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August 1, 2014

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The Debut: SLJ Chats with Mary Miller, author of ‘The Last Days of California’

In Mary Miller’s debut novel, The Last Days of California (coming from Liveright in January 2014), 15-year-old Jess and her family are on a road trip, driving from Montgomery, Alabama, to California to meet the Rapture. LastDaysofCalifornia 197x300 The Debut: SLJ Chats with Mary Miller, author of The Last Days of CaliforniaHer sister, Elise, is pregnant at 17, unbeknownst to their parents, and her father has lost yet another job.

As the gas stations and low-budget motels blur together, Jess narrates her experience of the boredom and intimacy of days spent in the car with her family. She questions her faith and her parents’ decisions, ponders the advantages and burdens of her sister’s beauty, and argues the pros and cons of various fast food choices.

Why put this family on a road trip to experience the Rapture far from home?

On a road trip, tensions are amplified by confinement. Someone is always hungry or has to use the bathroom, and minor annoyances are exaggerated by lack of space and privacy. If the family had stayed in Alabama, they would have gone about their lives. Perhaps they would have prayed a bit more and followed the rapture coverage on TV, but their day-to-day routines would have been the same. There wouldn’t have been a story.

The idea for the novel was pretty much “ripped from the headlines.” In May of 2011, Harold Camping predicted the end of times, and I read a newspaper article about a man who actually took his family on a cross-country pilgrimage. There were no other details available—no explanation—and I couldn’t fathom why anyone would do this. The Last Days of California was my attempt to make sense of it.

Why did you choose to tell this story from the younger sister’s point of view?

Jess’s perspective was the most interesting to me because she’s searching—she’s trying to figure out what she believes in, as well as how she fits into the larger world. She’s unsure of everything. The other family members think they have it all figured out, or have resigned themselves to their fate. Either way, they weren’t open to new insights and realizations in the way that Jess was.

Jess’s narrative alternates between questioning her faith and considering mundane questions like which fast food restaurant has better fries. How did you capture a teen voice so perfectly?

At 15, Jess is thinking about the big questions in life—love and free will and God, the nature of friendship and beauty—but these don’t come with easy answers. The more she ponders them, the more confused she becomes. But there are also simple things to consider, things for which there are answers. Which boy is the cutest? Honeybuns or Pop-Tarts? Burger King or Wendy’s?

I was also trying to capture the way in which our minds work. Thoughts are fleeting, fickle. We can ponder death and God and french fries within ten seconds, though we may not be aware of it. Our minds chatter on and on whether we’re listening or not.

As the trip progresses, Jess begins to try new things, some self-destructive. Why does she change her behavior in such a reckless way?  Would she have done so if the world wasn’t (perhaps) coming to an end?

Jess is taking her cues from her older sister, Elise. Elise engages in these reckless behaviors, and Jess wants to see if she can be Elise’s peer instead of the baby of the family. She is also meeting people who don’t have preconceived ideas about her, and this gives her a sense of freedom that she’s never felt before—she can reinvent herself, become someone else even if it’s just for a night. She’s trying out different personas to see which one might fit.

I don’t think Jess would have done any of these things at home. She would have gone about her regular life, watching TV and going to church. And though many of the behaviors she engages in are reckless or poorly thought out (and may come back to haunt her), she’s also trying to make some attempt at life on her own terms. What does she want? What does she believe in?

The sibling relationship between Jess and Elise feels authentic. You capture their closeness and their differences, and their conversations are pitch-perfect. It is also interesting that Jess never really knows what Elise is thinking. How did you build this relationship?

Jess and Elise are very close and yet they’re still strangers to each other in a lot of ways. The truth is that no one can fully know anyone else, no matter how close they are. Elise’s beauty alternately makes Jess feel jealous and worshipful, and creates a distance between them that they can’t quite bridge.

Miller Mary c Credit Dolores Ulmer The Debut: SLJ Chats with Mary Miller, author of The Last Days of California

Photo credit: Dolores Ulmer

I have a sister and two brothers, but my relationship with my sister is much more complicated. Girls will automatically be compared to one another and will take on roles, much in the same way twins might. Who is the pretty one? The smart one? The athletic one? Without these labels, teens often don’t know how to see themselves. This is essentially Jess’s problem. She isn’t the pretty one; her grades aren’t exceptionally good or bad; she’s not athletic. She hasn’t figured out how to define herself, particularly in relation to Elise, who is so many things.

I was struck by Jess’s feelings about her father. She is starting to perceive his weaknesses and faults, and she feels alternately protective and disdainful of him. I’m not sure I’ve seen this captured in a book quite so well before.

Jess is a lot like her father, more than she wants to acknowledge. Her father has weaknesses for food and gambling and Jess has some of these compulsive/obsessive issues, as well. He is also floundering and she relates to that. She sees him struggling and wants to help him, but at the same time, fifteen-year-old girls don’t want to think of their fathers as weak—as needing help. Children rely on their parents to be strong and capable, even if it’s only an appearance. Jess’s father can’t even change his own tire; he lets other men do it. Despite his faults, she loves him. There are moments when she’s nearly incapacitated by this love.

I used a lot of my own experiences here. There came a point in my life (probably around Jess’s age), when I saw my parents as people with struggles and doubts, much like myself, and it was difficult for me to see that. Children want to believe their parents have it all figured out, and that one day we might have it all figured out, as well.

Very little actually “happens” during the book. However, there is one shocking scene toward the beginning when the sisters witness a fatal accident. What is the purpose of this scene in the larger narrative?

That’s a good question. I wrote the accident into the first draft, but it grew more and more dramatic with each rewrite. There’s a lot going on in that scene. Jess feels for the dead man’s pulse while Elise and the strange girl stand there and watch. It’s a moment when Jess shows some bravery, or bravado. Jess is also a dreamer, and while this is clear early on, I wanted her to be able to fully imagine and give life to these people who so unexpectedly came into their lives, and then were just as quickly taken away.

Visit the Adult Books 4 Teens blog in January to read the School Library Journal review of The Last Days of California.

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