The Last Days of California

The Last Days of California

by Mary Miller


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A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice Selection
Longlisted for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Book Prize

“[A] terrific first novel. . . . Why worry about labeling a book this good? Just read it.” —Laurie Muchnick, New York Times Book Review

Jess is fifteen years old and waiting for the world to end. Her evangelical father has packed up the family to drive west to California, hoping to save as many souls as possible before the Second Coming. With her long-suffering mother and rebellious (and secretly pregnant) sister, Jess hands out tracts to nonbelievers at every rest stop, Waffle House, and gas station along the way. As Jess’s belief frays, her teenage myopia evolves into awareness about her fracturing family. Selected as a Barnes & Noble Discover pick and an Indie Next pick, Mary Miller’s radiant debut novel reinvigorates the literary road-trip story with wry vulnerability and savage charm.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780871408419
Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
Publication date: 09/02/2014
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 761,198
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Mary Miller is the author of three previous books, including the story collection Always Happy Hour and the novel The Last Days of California. She is a former James A. Michener Fellow and John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence. She lives in Oxford, Mississippi.


A Conversation with Mary Miller, Author of The Last Days of California

The Last Days of California is about a family traveling west to proselytize before the rapture. What inspired you to write about the end of days and a family with such mixed religious conviction?

It was May of 2011 and the end had not come despite Harold Camping's (second) prediction. One morning I was reading the newspaper and there was an article about a father who took his family on a cross-country road trip to await the rapture in Pacific Time. There was no explanation as to why, or what purpose this trip might have served; there were no details whatsoever. I wondered what would compel someone to do this. I wondered what this man's children were like, what they thought of this endeavor.

The next thing I knew, I had a family of four sitting at a Waffle House in western Louisiana. As I wrote, I had to figure each of them out—what they wanted, where they stood on the issue of the rapture, salvation. But there were more immediate questions. Who had to use the bathroom? Who was starving, carsick, etc.?

The relationship between Jess and Elise is one of the richest in the novel. Do you think there's something particular or unusual about sisters that inspire so much competition, emotion, empathy, etc?

It's just Jess and Elise, and they're two years apart, so it's automatically going to be a compare/contrast situation. Which one is prettier, more athletic, more popular? They're going to compare themselves to each other because they are the other's closest mirror.

Jess is intensely jealous of Elise's beauty, but she's also her sister's staunchest champion. She loves no one more, wants nothing more than Elise's approval, attention, love. I think this is pretty typical of sisters, particularly those who are equally smart and sensitive but differ in more superficial ways.

The American road trip is part of a long cultural tradition. How do you feel about our road culture? Why did it appeal to you as a setting for the novel?

My impulse is to say that I love road trips, but this isn't true. I would like to be the kind of person who loves road trips, but, for me, it's more the destination, not the journey. I seem to attract extremely heavy downpours, and the areas I typically drive through aren't all that scenic—eastern Texas, central Louisiana, southern Mississippi. I only like to stop if there's a candy store or a bakery involved and it's not out of the way (I recommend the Pecan House in McHenry, Mississippi, and Czech Stop and Little Czech Bakery in West, Texas).
The road trip is a great setting for a novel, though, at least from a writer's perspective. It creates an inherent structure and forward momentum. It answers the most basic question: What do the characters want? Of course the characters want other things, as well, like to get out of the damn car, in which case you also have conflict.

This is your first novel, but for years you've written short stories. What was it like to switch from one format to the other? Did anything surprise you about writing a novel as opposed to a short story?

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