Off the beaten path

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Jen­nifer Levin I The New Mex­i­can Au­thors Lynn C. Miller and James Terry

James Terry, au­thor of King­dom of the Sun, and Lynn C. Miller, au­thor of The Day Af­ter Death, dis­cuss their books at Col­lected Works Book­store

The main­stream pub­lish­ing world tends to fo­cus on prof­its over lit­er­ary merit or bring­ing new au­thors to the pub­lic, which can mean a seem­ingly end­less string of celebrity mem­oirs and on-trend com­mer­cial fic­tion se­lected to ap­peal to broad au­di­ences. Univer­sity presses, how­ever, seem to value qual­ity over mar­ketabil­ity, which means that some of to­day’s best writ­ers won’t be found on the New York Times best­seller list. Books from these pub­lish­ers might have es­o­teric sub­ject mat­ter or set­tings that seem like a risky bet to the big houses. It’s worth a lit­tle dig­ging to dis­cover what’s out there, and a good way to find these un­der-the-radar books is to check out read­ings held at lo­cal book­stores. King­dom of the Sun, a col­lec­tion of stark and stun­ning short fic­tion by James Terry, and The Day Af­ter Death, an atyp­i­cal psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller by Lynn C. Miller, were pub­lished in March by the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press. The au­thors read at Col­lected Works Book­store on Fri­day, April 8.

All sto­ries in King­dom of the Sun are set in Dem­ing. Terry evokes Dem­ing’s rep­u­ta­tion as a bleak way sta­tion be­tween Sil­ver City and Las Cruces while fill­ing in a nu­anced land­scape of class strat­i­fi­ca­tion, sex­ual con­fu­sion, and foot­ball cul­ture. His var­ied cast of char­ac­ters in­cludes an el­derly woman who owns a small apart­ment com­plex, a kid at a county fair, and a ten­nis-play­ing at­tor­ney, all of whom are un­com­monly well drawn for short fic­tion. Terry grew up in and around Dem­ing, but since the late 1990s, he and his wife have lived out­side of the United States, in­clud­ing in Aus­tralia, In­dia, and Canada. He cur­rently lives in Liver­pool, Eng­land. The sto­ries in King­dom, he told

Pasatiempo, were writ­ten in Dublin while he was in the throes of pro­longed home­sick­ness.

“On gloomy, Ir­ish win­ter days, I pined for sun­light and Amer­i­can spa­ces, for peo­ple I knew,” he said. He de­cided to write an in­te­grated col­lec­tion of short sto­ries set in the land of his child­hood, in­flu­enced by

Dublin­ers, James Joyce’s col­lec­tion of short sto­ries set in Dublin. “I knew that I could prof­itably mine my mem­o­ries of Dem­ing to do jus­tice to a wide va­ri­ety of peo­ple and their sto­ries. I must also men­tion the in­flu­ence of my grand­mother, whose house I lived in grow­ing up. Not only was she a fan­tas­tic sto­ry­teller of Mark Twain cal­iber, but hav­ing lived in Dem­ing nearly her en­tire life, she was a font of lo­cal his­tory and char­ac­ter, she knew every­body, and so I in­her­ited a sense of en­ti­tle­ment to Dem­ing as fod­der for sto­ries. I started writ­ing these sto­ries the year af­ter she died, which may not be a co­in­ci­dence.”

Many of Terry’s char­ac­ters are con­glom­er­a­tions of real peo­ple and his imag­i­na­tion, such as Clarence, the pro­tag­o­nist in “Road to Nowhere,” who be­friends a young woman liv­ing in a trailer in the path of the road he is build­ing. Clarence was mod­eled on Terry’s boss from the high-school sum­mer he worked at the Luna County Road De­part­ment. “I took my mem­o­ries of his phys­i­cal at­tributes, his head-hon­cho cow­boy­ish swag­ger, and in­jected them into a char­ac­ter whose other at­tributes were dic­tated by the moral im­per­a­tives of the story it­self.” David Al­manza, the foot­ball hero fea­tured in “Fum­ble” who then dies in “The Wild­cat Mas­sacre,” is named af­ter a teenage friend of Terry’s who played foot­ball in high school. “I was told some years later that he met a vi­o­lent death in some big city. I’m sure the sense of his death played a role in my con­cep­tion of [‘Fum­ble’]. In terms of David’s in­ner life, there are tropes here of sports sto­ries; the ath­lete who im­poses a vow of celibacy on him­self un­til the event is over; the all-con­sum­ing de­sire for vic­tory.”

In each story, there is an awk­ward sex­ual en­counter or in­ti­mate phys­i­cal moment. A trucker takes a teenage wait­ress to a drive-in movie and is sur­prised when she mis­reads his in­ten­tions; a lonely handy­man arouses ro­man­tic and ma­ter­nal long­ing in an old woman; a teenage boy finds him­self drawn to a ma­nip­u­la­tive ex-girl­friend; a man runs into his ex-step­fa­ther in a bor­der-town bar; a vis­it­ing an­thro­pol­o­gist gets overly in­volved with his sub­ject. The re­cur­ring theme wasn’t a con­scious choice for Terry, but he is in­ter­ested in the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of intimacy. “Many of these char­ac­ters long for a pure moment of con­nect­ed­ness with some­one, and for one rea­son or another that gets thwarted,” he said. “Sex, in these sto­ries, is anal­o­gous to an earth­quake: The sur­face vi­bra­tions are merely an ef­fect of more pow­er­ful subter­ranean forces at play.”

Sim­i­larly strong but mys­te­ri­ous forces are at work in Miller’s The Day Af­ter Death, in which Amanda, the forty-two-year-old pro­tag­o­nist, must re­visit the most emo­tion­ally painful times in her life, which are bound up in the child­hood death of her twin brother, Dun­can, along with her re­la­tion­ships with her older brother, Adrian, and her for­mer col­lege pro­fes­sor, men­tor, and lover, Sarah. Amanda is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the night­mare of reawak­ened trauma, which has taken

I knew that I could prof­itably mine my mem­o­ries of Dem­ing to do jus­tice to a wide va­ri­ety of peo­ple and their sto­ries.

— James Terry

over her dreams and man­i­fested it­self in her body as per­sis­tent shoul­der pain. The novel moves be­tween Amanda’s child­hood, her col­lege years, and the last few times she en­coun­tered her brother, as well as the present day. She dis­cusses her mem­o­ries and her fears with a ther­a­pist, her friend Babs, and her new girl­friend Teresa. The novel re­lies heav­ily on the play Be­trayal by Howard Pin­ter, about a love tri­an­gle. Sarah di­rects a pro­duc­tion while Amanda is in col­lege, and forever­more its themes re­ver­ber­ate for her.

The Day Af­ter Death is not an ac­tion-ori­ented novel, yet Miller cre­ates chilling ten­sion and sus­pense as we learn about the cal­cu­lated ter­ror wrought by Adrian and Sarah, both of whom have a long reach and an un­canny abil­ity to hide in plain sight. The story has the artis­tic se­ri­ous­ness of What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt (2003), the grip­ping trick­ster el­e­ment of The Rob­ber Bride by Mar­garet At­wood (1993), and the same earnest be­lief in the talk­ing cure em­braced by Wally Lamb in I Know This Much is True (1998). Writ­ing ther­apy scenes was a chal­lenge, Miller told Pasatiempo, be­cause in real life, ther­apy ses­sions can eas­ily fold back on them­selves or go around and around for months — but they couldn’t do that in a book. “I tried to make ev­ery ther­apy scene have some moment of rev­e­la­tion that ties back to the main plot. In ev­ery one of those scenes, Amanda comes back with a new piece of in­for­ma­tion.”

Miller taught the­ater at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin for 27 years. She now lives in Albuquerque, where she co-di­rects the ABQ Writ­ers Co-op and serves as edi­tor of the lit­er­ary jour­nal bosque. The ini­tial idea for the novel was in­spired by her con­tin­ued feel­ings of loss for her brother, who died in a car wreck when he was twenty-three. “He was seven years younger than me, but a friend of mine said that she’d al­ways thought of us as twins. That put the seed of the plot in my head, about a twin brother who dies. And then I was talk­ing to a ther­a­pist one day, and she talked about how some­times peo­ple die in fam­i­lies be­cause the fam­ily dys­func­tion doesn’t al­low them to sur­vive. In the novel, Dun­can dies be­cause of the older brother and the mother.”

Miller orig­i­nally set out to write a story about the fam­ily; the thriller plot­line emerged as she de­vel­oped the present-day world of the novel, in which Amanda must dis­cover the true na­ture of her re­la­tion­ship with Adrian, and fig­ure out what role the enig­matic and cap­ti­vat­ing Sarah re­ally played in her life. “I’m a mys­tery afi­cionado, and most of my fic­tion has some el­e­ments of mys­tery be­cause hu­man na­ture and mo­ti­va­tion are such puzzles. How many times do we ask, ‘Why did he do that?’ or ‘What was she think­ing?’ or ‘How could this have hap­pened to me?’ I felt like Amanda’s quest re­ally is the mys­tery of her life.”

I’m a mys­tery afi­cionado, and most of my fic­tion has some el­e­ments of mys­tery be­cause hu­man na­ture and mo­ti­va­tion are such puzzles. — Lynn C. Miller

Amanda is also grap­pling with who she is at forty-two: a painter who left the the­ater be­hind af­ter get­ting a grad­u­ate de­gree in di­rect­ing and who now pays the bills work­ing for a fi­nan­cial plan­ner. She has never had a last­ing ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship. In mid­dle-age, she re­al­izes, she can­not go for­ward un­til she goes back. The women in her life, es­pe­cially Babs, a cur­mud­geonly aca­demic, are fleshed out well be­yond their func­tion in the story, which makes for a rich cast of sup­port­ing char­ac­ters. “That’s just a project of mine,” Miller said. “If you’re go­ing to have a char­ac­ter, they need to be dis­tinc­tive. They need to be a spe­cific per­son, not a generic prop — es­pe­cially in a novel like this, where all the char­ac­ters are in­te­gral to Amanda’s life in some way. I wanted them to be unique and de­vel­oped.”

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