Barrelhouse Presents the Authors of ELJ Publications: J. R. Miller

Interview by Alicia Thompson

 

 

1. Officially, the collection is a work of fiction. The epigraph, however, is a quote from Paperboy that explicitly states that there is no difference between truth and fiction. So how did you navigate that line between fiction and nonfiction in NOBODY'S LOOKING? Can that question have a valid answer?

There are many ways to answer this question—and some might consider them valid. So I could get all philosophical with my answer—say something like “We all believe the truth that best serves us. That my truth is another’s fiction—that my fiction is another’s truth.”  I could say that and there is possibly some validity to it. But that’s a bullshit “writer” answer—and I know it. Some critics will likely argue that I am a coward—too afraid to stay in the world of nonfiction. And there might be some validity to that as well. When nonfiction got too hard, or too scary, or too real, I’d just jump over to the other side—a safe world where anything can happen. But the truth is, I am a storyteller. My characters live inside me and I am here to serve them. I do what is best to tell their story. Sometimes what is best for the story is something that never really happened…but could have. Yes, a lot of what I write is based on actual events. And yes, for some stories I took creative liberties. Hence, we call it fiction. But within these fictions, there is Truth.

2. Tell me about the sequencing of the collection. What decisions did you make about stories to keep or cut, and how to order them?

When I submitted the manuscript, it was easy to put in order. At the time, I didn’t think of the book as a linked collection. I put my favorite work up front—led with the stories I thought would convince the editor to take a chance on me. After the book was accepted and as I worked the last round of revisions, I started to see the book as a collection of narratives—linked by this unique cast—a cast that seemed to navigate adolescence and young-adulthood on the page. There were a few outliers that I still tried to force in awkward locations, but thankfully I had an editor who saw those misplacements and set me on the better path. She also pushed me to cut two pieces. That was tougher to do. Not because they fit (thematically, they did not); not because they were great (they needed more work). It was tough because of personal insecurity…I kept thinking, what if this is the only book I ever get. So I wanted everything I had in there. You could say I was trying to pull a Guns N’ Roses. Think way back in the day, circa 1991. The band released a 4-disc CD follow-up to their smash-hit debut. GNR fans were giddy with anticipation—I was giddy. But if we are honest, there were about two discs of filler material—songs that were not quite ready or simply didn’t fit. The band needed a better editor. Fortunately, I had an editor who saw my filler.

3. In the year since the book came out, you've done several public readings of your work and heard reactions from friends, family, strangers. Was there any response that surprised you? How has this past year changed the way you view the book, if at all?

Sometimes my imagination can run a little crazy and sometimes my fear of public speaking rears its ugly head. I can be reading and I start to expect that big hook from offstage to come and drag me away…or some big gong in the corner of the room that wasn’t there ten minutes before gets hammered by members of the audience and they are lining up like the passengers did in the movie Airplane…each waiting in line to smack the shit out of the hysterical woman. But none of that happened outside my mind. In fact, the audiences have been really supportive.

That said, there was this one person whom I will never forget. I don’t know if she was homeless, but she dressed the part of a bag lady—sort of. And she claimed to be a psychic. Anyway, after a reading, we engaged in a quasi-therapy session where she counseled me on my regressive memories and my need to release them from captivity. She told me how my story reminded her of one of her past lives and she suggested that I call my mother when I get home. Please don’t get me wrong, she was super nice—AND she wasn’t TV psycho crazy—just that quaint “a little off” kind of crazy. Anyway, I will never forget her.

My book a year later? Hmmm. My book and I have a complicated relationship. OK, maybe not complicated but we have a love/hate relationship. I love her, yet I hate her. She scares me and encourages me. She is comforting and intimidating. She represents my success and reminds me of my failure. This relationship is not all that uncommon, I think. And it is a good thing. It helps to keep my head out of the clouds. It motivates me to keep pushing forward.

4. I know you're really into music. Are there any song pairings you recommend with certain stories?

I can’t say for sure if there are songs for certain stories—there is, though. I guess I don’t think of the individual narratives like that by default, but rather as the collective. Once the book became a larger sum of the individual, the music became the soundtrack. I am not sure if that makes sense. Let’s try it a different way. Like many people my age I was all about the mix tapes. I had a huge collection of mix tapes—and I miss them even today. So much so, that I still make them, sort of. Not tapes, but the digital equivalent. I use Garage Band to compile a playlist of mp3’s into one long mp3 that prevents you from skipping tracks. It forces you to listen to the whole thing. That is what I did for my book—create a soundtrack of sorts. I looked for songs that created a moment—flashed me inside the book. Take the song “Summer Breeze.” This song is kind of a cheesy seventies ballad that I have no idea why I like. I just do. Always have. The irony is that I don’t think of it as a summer song. When I actually sit and listen to it, in the quiet of a 2 a.m. bout of insomnia, I am transported to the back seat of a 1970-something shitty car, on a cold rainy day, watching the road pass by through the hole in the floorboard. There is no rhyme or reason for this. Maybe it’s where I first heard the song, I don’t know. Anyway, that’s how a song was selected—I didn’t need to understand why it affected me—it just needed to. In the end, I had a music track that opens with the Beach Boys “Sloop John B” and closes with The Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter” and sandwiched in the middle was The Cure, Sheryl Crow, Mott the Hoople, and The Pet Shop Boys. Believe it or not, it works. Originally, the idea was to put it up at my website and let fans download it. But the legalities of copyright and piracy scared me off. But still, I have it. If you want to hear it, message me.

5. What are you currently reading or writing that excites you?

Lately, I have been writing some new short pieces and trying to force myself to edit a pile of “finished” stories so that I can compile the next collection—if I had to guess, I would say this collection is about 85% done. There is maybe one more story I have been playing around with and a lot of revision. I am also fighting with a novel—I want to write it and she wants to be written, but yet we cannot seem to agree on words on paper. It’s a delicate dance and everyone who knows me, knows I am not a good dancer.

I am actually really excited about what I have been reading—or should I say re-reading. A while ago, I was talking to a friend about the books we read in school…and aside from the expected players, I couldn’t remember what I read. Not in the classroom—not outside the classroom. I only remember enjoying the read. So I have been on a mission to find the books I read back then and re-read them. My first discovery was a book called I am the Cheese by Robert Cormier. When I saw the title, I not only knew I read this book, but this image immediately invaded my memory—a kid riding a bike and singing “The Farmer in the Dell.” And I remembered one of the last lines from the protagonist…he said, “I know of course who I am. Who I will always be. I am the cheese.” I remembered that this line haunted me—the book haunted me—for a very long time—until the book drifted from memory. But that image came back, those words came back and immediately the book haunted me again. It drove me to read fast—setting aside all other reading I needed to do. Let me be honest…this book was fucking amazing. The techniques Cormier used—the way he drove the plot—the way he made you scared…I don’t know. That man had skillz—and I encourage all to read this book. This week, I am starting The Chocolate War by the same author. Watership Down is on deck—followed by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Though I don’t think they all were assigned for school, I do remember reading them in school.

 


Alicia Thompson is the author of books for children and young adults, including Psych Major Syndrome and the Go-for-Gold Gymnasts series, co-authored with Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu. Her work has appeared in Narratively, Atlas Obscura, Racked, and Ravishly, among other outlets. She lives in Riverview, Florida.

miller head.jpg

J. R. Miller was born and raised in the blue-collar suburbs of Detroit. After a career designing and copywriting for a large advertising agency in metro Detroit, he moved to Florida where he received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida. He is the author of Nobody’s Looking (ELJ Editions 2015). His work also appears in The Good Men Project, Midwestern Gothic, Palooka, Writers Tribe Review, Portland Review, Prime Number and others. You can visit his website at http://www.miller580.com follow him on Instagram: jrmiller580 and Twitter: @miller580

 

 

 

 

Barrelhouse Presents the Authors of ELJ Publications: Zack Bean

Interview by Morris Collins

 

1. All your stories in Man on Fire feature great first lines, although these sentences don’t feel formulaic—they vary in subject, POV and syntax. (“The year of my first kiss, ninety-nine people were murdered in Little Rock”; “The old man is busy dying”; “Callie doesn’t believe in signs but her mother does”, etc.). What do you think a first sentence should do in a short story?  Is there anything in particular you’re looking for?

Thanks – that’s generous of you.

I love to go through anthologies and read the first lines of stories, just to get a sense of what’s possible, of what kind of work the first line can do. The first line makes a sort of promise to the reader about the voice of the story, about tone and rhythm as well as content. I think of William Gay’s first sentence in “The Paperhanger”: “The vanishing of the doctor’s wife’s child in broad daylight was an event so cataclysmic that it forever divided time into the then and the now, the before and the after.” Beyond the promise of the story, there’s an authority in that kind of sentence that comes from its careful phrasing, its cadence, and its attitude; it makes a proclamation in a voice that is so precise that we have no choice but to trust it.

Some writing teachers and books talk about “hooks” in stories. In the above example, they would point to the vanished child. I think that kind of advice fundamentally misunderstands what a story is and does. Of course at a basic level a story should be about something, but vanished children, murdered husbands, burning cities are all easy to conjure. What’s difficult is the compelling voice that tells the story, the attention to detail, the carefully chosen words and emotional nuance.

Sometimes I might spend a few hours for several days in a row just trying to write my way into a story, writing different paragraphs and trying different voices and rhythms and perspectives until I have an idea of what the opening will look like. I’m often talking out loud as I do this, just trying to get to a line that feels right. I don’t always know what I’m doing; I’m just going by ear. But I often feel that if I can get the opening right, the rest of the story will follow. This is one of many lies I tell myself.

2. For the most part you seem to be composing traditional stories in a vein of hardscrabble lyrical realism. And yet, you tell three of these stories in the second person, and one in the first person plural. How do you choose POV and/or how do you see it working within a story? Am I wrong to call these stories traditional? To see second person narration as experimental? Are all dichotomies false? 

Well, all dichotomies must be either true or false, unless you believe in grey areas.

Seriously, though, I do like the sound of hardscrabble lyrical realism. It sounds tough and poetic but grounded, authentic. I wish we’d put that on the book cover. Sometimes I’d like to be something solid like that, but other times I’m feeling a little heady and postmodern. Generally I don’t trust labels, because they give us the illusion that we understand a thing because we know how to categorize it. If pressed, I’d describe my stories as playful, I guess. I’m not sure if there’s a traditional-experimental continuum here, or where I fall on it – maybe in the middle? I do experiment with voice and distance, though I’m not trying to radically redefine narrative in ways that writers on the fringe would do. We need those people, I just happen not to be one of them.

The question on point of view is a little more straightforward. I think there’s usually a POV that makes a story compelling, but it’s not always obvious what that POV is, at least not to me. The point of view is really the lens into the language that defines the story, so that’s part of it – it determines the voice that gets to tell the story, and some voices are more interesting, some more loveable. It also determines the perspective, which I think of as more like the angle of vision – what we know or don’t know, the distance we see the story from. Sometimes, a voice suggests itself and the story takes off from there. I consider myself lucky when that happens. Other times, it’s a slog figuring it out.

In a story like “Signs of Life,” I really struggled with the POV and had to rewrite the thing a few times just to figure that aspect of it out.  I started it as a first person story from a male POV. But almost right away – a few pages in – I wanted to write from a woman’s POV because I thought the story would be much richer if it were a mother-daughter relationship, and also because I hadn’t done much of that. So I did it and it worked okay, but ultimately I still had a couple of problems with it. It seemed a little off in a couple of places, like maybe it was just clear that I’m not a woman and don’t have those experiences enough to write from that perspective believably. Honestly, too, I think I wondered what I would think if I were a woman who sat down to read this story from a woman’s POV with a guy’s name next to it, would I feel some resistance to that? Probably. So I rewrote it in the close 3rd person, and I think it works better all around. Sometimes there’s just a lot of trial and error.

You mention the 2nd person point of view, which is not as common but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it experimental. It comes pretty naturally to me, I found. I was just messing around when I started writing in it, then realized maybe I had something. Given the hatred some readers have for it, I’ve often wondered if they just don’t like thinking about their own agency, or the ways in which they participate in a story. I really don’t trust people who scoff at the second person POV categorically, as it’s usually part of some larger dogmatism they subscribe to about what literature should be. They’re often some form of literary fascist that sees literature as a thing to be worshiped rather than an experience to be had.

3. One thing I’ve always appreciated about your work is the way you attend to your events/plot and your sentences equally. They remind me a little of some great mash-up of Richard Ford’s lyricism and Harry Crews’ grim humor and violence. This leads me to wonder, if I can intentionally miss your point from above: what literature do you worship? As in, these are really beautiful stories where lots of really wild things happen. So, what writers inspire your work? Or more generally, how does your reading inform your writing?

Man, I love so many other writers I can’t even begin to name them all or give them credit for what they’ve taught me through their books. There’s a writer I like named Tim Gatreaux who I don’t think many people read anymore, and I was re-reading his collection of Louisiana stories, Same Place, Same Things, when I was trying to figure out what my book was, how it might work.

I tend to follow writers who write wonderful sentences, and occasionally something they write will put me under a spell. Stephen Graham Jones, Aimee Bender, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, T.C. Boyle – they’ve all done this to me. You can see that in this book if I show you where to look. I mean, if you look at the title story, then look at Stuart Dybek’s story “Pet Milk,” you’ll see that I really just copied what he does as an exercise, right down to the syntax in some places.

That’s an extreme example, but I do think it illustrates something about how my reading and writing are linked. There’s this idea sometimes in young writers that you need to sound completely original, but I’ve always found that to be a harmful stance. If I were a painter, I’d be studying other painters’ brush strokes to figure out how they created certain effects, and eventually I’d understand the medium well enough to do interesting things in my paintings. That’s kind of how I read when I stumble across something that moves me.

4 Even though these stories appeared in a wide variety of journals over about a ten year period, this collection reads thematically and stylistically very coherently. It's almost as if the stories are in conversation with each other. How did you go about organizing this collection?

At some point, maybe halfway through the writing of these, I started to realize that there was going to be a book of these Arkansas stories, so I was thinking consciously of making them sound kind of alike but not be so similar that they’d be redundant in the same book. Then when I ordered it, I started by going roughly by periods of life – roughly chronological by character age. Then I tried to make it so that each story maybe had a thematic link to the one after it, and also to make sure I was mixing up things like point-of-view so that each story was different enough. My favorite link is between “Perseids,” which ends with a boy about to have hot coals dumped on his sleeping bag, and “Man on Fire.” My idea of a joke.

I had help, too – Chitra Divakaruni helped me think through how the stories were in conversation with each other, and I got a tip from Robert Boswell who said something like, “Maybe it would make more sense if you put the stories with the women at the end? Because the women in these stories are running away, and it could be like they are running away from the bad behavior of the men in the earlier stories.” I loved this idea, that there would be this neat thematic logic, even though I don’t think readers care about that kind of thing at all. It was a little secret I would have.

5. As impressed as I am by the way your stories open, I'm even more interested in how they end. You don't seem to rely on a singular move—you have the epiphany, the temporal zoom-out, surprise endings, quiet endings, etc. Despite variations in style, however, every story in this collection reaches a conclusion that feels inevitable, which is something readers yearn for in a short story, I think, but is hard to achieve. How do you go about crafting this sense of inevitability? Is it tonal, like by ear or instinct? Or do you plot your stories out beat-by-beat? Or put another way, how much do you know about how a story is going to end when you start writing it?

Thanks. I don’t ever know where a story is going when I start. I’m often taking little notes at the bottom of a document as I’m writing a story, where I store little fleeting ideas for scenes and images and snippets of dialogue that might come later. So it’s not a totally linear process, and the thing becomes fuller as I draft, which sometimes helps me see the patterns emerge. But if the story is any good, there’s always something in it that surprises me as I’m writing.

If you read “Safari Americana,” where these guys are going out to hunt this escaped lion from a wildlife refuge (a thing that really happened not far from where I grew up), I had no idea what would happen after they killed the lion. I was just getting to that point in the story, and suddenly there’s a baby lion (a cub?) that these guys now have to take care of. I don’t know where it came from, it just grew out of that moment. I liked the instant change in dynamic that sort of deflates this shitty mock-heroic act of shooting a lion. It really changes the story, makes it more tender and more interesting for me as a writer. It was a happy accident.

What we’re really talking about with inevitability is a feeling that the reader experiences in the moment of reading. I think of creating resonance as one way of achieving this: the repetition of similar scenes, or scenes that work on multiple planes, can give a sense of richness. I want that sense of fullness when you see that some idea from earlier is followed up on, even if it’s just gestured at. At the end of the story I was talking about above, “Safari Americana,” Jenkins is just lying in bed, listening to the crickets and remembering a camping trip he took with his own father, the way Jenkins got a fish hook caught in his ear and his father had laughed as he removed it. This is the second to last line in the story, before he falls asleep. In a story that’s partially about the anxieties of fatherhood, that memory kind of echoes what’s been happening throughout the story, where “taking care of things” includes committing to both violence and nurturing.

But there’s something else here, which is the intimacy you can achieve in the final moments of a story, when a reader feels that they are alone with the character in the dark after all of the conflict and action of the story. I do this too much, but I like to stop a story in these private moments of comfort and sadness and terror. Thanks for asking this question. Everyone loves to rush to the climax of a story, but fewer people are interested in the post-coital wind down. I like a nice moment of stillness with the reader before releasing them back into the world.

6. Speaking of post-coital wind downs—before we release readers back into the world: What are you working on now?

After answering that question about POV, I’m writing a story called “The Second Person” about a person who discovers another person inside them. But don’t worry, it’s not about multiple personality disorder, or pregnancy. It’s much worse than that: a metaphor for our inner children.

I joke because in terms of a larger project, I don’t know. I was working on a second story collection when the malaise snuck up on me, and I thought, man, what am I doing? Then there was all of the crazy politics of the last year. I think there’s a good chance we’ll kill the planet or each other in the next century or two. What’s the role of the obscure story writer in the face of cultural collapse and planetary annihilation? I really don’t know. I can’t wrap my head around it. I want to do something on hope and despair, but it will have to be kind of destabilized, nothing too on the nose.

In the meantime, I’ve been working in other genres: writing personal essays, venturing out into the novel, retreating, trying again.


 

Morris Collins lives in Boston. His first novel, Horse Latitudes, came out in 2013 and other fiction and poetry has appeared in Gulf CoastPleiades, Michigan Quarterly Review, and The Chattahoochee Review among others.

Zack Bean’s first collection of stories, Man on Fire, was published by ELJ in 2016. His stories have appeared in FictionCream City ReviewPankBest Small Fictions 2015, and other literary publications. He lives in Bozeman, Montana, where he is an Assistant Professor of English at Montana State University.