A good “what-if” is one of the most powerful tools in a fiction writer’s arsenal, and author Sue Miller has come up with a doozy. What if you’re planning on leaving your lover today, but haven’t told him yet? What if he’s on a plane that’s been hijacked? Add one more what-if—the date is 9/11/2001. Then throw in a few what-might-have-beens, and you have the rhyme and reason for The Lake Shore Limited, a beautifully crafted novel by a writer displaying the full range of her considerable talents.
In a recent phone interview from her Boston home on a beautiful but frigid day, Miller recalls that on 9/11, she was in Vermont, writing. “We had a place there, but we had no television. We listened to the radio all day, and I didn’t see any images until several days later. I was actually grateful not to have seen those images. So I was, in an odd way, removed from the way that most people experienced the attack because of not having that immediate visual experience.”
The fictional what-ifs of her new novel were sparked by a real-life connection to the events of that tragic day. “I had a friend who was staying with someone whose sister was killed on 9/11. Due to the circumstances, my friend felt it was necessary to stay longer than she would have otherwise, and to enact a role, something my main character ends up doing in the novel.”
The experiences of her friend set Miller thinking about the way we insist on one response from all those who lost someone on 9/11. She pondered the varieties of reactions that people might have had on that day. “Things could have been much more complicated for any number of people than what they appeared to be on the surface,” she says. With that dichotomy in mind, she chose to further explore the possibilities, although there would be a delay in bringing her ideas to the page.
At the time, she was working on other projects and finishing up The Story of My Father, a memoir about her father’s death, and still processing her loss. “With the passage of time, I’ve been able to think fondly, affectionately and with humor about people or even animals that I’ve lost, but I can also call up tears very quickly if I think in a certain way,” she says. “You gradually learn to live with less pain around the loss; it might ease over time, but I think there is always grief.”
Eventually, Miller began to think about the 9/11 story concept. “I started to see my way into it, fictionally, well enough that I was intrigued enough to pursue it,” she says.
In The Lake Shore Limited, four characters are brought together by a stage play that strikes a little too close to home for everyone involved. Three years after her younger brother Gus—the dearest person in her life—died in a 9/11 plane crash, Leslie is still trying to make sense of the senseless, including her marriage and her relationship with an architect friend, Sam, a man she was once strongly attracted to. Leslie has invited Sam to see The Lake Shore Limited, a play written by Gus’ girlfriend Billy, intending to set Sam up with her. Sam has his own backstory, but in the present moment, it is Billy’s gamine, enigmatic beauty that he is drawn to.
Although she was still living with Gus at the time of his death, Billy had already left him emotionally and had planned to tell him so on that fateful day. Now everything has changed, and Billy has attempted, as best she can, to mourn Gus and honor his memory in order to avoid hurting Leslie (who still thinks they were deeply in love) and possibly destroying a friendship she values. The play is Billy’s somewhat unconscious way of coming out of her emotional closet and healing some of her own wounds, self-inflicted and otherwise.
In her play, a story within a story, the main character learns that there has been a terrorist bombing on the Lake Shore Limited train, and that one of the passengers is his wife—the woman he was planning to leave for his mistress. Meanwhile, in what passes for real life, Miller’s characters continue to explore the intricate workings of their relationships.
Everyone in The Lake Shore Limited has plenty of baggage to sort out, and Miller is a master at volleying back and forth between the past and the present to reveal the rich inner and outer lives of her characters. Cutting through the chaos and confusion of daily living, she penetrates to the heart of the matter with great skill.
The author of nine previous novels, Miller is keenly aware of the redemptive power of art. “I believe that those who make art, and those who see it and participate in it, are changed by it,” she says. “There have been times when I’ve read something that triggered an incredible emotional response in me—an opportunity to re-experience a situation, but in a way that articulates it more clearly than I could have myself. I certainly intended that to be the case for some of the characters in the book.”
Although some may manage to rise above their challenges, there are no heroes in The Lake Shore Limited. “I don’t believe in heroes,” Miller says. “People do heroic things unexpectedly, but I think no one would ever choose them, and probably most people would wish them away, the very brave things they’ve done. I think they’re accidents that happen and people find something within themselves to respond to them.”
When asked what life experiences had most shaped her writing, Miller responds with one of her favorite quotes. “There’s this wonderful line from Flannery O’Connor that says, ‘Anyone who survives his infancy has enough material to last a lifetime.’ I do feel that to some degree.”
“I had an interesting growing up, an unusual one in some ways, and an interesting marital history. I’ve had the wonderful experience of being a parent and now a grandmother and worked for many years of my life with little children and their parents in day care. I’ve heard a lot of stories and imagined a lot of ways of proceeding through life and feeling things,” says Miller, who is currently the Elizabeth Drew Professor of English Language & Literature at nearby Smith College.
“But for the most part,” she says, “many of the specifics in my writing come to me as I’m working on a novel. It’s always part of the pleasure of having ideas come out of the blue—they seem like gifts.”