In her new novel The News From the End of the World, Emily Jeanne Miller not only dissects dysfunctional family dynamics, but puts them on display in a way we can all relate to.
But familial dilemmas seem to be a frequent topic in Miller’s novels. Her previous book, Brand New Human Being is the story of a stay-at-home dad whose life is progressively coming apart, dismantled by the death of his own father, the strain in his marriage, his toddler son’s regression to drinking from a bottle and the complicated relationship with his father’s much younger widow.
One thing that quickly distinguishes Miller’s recent work from Brand New Human Being is the multiple points of view that are present in the story. The News From the End of the World is narrated from the perspective of every single family member, which could make the story quite a bit cumbersome plot-wise if Miller wasn’t particularly skilled in smooth narrative transition. Each character’s voice is clearly felt with no chance at confusion or distortion, something that many novels with multiple POVs very frequently struggle with.
Vance Lake is a man whose prospects in life have significantly diminished. He has no other place to go except his twin brother’s house in Cape Cod. What Vance doesn’t know is that his brother Craig is at the moment attempting to placate his own family crisis. His seventeen-year-old daughter Amanda is pregnant, and wants nothing to do with the baby while Craig is adamant that she keep it and take responsibility for her actions. Stuck in the middle is Craig’s second wife Gina, mother to his two younger children Helen and Cam, who feels that she doesn’t have the right to intervene or advice her step-daughter in any way, since Amanda has never cared for her. The tension and squabbles between Craig and Amanda slowly push Gina towards the affections of another man, and place her at the edge of betraying her marriage and her family.
Miller takes us inside the strained relationship not only between Craig and Vance, but also among the other members of the family. What makes this story astoundingly perceptive is that each member of the Lake family go through their own personal conflicts while also dealing with the central predicament of Amanda’s pregnancy, which very much threatens to disintegrate the family. While Vance is an outsider of sorts, who comes to introduce much needed balance and new perspective into his brother’s family, he also faces his own past when he returns to Cape Cod which is nothing short of surprising.
I spoke to Emily Jeanne Miller about the creative process behind her new novel, and the difficulty of writing multiple points of view.
How different was the writing process for this novel compared to your previous novel, Brand New Human Being?
I’ve actually been thinking about that a lot lately. It was very different because first off, this novel started as a single point of view novel, with a lot re-writing and starting over, end eventually it evolved to five points of view. That was super challenging, but also a lot of fun. But that made the writing process entirely different.
What is it about family dynamics that inspires you to write about them in your stories?
I’ve always found family dynamics endlessly interesting. Every family is different, and yet there are so many things from family to family that makes us all the same. When you talk to people about their families, there are so many points of recognition while others can sound so strange. I just find endless material there.
News From the End of the World portrays a clearly dysfunctional family that is as real and complicated as the life of many aggregated families. Would you agree?
I think so. I mean they’re a unique family but at the same time, not unique at all, and I suppose that’s what a real family is. There’s a lot said about happy families and unhappy families, or functional and dysfunctional. I think there are elements of happiness and unhappiness in every family and in every relationship, and that’s what makes it beautiful, complex, sad and a really interesting mix.
How difficult was it to write a story from multiple points of view?
It was tough because I had never done anything like that before. The novel really started off from Vance’s point of view, and it was really focused on the relationship between the brothers. And then I began thinking that relationships don’t happen in a vacuum and that the family is increasingly important to the story. I had a couple of moments very late at night when I thought: “Oh my God, I have to put everyone’s point of view in there.” And so I just went to the beginning and tried to inhabit each one organically to see where the story went, what each was needing and wanting. It seemed that this was where the book needed to be.
Is it now a completely different novel from the one you envisioned when you started writing it?
Yes! I think the original novel is in there, in a sort of a kernel; mainly the relationship between Vance and Craig. But it became more interesting to me, and it took on a lot more energy and challenge than I thought it would.
Gina seems to be the only character that’s rather one-dimensional, because while Amanda, Craig and Vance deal with more life-changing issues, Gina’s only problem is how bored she is with her life. Doesn’t this make her a rather simple character?
This is interesting to think about. She’s kind of bored with her life, but in a way that’s a pretty big problem. I think she’s also dealing with a situation where she has everything she thought she wanted but now thinking, “Is this it?” But I think that in the end she becomes a bit more grounded and tied into her life.
The story develops in just four days. Why did you constrict the plot to that particular time frame?
It’s the way my fiction brain works, in small increments of time because my other novel is the same. It seems to me that in a situation like the one in this story, everyday feels like an eternity. So many of the dynamics of a family can be observed in very small moments, silences and small actions. So for me this is the one things unfold, at least so far in my writing.
Which of the characters represented the hardest challenge?
They all had their difficulties, but Helen was particularly hard to write. Personally, I don’t like reading children’s points of view in fiction and I kind of swore to myself that I would never write one. But then as I was writing this, I felt that the child’s voice needed to be heard, because she is after all part of the family and family dynamics certainly have effects on the children. I really felt it was necessary, but I felt like I was treading really hard between realistic annoying child or just plain annoying. At times I had to go back and edit, tone her down a bit. So it took a lot of work to get her voice to that middle area.
It was interesting to see that the difficult situation with Amanda, which could have destroyed the family and pulled them apart, actually brought them together and made them stronger.
I really like the way you put that. I’ll have to put that on the book jacket of the paperback!
But yes, at one point Gina says, “Family crises make for strange bedfellows,” and I think that’s true. It’s like everything gets thrown up in the air, and the sticks fall in a different way and people have to dig deep and challenge themselves but I think they do come out in better shape than when they went in, even though they never thought that was possible.
What future projects are you working on?
I do have an idea for a novel that I’m tossing around but it’s definitely too early to talk about it yet.
Will it include another family in crisis?
I imagine so, but I wouldn’t mind taking a break from that. I was thinking more about a thriller set in Cape Cod. But we’ll see.
The News From the End of the World will be released on February 21, 2017.