A 'Biloxi' Misanthrope 'Can't Help Himself' — But His Pet Dog Can

May 29, 2019
Originally published on May 29, 2019 6:01 pm

Mary Miller grudgingly admits that she sees a bit of herself in the main character of her new novel Biloxi. Louis McDonald Jr. is 63, recently retired and, the author says, "really unlikable." He's unhappy with where he's landed in life, has driven away the people he used to be close to, and now his closest confidante is a dog he brought home on a whim.

"Louis and I had a lot of similarities, which is kind of hard to admit to myself," says Miller. At the time she wrote the book, Miller was living on the Gulf Coast with her dog, and didn't have much of a community. She liked the idea of a character who spoke his mind.

"We all have these thoughts in our head," she says. "We meet someone, and we think something — and of course you never would say the negative or pessimistic thing that you're thinking — and Louis does oftentimes. He engages people in ways that ... don't go well for him."

Take the time Louis goes to the bank on his birthday: Looking at his ID, the teller realizes it's his birthday and hands him some candy. Louis "can't help himself," Miller says — and decides to take this opportunity to tell the bank employee how much he prefers the white chocolate Kit Kats over the milk chocolate Kit Kats he's been handed. "He creates little conflicts wherever he goes," Miller says.

With human interaction posing a challenge, Louis strikes up a more straightforward relationship — with Layla the dog. Being a pet owner "gives him little tasks and things to do and errands to run," Miller says. But it's more than that — Louis and Layla "become a little team."

Louis takes the dog everywhere he goes, sings to her, feeds her deli meats — really loves her. It's Layla who brings out his humanity and grounds him in a way that the people in his life could not. "He's so desperate to please this animal who has pleased him so much — and really given him kind of a new purpose," Miller says.

Imagining the world from Louis' point of view was entertaining for Miller. "I can just still pick up the book and crack up," she says. "You're not supposed to say that about your own book — like, look how funny I am — but I just I really found the humor in him."

Miller hopes readers will also be delighted by her gruff, Southern protagonist. She says she thinks about the label "Southern literature" a lot because she's so often placed on "Southern literature" panels. She doesn't mind the term — "I'm Southern and I've lived my whole life in the South," she says — but she hopes that readers around the country aren't turned off by the designation.

With the current focus on breaking out of bubbles and echo chambers, Biloxi offers an opportunity to imagine the humanity of a person who doesn't like people all that much. "The longer you spend with someone the more you like them ... " Miller says. "I mean don't we all feel that way sometimes?"

Sam Gringlas and Justine Kenin produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The new novel "Biloxi" keeps a tight focus because the main character lives a tightly defined life. Louis McDonald Jr. is 63, recently retired, watches a lot of Fox News, doesn't have many friends. He's driven away a lot of the people who used to be close to him. His closest confidante is a dog that he meets at the beginning of the book named Layla.

The author of "Biloxi," Mary Miller, is different from her main character in a lot of obvious ways - gender, age - and so I asked her how she wrote this story from a point of view so different from her own.

MARY MILLER: So at the time, I was living on the Gulf Coast. And like Louis, I also felt like I really didn't have much a community there at the time, and it was just me and my dog. Louis and I had a lot of similarities, which is kind of hard to admit to myself.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: He's unappealing in a lot of ways. Was there a reason you wanted readers to see the world through the eyes of somebody who was kind of gruff and unlikeable?

MILLER: Yeah, he's really unlikeable. And, you know, we all have these thoughts in our head. We meet someone and we think something, and, of course, you never would say that pessimistic thing that you're thinking, and Louis does, oftentimes. And he engages people in ways that they don't go well for him.

And so I think I got to kind of act out my basest...

(LAUGHTER)

MILLER: You know, I just got to...

SHAPIRO: Is there an example you can give us?

MILLER: Gosh, you know, I'm thinking of - he goes to the bank, and he's talking to this woman. And she looks at his ID and sees that it's his birthday, and she pulls out some good candy for him. And he goes on and on about how, you know, they make Kit Kats that are white now, and I like those better.

SHAPIRO: Right.

MILLER: You know, and just sort of this - like, you know, you just say, thank you. You know, I'm glad I didn't get the damn green sucker.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MILLER: But, you know, Louis can't help himself. And so he creates little conflicts wherever he goes.

SHAPIRO: There's one moment in the book he thinks to himself, it was about time I had an enemy; it had been too long, which is a thing you don't say, but I think maybe everybody identifies with.

MILLER: Yeah. (Laughter) Yeah. It reminds me of - you know, I think it's kind of popular now. Everyone wants a nemesis or two.

SHAPIRO: I'm starting to convince myself that maybe I liked him more than I was willing to admit because he says things that you're just not supposed to say and thinks things you're not supposed to think.

MILLER: He does. And, you know, I think that's why just - he entertained me so much. I mean, I can just still pick up the book and crack up. Yeah, you're not supposed to say that about your own book, like, look how funny I am. But I just - I really found the humor in him.

SHAPIRO: So next to Louis, the other most important character in the story is a dog. And how did you think about the role that this animal, Layla, also known by another name, but we don't have to get into that...

MILLER: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...That this dog plays?

MILLER: I think initially, Louis gets this dog and, you know, he needs to feed the dog. He needs to have a bed for the dog. He needs - the dog is dirty. So it gives him little tasks and things to do and errands to run.

But then also, he and the dog just really initially take to each other and become - you know, become a little team. But he's so desperate to, like, please this animal who has, you know, pleased him so much and really given him kind of a new purpose.

SHAPIRO: There is this broad phrase, Southern literature, that includes authors from William Faulkner to Zora Neale Hurston. And I've heard others describe this book as Southern literature. Do you identify with that phrase? What does it mean to you?

MILLER: Yeah. I mean, I think about this a lot, or I have to because every panel I'm on, you know, they'll stick me on a Southern literature panel...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MILLER: ...And, like, me and...

SHAPIRO: Whether you like it or not.

MILLER: Yeah. And it's, like, around the same rotation - like, me and just these few other people. And we're like, here we are again, you know, Southern literature. You know, what are we going to say, because we don't really know what to say? You know, I'm Southern, and I've lived my whole life in the South, so I don't mind being labeled that.

But I think my main worry would just be, you know, someone in Wyoming or New Mexico - are they going to - you know, the first thing they put is going to be Southern literature. Is that going to turn off other readers?

SHAPIRO: I mean, you're kind of asking for it by calling the book "Biloxi."

MILLER: Well, true. True.

SHAPIRO: If you had called it "Grumpy Old Man With A Dog"...

MILLER: I know.

SHAPIRO: ...People might not put you on those panels...

MILLER: I know.

SHAPIRO: ...Discussing Southern literature

MILLER: Yeah. So I really asked for it this time.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MILLER: You know, I wanted to call it "The Gulf," and my publisher was like, so that won the Pulitzer for us last year...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MILLER: ...And so we don't need another "Gulf" right now. But anyway, I do like the specificity of this.

SHAPIRO: We hear so much these days about breaking bubbles and getting out of our echo chambers. And I think, generally, fiction is a really good way to do that. And specifically, this book seems like a really tangible example of after you've spent a couple hundred pages in this man's world, it's kind of hard to stereotype and pigeonhole him.

MILLER: Yeah. I mean, I think most of what he's going through and sort of where he finds himself at this point in his life - I think everybody's experienced, like, oh, gosh, you know, I'm this age, and this is not where I expected to be or not where I hoped to be. And I think a lot of, you know, what he's experiencing is just something we've all experienced, and so we can identify him - with him on that level.

And the longer you spend with someone, the more you like them, maybe. I mean, don't we all feel that way sometimes?

SHAPIRO: Mary Miller, thanks so much for talking with us today.

MILLER: Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Her new novel is called "Biloxi." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.