television, didn’t you? In some ways it was flattering and in other ways I felt sort of insulted or condescended to by the whole thing, by the German men with whom we interacted. How did you feel about it? “the Germans”?

Maybe ‘white trash American girl’ is a compliment over there?

I actually thought about that German TV show the other day—Das Blaue Sofa. The Germans arrived in Austin on Halloween of 2013 and were intrigued/appalled by all of the people in costumes, which I thought was funny. They’d just been to Princeton to interview Mario Vargas Llosa and they kept telling me this as if to remind me how fortunate I was.

I didn’t feel condescended to, exactly, but it was all rather awkward. The interviewer kept asking whether my book, The Last Days of California—which had already been published in Germany—was a political treatise. He asked questions about Obama and the government shutdown and why Americans, like the conservative Alabamians in my novel, were so, so dumb. Okay, so maybe the whole thing was insulting... and it went on for days, the whole thing arranged like the interviewer and I were on this mini-vacation: cruising around the Texas Hill Country in a borrowed car, having a chat by the pool at a roadside motel. It was also still really hot and I sweated a lot, which is not a good look for TV.

I never watched the interview. I just couldn’t bear it.


In 2012 we went on the SOCO Tour (Southern Comfort Tour) with Chloe Caldwell, Donora Hillard and Brandi Wells. When I look or think back now on that time … all of us wearing cut offs and ‘wife beaters’ for readings in the South, drinking a lot of whiskey and such, smoking cigarettes, eating Combos and Rolos for lunch and room service hamburgers and fries for dinner, fucking all those hangers on (just kidding) …. feels like two decades ago instead of seven years. the change in the culture. Maybe we’ve matured, also. What do you think when you think back on that summer? Those days we spent in that van and in hotels together? (I make us sound like Motley Crue!)

It really does feel like a long time ago. I remember it fondly, if a little stressful, but I’m easily stressed.

I remember you driving in New Orleans in a terrible thunderstorm, taking pictures at Rowan Oak in Oxford, that bar we read at in Tuscaloosa, and… twenty minutes later… I’ve gone down a rabbit hole! The Twitter account is still up, as is the Kickstarter.

A few Tweets for posterity:

Goal of night: get mcclanahan's phone # whats he afraid of?

Brandi wells is drinkin makers and hoola hoopin

Tuscaloosa shanked us last night. Woke to hotel fire alarm. Stood on street in our skivvies half an hour til magic mike firemen arrived.

Graceland TOO is the scariest fucking place you'll ever go. We cnt even tell u. Just go.

Mississippi is so humid, who needs foreplay? #ba-dum-dump!

I never did make it to Graceland Too, at least not until after Paul MacLeod’s death and everything was being auctioned off. Shit was crazy.


[update!} just as I was about to send these questions to you, I got asked by you and Juliet Escoria to do a mini tour of the Midwest in July. It’s like me thinking about our SOCO tour willed a new tour into reality! What do you think this summer’s tour will be like? Are we too mature, now, for Combos and Rolos, cigarettes and whiskey? Will we dress more like edgy librarians, like other serious female writers?

We’ll never be too old for junk food or whiskey. Hard to say how we’ll dress, but I imagine we’ll be wearing cut-offs and t-shirts or dresses with sandals. You wear skirts a lot, though, so maybe you’ll be in a skirt! Who knows!? No matter what we wear or eat, it’ll be easier/more chill than the SOCO Tour. It’s just the three of us and the distances we’re traveling between cities is a lot shorter. It’ll still be hot AF, though. Just once I wish we should do these tours in the wintertime.


Finally, was it both of our first times meeting Scott McClanahan at that failed reading in Atlantic City put on by Barry Graham (of Dogzplot) in the summer of 2009? What a disaster that was. I think we read just for Scott that first night. His own private reading, with you and me and Andrea Kneeland. (or, least, that’s all I remember.) Then, the next day, a bunch of us, including Scott, who was dressed all in white (a white suit), read in a park basically for ourselves and some kids, teens or preteens, heckled us, maybe on skates? Or skateboards? I don’t fully remember. I just remember meeting Scott. Scott is always so nice. I just really wanted to say here how much I love Scott and I think you feel the same way (in fact, we ended the SOCO tour in Atlanta with Scott, also). Scott is another one who gets referred to as gritty. Good old grit writers. You, me and Scott McClanahan. (For the record, I’d also like to state that you and Scott have the best accents. I could listen to either of you read anything, just on account of your accents, but also on account of the two of you being two of my favorite writers.)

Thanks! And I agree: Scott is amazing. I always love listening to him read and watching him smash a boombox, though he probably hasn’t done that in years. His books are the kind I can read over and over, which is rare for me.

I haven’t thought about that Atlantic City trip in forever, but now I’m having vivid memoires of Scott at the park in his white suit. I remember a downpour (another one!) and all of us scattering. And I remember hanging out with Timmy Waldron, like the two of us were at a diner, waiting for Nicolle Elizabeth to arrive. Do you remember her? She seems to have disappeared from the writing world and also the internet, but we were friendly for a time and I liked her writing. 2009… it feels like a different life. If only we had a Twitter account to jog our memories.

to order this chapbook with new fiction from Mary, Elizabeth and Elle Nash go here!