Lizbeth Meredith Interviews Valerie Miner: Traveling with Spirits

Valerie Miner

In Traveling with Spirits, the latest novel
by author and UAA MFA professor Valerie Miner, main character Monica Murphy
quits her Minneapolis medical practice to work at a Catholic medical mission in
a decaying Indian hill station in Uttar Pradesh. She confronts challenges to
her faith, her intentions, and about the nature of her contributions. Daily,
she is delighted and confounded by the unpredictability of life in India. This
is a story of abiding friendship, surprising romance, political conspiracy,
physical challenge and emotional courage. Monica struggles with the loss of
those dearest to her and winds up finding love in completely unexpected places.

You have written thirteen other books in
addition to stories and essays published in various anthologies. How did you
begin writing Traveling with Spirits?

consciously started working on the book in 2002. I had taught in India on
several occasions before that and I’ve been back three times since then. But
like all my books, the story started to brew in a subterranean way for years
before I started to write it. Friends who knew of my deep interest in India
said, “The next book is going to be set in India.” I said, “No, no, no, I am
not Indian and I’m not going to appropriate someone else’s culture.” Then I
realized I could write about an American expatriate’s experiences—complicated,
passionate, fascinating experiences. After doing a six-month Fulbright in India
in 2000, I wrote three short stories which were published in literary journals
and then in my last short story collection, Abundant
.  I got such great response to
“Veranda,” “The Fall,” and “Always Avoid Accidents.” It was partially a result
of reaction to those stories that I started Traveling
with Spirits
. I was very heartened by the responses of Indian friends and
editors who read the book in draft. All this gave me courage to keep going.

This book required a good deal of research.
What were the challenges in getting the cultural and historical details

Yes, it
was a humbling experience. I thought I was writing about things I knew well.
But the more I wrote, the more holes I found and the more research I had to do.
I read a number of books about American family practitioners, the history of
Catholicism in India (Thomas the Apostle went there in the year 50) and about Indian
histories and cultures in general. With each new book, I always ask people who
know the subject area of a novel (a lawyer, a Yosemite field guide, etc.) to
read my novel before I have gone too far. In addition to having people from the
subcontinent read my book, I asked a family practitioner in Minneapolis to make
sure I had the medical details right. Altogether more than 20 generous people
read my novel in draft—sometimes helping with factual issues and sometimes with
questions about language or pacing.

What was your favorite part to write, and why?   

very caught up in the friendships between Monica and Sudha and Monica and
Beata. Friendship has been a significant part of my life, a life saver, really.
Also, I do love the Indian rural and urban landscapes, so it was such a
pleasure to be writing this book in the US, but returning to India every day to
spend time with Monica, her friends and colleagues, and the satisfaction of
making some kind of large or small contribution to the world.

Time management is a tricky thing for
writers. What do you tell writers, especially your students, who are juggling
jobs and studies family obligations and say that there is no time to write?

a difference between “writing” and “being a writer.” If you’re going to get the
word out about your books you need to do both jobs. And the business side of
writing (wrangling readings, giving interviews, etc.) takes time away from
writing the next book. I often say it’s like riding a tandem bicycle in two
directions. You can’t go in both directions at one time or you’ll be stuck. So
you need to be clear about how much time you will devote to each. You need to
know which part of the week or day or month you will spend on the “being a
writer,” and make sure that you leave the prime time for the “writing.” I
encourage my students to think carefully about creating an artistic life. To
ask themselves why they write? Where and when do they write best? How will they
support themselves? Once they’ve considered these questions, they can establish
patterns to sustain them in their writing. I see writing more as a vocation than
as a career. One has to be deeply committed to it—not for fame or fortune
(unrealistic goals to be sure) but for the pleasure of hearing one word breathe
against another, the excitement of discovery, and the satisfaction of making
some kind of large or small contribution to the world. 

You’ve written short stories, fiction and
non-fiction books. What are you working on next?

working on a collection of short stories tentatively entitled Salvage. I’m playing with the metaphor
by exploring the reclamation of material objects, geographical places, and
human relationships. Some pieces are more about rescue; others are about
repair, return, and restoration. Two of the stories have been aired on BBC’s
Radio 4 and broadcast in a number of other European countries. Others have
appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Witness, Quarterly West and other
literary journals, as well as in several books.

In all
my work, I am interested in engaging in philosophical, moral and/or political
quandaries, aiming not to offer solutions but rather to explore the
contradictory character of human choices. This new covers a range of voices and
dramas, some very serious, others more lighthearted. “Moving In” explores the
different ways two women grieve the death of a mutual friend. “Apprehensions”
is about an Indian-American family in Seattle during 2001. “Cobbled Feet”
visits a rickshaw driver in Calcutta. “Triple Crown” is the first person
account of a dental technician as she reflects on the satisfactions and
dissatisfactions of work and motherhood. I’m interested in questions about
renewal, reunion, forgiveness, secular redemption.

Traveling with Spirits will
be released by Livingston Press this September.         

Valerie Miner is the author of 14 books and countless essays. She teaches at
Stanford University and also for the University of Alaska Anchorage MFA Low
Residency Program, where she is Associate Faculty in Fiction. Her website is
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