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Authors-the people behind the books we read.

The 'Domesticity' Just Comes Naturally


The problem with Sue Miller is that she's a writer. She's not an ex-cop, or a moonlighting lawyer, she's not a mistress of horror or suspense or romance, nor is she a recovering addict, celebrity or multiple personality. She's a writer. A novelist and short story writer, if specifics are necessary, and it would seem they are. So necessary that reviewers and their ilk, casting about wildly for some way to categorize Miller, for some way to boil her down to a sub-genre, have decided she is a family writer. A "doyenne of domesticity," to quote the New York Times.

Which means there are families in her books. A wide assortment of families, dealing with myriad personalities and plots. In her latest, "While I Was Gone" (Knopf, 1999), there is a rather gruesome murder, a commune and a lot of mystery and deception--but apparently that doesn't soften the fact that when you open a book by Miller, by gosh, there's another family staring at you.

Of course, no one ever called Cheever or Updike or Tolstoy, for that matter, a duke, or even an earl, of domesticity.

"I don't understand it," Miller says, shaking her head. "Yes, there is usually a family in the middle of my books, but most of us live in families, that's how we came into the world."

She says this very nicely; she is, after all, a minister's daughter from Chicago.

"And I realize that I'm up against the post-Hemingway turn American fiction took," she continues. "Characters that are exclusive of background, that are on the road or in the middle of the war. A very male way of writing. It was wonderful, it made American fiction truly great, but people seem to think you're a less good writer if you return to the more rooted fiction."

Clearly, these are issues she has mulled over a bit, being a writer, and on the last stop of a 10-city book tour. Well, really a nine-city book tour; she came down with the flu and had to skip St. Louis.

"I thought maybe I should just go home, skip the rest of the cities too," she says, coughing a bit. "But so many people had gone to so much trouble, I would have felt so guilty." She smiles and fiddles a bit with her napkin.

"Though I'm not really sure about book tours, in general. I don't think people are as interested as they were back when my first book was out. Back then it seemed author readings were a rarity. Now they're so commonplace. People are inundated. They probably feel like, 'Too many famous people. Get away from me, famous person.' "

Sue Miller is certifiably famous. Her first novel, "The Good Mother," received phenomenal acclaim and was made into a movie starring Diane Keaton and Liam Neeson. Her subsequent three novels and collection of short stories were also critically successful and spawned another movie, "Inventing the Abbots," and a miniseries, "Family Pictures."

But she's not posey famous--no designer sunglasses or publicity-seeking hats--or bored famous--none of that desperately-seeking-someone-important room sweep. She doesn't even check her watch. Instead, her green eyes open wide when she speaks, her hands move in fleet and open gestures, and even with the audible cold and fatigue, her voice warms the words with sincerity.

"There is an ecliptic factor in early success," she says. " 'The Good Mother' is still The Book. People will say, 'Oh, I read your book,' and they always mean 'The Good Mother.' I'm very grateful," she says, "but sometimes I want to say, 'You know, there have been four more. . . .' But I don't. I say, 'Thank you.' "

"While I Was Gone" has ascension potential, dealing as it does with themes of deception, betrayal and forgiveness. Much of the book is spent detailing the seemingly idyllic life of protagonist Jo Becker. A veterinarian married to a kind and patient minister, mother of three grown daughters, Jo has that frosted-window-pane, dogs-lying-by-the-crackling fire existence that just begs to be shattered. Which, just as the reader is becoming envious of all the brisk walks and homemade risotto, it mercifully is. It is shattered by a figure from Jo's past who causes her to reexamine not just life as she knows it but her identity.

Self-centered and seemingly oblivious at times, Jo is a less than heartwarming character.

"She was a difficult character to inhabit," Miller says. "By the end I was really champing at the bit to get out of her. I found her a slightly unreliable narrator, she just didn't notice a lot of what was going on around her even as she struggled to examine things.

"My agent," she adds, "always wants me to write about 'nice' people. And, obviously, I want people to like Jo enough to be somehow complicit with her. But I really wanted to fool around with someone who had a confused sense of self."

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