A BARRELHOUSE INTERVIEW WITH MARY MILLER
In My Big Little Break, we ask authors to talk about the first piece they ever had published, how it felt to finally break through, and what they’ve learned since then. This week Mary Miller, author of the recently released collection Always Happy Hour, the novel Last Days of California, and the collection Big World, shares her answers.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece? Give us some context: how old were you?
I’ve had to do a little research because I honestly have no idea. I remember publishing a few poems, but I don’t count poetry. The poetry thing didn’t stick. Smokelong Quarterly is certainly an early one—December 15, 2005—and is one of the first, if not the very first. I can’t find anything earlier, anyhow, and my bio doesn’t list other publications. It’s called “A Blind Dog Named Killer and a Colony of Bees,” which is the sort of cumbersome title I’d never use now:
In December of 2005, I was twenty-seven years old, working at a home for abused and neglected children. I had never taken a writing workshop.
How long had you been writing and submitting?
I must have started that year, in very early 2005. I wrote my first poem about a dead Christmas tree that needed to be hauled out to the street. I got really into the whole project of it right away: I joined Zoetrope, wrote daily, started researching literary magazines and corresponding with other writers, etc. I was pretty much all-in from the beginning. It was so much fun—that’s what I remember most—how much fun I was having, how I felt like I’d finally found a community.
Can you talk a little about that community? Where was it and what was happening and who else was active there (if you remember any of that, of course)?
There were a bunch of us publishing flash fiction in the same places—elimae, 3:AM, Juked, Storyglossia—and we’d read each other’s work and send each other emails and messages in Zoetrope (I recall the little pink box lighting up when you had mail, what a thrill that was). There were so many writers whose work I loved, many of whom I’m still friendly with (and fans of) today: Kim Chinquee, Jeff Landon, Mike Young, Myfanwy Collins, Elizabeth Ellen, Claudia Smith, Andrea Kneeland... Along the way I’ve lost touch with Shellie Zacharia, Robert J. Bradley, Kuzhali Manickavel, others.
I once tried to mail a dozen books to Southern India for Kuzhali. I don’t think they ever reached her.
How many times had the piece been rejected?
I don’t think it had been rejected.
Walk us through the moment when you found out.
Who remembers this sort of thing?
Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped?
I imagine I was very impressed with myself for twenty minutes.
Are they still around?
They are, founded in 2003 and going strong.
Are you still proud of that piece?
It’s not terrible. I wouldn’t be embarrassed for someone to read it.
Have you re-read it recently?
Not all the way through.
Now that you've been doing this for a while, collecting plenty of rejections and acceptances along the way, what advice do you wish you could give your younger self?
I think my younger self did a lot of things right: she wasn’t afraid of rejection. She wrote daily and didn’t care what others thought of her because they didn’t think of her at all. And even when they maybe started to think something about her, she still didn’t care. She didn’t know anyone or much of anything and was just going about her business writing what she wanted to write and submitting to places she liked and telling everyone how talented she was. She was completely delusional, in other words.
I think my younger self could teach my older self a few things.
Mary Miller is the author of two collections of short stories, Big World and Always Happy Hour, as well as a novel, The Last Days of California. Her stories have appeared in the Oxford American, McSweeney’s Quarterly, American Short Fiction, and Mississippi Review, among others. She is a former James A. Michener Fellow at the University of Texas and John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss.