The cinema is brutal. You can control your writing

I meet Rebecca Miller in a hotel in Dublin on a day when torrential rain caused traffic jams.

We both traveled from Co Wicklow and arrived a few minutes late. We’re here to discuss Total, Miller’s new short story book.

It is a masterful collection showing characters in extremis and both comic and dark. Drawn from inspiration for many years, she wrote most of the stories during the first lockdown in New York. Did some of the darkness of that time seep into the stories?

“I think so,” she said after a thoughtful pause.

“I don’t see how it couldn’t have been. I mean, we were all washing our groceries and afraid to touch each other.

“And to say there was no vaccine, that was terrifying.

“Death was everywhere and the feeling that outside your circle of life there is darkness is definitely present in the stories.”

This collection is the first Miller has produced in over 20 years (his first, Personal Velocity, a 2001 Washington Post Best Book, was the basis for his award-winning film of the same name).

But that’s not to say Miller has been idle in the meantime. There have been two novels, four other feature films and a documentary film about her father, playwright Arthur Miller.

Rebecca MillerTotal

When I notice her genius and versatility, she says she couldn’t have had any other career. But I don’t let her get away with it; While beginning life as an artist and sculptor, Miller also spent a decade as a stage and film actor.

“But that was years ago,” she says, saying most of them happened by accident.

Miller began writing as a teenager, but art became her passion.

“I was actually heartbroken when I realized I wanted to do a movie,” she says.

“I started with short films that were really like works of art.

“Then, after a dream about my two best friends, I wanted to make a big sculpture with a motor, and I wanted to film it. I evaluated it and realized I needed $30,000 for the project.

“Through a series of strange events, I got the opportunity to audition for a role on television. I’m not an actor, but I could handle myself, and I got the part. I was paid $30,000 and I did the carving.

“After that I worked with some great directors, including Peter Brooke for The Cherry Orchard. But I was never a big hit in film, and that was great, because I never got to fame.

It was good?

“Yeah, fame would have been bad,” she says, “because acting isn’t what I do best and I wasn’t as talented as I wanted to be.”

All of this, she says, was intimately tied to her filmmaking.

His big breakthrough came in 1995 with his feature debut, Angela. But although the film won her both accolades and awards, it failed to make any money – and she was unable to raise funds for a follow-up film. It was then that she turned to fiction.

All her publications have been wonderfully received, but Total sees her at the top of her game.

The startling first story, “Mrs. Covet,” gives the reader a roller coaster ride.

It starts with a ladybug infestation. The narrator, a woman pregnant for the third time, cannot bring herself to take care of the so-called “lucky” insects.

Instead, she ruminates on her life and her sex, wondering, lazily, if she has time for a quick orgasm before picking up her eldest son from school.

When her mother-in-law comes to her aid, in the form of kindergarten Mme Covet, she happily relinquishes custody of her children.

There are hints that all might not be well, but the dark and shocking ending is told with a genuine sense of humanity, understanding and forgiveness.

Where do such stories come from?

“I first wrote ‘Mrs Covet’ when I was breastfeeding my youngest child, who is now 20. I was in that mindset and in the conflict of wanting help, but also to protect your child.

“And also, how suddenly the world becomes scary when a baby is so vulnerable. And there was, in fact, an invasion of ladybugs.

Writing in the dark, with little flashbacks, she doesn’t necessarily know what will happen next, or how the story will end.

“Usually I don’t know anything and I start with a character or an event,” she says.

“Sometimes as a young woman I didn’t know how to put clothes on an idea.

“They’re like little souls that need bodies, and that’s what takes time. It took me many years, but during the pandemic I was able to sit down and sort it all out.”

Rebecca Miller's new short story book, 'Total', is the first she's produced in over 20 years.
Rebecca Miller’s new short story book, ‘Total’, is the first she’s produced in over 20 years.

A story set in Dublin, “She Came to Me,” features Ciaran Fox, a middle-aged writer who fears he’ll never get a new idea for a novel.

The spark for this one, was a period when Miller suffered from complete writer’s block.

“I think it’s something all writers can connect to in some way,” she says, “and especially if you’ve had some success.”

“Are you writing something of value to anyone? Or of value enough to create a shadow in this world?”

It happened to Miller as she transitioned from screenwriting to short stories.

“It was a really scary thing,” she says. “I was here in Ireland, and I didn’t have any other job, and I didn’t have any kids yet, so to distract myself, I volunteered at a women’s shelter, working in the nursery.

“A little later, a little story came to me, and I gradually built the whole Personal Velocity collection around this story.”

Having lived his whole life with creative people – his mother, Inge Morath, Arthur Miller’s third wife, was a photographer and she is married to actor Daniel Day Lewis – Miller cannot imagine another life: “You think wouldn’t it be interesting to have a banker mother or father?

She’s happy with her choices, loving the way the movies and the writing fit together naturally.

“Both things, movies and writing feel like inhaling and exhaling,” she says.

“Filmmaking is brutal on many levels – putting it all together can wreck your sanity, but you can control your writing.

“You can write a story with 3,000 people, and no one can tell you they can’t afford it.”

Miller is a charming interviewee. She laughs easily and often and seems quite content with her life – living, as she does, between Ireland and America.

She liked to write the stories, because it left room for all the characters that had knocked on the door of her head.

“It relieves all those people who are in there and want to get out.”

But writing is not pure happiness either.

“There’s a lot of joy involved, but it’s more like being a slave, albeit a willing slave to your imagination,” she says. “Once you sign up, you’re there, regardless of medium.”

A movie, She Came to Me, is in the works – she’s gone home to the States for that one, but she hopes to write another novel soon.

“It’s a question of what will be the subject and when can I get all my brain back to be able to concentrate,” she laughs. “Because the novels are immense.

“It’s not just about hacking the first path. You then have to go through everything sentence by sentence and that’s going to be difficult.

“One of the things I’ve learned is to let the rhythms of life flow. If I have another novel in me, it will happen.”