ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Meg Mullins was born and raised in New Mexico. She attended Barnard College and earned her MFA from Columbia University. Her short stories have appeared in numerous publications including The Sonoran Review, The Baltimore Review, The Iowa Review and TriQuarterly. The story that formed the basis of her first novel, THE RUG MERCHANT, appeared in THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2002. She lives in New Mexico with her husband and their two children. DEAR STRANGERS is her second novel.

A CONVERSATION WITH MEG MULLINS

1. DEAR STRANGERS is a departure of sorts from THE RUG MERCHANT, with an altogether different setting and a much wider palette of themes and characters. Yet the notion of how intimacy can born of chance encounters is very much a part of both novels. Was it your intention to explore this further when you set out write DEAR STRANGERS?

I'm not sure that I had any thematic intention when I began DEAR STRANGERS. I certainly had no idea that during the course of writing it, I would lose my own father and brother. Like most of my fictional ideas, it was born from a single moment in which a set of circumstances stoked my curiosity. I heard a relative--whose own situation somewhat mirrored Betsy Scrap's in that her husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness after they'd set in motion an adoption that they ultimately rescinded--say that their biological child seemed to suffer more immediately from that disappointment than her father's death. I was instantly sure that I would be writing a novel a similar conceit. That said, however, I am a big believer in chance. I love and fear the possibilities of chance. This globe is full of people who might be unknown to us now, but in an hour or a month or a year, may turn out to be the person who changes our life forever.

2. In your acknowledgments you cite the photographer Shizuka Yokomizo as an early inspiration. To what extent did this photographer's work shape Miranda's character - and possibly the structure of the novel as a whole?

I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I first saw Shizuka Yokomizo's work and I loved it. I was particularly intrigued by her process and how she herself is a character in the photograph, even though she's not in the frame. Though she certainly inspired Miranda's process, Miranda is a completely fictional character. For years I've consumed the candid paparazzi shots of celebrities, wearing their Uggs and pushing their shopping carts with a mixture of attraction and repulsion and I often wonder, why is that photograph of Brad Pitt or Gwenyth Paltrow so much more interesting than any other grocery shopper in America? Miranda seemed like exactly the kind of character who would embark upon a gorilla paparazzi movement, trying to create social commentary by photographing ordinary people and labeling them extraordinary.

3. There is an interesting play between science and art in the face of grief and tragedy in the novel. Has your writing affected your feelings about the limitations and redemptive powers of both pursuits, or vice versa?

Science and art have a similar humbling effect upon me. Cognitively, science always confirms our unimportance in the bigger picture, while art reminds us that though it may be inconsequential, our existence is breathtakingly full. I think there is comfort to be found in both. Grief, however, is incredibly isolating and often impenetrable to any external phenomenon.

4. At Columbia you studied with Jonathan Franzen, the quintessential chronicler of idyllic family life gone awry. How does his influence bear on your work now, two novels out?

I greatly admire Jonathan Franzen's work and he was a remarkable teacher. He has a talent for imbuing the mundane with profundity. I think quite often of something he said to me once, which seemed revolutionary at the time: If you're not having any fun writing it, nobody's going to have any fun reading it. Mundane, yet profound.

5. The high desert landscape of the American Southwest plays a prominent role in the story, yet even the state it takes place in remains unnamed. Is there a particular place that inspired the stark beauty of the Wilds, or the cultivated communities that have sprung there?

I was born and raised in New Mexico and have come to appreciate its beauty only as an adult. There is still lots of wide open space here, but the inclination to commodity and package nature has extended its reach everywhere. Certainly, New Mexico and Arizona figured greatly into my conception of the landscape of the book.

6. Miranda has some definite ideas about celebrity. How does this idea of celebrity connect to the bigger themes of strangers impacting one another's lives?

I'm interested in identity and how we create and change our own identities throughout our lives. Celebrity is such a fascinating phenomena because you can really see the effect of other people (strangers) upon someone's identity. When a group of strangers all decide you are The Sexiest Man Alive, what does that mean? How does that impact the way you move through the world? I think we're all subjected to the larger world's perception of us, but with someone like Brad Pitt or Jennifer Connely, the moment they walk into a store or onto a play ground, they are forced to either confirm or challenge the public's perception of them. I think it must be a heavy burden and also a real fast track to either becoming perfectly clear on who you are or completely confused about who you are. Though none of the characters in DEAR STRANGERS are celebrities, each of them is in some way is confronted and changed by a stranger's perception of them.

7. As redemptive and uplifting as this novel ultimately is, there's nary a sugar-coated turn of plot. The boy the Finleys had to give up after Mr. Finley died grows up to be estranged from his new family, and Oliver's attempts to rewrite fate go fatally remiss. Your characters are stripped of the false assurances they've consoled themselves with - assurances we all console ourselves with when faced with events outside our control--and the magic of the novel is how these characters then chart a path to atonement anyway. Did you set the bar this high when you set out to write this novel? Was it difficult to subject your characters to the hardships they must contend with over the course of the book?

I'm flattered by the suggestion that a high bar was set and met. It's true that I wanted to be ambitious with this novel. Why, I'm not sure. Writing a novel is hard enough work without any added expectations, but I suppose I felt that I should aim for a trajectory of increasing complication. The idea of multiple characters and story lines intersecting excited me. It was difficult to create so much hardship for these characters, but perhaps because my own life was somewhat difficult during the course of writing, it felt necessary. Personally, I was sorting through a lot of issues of family and loss and obviously it seeped into the book. Writing is a job in which it's particularly unrealistic to leave your personal life at home.

8. What are you working on now?

Actually, right now I'm working on some short fiction. Maybe one of those pieces will turn into something longer, but we'll have to wait and see.

© 2010 Meg Mullins