Author Interviews/Features

       

Meet Susan Cummins Miller

Susan Cummins Miller   
Susan Cummins Miller is the editor of an outstanding collection of thirty-four women writers who lived from the early days of the American frontier until midway through the twentieth century. Reviewing the anthology, Susan Wittig Albert writes: "A Sweet, Separate Intimacy makes a vitally important contribution to our understanding and appreciation of the lives and work of women writers who would otherwise continue in the obscurity into which many of them have fallen."

Miller worked as a field geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and taught geology and oceanography before turning to writing full time. She is a contributor to SCN's What Wildness is This and the author of the Frankie MacFarlane Mysteries (Texas Tech). She lives in Tucson AZ. Visit her website.

Read Susan Wittig Albert's review of A Sweet, Separate Intimacy for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.

Interviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 01/17/2009

A Sweet, Separate Intimacy obviously represents an enormous amount work on your part. Tell us how you went about it and why you were compelled to do it.

I blame it all on Mary Austin.

In 1996, I was at a crossroads in my writing life. I'd finished my second novel, Death Assemblage (the first was relegated to the closet shelf in perpetuity), but I was having no luck finding an agent. I was beginning to question whether or not I was cut out to write fiction. So, I took a hiatus amd went back to basics (journaling, poetry, and essays), hoping something would click. It did. On my way home from a two-week camping trip in the Sierras with my family, we passed the sign for Mary Austin's house in Independence, California. In 1903, Mary Austin had published a landmark book of essays and sketches called The Land of Little Rain. We stopped at the cottage I'd read about many years before but never taken the time to visit. On a granite boulder out front the historical society had placed a bronze plaque with this quote from the preface to The Land of Little Rain:

But if ever you come beyond the borders as far as the town that lies in a hill dimple at the foot of Kearsarge, never leave it until you have knocked at the door of the brown house under the willow-tree at the end of the village street, and there you shall have such news of the land, of its trails and what is astir in them, as one lover of it can give to another.

I didn't knock at the door. My companions were restless. But I determined to revisit Austin's work when I reached Tucson. On that long trip home I realized that I could name only two other women writers who had published about the frontier during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Willa Cather and Helen Hunt Jackson. I felt ignorant. There had to be others—women who had blazed the trail for me, who had nurtured my roots as a woman writer of and from the West. I started digging.

The research process was one of synchronicity—I discovered sources wherever I looked—and a tremendous amount of time and energy. When I'd assembled a rudimentary cast of characters, Dawn Marano, then acquisitions editor at the University of Utah Press, entered my life. We were both attending the Pima Writers' Conference. Dawn asked me about my writing, told me UUP might be interested in publishing an anthology, and asked for an overview and a table of contents. I sent them. A week later she asked for two chapters—in two weeks. While she read them, my family and I took a 2,200-mile trip through the Northwest. I did research in every bookstore, library, and museum along the way. And when I got home, UUP offered me a contract. They gave me nine months to write the book. It turned out to be longer than expected. I took a year.

Editors of anthologies deserve a special place in the literary heavens, in my opinion. Please say something about the selection process—how you discovered these works, how you arranged them, and what you learned as you did this?

I agree—anthology editors deserve our eternal thanks. Each anthology is a labor of love, and the research and selection process is a huge responsibility.

I started the process in my own library, the books I'd inherited from my grandmother and my husband's family. I found Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Frances Dana Gage, Alice and Phoebe Cary, and Natalie Curtis Burlin. I'd planned to include my grandmother's work, but no one in my family could locate her published articles, stories, and poems. (We found them later, when the anthology was in press). I searched farther afield.

At that time, there were books about this period that discussed certain authors, but few anthologies that focused on western women writers. I prowled through museum archives and lived at the UA main library and special collections, poring over old journals and novels. I wanted to discover who was writing and what the major magazines were publishing in the nineteenth century. Each author led to another. It unfolded as a detective story. I was hooked.

On that early trip through the Northwest, I found Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Gertrude Atherton, and Ina Coolbrith in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Mary Hallock Foote (the fictionalized protagonist of Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose) in a used bookstore in Chester, CA. Geologist friends took me to where Foote's house once stood, in Boise Canyon. I discovered Elinore Rupert Stewart at Powell's Books in Portland, Carrie Strahorn in Spokane, and Sarah Winnemucca at the Idaho State History Museum in Boise. I drove home through Winnemucca's Nevada country, a landscape in which I used to work. Those women were just the beginning.

So, who made the cut? I limited the list to women who'd published during the settlement years. This excluded the covered-wagon narratives and diaries that weren't recovered until the mid-to-late twentieth century. I narrowed the list still further by limiting the time span to between 1800 and 1922. I selected 1922 as the arbitrary cut-off because in that year Willa Cather finished two novels, One of Ours and The Lost Lady, both of which lamented the passing of the Old West and the era of the pioneers. I ended up with thirty-four women, each of whom experienced a different and intimate relationship with the landscape and culture of the West.

I decided to present the women in chronological order because my introductory essays place each woman in historical context. This benefits the reader by providing a brief overview of the overarching patterns of American expansion as a backdrop for the women's writing.

The book has an interesting history. Tell us how it migrated from one edition and one press to another. Isn't this unusual? To what do you attribute the book's persistent longevity?

After several printings at the University of Utah Press, the anthology became too expensive to reprint. UUP graciously returned the rights to me and wished me well in finding another publisher. However, organizations continued to ask me to speak about the book, and teachers, responding to the women's unique voices and viewpoints, wanted to use it as supplemental reading for their classes. The women refused to slip quietly back into obscurity.

That said, it is unusual to jump presses. But again, serendipity played a part. Five years before, A Sweet, Separate Intimacy had caught the attention of Judith Keeling, editor-in-chief of Texas Tech University Press. A chance meeting at a Women Writing the West conference led to our working together on my mystery series. Judith strongly supported keeping the anthology in print. We weighed several options. None of them panned out. The anthology stayed on the back burner for a couple of years, until two things happened: the costs of digital printing came down, making reissue financially viable; and TTUP launched a new series called Voice in the American West, which was a perfect fit for the anthology. The stars at last aligned at the end of 2007.

In your introduction, you say that these writings "reflect a different frontier"—the frontier of women's experience. Aside from the obvious differences between domestic and public life, what differences do you find between women's and men's stories of the frontier?

That's a pretty big question. The short answer? Focus, emotion, detail, and emphasis. These writers captured life on the frontier in all its aspects, from prairie fire, flood, and Indian attacks, to the drudgery and isolation of everyday life. They wrote about the loss of husbands and children, about postpartum depression and loneliness. They described immigrant women and class structure in mining camps; the excitement, rootlessness, worry, separation, tension, and dread experienced by Army wives; the physical and emotional toll of homesteading in the West; the raw beauty of the land and their connectedness to it. The women they wrote about, even if conventional, were three-dimensional. They weren't divided into two categories—saints and sinners.

These women also addressed the social issues affecting women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—Women's Rights, Indian Rights, and the abolition of slavery. And they highlighted hidden issues such as the dispossession of Californios and the plight of Chinese and European immigrants. Through their writing they helped change the history of the nation.

Of all the writers in this volume, who is your favorite? Why?

The truth is, as I explored each woman's writing I felt a kinship with her experience of the frontier and the daunting challenges she faced in capturing that experience, whether it was exploring the Great Lakes, climbing Long's Peak with Gentleman Jim, building a stone house in a desolate canyon, or describing the class system in a mining camp. I loved each writer for different reasons: Helen Hunt Jackson for turning tragedy into art after the deaths of her children and first husband, and for the eloquence and insistence with which she pleaded for the rights of the Mission Indians, Ponca, and Omaha; Mary Hallock Foote for her realistic writing and artistic detail; Mary Austin for the sheer beauty of her language and her indefinable personality; Sui Sin Far (Edith Maude Eaton) for highlighting the world of Asian immigrants; Gertrude Bonin (Zitkala-Sa), for writing simply, starkly, eloquently, and poignantly about life as an Indian in white society; and Frances Dana Gage for her indomitable will as she fought for the abolition of slavery and the rights of women. I could go on. You get the drift.

Of all the pieces in this anthology, which is your favorite? Why?

That's like asking which child I love best. I can't pick one, perhaps because I see them as segments of an unfolding saga. But I can say that, although each author and selection has proponents among readers, I receive more comments about Frances Dana Gage's "Reminiscences of Sojourner Truth" than about any other piece. Though current scholarship debates Gage's use of idiomatic language for Truth, the vignette is a powerful study of a powerful woman.

What important kind of knowledge or understanding would you like the reader to take from this collection?

I'd like readers to understand that the story of American expansion was told by many voices from many cultures. The anthology is a sampler, a roadmap for those who are curious about the subject and may want to read more of these authors.

I'd like writers to understand that these women fought battles we can't even imagine, while living in conditions that would send many of us over the edge. They don't just represent my roots as a woman writer of the West, they are the giant's shoulders upon which all of us stand, men and women alike.

You're also a mystery writer: tell us something about your fiction.

My protagonist, Frankie MacFarlane, is a field geologist and college instructor who comes from a large family. She has adventures throughout the West, in places I've lived and worked as a geologist. The first four books—Death Assemblage, Detachment Fault, Quarry, and Hoodoo—are set in Nevada, Tucson and Sonora, Mexico, the Mojave Desert of southern California, and the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona, respectively. Landscape is a character in my books, and because my background includes anthropology and history, I also weave archaeological, historical, and pre-historical threads into the story lines.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on Fracture, my fifth mystery, set in Tucson and the San Francisco Bay Area. I continue to write and publish nature-based poetry. And in my spare time, I'm working with my grandmother's writing. At some point, I'll find the proper vehicle for her autobiographical articles, short stories, and poems—possibly within the framework of my journey to discover and recover her work.

Thank you for sharing so much of the process, Susan, and for your continuing efforts to discover how we are all influenced by the lives and legacies of the women who went before us. We wish you all the best.

       

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