The Times July 4, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

Daughter of Arthur Miller, wife of Daniel Day-Lewis… It would have been easy for Rebecca Miller to be overwhelmed by the male presences in her life. Here she talks about how she found her own creative voice, and explains why her stories are filled with echoes of the family and relationships that have shaped her

Rebecca Miller
Photo: Mark Harrison

About five minutes into the interview, Rebecca Miller starts to cry. We had been talking about writing, and I read out a line from the end of one of her short stories about different women’s lives which touched me. Louisa, a painter who has a complicated relationship with her mother, has come home to lick her wounds after an emotional collapse in New York. The family are around the table and her mother is drinking, as usual, which enrages the daughter, but when she looks up, “Her mother was looking at her with such love that Louisa could hardly bear to see it: it was like looking into the sun.”

I am saying how much I like Miller’s spare, economical style and suddenly her blue eyes fill. Oh dear, I’m so sorry, was it that line, oh goodness me… “Yes, yes,” a big sniff, tears coursing down her cheeks. “It came as a surprise, because I wrote the story before my mother died.”

Miller’s mother was Inge Morath, the Austrian-born Magnum photographer, who died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 78. Famously, she met Rebecca’s father, the late playwright Arthur Miller, on the set of The Misfits – the screenplay he wrote for his then wife, Marilyn Monroe. The couple married in 1962, 13 months after Miller’s divorce from Monroe, and Rebecca was born not long after.

I had met both Rebecca’s parents in the autumn of 1996 when visiting the Millers’ home in Roxbury, Connecticut, to interview the playwright shortly before a National Theatre production of Death of a Salesman. The next day, Miller had been meeting journalists to publicise the film of his play The Crucible – its star was Daniel Day-Lewis, who had met Rebecca at her parents’ home, and the two married in November that year.

Arthur Miller had graciously shown me around the property where Rebecca, a most cherished daughter, grew up, with its 380 acres of lovely land, its woods and the lake where the couple swam every day in the summer, Morath’s photographic studio and Miller’s cabin in a field to which he would retreat to write. He pointed out the furniture he had carved and hewn – a lifelong passion for making beautiful, useful things out of his hands that his son-in-law, Daniel, shares – and paintings bequeathed by friends. There was a photograph of Rebecca, aged 5, in a sailor suit, white tights on stocky little legs, and a pair of shiny buckled shoes. In pride of place was a poster from Rebecca’s prizewinning debut film, 1995’s Angela.

“I think I look more and more like my mother as I get older,” Rebecca supposes when I say that you can see a little of both her parents in her. She has the height and rangy limbs of her father, and the phosphorescent gaze of her mother. But her manner is unlike either of them. Morath, as I had described, was “a tiny tornado of energy.” Miller, in contrast, was still vital at 80 but a calmer presence.

What impresses about their daughter’s authorial voice is its unshowy confidence, and a steady authority about her storytelling which is a pleasure to read. Personal Velocity, a collection of short stories, and her novel The Private Lives of Pippa Lee – now a feature film directed by Miller and starring Winona Ryder, Robin Wright Penn and Keanu Reeves – are filled with wry observation and a great sense of emotional acuity. In person, although she has a winning and rather surprising lusty laugh, there is something curiously approximate about Miller. She often struggles to express herself with a sort of urgent hesitancy. It may be that interviews for her are a nerve-racking business, particularly since Vanity Fair’s revelations in 2007 about Arthur Miller’s decision to institutionalise Rebecca’s younger brother, another Daniel, now 42, as a baby because he was born with Down’s syndrome.

Family secrets

Reading the Vanity Fair piece, it became clear how traumatic this unearthing must have been for Rebecca in particular who, with both parents dead, became the person to whom the world’s press turned for an explanation. How could it be that this towering figure of humanity – the man who made such a courageous stand against the tyranny of McCarthyism – was capable of hardening his heart against his own child?

One devastating detail in the article was that Inge Morath tried to bring her son home when he was two or three, but her husband would not allow it. (She visited him almost every Sunday, apparently, in the Southbury home for mentally retarded children ten minutes’ drive from Roxbury – but never with her husband.) Miller’s rationale, according to the VF writer who spoke to friends of the family, was that it wouldn’t be fair on Rebecca to have her childhood constrained by the difficulties of sharing her home with a “challenging” sibling.

You don’t have to be a shrink to imagine the guilt you might inherit, especially for a sensitive child, if you sensed that you were the reason for your baby brother’s absence.

Rebecca Miller has said that in her short stories, the characters were “all mixed up with myself”. But as with most writers, her fiction is a literary knitting of fragments of different people known and imagined, and there are some parts of herself – buried or otherwise – that she is more willing to own publicly than others: “There’s always a temptation to reduce fiction to its autobiographical links and that’s important and also not important because, finally, it just boils down to turning writing into gossip, to be honest. To always say, ‘Is that this person or is this that person?’ is a dead end.”

But if you are interested in a writer or an artist, how can you not be struck by the way their life informs their work? Particularly when certain themes keep emerging; particularly when they seem driven by a certain haunting. In her slim oeuvre, there is a palpable sense of sadness about a missing brother (a dead twin in Louisa, and her comforting sibling closeness with a former boyfriend). It’s also there in the difficult relationship between Pippa and her photographer daughter, Grace, in the novel – the daughter always sensing that her mother loves her brother more or, at least, in a more straightforward way.

“When Louisa was 12, Penny [her mother] started changing. She sank into reveries and sighed a lot. On rainy afternoons Louisa would hover uneasily at the door as her mother sat in the darkened living room listening to Peggy Lee… Louisa guessed that Penny’s sadness had something to do with the missing baby [Seth]… Louisa knew that Seth still pulled at her mother’s memory even though nobody in the house ever mentioned him.” And later, around the dining table: “Automatically Louisa’s eyes went to the empty space beside her, Seth’s place. He was there. He was always there.”

I ask Miller about that story: “I think the idea of a missing brother probably came from my own life, but Louisa felt that she had survived and felt that she shouldn’t have survived, and having a twin would have been a bit of a different situation.” We talk about her much older siblings, a sister and a brother, from her father’s first marriage and she says that she is very close now to her half-sister, who lives on the East Coast.

It was Daniel Day-Lewis who was apparently responsible for facilitating a rapprochement between Rebecca’s brother, Daniel, and Arthur Miller, who left an equal share of his estate to his youngest son. “Danny is very much part of our family,” Rebecca said in 2007, and “leads a very active, happy life, surrounded by people who love him”. At that time, he was living with the elderly couple who had cared for him since he left the institution in his teens. Rebecca said that she visits her brother with her family on holiday and during the summer.

I wonder whether she remembers him being taken away. “I’m sure I did,” she says. Do you remember what you were told? “Ummm. Is it OK if we don’t talk about this any more? I don’t feel like talking about it.” Sorry, I say, a bit stricken, since it’s obviously still quite raw and painful. There are no more tears but she gets up and crosses the room to fetch a glass of water.

Transatlantic currents

We are conducting the interview in a hotel room in Dublin; for the past three years, the Miller-Day-Lewises have been living a rural life in Co Wicklow with their two sons, Ronan, 11, and Cashel, 7. Miller has a bad cold but, being a trouper, she is soldiering on with the publicity campaign for her new film.

There is something both graceful and awkward about her. When she poses for photographs at the end of the interview, for instance, she crosses the room with the natural elegance of a dancer in her ballet pumps and drainpipe jeans, and is quite unselfconscious in front of the camera. She is also remarkably unvain, not even bothering to check her appearance before the shoot. There is a delicacy about her features, but also a sort of wounded quality to her Pre-Raphaelite loveliness, particularly around those startling eyes.

She is most strained at the beginning of our interview, almost apologising for the slight strangeness of her short, flattened fringe: “I am naturally ringlety, but I straightened my bangs [fringe] because I looked like a poodle this morning.” As a child, she says, “I was kind of haunting looking. There were kids who said I looked like a witch, and I remember there was a period when they were afraid of me because of my eyes, which I think come more from my father’s side – Polish Jews.”

There have been a number of different, sometimes overlapping, Miller careers to date. She studied art at Yale (there are strikingly vivid descriptions of paintings in her fiction): “I painted on wood a lot, big kind of abstract paintings… I had a kind of repetitive dream cycle for years…” It wasn’t about a bull, was it? I am thinking of a grotesque series of paintings in Louisa – which precipitates the character’s suicide attempt – of a white bull trapped in a grotto by two men, its sperm spraying the walls, before they slash its throat and blood spatters everywhere. “I did actually have that dream, yes,” she says.

Wow, I say, no wonder you needed go to a therapist! “I probably was in therapy then.

I definitely had a few. But I haven’t gone for years and years – I don’t have time.” We both laugh at that and I ask her whether in that case she considers that it was a bit of an indulgence. “I remember talking to my father about it, and saying that I was angry because my psychiatrist or therapist or whatever hadn’t congratulated me on the birth of my first child, which I thought was terrible, and he said, ‘But you can’t expect them to love you. They’re not going to love you.’ And I never went back to any psychiatrist after that. I’m both fascinated and repulsed by that whole process. Actually, I just wrote a story about a psychiatrist.”

Her father seemed to be so secure in himself and grounded – although, of course, I had no idea when we met about aspects of his private life that must have weighed on him – that I couldn’t imagine him unburdening himself to a therapist. “Oh yeah,” Miller says. “He did.”

There’s something of his looks at least, I suggest, in the main character of Herb, the 80-year-old publisher, in Pippa Lee.

When we first encounter him, married to the 50-year-old Pippa, Herb has made the eccentrically unbohemian decision to sell their Manhattan apartment and Sag Harbor beach house, in a Lear-like unburdening, to move into a retirement community. Herb has massive hands and a lopsided grin and is, “A darkly funny man who despised religion, all exaggeration, and musicals… He mistrusted extravagant metaphor, favoured the driest prose.”

She says the hands and the grin may be her father’s, but “Herb is a real amalgam: the cadence of the Jewish intellectuals coming through New York – I could hear that partly because of my father, but also other people that I grew up with. But the big difference is that Herb isn’t an artist and he’s a wilier character.”

Pippa Lee is the perfect artist’s wife – even though she isn’t married to an artist. One of the writers in the book, Sam, describes her as, “The icon of the Artist’s Wife: placid, giving, intelligent, beautiful. Great cook. They don’t make them like that any more.”

What fascinates Miller, an avowed feminist, about this dying breed of women who support the careers of powerful men, is what they bury of themselves in order to fulfil that role. Pippa’s past, for instance, which makes up a sizeable chunk of the novel, was defined by a suffocating relationship with her amphetamine-addicted mother, a troubling relationship as a teenage girl with an older, married man, her escape to New York and descent into a drug-fuelled rackety life on the Lower East Side before she is rescued by Herb.

The novel is much darker than the film and more interesting because of it. The film, I suggest, is Miller-lite – avoiding the more troubling and challenging complexities of character. “It’s one thing to write about a woman crawling across the floor and eating out of a bowl of spaghetti,” she says (referring to the scene which leads to Herb taking Pippa to bed), “but it’s another thing to see it. If I had gone down the dark street, I would have had a very dark film. My other films are probably darker, but the philosophy behind this one is of lightness and forgiveness.

“When I went to Berlin and saw the film for the first time with a large audience, I was actually shocked by how funny it was to them and I thought, ‘Oh my God, is it too funny?’ I remember my husband saying, ‘That’s really not a very smart question – how can it be too funny?’”

What Miller finds so attractive about her heroine, Pippa, is her lack of ambition: “What I love about her is that she really doesn’t have any need to make something outside of herself.” Her prototype in Personal Velocity is Julianne, a poet who realises, “She would never write a great poem, she had married a great man instead.” Miller compares herself, in contrast, with another of her characters, Greta, a publishing minion who, offered the chance of a quick route up, discovers she is “rotten with ambition”.

She has both written and directed all of her films to date. Is that because she is a control freak? “Ahhh… I’m greedy for experience and I don’t necessarily want to give it away to other people,” she says. “There’s something about the totality of that experience that’s very nourishing and very exciting to me. Although I have to say that I would like to write my own screenplays of someone else’s book.” (Top of her wish list would be Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Miller has made overtures but Tartt is unwilling to let anyone adapt her novel.)

Of her own mother, who was very much an artist in her own right, Miller says: “She kind of split the difference, you could say. She worked throughout her marriage but she was the one who made the house a home.” In her own marriage, “I would be the person who would do the logistics of childcare, parties and who is going to whose house and all that stuff.” (Earlier, she had broken off from the interview to text a friend about arrangements to pick up her boys.) “But at the same time,” she continues, “Daniel is very involved with the actual children.” Can he cook? “Yeah, he can, but he’s more of a short-order cook.” His sister’s pretty good, of course (the food writer, Tamasin Day-Lewis). “Oh yes, his sister is very good,” she says, with a sideways smile. “None of us are competing in that department.”

Literary influences

Miller says she is also like Greta in Personal Velocity because of the way she “compulsively edits everything. When people are talking, she can’t help but see how things could be simpler and more powerful.” The economy of her style, she puts down to necessity: “I had my first son and he was a terrible sleeper. He was about one and a half, we were living in Italy and I had a couple of hours in the morning when I could write. I was so tired my eyelids were always twitching and I think that in a funny sort of way that’s how I found my voice as a writer. That exhaustion sort of helped me cut through any bulls*** that I would otherwise have had to navigate my way through. I was just so raw when I wrote and I never lost the ability to find that voice again.”

Apart from Donna Tartt – who is a big favourite – she admires Rachel Cusk and Jeanette Winterson, Jonathan Franzen and the late John Updike, to whom she pays an unusual tribute: “I was so excited when someone compared me to him once, I nearly peed my pants.”

She is not a fan of the upholstered writing which is in vogue now – the return to the 19th-century novel, as she puts it, as though modernism had never existed: “But when you have someone like Raymond Carver or Hemingway… the greats, where the writing is simple, real, hewn to the bone… I feel that’s where the power is. And sometimes that writing is almost not thought of as good because it doesn’t seem fancy enough.”

At the moment, she is re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird: “My 11-year-old son was reading it and I was thinking, ‘I want to read that again so I can talk to him about it,’ and I was also thinking, ‘What is it about that book?’ Is it that it comes directly from the heart, directly from someone’s deepest beliefs? But also that the language is extremely simple.”

I had wondered, with a pronounced thread in her fiction of mothers who are pill-poppers or drinkers, whether there was something of this close to home. She says not: “That didn’t come from me but I did have a very close friend [who did have that problem] and so I feel almost as though it was me. I was always quite sensitive to other people’s needs… I think that if you don’t become the people you’re writing about then you probably can’t get very far towards the truth. For the writer, it’s a kind of channelling. You’re almost at the mercy of other people, and there’s a danger to that, too.”

Her father had also talked to me about the dangers of writing, although he expressed it differently. For him, a writer had to lay himself open to the mysterious force of inspiration: “I often think of the image of someone walking around with a metal bar and waiting to be struck by lightning,” he said. “Of course, it can kill you, too.”

The mother and daughter conflict, without giving too much away, reaches a sort of resolution in Pippa Lee with the heroine thinking about the long pattern of problematic relations: “The chain of misunderstandings and adjustments, each daughter trying to make up for her mother’s lacks and getting it wrong the opposite way.”

I wonder whether Miller is relieved that she hasn’t had a daughter of her own. “In some ways I’m kind of sad that I don’t have one, but in other ways I think maybe it’s for the best.” Why do you say that? “I wonder if maybe I would have been a little intense. Or maybe that the daughter that I would have produced would have been… such a strong personality. I kind of miss having a daughter sometimes, but I love my boys. What I think is that I’ll be a really great grandmother… if I survive long enough.”

She’s pretty accepting about ageing: “But what I’m afraid of is losing my mind. Because to me, that’s what I really have… I mean everyone wants to stay pretty and young-looking and all the rest of it, but I don’t sit in fear of creases all over my forehead or whatever.

“But to go senile, that’s what really frightens me. You’d be in the middle of the sea and you couldn’t touch the bottom, you know.”

Miller’s working on a new novel now. I think I can guess its theme.

* * *

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee will be released in cinemas nationwide on July 10. Rebecca Miller’s books The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and Personal Velocity are being reissued by Canongate on July 7 (£7.99)

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