Birth of a novelist: Emily Miller in residence with the Aspen Writers’ Foundation
The novelist’s great search is for her voice — a tone and pace and perspective on the world that reads true and consistent and honest and comfortable and, in the best of cases, unique and recognizable.
For Emily Miller, the goal has been a bit different. She has not been looking for her voice; rather, she has been trying to find someone else’s, a voice that is not like her own.
“I think that’s the fun of fiction — reading outside your experience and writing outside your experience,” Miller said on a bench outside the Wheeler Opera House on a recent sunny afternoon. “It’s an exploration — seeing a little piece of the world through someone else’s eyes. I can’t see reading or writing a book from the perspective of someone who’s exactly like me.”
Miller’s first novel comes from a perspective that is distinctly not her own. “Brand New Human Being,” published last year, is told through the eyes of Logan Pyle, the troubled father of a troubled 4-year-old, Owen. Miller, who is 40, is not a father, nor is she a parent. She doesn’t come off as especially troubled, and certainly not in the ways that Logan is — haunted by a recently deceased father, his marriage coming unglued, his parenting skills coming up woefully short under the stress.
Yet the depiction of Logan doesn’t feel like a stretch. In fact, when Miller’s agent went looking for a publisher, she credited the novel to simply “E. Miller.” “She said, ‘Sooo … I did a little experiment — they all think you’re a man,’” Miller recounted. “Everyone thought the writer was a man. I said, ‘Do they want me to be a man? I’ll be a man.’ I just wanted to finish a book and get it published so badly.”
Miller, who wrote a bunch of short stories while working on her MFA and wrote articles about the environment, wildlife and public lands while living in Paonia and working for High Country News in the late ‘90s, finding a voice unlike her own is easier than finding one that matches her profile. In her current residency with the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, she is working on her second novel; this one too is told from a male point of view.
“Any voice you’re writing from, you’re making up a voice. You’re hearing the voice,” Miller, who will give a reading on Tuesday, Oct. 29 at the Woody Creek Community Center, said. “I could hear Logan’s voice very clearly. It’s harder to hear a voice exactly like mine. You need that distance.”
To Miller, “Brand New Human Being” isn’t so much about being a parent, even if the plot line closely follows Logan’s bumbling efforts to care for his son. Instead, it’s about things that are even more universal: forgiveness, reconciling with the past, humility. “It’s a book about being human,” she said.
And Miller points out that, while she is not a parent, it is a subject that everyone has had much contact with. “It’s not that hard for me to imagine having some living thing that’s the center of my world and that I love so much and that I screw up with sometimes,” she said. “Parenting is everywhere. You have to really not be paying attention to miss seeing parenting in the world.
“And the obvious point ¬— I have been a child. I have experienced parenting.”
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A native of Washington, D.C., Miller studied religion as an undergrad as Princeton. The course of study required a huge amount of reading and writing, and upon graduation she knew she wanted to be a writer of some sort. Miller moved to Boulder, where she took jobs in journalism, cocktail waitressing and as a production assistant on the TV mini-series “Stephen King’s The Shining.” It would be her only experience in the film world, but it had a lasting impact, especially the locale of King’s tale of a haunted Colorado hotel. “It was so crazy being on a movie set,” Miller said. “I’m going to have to put that into a novel sometime. I worked in the Stanley Hotel every day and it really is spooky.”
Miller’s first regular writing job was for High Country News, which she found a great training ground. “I was edited rigorously. Which was huge,” she said. The work made her feel comfortable with nonfiction, but still she felt a pull toward what she calls “the dark side” — fiction. “I was intimidated and mystified by the fiction world. But I knew deep down that’s what I really wanted to do. It was just a matter of getting there.”
While earning a master’s in environmental studies at the University of Montana, Miller stayed involved with writing. Her master’s thesis was editing and writing the introduction for a book about the Clark Fork River, which runs through Montana and Idaho. (The environmental background made its way into “Brand New Human Being”; Logan’s father, Gus, was a miner-turned-environmental lawyer.) Miller also took classes outside her department, on James Joyce and on writing nonfiction. The course on Joyce was “inspirational. It was literature as a cause,” she said. And the writing classes overall were “super-intimidating. But life-changing.”
Soon after leaving Montana, Miller finally trained her attention on the ultimate focus and entered an MFA program in writing at the University of Florida. Her entire focus there was on short stories — there was less of a time investment than with a novel, the plotting was less complex, and there was a far greater chance that her classmates would read a shorter piece. Though she recognized her true ambition was to write novels, short stories were a good medium to begin developing a sensibility.
“I tried a lot of things,” Miller said. “You try different voices in grad school. There are a lot of things I’m glad never saw the light of day, very voice-driven pieces. You get told pretty quickly by your classmates when something’s not working — one of the joys of the MFA.”
Miller also found what was working — a Montana setting; stories about families in distress; a realistic tone. “Those are the kinds of stories I like to read —big-family books, realism. Fitzgerald, William Trevor. John Cheever — he might be my favorite. Richard Yates I really like,” she said. “And I guess it’s a cliché to say now, but I’ve said Alice Munro was an influence for a long time,” Miller said of the recent Nobel recipient. “And more than families, realism. Not experimental, meta-type trickery.”
One of Miller’s short stories, titled at the time “Gold,” about a father-son relationship in Montana, began to stand out for potential expansion. “For whatever reason, it had the space to grow,” she said. “It had a beginning, a middle and an end, even in the 11-page version. It had the scaffolding. There always felt like more room to go deeper, add to it. That’s definitely not the case with every story. And the Logan-Owen dynamic — that kept me coming back.”
Miller considered “Gold” a failure as a short story, but that view meant the story held promise as a novel. “They say only failed short stories can become novels, and I think that’s true,” she said. “It’s an itch and you keep coming back to it. There’s something about it you can’t figure out.”
Miller finished her MFA in 2002, moved back to Washington, D.C., taught at George Washington University, and had a few stories published in small journals. The literary agents she contacted all asked the same question: Have you got a novel? “I spent the next eight years working that out,” she said. “The hardest part is after grad school — you’re on your own.” But Miller found her discipline; at one point she worked on the novel every day for a year.
Then, in 2009, she got stuck: “I was two-thirds through and totally discouraged.” Her sister, Jamie, a V.P. at the Aspen Institute and a former editor of Aspen Magazine, came to her aid. Jamie was a V.P. at the Aspen Institute and arranged a bargain price for Emily to attend the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Summer Words event as a student.
On her way to Aspen, Miller met one of the instructors, Robert Bausch, who had read Miller’s manuscript. Despite being confused — he assumed “E. Miller” was a man — he liked the writing, and encouraged Miller. “He basically told me, ‘Write the goddamn book.’ And I got totally energized,” Miller said.
The praise was not universal. An agent at Summer Words hated the book and, in Miller’s eyes, treated her with condescension. “I cried,” she recalled. “But Robert said, ‘Well, I guess she’s not your agent.’ Which was a good way of putting it. Better than saying, ‘Your book sucks.’”
With Bausch writing to her every day, Miller went home, finished the final 100 pages, and got an agent who quickly sold “Brand New Human Being.”
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One of the signature parts of Miller’s style, at least after one novel, is a drive forward. “Brand New Human Being” is routinely described as fast-paced, and that element is important to the writer.
“In every chapter, something happens that leads to the next chapter, the next complication,” Miller said. “You need that to keep people reading. I’m interested in the characters more than what happens. But you have to have something moving forward.”
Equally important, Miller wants to look at life from points of view that are not her own. The novel she has been working on during her residency is also told from a man’s perspective.
“It’s not as hard as people to imagine, to imagine yourself in a different situation that is not your own,” she said.
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