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Author Interview

LibraryThing is pleased to sit down this month with Sandra A. Miller, an essayist and feature writer, whose 2019 memoir, Trove, chronicled her parallel searches for worldly treasure—$10,000 in coins buried somewhere in New York City—and a deeper sense of meaning, an answer to the sense of longing that was consuming her, despite an ostensibly happy and successful life. Miller’s debut novel, Wednesdays at One, released by Zibby Books earlier this month, is a work of literary suspense that follows the story of a clinical psychologist who is haunted by the mistakes of his past, as brought to light by a mysterious unscheduled client who begins to appear at his office every Wednesday afternoon.

Where did the idea for Wednesdays at One begin? Did the story idea come first, or did the characters?

The seed for the idea was planted twenty-seven years ago when my husband, who is a clinical psychologist, was stalked by one of his clients. She would come to our house and listen to our conversations through open windows, then bring that information into their therapy sessions. Without going into the details of what turned into a four-year nightmare for my family, I started thinking about what it would be like if a psychologist with a dark past had a client come into his office knowing something reprehensible that he’d done. I was interested in the idea of that role reversal–a vulnerable therapist and a client in the power seat. The idea stayed with me for decades in which I made a few attempts to tell the story from the female client’s perspective. It wasn’t until I got the voice of Dr. Gregory Weber—the guilty psychologist–in my head that the story really took shape.

The therapeutic process, and the relationship between therapists and patients, is a narrative element used in many stories, including your own. Why is that? Does it bring something important to your book, something that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, that the protagonist is a psychologist?

The therapy dynamic involves the exchange of deeply personal information that often no one else is privy to except the people in that room. There are clear parameters to protect the client who is disclosing that information, leaving room for trouble if the therapist steps outside of the professional boundaries and does anything even vaguely untoward or inappropriate. In Wednesdays at One, Dr. Gregory Weber does not maintain his professional demeanor, and that makes for a compelling and dramatic story. There most certainly wouldn’t be the same high stakes if Gregory worked in another profession—one that didn’t hold him to the highest of moral standards.

Your protagonist is described as having an enviable life, in many ways, but is afflicted by a secret sense of unease and dissatisfaction. This contrast between the outward and inward life is similar to the one explored in your memoir. Would you say that Trove was an influence on some of the themes of your story?

Absolutely. Several of the themes in Trove—Catholic guilt, classism, family dysfunction, and the conflict between our inner and outer lives—have reappeared in Wednesdays at One in a fictional form. Those were the most prominent themes of my childhood, and now I’ve explored them in my novel. In fact, I’m not sure I’ll ever be completely finished with these themes, because they offer rich opportunities to create tension between characters and deepen the plot. Another key subject in Trove was my father’s illness and death—something which my protagonist Gregory must deal with in the novel. As a creative writing teacher, I tell my students they may find that they have a key story or theme that will find its way into all of their work. Losing my father when I was nineteen is that subject for me. It shows up, if only subtly, in nearly everything I write.

Your essays and articles have appeared in hundreds of magazines and journals, and you have a memoir under your belt as well, but this is your first novel. Did your writing process differ with this book, when compared to your other work, and if so, how?

I recently realized that I wasn’t able to write a novel when I was raising my two young children, because I didn’t have the space required to build a complex fictional world—not when my real family needed so much of my energy and attention. In those years, I had far more success with creative nonfiction inspired by personal stories from my own life. I could easily write about my son’s debilitating eczema, my mother’s protracted illness, my beloved sister’s five year battle with cancer (she’s fine now). Those stories poured out of me, and I could find plenty of markets to publish my writing. But in the pandemic summer of 2020, with both of my children independent, this novel came to me like a download, and I had the mental and emotional space to write it. I wrote 1000 words a day for three months and by the end of the summer, the novel was complete. It felt like a gift. Or maybe the story was building inside me, waiting for the right moment to emerge.

What was your favorite part about writing Wednesdays at One? Was there anything about the process you didn’t particularly like?

The writing process for this book was magical. In thirty years as a creative writer, I never experienced anything like it. I enjoyed writing all of the characters, which made them a delight to interact with on the page. I guess the hard part happened when I started getting feedback from my beta readers and had to go in and make some changes to the characters I’d gotten to know and care about as they were.

Tell us about your library. What’s on your own shelves?

I read pretty widely, but my weakness is for rich, emotional family dramas with some dark turns. Glancing at my shelves I see many books by Elizabeth Strout, John Irving, Annie Ernaux, and Jumpa Lahiri. I also read a fair amount of memoirs, as long as they have a strong narrative arc, such as Barbarian Days by William Finnegan or the heartbreaking, Know My Name by Chanel Miller.

What have you been reading lately, and what would you recommend to other readers?

I’m really enjoying Long Bright River by Liz Moore and just finished listening to Viola Davis’s memoir Finding Me, which is one of my favorite audiobooks. Don’t miss that one.

With Milan Kundera’s recent death, I was reminded of how much I loved all of his books, most of which I read in my MFA program. But The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of my favorite novels, and it taught me so much about structure and point of view. It’s a great book for readers to enjoy and writers to learn from.