Interview with Lynn C. Miller
Updated: Sep 10
Author, actor, director, educator, podcaster, and publisher Lynn C. Miller is in the spotlight today to tell our readers about her new story collection, The Lost Archive. Not only are the stories within smart and engaging, but our interview includes a discussion of the art and craft of short story writing itself. Lynn’s insights into setting and identity, short story ending trends, and writing short pieces in the midst of longer works are all invaluable and fun to read.
Please talk about the part memory plays in the stories in your new collection, The Lost Archive.
Many of the characters in the stories face turning points. They re-evaluate the past or find they must revise key relationships as they sift through significant times with others. Memories form the glue that holds their lives together. Home, family, place, and identity intertwine in these stories. In the first story, “Archival Footage,” Audra begins to see how each person’s life is an archive, held together by various experiences and memories of people and events. Searching through her mother’s photos and memorabilia, “Audra sensed the edges of her life lapping against the edges of those of her family, her friends and all the lives she had touched, one archive leading to another, interspersing into a giant tapestry of living, striving, dreaming.”
This collection is so eclectic and inclusive. Some of the stories have a “Twilight Zone” feel to them; others are whimsical. Almost all are very intense. But unexpected (to me) was the story about Gertrude Stein. Because it is historical and the others are not, did you have any qualms about including it? And how difficult is it to fictionalize a life that is already quite well known?
I saw the Stein story and the final story, “The Last Usher,” which is a modern retelling of Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” as anchor stories for the collection. Both connect to significant American writers. The Stein story, in the first section, fits for me because it is the story of a crisis point in a relationship, as are so many of the stories. Gertrude Stein struggled to get out from the shadow of her brilliant brother Leo. Many of the other characters fight to find their own path.
As far as fictionalizing a life that is well known, I think showing Gertrude through the lens of Leo offered a view of her that many do not know. Success was slow to come to her. One can argue that without the support of Alice B. Toklas she would never have been known. The story is about the need for a champion, which Alice was for her. The attraction between the two women in many ways—physically, artistically, temperamentally, and in terms of living an organized life—seemed to me important. I toured a performance of Stein for many years and felt I had an insight into how she might have thought and felt. Although the story is intricate, I found it most compelling to try to put the reader into the room, into the famous atelier at 27 rue de Fleurus.
You’ve broken the stories in the book into four sections. What is the significance of each section? How do they differ?
My idea was to bind these disparate stories together in this “lost” archive, so that the stories act as pieces that make up a larger canvas. Exhibit A introduces the concept of archive and ends with a specific one in “Words Shimmer” as we enter the world of Gertrude Stein from 1908 to 1919. Exhibit B is about fissures in relationships. Exhibit C is about lost chances and wistful hopes. Exhibit D deepens these themes of family, friendship, and connection. These distinctions are generalizations. My intention is for readers to burrow more deeply into the archive of the collection and come out the other side wondering about their own lives and the turns they’ve taken. Also, I hope that the 22 stories form an organic whole.
In several of your stories the characters seem to be talking at cross purposes. Obviously, this doesn’t help them to hear the person they are speaking to. But does it help them in some way to better understand themselves?
Gertrude Stein wrote that people repeat themselves over and over again with endless repetitions and by doing so reveal what is inside of them. At times talk in these stories is an attempt to express an inner state that the speaker doesn’t yet understand or motivations that have until now remained hidden. Speech outers these feelings and motivations. An example of this is the story “How Much Is Enough?” where Janene finds that her soon-to-be ex-husband, who has been in prison for fraud, is attempting to claim her house for himself even though she has made the mortgage payments during his three years away. As they face off, she has to fight him for what is hers. In the past, his charm has overshadowed her needs. She finds inner resources she didn’t know she had as she faces him down and in essence, “talks” him down. They have entirely different motivations, but they each know they are in a battle for what they feel they must have. Janene triumphs with help from memories of her father who had always been her champion. In so doing, she realizes a new strength and purpose.
The story about the little girl whose father receives letters that appear to be from another child is haunting. On the one hand, the identity of the letter sender seems obvious. On the other, maybe it’s not. You leave the reader aching for certainty. Can you talk about short story ending trends generally and this ending in particular.
In many contemporary stories, endings are not neatly tied up. A story dips the reader into another life or situation. The ending is not necessarily final. Stories often show a part of the journey of a character. The story you mention, “Pale Blue,” is a speculative story like that. The little girl wants her absent father back. When he receives a letter, he disappears; she dreams that she visits his other little girl in another city who she believes is sending her father letters so that he will come to see her. Marcy is ten, and some of her thinking is magical, yet her process gives her a reality that allows her to live with the loss of her father’s unexplained departure from her and from her mother, who is devoted to her. Her imagination is alive and vital no matter what her father does. We don’t know down the road how this crisis will play out. But for now, the young girl is hopeful and feels she has a center. Her imagination and her dreams make her stronger.
You are the author of several novels. Do you come up with ideas for short stories while you’re in the middle of a novel and store them somewhere? Or do you pause on the novel and write the short story and return to the novel again? How do you handle your very active imagination?
I often write short stories in the midst of a novel project. When I get stuck in the novel, it helps to have something smaller that I can shape more easily. Stories are places for my imagination to experiment, sometimes through prompts in generative writing with other writers. I like to write on several projects at once; I guess I have a wandering attention span!
Please tell us about your podcast and the print publications you oversee through Bosque Press.
The podcast, The Unruly Muse, started during Covid lockdown when John Modaff, a former student, got back in touch. We had worked together before in performance when I was teaching at the University of Texas. He’s an excellent musician and sound engineer. I asked if he wanted to do a podcast with me featuring work by living writers and musicians. He said yes. We’ve now recorded together for 3 years. We’ve performed excerpts from many of the stories in The Lost Archive. The response to the stories by listeners motivated me to make this collection.
My wife, Lynda Miller, started Bosque Press in 2011. We published a literary magazine, bosque, for 9 years. In 2016, we started a magazine that’s half art and half writing called ABQ inPrint. We intend to keep publishing this zine, which showcases many New Mexico writers and artists. We also publish selected books.
Setting is a strong character in your stories. Can you talk about how setting and identity play out in your fiction?
Many of the characters search for home in these stories, and sometimes home is a person as it is for the uncle in “Afterthought”—he feels he’s lost his home after his wife dies. Alice B. Toklas finds home with Gertrude. For the narrator of “The Last Usher” the house itself, representing generations of ancestors, is paramount, and as it burns, she wonders who she can be without it. In the two North Dakota stories, the history of the family is written on the land—that’s their archive. I think setting allows us as writers to anchor our fiction in the deep textures that either ground the characters or that they run away from.
Lynn C. Miller is the author of four novels. Her third novel, The Day After Death, was named a 2017 Lambda Literary Award finalist. She has performed and directed the work of women writers, including Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, Victoria Woodhull, and Katherine Anne Porter and sometimes weaves their histories into her writing. Miller taught performance studies and writing at the University of Southern California, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Texas at Austin where she was Professor of Theater and Dance until 2007. She is co-publisher of Bosque Press, co-host of the podcast The Unruly Muse, and lives in Albuquerque. For more information, go to www.lynncmiller.com.