Off the beaten path
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.”