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In 'Monogamy,' Sue Miller Explores Widowhood

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Annie is a happy woman - a photographer, married to Graham, a warm and charming bookseller with whom she enjoys a close family and enriching friendships. Then one morning, he doesn't wake up. We're going to ask Sue Miller to read from her novel, "Monogamy." And we’ll caution, no profanity here, but this beautifully written paragraph may be rough to hear.

SUE MILLER: (Reading) She had this thought that she should put some clothes on him. Someone would have to come, someone who would see him like this. She couldn't think who that might be at the moment - the doctor, some ambulance guys. But she'd have to call someone at some point, and she didn't want anyone looking at Graham naked. She leaned forward and kissed him and was conscious even as she did it of how false this was. She didn't feel anything for him, for this body. He was gone. And finally she wept for that, for how empty his body could be. She couldn't have imagined it. Graham was his body - big, energetic, alive. Stilled, he was more absent than anyone else would have been.

SIMON: Sue Miller, the bestselling novelist, joins us from Cambridge, Mass. Thanks so much for being with us.

MILLER: Oh, I'm very glad to be here.

SIMON: Annie begins to grieve, goes through all the steps, but then she discovers something at her husband's memorial, doesn't she?

MILLER: Yes, at a party a couple of months after his death, actually. She goes upstairs, and she hears weeping from his study. And she goes in, and there's a woman there who looks up at her first with sort of grief stamped on her face and then with guilt and a sort of discomfort. And she realizes that there's a reason why the woman is there and that it's obvious that somehow he's been involved with her. And that's basically all she ever really knows, but it's enough. She's quite sure he has been unfaithful because he has a complicated history in that regard.

SIMON: Your novel helps people understand that adultery sends out circles of hurt to other people, too, doesn't it?

MILLER: Absolutely. There's probably five or six people that I take up in the course of this novel, sort of in this large, complicated, reconstituted American family. So there's Graham, and there's Annie, and then there's Graham's first wife, Frieda, and then there's his son by Frieda, who's now in his late 30s. And there's a daughter that he has had with Annie, who's in her late 20s. And each of them, I trace through the response each of them has and then the sort of complex nature of their response as a result of Annie's response to things, which is, of course, dramatically altered when she discovers that Graham has been unfaithful to her. And it's sort of incomprehensible, particularly to her daughter, what's going on, essentially.

SIMON: Yeah. She says to a friend who happens to be Graham's first wife, I just want him back. Then I could hate him.

MILLER: Yes. I mean, it's just this very complicated moment for him. Another time she says something about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, what stage of grief is this, where you want him back so you can kill him? So she has those thoughts a lot, just this feeling of complete rage. And part of that is because their marriage has been so close and so intimate for so long.

SIMON: I gather that your experience with your father in his final years had some effect on the writing of this novel, too.

MILLER: It sort of triggered it in a certain way. I had - he suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and then he died. And I was just sort of agonized by that death. He was a historian, and the irony of his memory being slowly taken from him when that was what he sort of specialized in. I was just stricken by great grief at that point. And I began to write a memoir and just found out a lot of not terribly important things, but important to me, about things I had assumed about him that weren't quite true. And I ended up feeling as though over the years it took me to write that book - because now I understood him differently, and because of that, I felt differently about him, and I felt differently about myself. And I wanted to sort of explore that fictionally. So I invented this relationship with Annie and Graham. And I invented a sort of grave misunderstanding post-death and then a slow working back as she feels she's coming to know him in a different way after his death.

SIMON: Annie's a photographer. And I gather you kind of went to photography school to fill in her character.

MILLER: (Laughter) I did a little. I have a wonderful photographer friend that I talked to at great length who is just very open and candid about the complexities of the way she felt as a photographer. I connected it in a certain way to being a writer, the way in which you sort of use everything that's dropped in your lap in front of you or even on the sidewalk in front of you and that you feel some sense sometimes of discomfort in terms of using people in a certain sense. Oh, this is a great shot, you know? Even though she's crying, this would be terrific. And there's something a little callous about that. And Annie feels complicated feelings about using people in the way that she has.

SIMON: You have special thanks to your husband. Help us understand how he helped because I'm going to imagine this was a hard novel to write.

MILLER: It was. And he is a gifted editor and reader. He's a novelist himself. The one thing that's especially nice about being married to someone who sort of understands your work is that you can sit around the dinner table and talk about these people who are alive only in your brain, and it's as though they're friends. And he'll say, oh, I don't think he would say that (laughter). It's just wonderful to be - for your inner life to be open to a discussion as though this person were someone we both knew very well.

SIMON: And no one ever says, get a grip; you're talking about - she's a fictional character.

MILLER: No, not at all. She's real, or he's real. And that is quite wonderful and I think quite unique to our situation. Plus, it's fun. It's fun.

SIMON: Sue Miller - her novel, "Monogamy" - thank you so much for being with us.

MILLER: Oh, I'm so glad to talk about it with you. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.