|Lily Miller makes her delayed debut as an author
Anthony Furey, National Post
Lily Miller began her debut novel, In a Pale Blue Light, released today by Sumach Press,
30 years ago. But it was only recently, after her retirement, that Miller pulled the yellowed
pages from storage and began revising the draft. "Even though it was still a skeleton,"
the soft-spoken Miller remarks, "emotionally it was sound."
While this lengthy gap between drafts is a story in itself, it is what waylaid Miller that has
made In a Pale Blue Light such a highly anticipated debut. Miller was a senior editor at
McClelland & Stewart during what many call the heyday of Canadian literature, when
today's A-list of CanLit talent, figures such as Alistair MacLeod, Sylvia Fraser and Austin
Clarke, were young writers still making names for themselves. As such, Miller is
considered one of the midwives of Canadian literature.
Born in South Africa, Miller began her editing career in New York at publishers Macmillan
and McGraw-Hill. While in New York she also had plays staged off-Broadway. In the
winter of 1971 she left New York to join her sister in Montreal, where she began writing
her novel. "That was before the time of the computer, and I thought I was advanced
using a portable typewriter. I began to write feverishly."
But she soon put the book aside when she received a phone call from legendary
Canadian publisher Jack McClelland, who wanted Miller to relocate to Toronto and
become his company's senior editor. Miller came to be at the centre of a whirlwind of
activity, working with many of Canada's now most prominent authors, including MacLeod
and Farley Mowat. Miller remembers arriving for work one day and finding Leonard
Cohen asleep on the floor of her shabby office.
Why did she take so long to complete her debut? Some editors might continue to pursue
their own writing while editing other works, but not Miller. Her editing was as much a
passion as her own writing. "She involved herself deeply in the work, almost as deeply as
the author," recalls author and friend Fraser. "She made herself totally available to the
process." Such committed editors are harder to find today. Many publishers, especially
in the United States, expect authors to find their own freelance editors who work by the
hour. With the salary afforded her by M&S, Miller was able to fully devote herself to
whatever title was at hand.
In a Pale Blue Light does not draw upon Miller's experiences in literature, but delves
further into her past. It is a roman a clef about her youth in South Africa and the
far-reaching tensions during the lead-up to the Second World War. "It's based on
memory," says Miller, "but I've allowed my imagination to transcend it."
The protagonist, Libka Hoffman, is a precocious teen who gets into mischief by rebelling
against the harsh rules of conduct, both official and unofficial, imposed by her
community. She is shunned as a Jew, shunned for respecting her black maid, shunned
for her flirtation with a Middle Eastern boy -- shunned for being human and wearing her
heart on her sleeve.
The importance of respect and compassion for the other is a key theme of In a Pale Blue
Light, and a trait of Miller's editorial talents. Clarke recalls his impressions on first being
paired with Miller as his editor: "I didn't know Lily was South African and my sympathies
were not towards South Africans at the time of apartheid." But Miller and Clarke soon
became friends and Clarke even cites their places of origin (he is from Barbados) as a
bridge for their literary tastes. "Her coming from South Africa and my coming from
Barbados gave us a similar approach to literature."
Some people might assume that, in publishing her novel, Miller would have dusted off
her Rolodex and placed her manuscript on the president's desk at M&S. But the
notoriously shy Miller was hesitant to even send her novel out into the world. Had a close
friend not sent the manuscript to Sumach Press on Miller's behalf, it is possible the story
would have remained unpublished. As the publication date looms, however, Miller has
grown more comfortable with the idea of publicity. She is already booked for several
readings, including a launch at the Yonge and Eglinton Indigo in Toronto, and In a Pale
Blue Light has been included in The eh List, the Toronto Public Library's roundup of
books to watch for.
Jen Day was the editor at Sumach Press who worked with Miller. Far from feeling
trepidation about working with such a revered editor, Day saw Miller's history as a bonus.
"I knew that as such she would be fully appreciative of the value of an author-editor
relationship of trust and respect in achieving the kind of synergy that helps bring a book
to its full potential."
Miller is currently working on a follow-up novel titled The Newcomers, which recounts the
same family's experiences as American immigrants. Just like her first novel, it was
sketched out many years ago during a vacation. - In a Pale Blue Light is published by
Sumach Press ($24.95).