On June 6th, at our 4th Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we have been introducing our Debs through a series of interviews about their debut book experiences.
This week we have the pleasure of talking to Ben Miller, author of the non-fiction book River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa, recently published by Lookout Books. Ben Miller made his One Story debut back in August 2002 with Issue #7, “The Man in Blue Green,” published during our first year.
Through his energetic, lyrical prose, Miller employs a brutal honesty to explore and uncover emotional truths about family and the self that many would never dare to reveal. His wry humor touches at the tragic in both life and memory in a way that makes it ever more visceral for the reader. What makes his words so potent beyond the beautiful language is his willingness to embrace the truth in all its beauty and its flaws, thereby echoing the shifting landscape of Iowa, where Miller spent his childhood.
1. You’ve been published in many journals, magazines and anthologies. How did it feel to recently publish your first book, River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa? How was this experience different? How did you celebrate?
Journal publications were one of many vital stepping stones on the circuitous path leading to the publication of River Bend Chronicle. In particular, Sven Birkerts and Bill Pierce of AGNI, Jackson Lears and Stephanie Volmer of Raritan, Robert Fogarty of Antioch Review, and Ben George and Emily Smith of Ecotone, supported this unusual nonfiction project at crucial junctures. And Steven Church of The Normal School also was there when it counted. These journals placed me in contact with editors who had helpful things to say, and the claws of expert chickens. They scratched productively at the urban sprawl of my sentences! The journals were a reality check for a project cruising–as I often put it to myself on lunchtime walks–into deep waters. It took more than ten years to create the material from which RBC was culled (though I often round the figure down to a nice crisp decade) and I can see now that I was preparing to grapple with complex urban Iowa subjects long before the writing began. The completion of the project involved so much more than word-mongering, submitting sections as they were finished, and reading everything from Carlyle and Sebald to Ozick and Wm. Hazlitt. It also demanded a re-wiring of the self to create a person determined and tough enough, as well as tender and open enough, to spin out lines into the murky depths of experience where the writer’s treasure awaits. And that arduous initial stage of pre-writing work would not have been possible had I not benefited from the full support of my spouse–distinguished poet Anne Pierson Wiese (and Deb Ball escort)–who did all in her power to aid my effort to do the personal work that needed to be done. (We’ve both worked full time jobs for nearly twenty years while pressing forth with our literary life. Proof positive that equals can mentor each other, too!) And when, after all these various stages of various sorts of work, I finally found the perfect publisher–Lookout Books (U. North Carolina Wilmington)–a press with the courage and passion and creativity to bring out the book as I envisioned it–photographs set like shadowy cliffs into prose tides–our appendages waved wildly! Even if you don’t have time to read the book, smell it. The paper contains clay, lending pages a supple feel, and sweet odor. That was publisher/designer Emily Smith’s idea. Imagine that, a book about a river city literally perfumed with silt! Such genius strokes have made my experience with Lookout Books revelatory. It’s why I’m hoping to be affiliated with those folks for many years. Art always came first. It was the prime consideration. What more could a writer ask for?
2. Your story “The Man in Blue Green” was published during One Story’s first year, Issue #7 in August 2002. What has happened since then? How have you grown as a writer since you published with us at One Story to now having your first book released?
2002! That’s a long time ago! Are you insinuating that I am the oldest debutante on record!? I am old, yet not that old either. At least, not as old as Miss. Havisham. Time is funny. Anyhow, I still like “The Man in Blue Green,” which eventually became the first chapter in a picaresque novel I developed in conjunction with RBC–a work exploring the meaning of place with equal detail/ferocity but from completely different angles. The project is set in an invented sixth borough of NY that serves as a refuge for those who have failed to succeed in other boroughs. Beleaguered citizens come to the Dronx either to gamely attempt resuscitating dead dreams or to hide from failures, live out the life of not trying, of giving up, of deforming grief. The text is supplemented by 25 b/w illustrations (ala old editions of Robinson Crusoe) by Dale Williams, a brilliant Brooklyn artist and longtime collaborator of mine. Like all of my projects, this one rests comfortably under a credo I have borrowed from the painter George Bellows: “Try everything that can be done. Be deliberate. Be spontaneous. Be thoughtful and painstaking. Be abandoned and impulsive. Learn your own possibilities.”
3. Your book is a work of non-fiction that deals close to home. Could you discuss the experience of writing the book itself and dealing with that precarious balance of truth and respect for the people represented in the work? The book resonates with a palpable honesty and you get at that truth with a no-holds-barred approach that I commend. Was the process difficult for you?
Writing about those close to us–or about identity-forging experiences (furious with meanings)–can be very rough going. Fairness and honesty are the goal, but hardly automatic, rather a gritty result of constant circumspection and questioning at every stage of the process. You’ve got to be, as I was, obsessed with getting it right. The obsession, though, was the easy part–it grew instantly out of the understanding of what was at stake for me as a writer, a son, a brother…when reaching for difficult childhood material. One thing I frequently say about River Bend Chronicle is that it was accreted in layers, each meshing with the others, and this slow organic near-to-oysterish process allowed me to capture some measure of a history’s delicacy–no dumbing down of contradictory realities I encountered as a youth, no convenient tidying up of a messy life to deliver a comforting but false message, no work of brittle judgment and dismissal or rude floodlight optimism–but rather a fluid and shameless presentation of family issues and 70s-era social confusion that fully acknowledges, and thus humanizes, the plight of each character–even those who make unfortunate mistakes which spread pain widely. Though I had a bizarre upbringing, at heart my stories of hapless neighbors and tragic relatives are stories of the shifting interplay of light and dark in lives, and for that reason they are universal. In order to get it right, I needed to just keep coming at my experiences with an ever wider lens to capture the nuances, keep coming to the task with humbleness, pressing against my limitations while concurrently understanding that they would never vanish, that I was no ultimate arbiter but a seeker of big truths that to some degree must always remain elusive.
4. In your first book, what challenges did you encounter that often do not appear in a shorter piece? How did you approach the book differently, both in its writing and editing?
The accepted book was entitled River Bend Album and consisted of an array of interlocking essays culled from a sea of autobiographical writing–the finished book contains only about 25% of pages produced since 2001. The pieces selected for the first manuscript draft had been published in good journals, were well-edited and–it seemed–set to go. Then something incredible and completely illogical happened. Something just crazy, though it fit in with many other things in my ass-backwards life. My editor and I agreed that three essays–though strong–did not belong in the book. We cut those pieces, and later, one more essay. We cut more than 40,000 words from the book and what was the result? We did not get a shorter book! We did not, in the end. We got what? We got a much longer book! For as soon as that material was removed, the remaining sections began talking to each other, pulling on each other like magnets. They began transforming beautifully. For example, an essay originally twelve pages grew to be almost fifty pages long and flowed from the back of the book all the way to the front, becoming a prologue: “Ghosts of the Mississippi.” My editors were agog but gallantly loyal. They have said to me since: “No one will believe how this book came to be.” (My wife would, though. She was there on Christmas Day when I was carving up the galley in my office.) That’s another part of what I’m trying to convey when I say that the art came first at Lookout–those involved in the project pushed far beyond prior boundaries of endurance: Emily Smith, Ben George, Beth Staples. Getting this book into its final form was akin to wrestling piggyback whales! Stumptown coffee was the drink of choice. For additional sustenance, I called on my rich memories of art created to the scale that I sought to replicate–the epic bar scenes in Ice Man Cometh and the stunning beginning of Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, which finds a child whose mother has died taking a train by herself to the big event–a slow, beautiful, melancholy ride, scenery and emotions intermingling, the fear and the trees and the love and the fence blurs.
5. Your book has a wonderful title. How did you come up with it?
Lookout is the nation’s foremost teaching press. This means that the professional staff has at its disposal an amazing gang of enthusiastic and talented interns. At times, more than ten individuals were substantially contributing to some element of my book’s birth–fact-checking, promotion, design, editorial. When we started batting around possible subtitles, the students were a ready-made focus group providing invaluable responses to my ideas and those of the editors. Getting the right subtitle was particularly tricky because this work–which I often refer to as my first, second and third books wrapped into one–contains so much. It is not only the story of a fragmenting family, but also the tale of a city and America in a difficult era. Tonalities in the text are dynamic, zagging from humor to disaster in a sentence. The subtitle is an audacious tip to the reader about the nature of the adventure ahead. “Junkification…” and “Idyll…” = a tension of plastic and classic.
6. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on June 6th? More important, are you going to sport one of those cool bow ties inherited from Mr. Hickey that you have been posting on your blog?
Firstly, I’m looking forward to pinning on my origami corsage. In my office in a special place, I keep handmade corsages from previous balls–they make me smile. I’m not yet sure exactly what outfit I’ll be wearing, but it will of course include one of Mr. Hickey’s fabulous bow-ties. On my arm will be that mentor of mine–and wife of 23 years, Anne Pierson Wiese–and lest any rumors start flying, she did not seduce me at AWP, although her initials APW are quite near to AWP. We met as grad students at NYU, married in Brooklyn, and have since been partners in love and literature–respecting the important place writing occupies in our respective lives, giving each other the gift of space that growth requires. I’ll be so proud to be there with her, author of Floating City, and with others who have supported me over the decades that I have been striving to make work, and see it off into the world.