“Always Happy Hour: Stories” is the latest release from Mississippi native and former Grisham writer-in-residence Mary Miller. Her stories focus on women experiencing a continuum of love and loss and, true to her title, Miller’s various protagonists have their vices and their imperfections. Miller will return to Oxford this evening with “Always Happy Hour” for a reading and signing at Off Square Books.
I called Miller in her hometown of Jackson, where she’d read at Lemuria Books, then enjoyed a party thrown by her parents with “food, wine and super elderly relatives. And that sucks,” Miller said. “Because I’m looking through the book, and I’m like, ‘There is nothing appropriate for 85-year-old Catholics in here!’”
DM: How did Oxford influence some of the stories? “Proper Order” caught my attention because it references the John Grisham writer-in-residence program at the university.
MM: “Proper Order” is loosely based on my time — it’s a very fictionalized account, obviously — at the John Grisham house where I was kind of, I had a lot of friends in Oxford, but still if you are off on Highway 6 and kind of confined to this gated community where you live alone. It was a strange sort of experience of isolation where I became very inward. And I did do a lot of writing while I was out there, and I also got to adopt a dog in January. So, that story is sort of based on the isolation I felt out there and how I was a part of something but also very removed from it. But yeah, I didn’t ever flirt with my students or anything.
DM: What degree of truth is in these works? You name some of the places in the stories, and some, like you said, are loosely based on experiences.
MM: The same as how living on Grisham’s property sort of sparked the idea for “Proper Order” and how I felt removed from the community. Most of my stories are either inspired by real people or a real event, and then I complicate the narrator’s life much more than my own life generally is — give them some problems to deal with.
Previously when I used to write short stories, when I first started writing, I would elevate that … I used to think I needed some dramatic sort of event to write a short story, and then I realized that you really don’t.
I’m interested in people’s regular, everyday lives and struggles, so that’s usually what I write about.
DM: All of the stories are told through female lens. What did you want to communicate about some of these distinctly female experiences?
MM: All of the stories in the book are written from the perspective of a female, and I do write sometimes from a man’s point of view, but I think, when I do it, I doubt myself a lot more. I know what it is to be female very well. You know, having spent my whole life as a woman. And there are plenty of men writing about men’s points of view. And men oftentimes will also write about women. I don’t see it the other way as much, women writing from men’s perspective, but I’m sort of in the thought that we got plenty of men writing. They know what it is to be a man; I don’t really know what I have to offer that’s more insightful than what they could themselves. I try to write about the woman’s experience and in particular probably the Southern woman’s experience. Those women who aren’t necessarily living the kind of lives their moms did, where they marry young and have children and make a nice home. These women are more kind of struggling to find a new identity and place in the South.
DM:“Big Bad Love” was one of my favorite stories. But it wasn’t what I expected once I read it. What was your mindset in writing that one?
MM: So, the title … I’ve always been a huge Larry Brown fan. And the narrator in the book at one point is reading “Big Bad Love.” But that allusion does not come across very well. The old cover I had is not in print anymore, but it’s two people in the back seat of a car making out, and the little girl, Diamond, says it’s gross… so the reference, really, is missing at this point.
That story was inspired by my time living in Meridian, when I did work in a women’s shelter, and I did fall in love with one of the little girls there. We became just extraordinarily close, and at one point I thought I might try to adopt her, see if I could. But that’s really, that was sort of a dream. It was beyond anything I was capable of. But yeah, we just loved each other. We were best little buddies. She was very hard for them to keep there, and I was sort of in charge of her because she was so difficult, but we had grown so close that it wasn’t as difficult for me. I knew better than anyone else kind of how to handle her. Because she trusted me… And I think because she was so strong-willed and so difficult was one of the reasons I really kind of fell for her.
DM: What are some of your favorite short stories from “Always Happy Hour” right now?
MM: I’m really pretty sick of all of them at this point. I mean, because they are so old.
But, I guess I really like “Hamilton Pool” just because, the setting I really like. It’s about some of my time in Austin, so it’s set in Austin. That really brings that city to life for me.
I like “The House on Main Street” a lot. It’s early in the collection. It’s set when I lived in Hattiesburg. There are so many things that remind me of being a student at (the University of) Southern Mississippi and living in Hattiesburg. But it just sort of brings it all back to me – some of the people I knew there.
I think that’s what’s so great about these stories is that they’re little time capsules written specifically from a location or based on someone I knew. So they’re in that way really cool. They just kind of preserve a time and space in my life.
Catch Mary Miller at 5 p.m. today at Off Square Books.