Interview with Meredith Miller, author of The Stiff Heart

Meredith climbing through Men-an-Tol
Meredith climbing through Men-an-To

Meredith Miller contributed the short story “The Stiff Heart” to Alt Hist Issue 5. She kindly agreed to answer some questions about the story and about her writing – and sent us a rather fund photo too!

Can you tell our readers what the background is to the title of your story, “The Stiff Heart”?

This is an embarrassing story! The title is taken from a line in Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes–‘. For some reason, I spent a good deal of my life believing Emily Dickinson had shot herself! In my defense, neither poetry nor nineteenth-century American Literature are my academic area! I must have gotten this idea somewhere in the poems themselves when I was young. In any case, I have been preoccupied with the idea of the female recluse. Another of my stories, ‘The Window’s Wife’ (in Prole 6) centers on a different reclusive female figure. I knew about Emily Dickinson’s self-seclusion and also that she was in love with the young woman who became her sister-in-law. I decided to take all that for the subject of my story.

One problem with historical fiction can be when facts get in the way of good story-telling. For this reason, I always develop a bit of character before I embark on research. So I drafted the story, then read some biography on Dickinson, only to discover that she had, in fact, lived a fairly long time and died of an illness!

Just to clarify, the story is not intended to be about Emily Dickinson at all, it simply explores those ideas and that middle-class, late-nineteenth century New England setting.

What drives your central character to do what she does?

What drives the narrator here, really, is a sense of anomie, a feeling that there is no place in her social world where she can be fulfiled and make sense. I realise now that most people will assume she wanted to marry Gordon. In fact, my idea was that she was in love with Patience! That doesn’t matter, though, as much as the fact that there was no room in her world for her to simply be a person on her own.

What attracted you to the setting and period of “The Stiff Heart” (American Civil War)?

As an academic, my research is on the novel between 1865 and 1965. At the time when I first drafted this story, I’d been reading a lot of late nineteenth-century periodicals, both the serialised fiction and all of the other wonderful things they contain – political and philsophical essays, scientific musings, cultural criticism, gossip, etc. I am American, but live in Britain, so I was interested in the way British periodicals viewed what they referred to as ‘the American war’. In fact, there was more support in Britain for the South than contemporary Britons like to admit! Also, though, left-wing British writers were very much in support of abolition and union democracy.

How did you get into writing?

I’ve been writing since before I could write. When I was four, I used to dictate poetry to my older sister, and she would write it down. I’ve never really seen myself as anything else.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Garden my allotment and work on my house. I bought a derelict house a few years ago. It’s a lot of work! Also, I am an academic so I publish literary criticism and teach both undergraduate and postgraduate students. That last is a real privilege and a joy. Also, I like people and love to talk! I have a wonderful, clever daughter and I like spending time with her and with the rest of my mad and talented family.

Are you working on any other short stories or novels at the moment and if so can you tell us a bit more about them?

I am currently doing final revisions on a novel, Fish-shaped Island. It’s set in Long Island in the spring of 1979. For those of you not old enough to remember, those were crazy and wonderful years in which to be alive. The novel is about a small town in that period and its underlying creativity and violence. I won’t say anything about where it’s going, but watch this space. My next published story, ‘Ice’ will appear in the Autumn 2013 issue of Stand. Anyone who wants to keep in touch can follow me on Twitter @meredithseven. My Twitter account will also lead you to my website, The Window’s Wife.

What are your ambitions as a writer?

I have two novels completed and would love to see them both in print. A third, Whiteness, is calling loudly for me to write it. I have partially completed a novel about Enlightenment philosophy and pirates, set in the early eighteenth century and called The Ship of the New Philosophy. I would love to find someone who isn’t frightened by my unholy mix of literary and genre writing to publish it. Philosophical pirates are so much fun!

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