Steven Millhauser is the author of thirteen books of fiction, including Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer and We Others: New and Selected Stories. His story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” was the basis of the 2006 film The Illusionist. His most recent book is Voices in the Night (Knopf), a collection of stories. He teaches at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.
“The Rhythms of Phrases, the Music of Sentences,” An Interview With Steven Millhauser
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Cass Murphy. Of the process she said, “I loved reading Voices in the Night. The stories had such richness and depth and it was fascinating to learn how Steven Millhauser accomplishes this in his writing.” In this interview, he discusses the construction of stories and how he assembled the collection.
Superstition Review: While reading your stories, I was struck by how many awesome gut-punch lines there are. In “Sons and Mothers,” the elderly mother stares at the son “as if she were trying to penetrate a disguise,” and later he thinks it's “as though she could no longer bend in the right places.” In “Rapunzel,” Rapunzel's eyes “are so wide that they look like screaming mouths.” What is your process for writing such wonderfully emotionally-resonant yet concise lines?
Steven Millhauser: The word "process" makes me a little uneasy. It suggests something mechanical, even predictable. I don't mean that these images are whispered in my ear by the Muse of Fiction, but exactly where they come from is obscure even to me. The way it works is something like this: a particular moment in a story requires an image to make it more precise and resonant, and whatever I've written is unsatisfactory. I cross it out and try another. The next day I cross out the new one and try again. I keep doing this, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months, until I finally find words that ring true. It's as if I'm working with one part of my mind that pours out images and another part that evaluates them. Is that a process? Maybe.
SR: In “Miracle Polish,” the exchanges between the narrator and his significant other Monica sometimes use the conventional dialogue indentations, and at other times are lumped together into one paragraph without line breaks and indentations. Can you talk about what you intended with this?
SM: Most stories use indentations for each speaker. In this way, dialogue stands out from paragraphs of straight narration. My hope here is to make a further distinction. The dialogue indentations draw attention to what's being spoken -- it's as if a light is shining on the words. But when I put the dialogue in a single paragraph, the separate voices stand out less clearly -- I'm asking the reader to think of the talk as less crucial than the dialogue that gets special treatment. I'm motioning the reader to stand a little farther back and observe two characters together, instead of stepping up close and turning to pay attention to each one separately.
SR: In the climax of the same story, Monica forces the narrator to choose between her actual self and the reflection of herself that he watches in his countless mirrors. I found it interesting that he at one point refers to this reflection as “Monica's rival.” What does it say about Monica's character that her rival is herself, or about his that he perceives it as such?
SM: Whatever the narrator may be imposing on Monica, she herself has been seduced by the new image she sees in the polished mirrors. At times she feels she can choose one over the other -- there's a new Monica who is vying for her attention. You might say she's in rivalry with herself. The implication is that she's dissatisfied with the Monica who no longer has anything to hope for. When the narrator insists on the superiority of the new Monica, the issue is different: he's trying to exercise a control that is hurtful. When she feels the hurt deeply enough, he loses her.
SR: “Phantoms” is one of my favorite stories in this collection, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. The various topic headings and case studies used to talk about the mysterious phantoms reminded me of a field guide, but the second person voice and emotion-focused analysis seemed a bit subjective for that form. Who do you envision telling this story, and for what purpose?
SM: Unlike "Arcadia," which is deliberately modeled on a brochure and aimed at a particular audience, this story doesn't envision a particular audience except at one point near the end, where the narrator addresses "you." Think of it as part report and part meditation -- the town is brooding over a phenomenon it can't evade and can't explain. One thing I wanted to do was make use of all persons: I, you, he, she, we, you, they. At the very end, the story turns for a second time to you, the reader. It's as if the teller of the story has always been aware of the reader -- that other phantom.
SR: Whenever a character feels uncomfortable because of the phantoms’ presence, their arms ripple. I've never imagined an arm rippling before. What does this look like, and what is the significance of this?
SM: It's deliberately a slightly wrong verb that I hope is also slightly right. Arms don't of course ripple, though they can feel rippling sensations. By saying "ripple," instead of the more reasonable "feel rippling sensations," I was hoping to intensify the feeling of strangeness and alarm. For a moment, the person seeing the phantom "ripples" as if he or she has become disembodied.
SR: I was intrigued by the power dynamics in “Phantoms” and the consistent juxtaposing of childhood and adulthood in the story. For example, a woman “does not follow the children [phantoms] into the shadows, partly because she doesn’t want to upset them, and partly because she knows they are no longer there.” The adults not wanting to upset the phantoms suggests a certain tenderness which seems almost parental, but being frightened of something usually means that thing has power over you, which is a childlike perspective. Can you talk a bit about this?
SM: Phantoms, or ghosts, are among the things you outgrow when you stop being a child. Their presence in the town means that something connected with childhood hasn't gone away. If you fear phantoms, you're like a child frightened of seeing things in the dark. But fear isn't the only emotion inspired by these presences. One inhabitant of the town likes having phantoms in her attic; others, like the "I" of the story, find them extremely interesting. One character even falls in love with a phantom. In the end, no one knows what to make of these creatures, who provoke contradictory responses and explanations.
SR: I noticed a recurrence of circularity in sentences throughout the collection. For instance, the wife in “The Wife and the Thief” wants nothing more than to “climb the stairs and fall asleep beside her husband, who's lying there peacefully, dreaming his dreams. But how can she climb the stairs and fall asleep beside her husband, lying there peacefully, on a night like this?” Could you speak about your intentions behind this interesting kind of sentence construction?
SM: Any kind of verbal repetition draws attention to itself. Repetition for no reason is a sign of carelessness or pretentiousness, but there are plenty of good reasons to repeat words and phrases. In the example you mention, the wife is tormented by uncertainty and keeps wrestling with the same kinds of thoughts; the repetition is a sign of her agitation.
SR: I love the ending of “Sons and Mothers” when the son feels like he’s gotten what he wants from his mother by basically leaving her as an object propped against the piano. Can you describe your process for creating this story?
SM: When a story or part of a story comes to me, I turn it over in my mind a long time before starting to write. I might make notes, or take long drives, or who knows what. By the time I give myself permission to write, I know certain things, though not everything. I know where the story is headed, and I know certain crucial points along the way. Here, I knew that the aging son was not going to stay and that he would seek an opportunity to abandon his mother. My decision to turn her into an object came during the writing, as time seems to speed up and the mother's movements become more limited. If you move less and less, the logical outcome is immobility. That was his way out. Whether or not she literally turns to stone is a question I'm happy to leave to you.
SR: Many of the stories feature motifs that appear consistently, like the son in “Sons and Mothers” looking for his mother and two of the sorceress's facial features in “Rapunzel” described with the word “slash.” Such small details building on top of each other was delightfully engrossing: it was like each story was a mini-novel. Will you describe how you build these elements in such a short form? How does this process change from shorter to longer works?
SM: What I love about short forms is that large effects can be created by small causes. A few carefully repeated words or phrases take on the kind of weight that can happen in longer works only if the repetitions are more blatant. As a young writer in my twenties, I was particularly drawn to the work of Thomas Mann, who uses repetition pointedly and brilliantly in novellas like "Tonio Kröger" and novels like Buddenbrooks. It's the famous "leitmotif," which he adapts from the music of Wagner. But you don't need the example of Thomas Mann to discover the usefulness of repeated motifs.
SR: In “Mermaid Fever,” it seems as if there is more than one way to read the last line, “. . . she assumed again her rightful place in her own land, far in the distance, forever out of reach, out there beyond where we can clearly see,” depending on where the reader pauses in the last clause. What feelings and ideas do you want the reader to take away from this story?
SM: I want the reader to come away with all the variations of feeling summoned by those pauses. More simply, though it isn't simple: I want the reader to have the double feeling of relief that the mermaid is finally away from the town, and of regret that she's now forever out of reach.
SR: In “Rapunzel,” there is a brief shift to an omniscient voice which informs the reader of the differences between the 1812 and 1819 versions of the Rapunzel story. The narration then continues on as if both could be applicable. Why did you decide to include this information, and what was your process for deciding how to weave it into the story?
SM: I introduced this voice as a pause to mark the story's turning point: the Prince is about to leap from the tower, and years will pass before he's reunited with Rapunzel. I also wanted to remind the reader that the Grimm tale exists in several versions. There isn't a standard, authoritative form. Therefore the version you're reading -- my version -- is part of a tradition of variation. You could say that I'm asserting my right to tell my own Rapunzel story.
SR: I was struck by the line in “Phantoms,” “the explanation would tell us only that we are mad, without revealing the meaning of our madness.” It seemed to have a slightly meta effect, or perhaps I was only extrapolating, but it still made me wonder what you hope the reader takes away from these slightly supernatural, enthralling stories?
SM: If you think about any story, including a rigorously realistic one, you realize that the experience of reading it is a kind of madness: in order to enter the world of a story, you have to leave behind the world you inhabit. In this sense, a story is a carefully controlled form of madness inserted into the mind of a reader. Why would I want to do such a thing? I want the reader to be carried out of the familiar world into the worlds I invent, and then to return to the familiar world and see it in all the truth of its strangeness.
SR: Darkness and night are recurring concepts in most if not all of these stories. So are associated themes like fear, the unknown, dreams, and, as stated in the almost-titular story “A Voice in the Night,” something not being right. Would you talk about how you linked these stories together for the Voices in the Night collection? How do you see the collection as a whole?
SM: I knew only that I wanted to end with "A Voice in the Night." At some point I decided to open with "Miracle Polish," and after that it was a matter of juxtaposing stories in a way that made each story echo off the preceding. There's no correct way of doing this. Also, because of the presence of characters like Rapunzel and Gautama, I wanted to assert the American strain in my stories as the collection neared the end. That's why "Home Run" and "American Tall Tale" `come just before "A Voice in the Night." I go wherever I like, but I like coming home.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
SM: I began by working in a study in an attic, but for many years I've used a small room in a library. What matters to me isn't decor or comfort but only quiet. I need to hear the rhythms of phrases, the music of sentences. Any place that allows me to do that is good enough.