Lynn C. Miller’s new novel, The Day After Death, comes out in March, 2016 from the University of New Mexico Press. Her two prior novels are The Fool’s Journey and Death of a Department Chair. Co-editor of Voices Made Flesh: Performing Women’s Autobiography, Lynn has performed the work of many women writers, including Katherine Anne Porter, Victoria Woodhull, Edith Wharton, and Gertrude Stein. Co-author of Find Your Story, Write Your Memoir, she’s taught at the University of Southern California and Penn State, and was Professor of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin until 2007. Short pieces have appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Hawaii Review, Phoebe, Text and Performance Quarterly, Writer’s Forum, and (in press) Chautauqua Journal. She is the editor of the literary journal bosque.
EMcK: The Day After Death is your third novel and it’s different in tone from either The Fool’s Journey or Death of a Department Chair, which were more satirical. What was the genesis for this novel?
LCM: I started thinking how silence in a family about unpleasant or traumatic events can poison the most vulnerable member of the group. This led me to the story of a woman whose fraternal twin dies when they are twelve; she blames her older brother for the death. This relationship–of the surviving brother and the protagonist–haunts the novel.
EMcK: Haunted is a good word for it. Her past loves very much haunt her present. This is ultimately a series of fractured love stories — familial and friendship and romantic. What can you tell us about this idea of the fracture and how it reveals meaning in DAD?
LCM: Amanda’s family is fractured by the death of Duncan. Because Amanda does not learn the truth of what happens that day that he is out skating on the ice and falls into the freezing water, a fault line runs through the family. Amanda and her father are on one side, presumably kept from the truth. Adrian, who was with Duncan that day, and their mother Eva are on the other side.
In other action in the novel, a fracture occurs when Amanda falls in love with her college mentor who begins a relationship with Amanda’s lover. Again, Amanda experiences a fracture of trust. Trust in human relationships is difficult for someone who was traumatized in childhood. In many respects the novel is about the healing of fractures as Amanda learns to trust, first her therapist Helen, then her new relationship with Teresa, and lastly to trust herself.
EMcK: Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal is a central part of the novel, and its enduring themes ripple outward into the lives of the characters. Speak a bit about the idea of a novel being built around a separate work of art.
LCM: You always hope that when you reference another work of art, in this case a play, that the work provides layering to your story and deepens its resonance. In this novel, the protagonist Amanda has a background in the theater and was part of a production of Betrayal, which centers on a love triangle. The theater, where art imitates life and life imitates art, is a laboratory for psychological action.
The production of the play brings several key characters to life in Amanda’s past, all of whom resurface in the present of the novel. The triangle pits two people against the third. Amanda finds herself part of several triangles starting with being the only girl sibling with two brothers. Pinter’s play shows how secrets can transform and ultimately poison relationships. The secret that Adrian and their mother share about Duncan’s death is one of the things that pit Amanda and Adrian against each other throughout their lives.
EMcK: What are the challenges and what are the benefits of building a novel in this way?
LCM: The challenge of using another work is similar to that of using an historical plot line which parallels the main plot which I did in my novel The Fool’s Journey–-you have to make sure that the supportive work remains subordinate to the main plot and doesn’t take the reader over! You don’t want this world within a world to distract or confuse. The benefits, though, are a richer story––the stories underscore each other––and hopefully a more satisfied reader as he or she fills in the gaps between the stories.
EMcK: There is a lot of interesting geometry in this book: a sort of geometry of relationships. Twins––there are two sets of twins––and also triangles.
LCM: The novel explores the search for personal truth. We live in community, not in isolation, and so the geometry of relationships teaches us who we are. Amanda is fascinated by twins because she was a part of a twinship and then loses that important intimate connection. When she goes to college she meets two professors in the theater department, Sarah and Marta. These two women, who are a couple, function as another set of twins. Her relationships with them, both in the past and in the present, lead her back to her older brother Adrian, who forms a triangle with the two women. And of course the play Betrayal rotates around the points of a triangle, two men and one woman.
EMcK: This novel has big themes of both theater and therapy–secrets are revealed through both. What are your thoughts on these two methodologies, and why combine them?
LCM: Theater and therapy are related, I think, in that each examines closely human motivations and the reverberation of an action on other actions. Both involve risk. In a play, what each character says about another or does to another, causes a further action. Therapy is like that too: as you talk about a situation, one question breaks through a barrier to a larger question. In The Day After Death, as Amanda learns more about herself, she can go deeper; she develops a thicker skin and can see herself more clearly. In the theater, the audience becomes the mirror; in therapy, the therapist is the mirror. Both of these mirrors are essential.
EMcK: I never thought of those together, but it makes perfect sense. In both there is a “you” who stands witness to the story, or to this particular version of the story that is staged. Amanda feels like an actor in her own life, and these two settings free her.
Amanda becomes a chameleon as a child, hiding out in her family, because she’s not sure about the motivations of others. The theater is a natural home for chameleons and all good actors have that quality of being able to become someone else. The theater is a safe place for Amanda to experiment. The therapeutic process is also a safe place to probe painful life events. In both the theater and therapy, someone is watching our progress, pitfalls, and mistakes. But also our triumphs. I think both of these methodologies are laboratories for human behavior.
EMcK: One of the central issues in The Day After Death is Amanda’s belief that her older brother was responsible for her twin brother’s death. How does this drive the novel?
LCM: When Amanda wakes up in her early forties and has the memory of her brother Adrian’s abusive behavior toward her, all her childhood fractures surface, including Duncan’s mysterious death. She must, at this time in her life, come to terms with her past and try to understand the family dynamic that haunts her.
EMcK: Yes. The haunting idea.
LCM: I think our lives are full of hauntings; we all search for healing from difficult experiences during the course of our lives. Adrian is a difficult character but not an unsympathetic one. He too was damaged by the family secrets. Amanda’s healing depends upon her being able to see past Adrian as the villain in her life and depends upon her realizing that she is responsible for her joy and sorrow, she and no one else.
I wanted to explore the rippling effects of family secrets in this novel, and the ways in which we can find meaning and forgive others for their limitations even while we transcend our own. The human being is flawed but the human spirit is unstoppable. How do we live with the past? How do we shape our lives? Who are we responsible for? These are questions that I hope resonate for readers in these pages.
EMcK: I believe that they will resonate—these are questions we all must face to some degree, no matter our past and present. Thanks so much for talking, Lynn.
Visit Lynn’s website for more information and for events with the author: http://www.lynncmiller.com
Read an excerpt from the new novel here.
Visit the University of New Mexico Press website to order your own copy.