A Conversation with Valerie Miner
R.A. Rycraft | October/November 2015
“Writing is a record of the practice of life, of history experienced. A record written through windows of choice—however narrow—where we remain culpable and permeable and alive.”
—Valerie Miner, The Low Road
Hailed by the late Tillie Olsen as “an author of reach, audacity, range, uniquely important to understanding our time,” Valerie Miner is the author of the recently published novel, Traveling with Spirits (Livingston Press). Traveling with Spirits is described by novelist Valerie Sayers as a “provocative, engaging odyssey through India and the U.S. Midwest.” Sayers describes Miner as a writer “brave enough to ask tough questions about religion, politics, and international aid, generous enough to acknowledge human goodness alongside human failings.”
A prolific and gritty writer who takes on serious political and moral questions while exploring her characters’ lives with wit and compassion, Miner’s publications include fourteen books as well as stories and essays appearing in dozens of journals—such as the Georgia Review, Salmagundi, New Letters, Ploughshares, the Village Voice, Prairie Schooner, the Gettysburg Review, Conditions, the T.L.S., the Women’s Review of Books, and the Nation—and more than sixty anthologies.
Miner has won awards and fellowships from PEN USA, The Rockefeller Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Jerome Foundation, The Heinz Foundation, The Bogliasco Foundation, The Australia Council Literary Arts Board, and numerous other institutions. She has had Fulbright Fellowships to Tunisia, India, and Indonesia.
Miner has also been honored with a distinguished teaching award, having taught for over forty years at various universities. She is now an artist-in-residence and professor at Stanford University. She also teaches in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.
R.A. Rycraft: In the “Introduction” of your memoir, The Low Road, you describe an awareness you came to as the young daughter of an immigrant mother:
As a little girl, I learned to read conversations closely because Mom was so reticent. I would peer between the lines (to question, weigh, pursue deeper meaning), for I intuited that she couldn’t tell the whole story. As her middle child, the only girl, a classic first-generation American, I became mediator, messenger, translator. I knew my job. I learned that secrets were good for the imagination.
In many ways, the description of the dynamics in the relationship between you and your mother parallels the concerns of many writers. Looking back on it now, do you think those were important parts of the things that made you a writer or enabled you to be a writer?
Valerie Miner: My mother was a hero in my life. A hero with a lot of secrets. It wasn’t until I actually sat down to write and then to do further research on The Low Road that I came to understand the extreme poverty and grief of her childhood. When you grow up with secrets, especially really painful ones, you need to find the answers. Otherwise you continue carrying all the sadness and grief of the previous generation. I didn’t write the book to recover from anything. But after the book came out, I saw a difference in myself and in other family members.
On another level, I’d answer your question by saying my mother always told me I could do anything I wanted to. And I believed her. I now know she meant that I should get a good clerical job and work less hard than she did as well as marry happier.
Rycraft: In The Low Road, you chronicle the moment when you told your mother you wanted to go to college: “I had to go to college if I was going to become a teacher.” Yet rather than major in Liberal Studies and earn a teaching credential when you attended the University of California, Berkeley, you earned your Bachelor of Arts in Literature and your Masters in Journalism. In choosing the path that you took, did your desire to become a teacher take a backseat to becoming a writer? Or were the two interconnected from the beginning?
Miner: Coming from a blue collar home in which my mom didn’t go past grade eight and my dad didn’t finish high school was not conducive to high flying dreams of being a novelist. I was surprised I got to college. Amazed I did well. Rode the tide of ’60s optimism and applied to grad school. There I chose a “practical” kind of writing—journalism. I wrote for magazines and newspapers for seven years. A few years after daring to start writing fiction, I realized that a teaching job was compatible with that. Then I was lucky enough to learn that I loved teaching.
Rycraft: In the late ’60s, when you studied at UC Berkeley, what do you feel you learned of most value to you as a writer?
Miner: Principally, I learned how to read literature. I was lucky to study with Fred Crews, Stanley Fish, Hugh Richmond, and other great teacher/scholars. Alas, I didn’t have a woman professor in English Literature. And as wonderful as my courses were, some were notably lacking in women authors. No Brontës in my Victorian Lit class, for instance.
One of the great things about school in that period was “Breadth Requirements.” I was required to take four sciences. I didn’t shine in science in high school, but I liked science so much at Berkeley that I wound up taking five science courses—physics, zoology, physical anthropology (from Sheldon Washburn), genetics, and engineering. I’m grateful for those classes as well as ones in other disciplines for making my education deeper and broader than I imagined it could be.
Rycraft: It is said that Berkeley was a hotspot for the social change that grew out of the ’60s. You arrived on campus when the social movements were well underway, but, I imagine, still active. How did being immersed in that environment and culture shape your writing and your worldview?
Miner: Berkeley changed my life. I began to think with much more nuanced international political perspectives. I learned to question. And I learned I was smart enough to question. I came from a conservative Catholic family, and when I was a sophomore, I told a friend “Love it or leave it.” Then it was I who wound up being the person to leave the US—partially because I loved it and believed in so many of its founding principles, which seemed lost to me by that point. I was active in social justice movements—for civil rights, against American military intervention in Southeast Asia, etc. It was a pretty discouraging time. And then the country elected Richard Nixon.
Rycraft: Was there a defining moment in your evolution as a writer?
Miner: I was always interested in literature, but as a young person, I would never have presumed or imagined that I belonged in the world of literary writers. And one day a secret of my own—something I could never admit to myself—opened out and I won the dream of becoming a writer.
Rycraft: And how did that begin?
Miner: My career as a journalist helped me to write fiction. I left the U.S. in 1970 in protest of the war in Southeast Asia. A little known fact is that more women than men left for Canada during those Vietnam years. I worked in Toronto for four years. Then in Europe for two years, and a little bit in Africa. I covered the Southern African Summit focused on the liberation of such countries as Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and the ending of apartheid in South Africa. I met with leaders from the ANC, Frelimo, Unita, and other revolutionary groups. I did an interview with one of my heroes, Julius Nyerere, the President of Tanzania, for Maclean’s Magazine of Canada.
My movement then—typical for a young, radical American—was outward. I kept part of a stanza from a poem about motorcyclists by Tom Gunn over my desk, which, for me, defined my own outward restlessness.
The self-denied, astride the created will….
At worse, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.
I was very good about not keeping still. As a woman, I was used to being a cipher. There were two men/two sides of the story, right? Then I met the Women’s Movement, and it made me look inward and think about how so many women’s stories had not been told. I avidly read books by Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Bessie Head, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood.
Rycraft: So reading great writers influenced your writing?
Miner: Hugely. I moved from journalism largely because of them. They made me feel that I could go deeper emotionally, spiritually, politically, and be more musical in my language in fiction. I don’t think fiction is better than nonfiction. I simply thought I could write better and be more engaging as a storyteller. And I wanted to use my imagination more. I’ve continued to carry on, asking the questions about social and political issues from my journalism days.
Rycraft: I’ve been in contact with several of your former students, including Heather Lende, author of If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name, a New York Times bestselling e-book. One of the things Lende says you taught her is “that writers need to be readers and to read critically—making notes in the margins—and to read widely.” What authors do you recommend to your student writers?
Miner: Among the fiction I find myself recommending often are Randall Kenan’s Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, Rohinton Mistry’s A Delicate Balance, Tess Gallagher’s The Owl Woman, The Collected Stories by Grace Paley, Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, Francisco Goldman’s The Ordinary Seaman, Fay Myenne Ng’s Steer Toward Rock. But this listing is hopeless because I could go on and on and by listing a few, I know I leave out so many. Also, the suggestions are so individual with regard to the interests and experiences of the student him/herself.
Besides recommending specific authors, I think that books about writing, rather than writers, can be some of the best models. It is useful to read what other writers say about their work. In this regard, I recommend Julie Checkoway’s book, Writing Fiction, which has essays by a variety of writers on craft issues.
Rycraft: I recently read an article where you state that “[perhaps] one of [your] advantages as a teacher is that [you] never took a creative writing class.” When you made the shift from journalism to fiction, how did you manage it? Did you have other writers helping you, mentoring you, perhaps?
Miner: I worked in serious writing groups with other professional writers—people who were journalists or poets or playwrights—in Canada and then later in England. We didn’t have a leader. We critiqued our work thoroughly. Each group resulted in a collection of narratives by the group members. This was my graduate school.
Rycraft: Then there was collaboration, too?
Miner: When I was a member of a women’s writing collective in Toronto, we wrote Her Own Woman. In a women’s writing collective in London, we published stories in the journal Spare Rib, and then in a book called Tales I Tell My Mother. Years later, this group did a second book, More Tales. Even later, the BBC commissioned us to write new stories, which were broadcast in the late ’90s. And in 2004, Five Leaves Press published separate collections by several of us. I also collaborated as a coeditor of an anthology and on several cross genre arts projects.
Rycraft: In addition to writing groups, you have taught at an impressive list of workshops, writing retreats, and fellowships. I suspect you wouldn’t spend time away from your writing room at home if you didn’t find the writing time away productive. How do these experiences impact your writing life?
Miner: I have found different gifts from the workshops where I teach (which I think of as fellowship in concert) and the colonies where I’ve worked (which I think of as fellowship in solitude.) Teaching at conferences—such as Bread Loaf, Aspen, Writers at Work, Key West, Port Townsend, etc.—has introduced me to fellow faculty who have become some of my best writer friends. I’ve also met many very gifted participants who have become friends over the years. I love hearing the lectures of the other faculty—whether in my genres or not. And there’s something about teaching outside of one’s regular context that encourages me to think in different ways in the classroom. I always value conversations with colleagues—at the university or at conferences—about pedagogy.
I’ve been grateful for writing fellowships to such colonies as Bellagio, MacDowell, Yaddo, VCCA, Ucross, Hawthornden, etc. I’ve been lucky to be able to go to about one colony each year since 1989. It’s inspiring to be in a place where art is honored as labor, where the other painters and musicians and poets are going to their studios each day, working their hearts out. I also love the evenings when people share their slides or compositions or stories with fellow colonists.
Rycraft: What impact did these diverse experiences have on Valerie, teacher? Valerie, writer?
Miner: I’ve learned a lot from people in my classes and workshops. In fact, I dedicated Abundant Light to my students with gratitude for all that we have learned together. I’ve learned to take risks, go in new directions, shake out the cobwebs and fly as high and as far as I can because of their inspiration.
Rycraft: You’ve taught hundreds, perhaps thousands, of workshops. How and why do you manage workshops as you do?
Miner: I would say that love and clarity are two things I try to bring into each class. I do my best to engage with each student as an individual. I begin each course with a discussion of process where people talk about what makes a good class. We move on from there—encouraging everyone to speak, also reminding people of the value of silence and the value of honestly expressed disagreement. I am for active participation and a balance of voices in hopes that the real learning in the class will be self-discovery and the students learning from each other.
As part of the workshop experience, I encourage students to think about the creative challenges and rewards of revision. Revision is an artistic opportunity. They share drafts with each other, as editorial partners, and come to take these relationships quite seriously. In each class, we follow each student’s paper from the idea stage through the revision strategies. The last sessions of the class are devoted to discussing every paper. Each student’s paper is read by the whole class.
Rycraft: And your advice to students about writing careers? Journalist Larry Sokoloff recalls your asking him to think more about what he wanted his life to be like, not just his career.
Miner: What matters is the doing. The teaching and learning I do in the classroom. The writing and learning I do on the page. The most important gift is the writing itself, the pleasures of discovery through creation. I think of teaching and writing as vocations more than as careers. And writing is a practice. It requires patience, generosity to the self, and persistence. And more patience.
Rycraft: What gives you the most pleasure as an instructor?
Miner: I love it when the class takes off and people become really engaged in the books and manuscripts and it almost feels as if they don’t need me there. It’s fun to get to class early and see people already talking about what they’ve read and written. And it’s fun to put out my former students’ books for my current students. Their eyes widen and it brings the new students hope.
Rycraft: How do you balance your teaching life with your writing life?
Miner: Over the years I’ve gotten better at finding a balance. But it is always hard. I did find that teaching worked better than journalism as a source of “day job.” And I came to love teaching. Working with students; not going to meetings. Also, I have been very lucky because all my universities have had light teaching loads. So while it’s a struggle to maintain the balance, I’m not complaining.
Rycraft: What about your own stories? In what ways do you see your stories as instructive/argumentative? I mean argumentative in the sense of the battles between public/private self; physical/spiritual; gay/straight? Are there binaries that you try to dismantle in your writing?
Miner: My stories are always instructive to me. I’m not interested in instructing others, but in raising questions for a common conversation. Questions about how we treat one another and this world of ours. Most of my books emerge from issues that are provoking me. In After Eden, I ask about home—about the relationships among people who are natives and newcomers. About stewardship to the land. About the nature of neighborliness. In my novel, A Walking Fire, I question the meaning of loyalty—both family and national—and since I’ve based the play on a modern Cordelia, I’m borrowing archetypal questions.
Rycraft: Are there any misconceptions about your writing that trouble you? Do you feel labeled and marketed in a certain way? Feminist writer? Lesbian? Socialist? If you are labeled as a “feminist” or “lesbian” or “socialist” writer, doesn’t that categorize you and narrow the audience that supports your work?
Miner: It’s strange to see my book shelved in “GLBT” work but not in the literature section, in some bookstores. Aren’t GLBT writers literary writers? Walt Whitman? James Baldwin? Randall Kenan? Manuel Puig? Virginia Woolf? Jackie Kay? Carol Anshaw? Patricia Powell? I’m happy to be called a feminist Writer, a lesbian Writer, a progressive Writer, an oppositional Writer, a Writer from a blue collar, immigrant family, as long as the word Writer is in the forefront of whatever characterization is used.
What distresses me is that books by women are still relatively marginalized. I like reading the New York Review of Books, but with each edition you’re lucky to have two or three women contributors and two or three books by women being reviewed.
Rycraft: In his long essay about The Low Road, Mario Varricchio observes that it is “the practice of the discipline of history that shaped [The Low Road].” It seems to me, in terms of the research aspect of history, this might be true of your fiction as well. How much of your characters and your settings are inspired by things or people you know?
Miner: I don’t write “autobiographical fiction” in the sense of memory recorded. All my characters are imaginary. Sometimes the books and stories become autobiographical in the sense of premonition. In other words, I often write about things that later actually come true.
Rycraft: Could you give us an example of that?
Miner: Sometimes the premonitions are slight or humorous; sometimes they are quite sobering. After I wrote A Walking Fire, which is in part about a daughter returning home to care for her father who is dying of lung cancer, and after I had sent the final book to the publisher, my father called to tell me he had lung cancer. Since I was teaching in another state, I discussed visits with Dad and his doctors. I bought two round trip tickets to go out and spend time with him. He died before I could get there. So the novel was a blessing in that it gave me a chance to care for and say good-bye to a father.
Rycraft: Novelist Scott Muskin said, “One huge thing I recall learning from Valerie about craft is to love your characters, or at least respect them.” You have said that one of your greatest writing fears has to do with character development. Could you explain that for us?
Miner: Am I listening closely enough to the character? Am I fully immersed in the language? Is the voice strong and individual and interestingly contradictory?
Rycraft: What strategies do you employ to help create the sense of authenticity characteristic of your stories?
Miner: Each of my books is read in draft by about twenty generous people. I have a few regular reviewers, but every project also requires some specific expertise or sensibility. I asked a lawyer friend to read A Walking Fire with close attention to the legal issues. A Bengali editor read Traveling with Spirits for tone and accuracy. I usually look for at least one “complete stranger” who is an expert in the culture of the project to read each book. For instance, I found a Yosemite field seminar leader willing to read a draft of Range of Light.
Rycraft: And revision strategies?
Miner: I read the manuscript aloud to myself. Reading it aloud—like typing it from the handwritten copy—is, partially, a discipline in paying attention. While reading silently, I may gloss over a stylistic awkwardness or a knot in the storyline, but my speaking voice focuses my concentration. Besides, I consider narrative an oral tradition and think that a good novel or story moves us with its linguistic rhythms as well as with character and plot.
I scribble changes or questions on the hard copy. I do more research. There’s always further reading or interviewing or meditating. By working in layers like this, I avoid getting paralyzed by too much background material.
I’m more of a tinkerer than an architect, preferring to play within the house that the novel has created. I feel settled and excited when I know I “have something alive,” after the first draft. I feel that I can bring my full spirit and mind to the project then.
Rycraft: A large part of what attracts me to your work is the evocative way in which you question and tackle some of the most pressing themes of our time. Ursula K. Le Guin has said of you, “I have come to depend on Valerie Miner as an uncommonly honest novelist: humorous, acute, and kind.” And Ron Carlson has said, “Valerie Miner’s gift is to make us see again that the issues we too often see as political are really deeply personal. This is the mission of our best fiction.”
You portray challenging and difficult subject matter with what seems to me to be a no-holds-barred approach that respects and illustrates the complexity of issues. One example of this is the struggles faced by Dr. Monica Murphy, the protagonist of your latest novel Traveling with Spirits, to understand the nature of faith and resolve questions about religious imperialism.
Miner: As an emerging writer, I was committed to changing the world and I leapt across continents in my dedicated, if naïve, efforts to promote social justice. Now I am awed by the scope and hubris of those youthful plans, grateful for what I learned in the process. I still want to “change the world,” and if my political principles have remained steady, the belief in my own powers has shifted. I now feel sane enough or safe enough to say that my goal as a writer is not instruction, but understanding.
Rycraft: Bret Lott describes your latest novel like this:
Traveling with Spirits is an engaging book about the clash of culture and of faith its protagonist, Dr. Monica Murphy, encounters when she moves to a remote medical outpost in India. Alive with details, wrought with questions of belief, and riven with the tension of wanting to know where she fits in the world, Monica’s story is compelling and vivid.
Given the protagonist Monica’s spiritual struggle throughout Traveling with Spirits, I find your choice of setting intriguing. India’s spiritual landscape is historically and literally one of the most diverse in the world. How did your experience of India impact your decision to set the story there?
Miner: I’m captivated by the landscapes and languages and cultures of India. It’s a place where everyone talks about spirituality. Friends always told me that my next novel would be set in India. I kept saying, no, I can’t appropriate Indian culture by writing an Indian novel. Then I realized I could write about an expatriate in India. (I’ve been an expatriate for about ten years of my adult life).
The setting and Monica’s dilemma emerged from quite separate interests/impulses. All books have a way of teaching you what they are about. And I now know I couldn’t set the book anywhere else. Essentially, it’s a novel about growth of consciousness. It is about trespassing and welcoming, about giving and being accepted, about the dangerous luck of the innocent. The novel raises questions about the nature of faith, religious imperialism, the troubled position of Westerners in developing countries, and the growth of individual consciousness. I wanted to address personal and political dilemmas about globalization and intercultural relations and in the paradoxes of charitable acts.
Rycraft: Do Monica’s spiritual struggles reflect your own?
Miner: No. But I’m glad you think this might be so. I have a lot of empathy for Monica. But I’m not a religious person in an institutional sense. She’s very different from me. But I grew to like her and respect her immensely.
Rycraft: One of Monica’s struggles has to do with accepting happiness—the contentment or satisfaction often associated with career, love, family, friends, and, most especially, acceptance of self. She can’t let go of all the perceived loss and failure of her past to embrace her future. It seems to me that Monica’s journey throughout the novel is just that, a journey to discover, accept, and embrace the life she ought to be living. Would you agree with that observation?
Miner: That’s part of the journey in my mind. The novel is about how she learns, what she gives, where she grows during these years of change. I’m trying to raise questions about the possibilities of love, grief, friendship, loyalty, courage, and honesty not just for Monica but also for all the characters.
R.A. Rycraft, nonfiction editor at Serving House: a Journal of Literary Arts, has co-edited and published in a number of journals and anthologies. Winner of the Eric Hoffer Best New Writing Editor’s Choice Award for 2008, Finalist for the Poets & Writers East/West Competition for 2010, and a Special Mention for the 2010 Pushcart Prize, Rycraft is chair of the English department at Mt. San Jacinto College in Menifee, CA.
from Traveling with Spirits
February, 2001, New Delhi and Moorty
Emmanuel inserts a cassette of Bollywood music as they reach a narrow highway which snakes up the mountainside.
The thoroughfare barely permits two lanes of traffic. It’s congested with coaches and elephants and cars and auto rickshaws and clattering vans the same vintage as Emmanuel’s. She folds her map, watches the road ahead.
Up, up, up they travel. Around and around the ever greening hills, all the while breathing black exhaust fumes from lorries and buses. Would Emmanuel mind closing he window, she wonders, then notices all the other drivers have theirs rolled down.
Trucks are painted with radiantly colored flowers and images—sometimes of Krishna or Ganesh; sometimes Christ; sometimes a scene from a driver’s hometown.
Bumpers and mud flaps are meticulously lettered in English and Hindi: “Happy Journey.” “Have a Good Day,” and the ubiquitous “Use horn.” What a macabre camaraderie among the death-defying travelers. Ashok says almost 2,000 people were killed by cars on Delhi streets last year. How many more perish on these hazardous regional roads? One contribution to preventive medicine would be a set of traffic rules. She hears Ashok’s laughing at her Western rationality.
Her bags rattle and roll in the back. She’s packed the fragile items diligently, so they probably survived Mr. Menon’s energetic tossing. A long crack on the van’s side window has been mended with masking tape. The mustard yellow vinyl bench is wearing away her tail bone. Get a grip. Real pilgrims suffered hardship, not just discomfort.
The scenery is stunning. Small, terraced farms score the hillsides. Occasional peaks of white promise the snow to come. Stately green trees border the road. Occasionally, she glimpses mountains. The mountains. The Himalayas.
From Traveling with Spirits copyright © 2013 by Valerie Miner.
Reprinted with the permission from Livingston Press at the University of West Alabama.