Interviewed by John Haggerty

Read Dawn Miller’s fiction piece, Edna St. Vincent Millay Covers the Mirrors

John: Why did you pick Millay as the subject for this story?

Dawn: I’ve loved Millay’s poetry for a long time. Years ago, I read Nancy Milfords’s biography of Millay, Savage BeautyThe Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and I was haunted by the image of the poet grappling to control her addiction by keeping track of her daily doses on a scrap of paper. There’s a picture of her scribbles in Milford’s book. I felt such compassion for how hard Millay tried to wrestle her addiction and gain control over it at a time when addiction was little understood (and, I might add, is still misunderstood in many ways). Addiction has touched my family, and I was drawn to Millay’s struggles. Writing about her wasn’t a planned act, she just appeared!

I love the writing style in this, simple but lyrical, much like Millay’s own poetry. Were you trying for a stylistic echo here, or is this just what arrived when you wrote the piece?

That’s a huge compliment, thank you! Any stylistic echo was unintentional. I love crisp narratives that strive for compression and precision. I also think it’s important to maintain a balance between action and interiority in order to create tension and movement in a piece, something I hoped to achieve in this story.

You have chosen to depict her at the height of her vulnerability. Is this (at least figuratively) the fate of all of us writers, scrawling out to-do lists of drugs and covering up our mirrors?

Vulnerability is such an important part of the writing process, yet it is one of the hardest parts (at least for me). I recently spoke with a much-admired author and told her about something very close to my heart, but something very painful. “Write about that,” she said, almost immediately. “That’s the story you need to tell.”

Sometimes things are difficult to write about, but most often, those are the very themes we tackle in our writing, whether consciously or subconsciously.

I sometimes wonder if we should ignore the writer altogether. After all, it’s not the writer that’s supposed to be interesting, it’s the work itself. Millay led a remarkable life, but does lingering on that detract from her literary achievements? And by the same token, can we hold our noses and still admire the work of odious people like Picasso and fascist lunatic Ezra Pound?

It can be difficult to separate the writer and the prose entirely since writing filters through an individual’s own perspective and personal experiences. I’m not saying an understanding of a writer’s life is necessary to appreciate their work, but I think that knowledge can sometimes deepen the understanding of a story or, at the very least, provide a different lens through which to view the narrative. Knowing about the odious pasts of writers might taint the writing for some, and that’s understandable depending on the reader’s own perspective and life experiences. If a writer has done something particularly heinous, I would probably have difficulty separating the writer from their work, but that’s a personal response. In Millay’s case, knowing about her struggles drew me to her poetry even more and made me want to explore that side of her life.