Miller’s latest novel, The Arsonist, takes place in a small New Hampshire town where a spate of summerhouse fires ratchets up the tension between locals and summer residents.
How did arson in a small town become the backdrop for your novel?
It comes from events in a New Hampshire town near where my parents had a summer place. The town was called Jefferson, and it was widely reported because the number of arsons was about 30. They weren’t just aimed at summer people, but I was intrigued by the notion of the town falling apart and the sense that no one could trust anyone any more.
Your novel also features Frankie Rowley, a woman who returns home to the U.S. after spending years doing relief work in Africa. Is that close to home?
A little of it is connected to my son, who lived in Africa for 12 years or so, and I often wondered if he would come back, which he finally did. But that made me think about people like him working in Africa or other parts of the world. I wanted to explore what happens to their sense of home and where they truly belonged in the world, so I began to conjure a female character who would come back because of the familial thing.
Frankie’s mother, Sylvia, is dealing with a husband showing signs of Alzheimer’s. The healthy spouse is often portrayed as a martyr. It was a breath of fresh air to see Sylvia’s anger about the situation. Can you tell us about that?
My mother was a dramatic and egocentric person, and she died before my father, who died of Alzheimer’s disease. But I’d often thought, God, we were so lucky that was the order in which they died because she would have felt put upon. Sylvia is my imagination of my mother and how she might have felt if she’d had to take care of my father. I also had feelings of irritation and anger with my father when I was taking care of him. I didn’t give voice to those feelings, but I projected outward from that.
What would you like readers to take away from this book?
The book is about people who are thwarted in some sense; they feel constrained by life and disappointed in some way, and yet they are still struggling hard to try to do the right thing, to make something meaningful out of what time they have walking the Earth. I hope people feel how complicated and difficult it is to follow a path of virtue and goodness and be the person you want to be, and how complicated human relations are even given those intentions—human relations from the micro between people, to relations in this town—to the macro—the relations of one nation to another in terms of how one really ought to go out into the world and try to change things and make things better. All of these things are of interest to me and I want people to see them in what I hope is a good story.