J. R. MILLER INTERVIEWED 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 Cheeseby 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 Warby 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.
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