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Midwestern Gothic staffer Morgan Dean talked with author J. R. Miller about his debut novel Nobody’s Looking, being a Midwesterner in Florida, the value of a good mentor, and more.
Morgan Dean: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
J. R. Miller: I was born and raised in a suburb just outside of Detroit. In my mid-twenties, I moved to Florida for a few years, then moved back to the Detroit area for a couple of years before moving back to Florida, where I have lived for the last 9 years or so.
MD: What do you see as distinct about being from Detroit? How do those from Detroit differ from other Midwesterners (if they do)?
JRM: I cannot say that Detroiters are that different from other Midwesterners. Each state has its own set of bragging rights.
That said, Detroit is the Motor City—the car capital of the world. We are the home of Rock and Roll. Sorry, Cleveland, your guy may have coined the phrase—but we are called Detroit Rock City for a reason. Detroit is the home of Better Made Potato Chips, Kowalski Hot Dogs, Sanders Fudge, and Faygo Redpop—and yes, in Detroit we call it POP.
But like a good character in a story—Detroit is flawed. Growing up year after year, watching the city burn on TV was tragic. As dumb kids, we celebrated the violent reputation of the city by wearing t-shirts that said “Have a nice day in Detroit.” I know this sounds innocent enough—except on the front of the shirt, there was a giant yellow smiley face with a bullet hole in the forehead.
It’s not something talked about, but there is also an oppression and desperation in Detroit. I believe the auto industry suffocates the city. As I grew up, it was understood: I could go to college, or I could work for the big three or work for a company that sells stuff to the big three. But even if I went to college, studied engineering, computer science, finance, marketing, or business, if I stayed in Detroit—my job would revolve around the auto-industry. It didn’t seem to matter what I wanted to be—if I stayed in Michigan, I would be a slave to the car. Maybe it was just me, maybe others felt it too, I don’t know. But this is why I left the state—both times.
But growing up and seeing all this, the one thing I learned is that the harder you worked, the harder you fought—the more desperate you became. And that desperation could make you or break you. In Detroit, we called it grinding. If you are struggling with school—grind it out. Work got you down? Money problems? Grind it out. When you were lucky, the victory was sweet. Let’s not talk about the failure.
I am especially saddened by the recent downturns in the city—but I have faith in the people of Detroit. They will fight through the desperation and recover. It might take a while, but that is the thing about Detroiters—they are grinders and don’t give up.
I am positive that other cities and states can relate—they have their stories. I would love to hear them.
MD: How did you first get into writing? Was there a particular event in your life, book you read, or other significant moment that made you realize you wanted to be a writer?
JRM: This is a tricky question. The short, boring answer is that I always was a writer.
The longer and more complicated answer is that I tinkered around with writing and drawing for much of my youth. Mostly I wrote in journals—complained about life and wrote fantastical stories of what life would be like if I could beat up that bully, kiss that one special girl, or run away to some far-off land and become super rich and famous. After I watched the movie Eddie and the Cruisers, I also wrote really bad lyrics in the hopes that some band would pick me up—make a star out of me. You know, delusional kid stuff mostly. My teachers often told me I wrote beautifully and I should consider writing for a career. Because I was writing essays and book reports, and I didn’t really know what that meant, I had no interest.
I also read all the time. From an early age, I was hardly without a book. I was a sick kid and spent a lot of time in the hospital or at home in bed. So I lived life through the books. I guess this is what fed my journals with imaginary worlds. By my early teens, a friend’s mom was feeding me with all the horror books I wanted. One or two a week. I read from Stephen King to books where I can only remember parts of stories rather than the author or title—no gore was bad gore. But there was one book that really stood out—from a friend who suggested I try something different, something that wasn’t blood and guts—A Prayer for Owen Meany. That book changed forever how I read. Those characters were so real. I read the book in three days…I didn’t sleep—stayed up reading until the alarm went off at 4am. I had never read a book like that before. It affected me—so much so that I reread it every couple of years. I thought, I wish I could write a book like that.
Years later, I earned a degree in digital arts and advertising—and hence, I was working for an ad agency writing copy and designing ads for (you guessed it) the auto industry. After a few years, I felt the creative juices needed a recharge—so I took a figure drawing class at Macomb Community College. I hadn’t been drawing in a few years and thought it would be fun. The one thing I forgot was how terribly bad I was at drawing people. I could draw shapes, perspective, cars, buildings, whatever—so long as it wasn’t people.
One of our assignments was to keep a journal…each week, we had to find a figure in the real world (a statue was recommended) and draw it. We were also supposed to write a page or two explaining why we chose this particular figure to draw. My journal was full by the end of the term…full of writing—10-15 pages of writing for each figure. “Why I chose this figure” often became a deep exploration of the private life of the sculptor and what they might have been thinking at the time. Or I gave an explanation of why this statue had a dimple on the left buttock…why he was wearing a loincloth, why was her right breast exposed but not the left? You know, really important questions. My drawings, by the way, were horrible, yet the teacher gave me a B. She also told me that it was clear my artistic abilities were in the written word. That my journal was quite entertaining even though the illustrations were unrecognizable. She referred me to speak to the school’s creative writing teacher. This was back in 2001, I think. That’s when I started writing seriously.
MD: How does it feel to be a Midwesterner living in Florida? What of the Midwest have you brought to Florida?
JRM: Neil Diamond sings, “L.A.’s fine, but it ain’t home. New York’s home, but it ain’t mine no more.” I guess that’s a bit what it’s like. I enjoy living in Florida. There are great things about the state (no snow). I have terrific friends—friends who are family, really. Did I mention that I don’t shovel snow and “the sun shines most of the time.” Whenever I want, I can walk to the beach and look over the vast waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I can look at that infinite horizon and watch the sun set. But still, after all these years, something is still missing. I used to think it was autumn—the colors, the crisp air, cider mills, haunted hayrides, bonfires, and pumpkins that don’t rot on your front porch. And I am sure that is part of it—it’s just not all of it.
We, my family and I, still visit Detroit one to two times a year. We eat Tubby’s, El Charro, and hit several Coney Island’s. We order pizza from the family owned Italian restaurant my dad worked at as a kid. I tell my kids, “Your papa used to work here when he was a teenager, and he took us here when I was a kid like you.” My kids hope that one day, they can bring their kids to Paisano’s for pizza one day. We shop at Kroger and Meijer and I can buy Canadian beer just as easily as domestic. We hang out with friends and family and catch up on their lives. We share each other’s successes and setbacks. Still, when I go back, I am a visitor. A guest. When I go to my old hangouts, I am a tourist reliving my youth. There is a strong sense of nostalgia, yet I know I will never live here, could never live here again. There is that something I miss about Detroit, but I know I can never have that back—youth abandons us all.
What have I brought with me to Florida? Each year I load up on the Detroit-based foods my family loves and fill the freezer. My shopping list includes at least: 15 pounds of Kowalski Hot Dogs and kielbasa, a brick of Coney Island chili, 5 bags of Better Made BBQ chips. I am also working with a few other Midwesterners to build a community of euchre players—but that is still a work in progress.
MD: Nobody’s Looking is your debut novel. What was the reasoning behind making the book several separate short stories?
JRM: I struggle with the term “novel” when describing this book. A novel, for me, is driven by a strong narrative arc—a protagonist meets a journey. This book, one could argue, is like a neighborhood from the burbs. A collection of little houses that share streets and sidewalks but still can exist in their own world. Sometimes a house is isolated and the story is all indoors—under that roof. However, like any block in any suburb, the occupants go outside and visit with their neighbors—and that’s when things can get interesting. When these characters come in contact with each other, there is conflict and peace, joy and desperation. There is humanity trying to make sense of life. I think that’s what makes this collection work.
MD: One critic was credited with saying of Nobody’s Looking that it “harkens to what it means to be a boy, a man, a father, a human being struggling in this crumbling world”. What experiences have you had that you put into your novel that influenced this provocative statement?
JRM: We have all heard the adage, “Write what you know,” as well as the quick rebuttal, “Write what you don’t know—and be surprised.” I struggled with these concepts when I first started writing—mostly because I didn’t understand what was being said. I took it too literally. But then one day it clicked. Yet I still cannot explain it. I have written this paragraph 10 times and still cannot put into words what I am trying to say. Let’s just say that for me, writing what I know is about the Truth (capital T) that lives inside each character. But then that doesn’t really answer the question, does it? I don’t want to come off as coy, but the easiest way to answer this is to say that all of it and none of it happened. Some events may be parts of personal firsthand experiences, while others were witnessed with friends. Some are taken from those stories best friends tell each other when no one else is around, and some from those made-up worlds inside my head. They are poured into this big mixing bowl and stirred and shaken, remembered and reimagined. I took all these and tried to carve out a Truth that readers could relate to—a shared understanding of the human condition.
MD: How has teaching creative writing influenced your own writing?
JRM: Honestly, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without great teachers, great mentors. These teachers offered support and guidance when needed. They offered brutal honesty and a kick in the ass when laziness set in. They pushed me and never lost faith. It’s why I teach. I want to give back. I want to take the lessons I learned and share them.
But teaching is not all what I can give—I often receive as well. A good teacher never gives up being a student. I learn much from my students—I get to look at the world through their eyes and their experiences. They share their stories and their creative energies and that recharges my creative battery.
MD: What’s next for you?
JRM: I have a few projects in the works. First, I am editing a second collection of short stories and hope to start sending that out by the end of the year. I am also working with another editor on a tattoo anthology. I have a novel in early stages of drafting and I submitted a non-fiction book proposal—a really cool and exciting opportunity—but I won’t let myself talk about that until it’s a real thing.
MD: Where can we find more information about you?
JRM: Please visit my web site: www.miller580.com. Here you can learn more about my work, find me on Facebook / Twitter, and whatever new and cool site that comes along.
J. R. Miller is the author of Nobody’s Looking (ELJ Editions). His work also appears in The Good Men Project, Midwestern Gothic, Palooka, Writers Tribe Review, Portland Review, Prime Number and others. He worked as an interactive producer designing and copywriting for a large advertising agency in metro Detroit before he moved to Florida. He has been teaching creative writing since 2008. He is the managing editor of (ĕm): A Review of Text and Image, production editor for Sweet Publications. You can visit his website at http://www.miller580.com.