Q&A with Martha Miller

I have to begin by thanking Martha Miller for this session, because I can’t imagine her personal schedule affords her much time that isn’t already allotted elsewhere. She’s a teacher. She authors a lesbian lifestyle column. Her fourth mystery novel, Widow, was published last November by Bold Strokes Books. She’s had four plays written and produced. She’s published dozens of short stories, among them “At the Last Minute,” which appeared in Carve in 2009, winning second place in that year’s Raymond Carver Contest. And lately we have the excellent fortune of having her on our reading committee. Since she’s equally adept at writing pulpy page-turners and biting, finely-crafted short fiction, we thought it might be fun to pick Martha’s brain about the bifurcation of fiction into the “genre” and the “literary” and to get her take on what these labels might actually mean.

First thing’s first: tell me a little bit about your history with Carve. How did you become a reader? And what duties does it entail?

I used to publish lots of stories and reviews by sending them to literary anthologies or magazines. But publishing has changed since I began. The best way to get published these days is through contests. So in 2009, I submitted “At the Last Minute” to Carve and I won second place and publication. Sometime after that, Matthew asked me if I’d be interested in reading for Carve. I said I would and started with first reads for a contest. Since I teach, I requested stories in the weeks between semesters and that’s what I do. I am currently off for the holidays and I will be reading unit mid-January. Several years ago I did first reads for a literary magazine called The Writer’s Barbecue. It was there I learned how many stories that were submitted and the percentage that get published, or even get past the first reader.

You’re a voluminous writer and you’ve had all sorts of things (novels, short fiction, plays, essays) published in all sorts of places. Do you have any advice for people looking to get their own work published?

Persevere. Just because you get rejected doesn’t mean you are down for the count. Often publishing has little to do with quality of the work, and your writing may lose out to poorer writers. If Levi Johnston can get a book deal, publishing can’t be all about the quality of the work. Networking helps. I go to conferences when I can, and meet agents and publishers and other writers. My first book was published because I ran into a writer who I’d seen at another conference. Over lunch she told me she’d had her book published. I asked her for the name of her publisher and that was my first publisher too. I have worked in a writers group for over 20 years—it’s like a support system. Sometimes you just need someone to tell you that you can write a competent sentence. Oh, and read, read, and read.

I guess one other thing. With the advent and popularity of zines like Carve, writers aren’t subjected to page lengths. Years ago, I sent a story to a publication called On our Backs. The editor called me and said she liked the story, but they never published any story over ten pages (I had sent 18 pages). I sat down with the story and honed it down to 10 pages and I had a much better story and I got it published. When you submit a story, consider that your story might be at the end of a huge stack and probably when the reader starts your story he or she will look at the page length, and if it’s over 20 pages, will start looking for a reason to not read all those pages. So take the time to cut the fat.

A question about labels and what they might actually mean: “At the Last Minute” and many of your other short stories would be stamped as “literary” fiction. But Widow and your other recent novels would be shelved in the “genre” sections in a bookstore. In your mind, what (if anything) distinguishes “literary” fiction from “genre” fiction?

I could tell you what I tell my students, that general fiction is plot heavy and literary fiction is character driven. Actually I consider many of the stories in my first book “Skin to Skin” literary in nature. But it was packaged and sold as lesbian erotica. The book has sex, but it also has characters that are driven by circumstance. They make mistakes. They learn. Some readers were frustrated because there was too much story around the sex. There’s a lot of erotic fiction that is just porn in a pretty cover. I wanted the reader to know, when the women got into bed, what was at stake for each of them. The title story of Skin to Skin doesn’t even have sex in it. It’s about connections between people and our longing to touch and be touched, where in we find those old universal truths.

I read nonfiction and literary fiction. I have a couple of books that I like so much I’ve read them several times. I also read some general fiction. Sometimes we all need what I call “potato chips” for the brain. To be honest, those are the books easiest to publish—the junk food, I mean. Thus, I’ve written four mysteries. I take a little more time with the characters, but you couldn’t really call them literary.

In your estimation, what would be required for a mystery novel to make the grade as “literary?” Would it just be a character-driven story that happens to have a whodunnit plot in the background? Or is there something more to it than that?

A couple of literary mystery writers that I like are Scott Turow and Graham Green. With either of them I feel like I know the characters and what’s at stake. The difference between Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton is all about character development. V. I. Warshauski is aging, so the little details make her seem real to me. Kinsey Milhone remains stuck in the past. While I like her mysteries, they are not brain food.

Janet Evanovich is my favorite junk food for my brain. I love Stephanie Plum and the secondary characters, not because I learn so much from those characters, but because (at the risk of sounding cliché) those books made me laugh out loud.

It’s fascinating that “Skin to Skin” was included in an erotica collection—as the eponymous piece, no less! We have two female characters arriving at a place of profound intimacy, but the moment of physical connection isn’t explicitly (maybe not even implicitly) sexual. What do you suppose would have been lost or gained if the story culminated with a detailed sex scene?

I think nothing would be gained by ending with a sexual experience. In fact, there’s something to be lost. Crystal is a straight woman. With the intimacy that she and Peaches establish, sex shouldn’t be part of it. Sex at that point would demean the learning that Peaches experiences. If there were sex, she could pigeonhole the whole experience. She could tell herself—Oh, I know what this is, I’ve done it before and it doesn’t mean anything. Friendship and intimacy are new to her. So she tells us, “The truth is like long division. Something I’ll stand at the blackboard forever and never understand.” It’s concept for her and it’s hard.

Can great erotica also be great literature? I suppose this implies another question: as someone who seems to make a distinction between “literature” and “potato chips,” what’s your metric for great literature?

Did you ever read D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover? I suppose erotic potato chips would be the Shades of Grey books—they have their place in fiction, but 50 years from now people will still be reading about Lady Chatterley. I think that’s the measure of great literature contain the universal truths, the ones that don’t change over time. I have books that I read over and over because the sentences are like music to me, for example, To Kill a Mockingbird, All the King’s Men, and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Moreover, Virginia Woolf’s books are literary, still read today, but her lover Vita Sackville West’s books were very popular during her life. No one’s ever heard of them today. I think the thing that makes classics endure are the universal truths. According to Faulkner, there are universal bones including “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

But back to detective fiction—I defy anyone to write a better first sentence (a master sentence) than the first one in a novella by Raymond Chandler called Red Wind. Chandler’s problem is that what was clever symbolic language when he wrote it has become cliché. Raymond Bradbury’s writing uses symbolic language much more often and somehow it never seems cliché.