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The Lake Shore Limited

by Sue Miller
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Knopf
  • Publishing date: 06/04/2010
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780307264213
  • ISBN: 0307264211


Questions for Sue Miller on The Lake Shore Limited

Q: The Lake Shore Limited takes its title from the famous train, but it is also the title of a play embedded within this novel--a play about a terrorist bombing of that train as it pulls into Union Station in Chicago, and a man waiting to hear whether his estranged wife is among the survivors. Billy Gertz, the woman who's written the play, has waited in just such a way on 9/11 to hear whether her lover, Gus, was on one of the planes used in that attack. Was there one event in particular that sparked the idea for The Lake Shore Limited?
A: Yes. The spark came from a friend who had a relationship that would have ended sooner than it did had not her lover’s brother died on 9/11. While this situation is not like the one I created for Billy, my fictional playwright, the situation started me thinking about the far reach of such an event; and the variety of responses that play out around it, even at some distance. And the way in which the responses may be based in feelings that might be not the expected one--i.e., the way in which sometimes we're called on to enact something we don’t feel, and the discomfort and sense of alienation from ourselves that comes from that.

Q: Much of the book centers around the characters’ reactions to Billy’s play, "The Lake Shore Limited." How and why did you structure the book as, in essence, a play within a play?
A: As I began to include some of the lines from the play and create scenes in rehearsal, it began to seem more important to me. It began to seem central to the book, actually. I began to see the book as at least in part a kind of speculation on how the experience of art can be transforming in life--for those who create it, as Billy and also Rafe, the actor, do; and for those who take it in and ponder it and ask about its connections to their own lives. And then, I suppose, I just got interested in the play, too--in writing it, at least the part you read in the book.

Q: The viewpoint in The Lake Shore Limited flips amongst four characters, two male (Rafe and Sam) and two female (Leslie and Billy) all of whom are at various ages and stages of their life. Why did you choose to cast the book in this way?
A: I wanted the book to look at the way this play strikes a variety of people. I had Billy nearly from the start of thinking about the book, and Leslie came next, because I knew I wanted two versions, two understandings, of what the real story was about Billy and Gus, with the play mediating between them. But I wanted to broaden the impact of the play, too--to have it speak not just to the people directly involved, but to others, with other stories. Rafe and his life came next, more or less in a rush of notemaking and writing. Sam’s was last, and most complicated to develop--though I knew from the start about his connection with Leslie.

Q: You so eloquently write about the interior lives of people who are trying to understand their feelings, their relationships, themselves. How do you create such three dimensional characters, each with their own vivid and complicated pasts?
A: Now THIS is the kind of question I like, wrapped neatly in a compliment. And I think I’ve started an answer with my response to the last question. But let me also say that this is one of the most pleasurable aspects of writing for me—the construction of lives and histories. The process of imagining them so deeply as to feel I actually know these other people, these other stories. A way of escaping myself, I suppose.

Q: You teach English at Smith College. What is the best advice you give to aspiring writers?
A: Read.

Q: Tell us a little about your writing process--how you write, when, etc.?
A: I make a lot of notes before I write. I want to know what I’m doing. Where I’m going. I want to feel that I’m working on a whole thing, the idea for which I have clear in my mind--the way perhaps an architect would know what he wanted to do without knowing every detail of it from the start; or a composer might know what he wanted a piece of music to do, the way he wanted it to move, without knowing all the themes in it.

I write in longhand for the first draft, typing it in when I feel ready to work on revision. Sometime that’s a small piece--a chapter--sometimes a longer chunk of the book. I type it in, pull it out and write all over it again in longhand, type it in again, pull it out, etc. etc.

I try to write in the morning, before I get enmeshed in the demands of daily life--though those are all easier now that I don’t have responsibility for a child. Towards the end of a book, I write longer days.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’ve signed a contract with Knopf for a new novel I’ve described to them, so I’ll be working on that for a few years. I’d like to try, anyway, to write Billy’s play--"The Lake Shore Limited." And I have a two-year-old granddaughter I’d like to spend as much time with as I can.

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  • Ambivalence
    From Amazon

    Sue Miller is a fine writer, no mistaking that. But, a writer needs to write about something interesting. I didn't find much here. The book is, I suppose, about ambivalence and the various characters and their endless over-thinking and re-hashing of their past actions and their innermost thoughts and emotions Just when we dispense with the mental masturbation of one, the next chapter jumps to another character with his/her take on the same situation. Of course a husband caring for his dying wife (we've got two of those) would be ambivalent as to his lot: do I love her? do I resent her? Should I stay? Should I go?, etc. But, what about the other characters? Leslie is ambivalent about her feelings for poor old Pierce. Rafe is ambivalent about his career. Billy is ambivalent about her ambivalent feelings for her lover-that-she-didn't-much-love six years later and needs to write a play for catharsis. No doubt, the world is full of such narcissism, but that doesn't make it an interesting subject for a novel. I daresay most people have lives that require them to "just get on with it," and don't have the luxury of over-analyzing every little thing they've done or thought. Mostly I just wanted to strangle the characters. Two stars for the prose and one because it's Sue Miller.

  • This one is not worth your time
    From Amazon

    I have one word for this book.....tedious. I normally love books that shift from one voice to another. It gives different perspectives and points of view. It keeps a story fresh and interesting. In this case it just made it repetitive. I was so bored it was painful.

  • Beautifully written but...
    From Amazon

    Sue Miller has a wonderful eye for things. Everything -- from the way the snow forms over a city fire hydrant to the Vermont landscape. She has details about all four of the main characters,(although I was a bit unsure of Sam's age), the houses they live in, the way they prepare food or take the dog out for a walk. I had read Sue Miller's The Good Wife and found it engrossing, with a real dilemna presented to the main character. In The Lake Shore Limited, we have four literate adults who are attached to each other in various ways. Each character gets a chapter and then they rotate. But their problems have less drama involved. There is Leslie, the matronly wife of a New England doctor, who was absolutely thrown by the death of her younger brother, Gus, in the 9/11 attack. He was on the plane that left from Boston that morning. Then there is Billy (short for Whilhemina) who was his girlfriend. However, unbeknownst to Leslie, Billy was planning to break up with Gus when he came back from his trip. Billy is a playwright and she has fashioned a play called The Lake Shore Limited, based in part on her feelings about Gus. Rafe, the third character, is the main actor in that play, which is about a man who thinks his wife is on the bombed train called the Lake Shore Limited out of Chicago. Rafe, it turns out, has a wife who is dying of ALS. The fourth character, Sam, is a long, lanky, architect who has been through two wives. The first one died of cancer. His kids have become distant to him. He was half in love with Leslie at one time. Leslie wants Billy to meet Sam, in the hope that might click. So one of the main threads of the book is guilt. Guilt about being the grieving lover or husband or wife of someone who dies or is terminally ill, when you no longer love that person. There is also the guilt Billy feels as a writer when she knows she is using real situations and relationships in her life as fodder for her art. They all live fairly comfortable lives in Boston and beyond. I guess you'd call them New England liberals and some of the dialogue is snappy. And they all have decisions to make, but none of the decisions seem to be of great import. It's like the later Woody Allen movies only without the laughs. Beautiful descriptions though -- of Boston, Vermont, cafes, theaters. Miller doesn't quite hit the Henry James moral dilemna note she seemed to be trying for, but then we live in a different time where people think moral fiber is a breakfast cereal.

  • The Lake Shore Limited was rather dull
    From Amazon

    Reading this was disappointing. It was slow moving and never ever really picked up. I was not happy with the characters or the plot. Need more excitement or something... Think I will skip Sue Miller books from now on.....

  • The digital age a fantastic time to be an invalid
    From Amazon

    The cheap digs at pres. Bush cheapened a story with the sad award of the most trite ending I have ever read. You try to keep the various characters straight until you realize you do not care a bit about a one of them. Awful.

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