Louis McDonald, Jr. makes a wrong turn on the way to pick up his diabetes medicine at Walmart, and ends up adopting a spirited Border Collie mix. This is the inciting incident in Biloxi, Mary Miller’s second novel, a laugh-out-loud funny, heart-wrenching exploration of loneliness and connection. At the outset of the novel, Louis is sixty-three years old, divorced, and recently retired—he has taken early retirement in anticipation of the inheritance check he convinces himself is coming to him from his dead father. He spends much of his day drinking beer and watching reality television, and he subsists mostly on bologna and restaurant leftovers delivered to him by his ex-brother-in-law, Frank. Although Louis lives just miles from his daughter and young granddaughter, he rarely sees them. The advent of the dog, whom he christens Layla, disrupts Louis’s isolated, couch-potato existence. Suddenly required to take care of another living being whose behaviors and needs are entirely baffling to a first-time dog owner, Louis finds himself doing things he never thought he’d do, including connecting with other people. Narrated in Louis’s voice, which is wry, frank, at times self-aware, at times self-deluded, Biloxi is as singular as Louis and Layla, and reveals the complexities of human relationships and the ways that even a single meaningful bond can enable us to change.
A former James Michener Fellow in Fiction at the University of Texas and a former John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss, Mary Miller is a native of Mississippi. She has published one previous novel, The Last Days of California, and two collections of short stories, Big World and Always Happy Hour. Her short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, the Oxford American, Mississippi Review, and New Stories from the South, among others. She currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with her husband and her dog, Winter.
Ellen Paolini: The novel takes its title from Biloxi, Mississippi, a small city on the Gulf of Mexico. Although the focus of the novel is Louis’s day-to-day struggles, the state of Mississippi is an ever-present, if subtle, force in the novel—it’s impossible to forget that Louis is the person he is at least in part because he’s spent his whole life there. You grew up in Mississippi, and moved back there as an adult. How has this place influenced your writing, and why did you choose to set this story in Biloxi?
Mary Miller: I’m from Jackson, Mississippi and live in Oxford, Mississippi now. In total, I’ve spent less than five years outside of the state (one year in Nashville and about three-and-and-half in Austin), so Mississippi has always been home. Both of my parents were born here.
The novel is set in Biloxi because I was living on the Coast at the time and was intrigued by the area. Though I lived in Gulfport, I spent a good bit of time driving Hwy 90 and exploring towns like Biloxi, Ocean Springs, Pass Christian, and Bay St. Louis. The Coast is a nice place to live due to its inexpensive cost of living, fresh seafood, beaches and parks. The beach was less than a mile from my apartment, and my dog and I went there most days; my car was always coated with sand. I miss the sand, though it only seemed like a nuisance at the time. In other ways, this area of the state is less pleasant for someone like me—it’s very conservative and not particularly welcoming to outsiders (and everyone not from the Coast is considered an outsider). It’s much harder to enact change in places like this, where everything is static.
EP: When you’ve finished writing something—especially a novel, where you have to spend a long time with a narrator—does the character’s voice linger, or does it leave you?
MM: If I wanted to write more about Louis—perhaps the story in which he packs up an RV and heads out West—I don’t think I could do it. I’m done with him, just as I was done with Jess in The Last Days of California. Jess left me before I felt the book was complete, though, which was a problem. I kept trying to write what I thought would be the final chapter, but I had to delete all of that material because it never worked. Over and over, I tried to write a final chapter and couldn’t, so it wasn’t surprising that most of the critical comments were in relation to the abruptness of the book’s ending.
EP: Is it common for you to write a number of endings before you reach the one that feels right? Do you ever have an ending in mind as you begin writing a novel, or do you find your way to it gradually? Did you expect to leave Louis and Layla where you left them?
MM: I only wrote one ending for Biloxi. I tried to write a different ending for The Last Days of California, as I said, but it was flat, wrong. Each time I enter a story, I’m lost and pretty much stay that way until the end. After Louis adopts Layla in the first few pages, I just followed them around. I did my best to observe them without getting in the way and there were many surprises for me as a writer, which was fun… While I didn’t know where I’d leave them, they’re doing pretty well at the end, which pleased me.
EP: Does it feel important to you in general to leave your characters in a hopeful place? What, in your experience, makes for a satisfying ending that’s not too tidy?
MM: I’ve heard from a number of readers who feel hopeful for Louis. They believe he’s going to continue on this path—developing a more positive relationship with his daughter and her family, selling the house that’s kept him stuck in the past, perhaps even travel—though I’m not sure he’ll do any of these things. This being said, Louis has changed quite a lot in a short period of time and he could surprise me. I hope he does. I like to imagine him living a more fulfilled life.
What we want as readers is different for each of us, and probably differs from book to book, too, but there should be some resolution at the end, a feeling that circumstances have been altered. But I didn’t want to mislead the reader, either. Louis is still Louis. He’s still fundamentally the same man with the same personality as he was in the first chapter.
I do think I’ve come closer to providing a ‘satisfying ending’ for Louis than I did for the characters in my previous novel, though.
EP: Though the novel takes place in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, the election itself is only mentioned in passing, as Louis is too absorbed in his own personal dramas to give it much thought. However, he regularly watches Fox News and describes women in sexist ways—although the action in the novel predates the “Me Too” movement, it’s hard not to wonder what Louis’s reaction to it would be. Why, in this moment in time, did you choose to tell a story from the perspective of a sixty-something, conservative white male?
MM: I started writing this book around the time of Trump’s election, when I was living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast—in Gulfport, a quieter town next door to Biloxi—which is an extremely conservative place (as is the entirety of the Mississippi Gulf Coast). I remember standing in line to vote and trying to calculate how many potential Democrats were in line with me and… it did not look good. And it wasn’t. Fox News played on multiple TVs at the gym, at every restaurant; men on talk radio yelled at me when I got in my car. I had only one friend who lived in the area with whom I could commiserate.
As for Louis, I honestly don’t know how or why he came to me. I didn’t have any intention of writing from the perspective of an older white man and had never written from the point of view of a man before, and haven’t since.
Louis wouldn’t be a fan of the “Me Too” movement, of course, as he hates movements and groups of people in general, and though he’s a Republican, he’s pretty universal in his disdain. I wasn’t bothered by him or put off by him while writing the book, and I’m not now—he entertains me, makes me laugh. If real-life Louis were to show up at my house, though, I wouldn’t answer the door.
EP: I’m curious how much, if at all, you were aware of your audience in writing this book, because I imagine them to be mostly liberal, educated people—the opposite of Louis. Louis is in many ways a quintessentially “unlikeable” character, especially to this particular audience. He’s lazy, self-absorbed, has gluttonous tendencies, and is perfectly content to isolate himself from the world. He barely ever sees his daughter and granddaughter, though they live close by. He mentions that he once spent a night in jail after being accused of beating his ex-wife, though he insists he didn’t do it. Despite all of this, you manage to make Louis into a rounded, vulnerable, human character. Were you aware of your audience in creating Louis, and did you take extra care to portray him compassionately?
MM: Thank you—I’m glad you saw him as vulnerable. As I said, Louis surprised me. My intention was to write a different novel, one set on an island with a cast of eight women, something literary with elements of horror that might, perhaps, be compared to Shirley Jackson. But that didn’t work out.
EP: You dedicate this book to your dog Winter, who, like Louis’s Layla, you describe as “a slightly overweight mixed-breed who gags a lot.” At its core, this is a story about a man and his dog, and a lot of the compassion the reader feels for Louis is due to his unexpected but absolute dedication to Layla. Layla forces Louis to become part of the world again, and his connection with her leads to other—albeit tenuous—connections with humans. It’s clear from your writing that you are someone who truly understands and loves dogs. How has being a dog owner impacted your life as a writer? As a human?
MM: Adopting Winter in December of 2014 was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. When I first saw her at the rescue, she was a quiet, underfed dog sitting in the back of a cage while the other dogs barked their heads off. She had been there for several months even though she’s pretty and well behaved, so I feel like she was waiting for me. Like Layla, she’s fond of people (or all people except for real-life Frank), and doesn’t care much for other dogs.
Because I write and teach from home, she’s my constant companion. I walk her a minimum of two times a day, but as many as four if it’s pretty, so she gets me out of the house on a regular basis, and often this means visiting with neighbors as well as keeping up with the goings-on of the neighborhood (plus sunshine and exercise). I’m not sure if this makes me a better human, exactly, but it makes me a happier one.
EP: As with Louis and Layla, has Winter provided you with opportunities to connect with people you might not otherwise have interacted with? Do you think that in this time of increasing distance and dissonance between groups of people—politically, religiously, economically—that dog ownership can help, even in small ways, to bridge divides and help people connect?
MM: Dogs don’t care about our religious affiliations or political leanings, how much money we have in the bank. They just want to say hello, visit a while. There’s a lady who was never friendly with me until we started talking about dog harnesses one day, and now we always stop and chat. A few weeks ago, she told me her husband (who is a pastor) had been having health problems and she hadn’t been able to walk her dog, so I volunteered to help out. Though she hasn’t taken me up on it, my offer made us both feel a little better, and I was sincere. Here’s another example: my husband and I recently met the mother-and-daughter pair who live behind us when our dogs stopped to greet each other. This past weekend, we saw them struggling with a coffee table and rushed over to help. They repaid us the next day in homemade soup. People in Mississippi are neighborly and helpful because it’s too small of a place not to be—we’re connected by fewer degrees than those elsewhere—and this is true whether a dog makes the introduction or not, though dogs certainly make it easier. Now I’m wondering what to put inside the Tupperware the soup came in when I return it; good manners stipulate you can’t return it empty.
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