The story of 25-year-old news reporter Teresa Bruce’s close friendship with 82-year-old modern dance legend Byrne Miller begins on a veranda beside a river on a sweltering Lowcountry morning. A porch fan whispers overhead, and Carmina Burana plays on a turntable in the living room. In this scene, as in many others from Bruce’s upcoming book The Other Mother, the setting is an ever-present character, slowing the narrator’s pace with its languid humidity even as it charms her with its beauty.
No wonder, then, that Pat Conroy, the author of such bestselling South Carolina-centric novels as The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, has given the book the gold seal of Southern-lit approval. “Mark my words,” Conroy says in his blurb on the book’s cover, “Teresa Bruce will be one of the next great American authors.”
Bruce’s porch meeting with Miller took place in the summer of 1991. Bruce, a former gymnast from the Oregon backwoods whose Olympic dreams were dashed by a back injury, had landed in Beaufort as a TV news reporter for WJWJ. She was at Miller’s house on an assignment. Miller’s husband, the writer Duncan Miller, was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and Byrne was demanding that doctors at the Medical University of South Carolina resume giving him experimental treatments that they had canceled because of ethical concerns with methodology.
Bruce describes their first encounter in vivid detail:
“‘You must be the new one,’ the tall, lean woman said when I rapped on the front screen door of her cottage at 2400 Wilson Drive. It was a pronouncement, really, her welcome. She spoke with perfect diction and her voice resonated through her held-high head. Her words would have struck me as haughty were they not delivered through a slowly spreading smile. ‘Let me help you with those lights or at least the tripod. I’m not as feeble as my advanced age suggests.'”
The book, which Bruce describes in the subtitle as “a rememoir,” combines the fascinating history of Byrne Miller with personal anecdotes from Bruce’s own life. The Byrne Miller that Bruce came to know was iron-willed and outrageous, dispensing bits of wisdom that Bruce uses as chapter headers. “If you’re going to be a snob, be unrepentant. Mediocrity is distasteful,” one goes. Another: “Anonymity has its own rewards. You can be trashy and no one will ever know.”
When she met Miller, Bruce was chafing against a small-town career and a troubled romantic relationship with a surfer she’d met in Mexico, and she certainly hadn’t gone out looking for an octogenarian to befriend. But she would eventually come to call Miller her “other mother,” and later, she decided that Byrne and Duncan Miller’s love story made perfect material for a book.
“A lot of the book is about my discovery of their relationship, because they had such an incredible, intense, bohemian kind of relationship that was so different from any I had ever known,” Bruce says. “It really sort of entranced you, and it did every reporter.”
So Bruce wrote a book, and she shopped it around to New York publishers for three years without any takers. “I kind of felt like that book was my terminal illness, and I wanted to know what was wrong with it and get a diagnosis and fix it,” Bruce says. So in February 2012, she took it to Susan Kammeraad-Campbell, who runs the small Joggling Board Press out of her tree-shaded home on Summerville’s historic South Main Street. Kammeraad-Campbell read the manuscript on a plane ride, and when she arrived back home, she invited Bruce to the office for a meeting that could have ended with hurt feelings. “I had some dry erase boards and charts set up,” Kammeraad-Campbell recalls, “and I said, ‘Teresa, you know, what I think is good is losing about 70 percent of what you’ve written. Would you like to proceed from there?’ ”
Bruce agreed to proceed from there, and writer and editor devised a uniquely collaborative creative process wherein Bruce wrote a series of self-contained stories, which they called “pearls,” and submitted them to Kammeraad-Campbell one at a time. “Susan came up with a methodology where she said she wanted me to write down a list of 20 pearls, things in my life, events that happened or memories that somehow explained why I am the person I am,” Bruce says. So she did. “Then she said, ‘Now do the same for Byrne.'” Byrne Miller had passed away by then, so that part took some doing, involving extensive interviews with the remaining people who had known and loved her.
In the final product, the pearls hang together in non-chronological order, with a vignette from Bruce’s post-graduate vacation in 1980s Guadalajara abutting a passage from Miller’s introduction to the dance scene in 1930s Manhattan. There are nuanced depictions of Bruce’s parents’ volatile relationship, tender passages about an abusive boyfriend’s graceful movements on a surfboard, and, throughout, celebrations of the relationship between Byrne and Duncan that Bruce describes as “my fairy tale.”
Bruce says writing and re-writing the book helped her make sense of her own motives in befriending Byrne Miller. “And that was partially Susan helping me do that. She’s like, ‘You have to explain why it is that a grown woman’ — 22 or however old I was — ‘was so drawn into their lives’ … I realize, looking back, that it was because I had only seen one type of marriage, and I needed to know that there was something better possible.”
The Other Mother will be released regionally on Sept. 21 and nationally on Nov. 5. Pre-orders are available through the Joggling Board Press website. To read the first chapter online, visit the Joggling Board Press website.