Unsettled bliss. That’s how I would describe the return of Mike Miller to the Northwest Arkansas Writers Workshop. Bliss, because listening to Mike read is like listening to an accomplished musician. Unsettled, because his skillful writing takes the reader to dark places–you know, the ones you want to turn away from, but can’t?
I’ve enjoyed getting to know Mike over the last several months, and recently read his book, Bayou Jesus. Here’s the review I posted on Amazon:
Since the release of the book and movie,
The Help, there has been much discussion of whether or not a writer can capture the voice of a character outside of his race or gender. M.G. Miller answers that question in his book Bayou Jesus. His portrayal of Miss Zassy, Frank, Jolene and Alice — each outside of his gender and/or race — is gripping, not only in the dialect he writes, but also in the internalization of thoughts and feelings. But then, aren’t so many of our thoughts and feelings universal, regardless of gender or race?
Bayou Jesus is a provocative and insightful read. I highly recommend it.
I think you’ll enjoy getting to know Mike, too:
1) Your book, Bayou Jesus, is full of wonderful prose that brings your characters and settings to life. Excerpt:
Gleaming faces filled the hall, all smiles, brows damp, the women with paper fans to cut the air: hot, moist, sliced through with excitement. Wooden benches lined the walls, children dodged between the colorful billows of skirts, around long trouser legs. Food lay heaped on three tables at the far end: red beans and rice, shrimp, fried chicken and pork, rolls of fresh-baked bread, desserts. Nearby, a band had set up: two banjos, scrub-board, a fiddle and a drum. Music was a spirituality in itself; it pulled out one’s soul so that it might dance free of the bonds of earth, it brought one closer to God. And this night seemed made for rejoicing.
This is a skill that develops over time. What first influenced you to write, and how have you developed your writing skills?
Thank you, Jan. It was the love of books to begin with that influenced me to start writing. I’ve always been rather a loner, and even as a child I preferred the solitude of my own room. We didn’t have the internet or video games in those days, all I had were books and records…and puppets. Strange phase, but ultimately the seed of utilizing creativity to entertain myself, because I’d tell stories through the puppets, and eventually I wrote them down.
In Junior High, I read my first adult novel, Harold Robbins’ A Stone for Danny Fisher, and knew I wanted to write like that too. It’s still one of my favorites. So at the age of twelve, I wrote my first novel. Of course it was horrible, so I wrote another one, and yet another. At this writing, I’ve now begun novel number 21.
But it was only through joining a writer’s group in the 90s that I really began to hone my skills. I took what I wanted from the suggestions offered (constructive criticism that didn’t interfere with the voice of the story) and that’s when I really got a grasp on editing and tightening. For instance, when I completed Bayou Jesus, it was a meandering 1,000 page manuscript. I cut it in half, then cut that in half, and continued to edit until it was a virtual machine, with no sentence wasted.
Edit. Period. It’s the only way.
2) Would you share something brand new with us? Write the opening paragraph to a book that begins:
It must have had something to do with Daisy.
I don’t usually write on the fly, but here goes nothing:
It must have had something to do with Daisy. Everyone in Danfield knew she’d been carrying on with Oscar Highsmith for at least a year. And Oscar a married man. Even his wife, Della, had to have known. Although Della traveled a lot for her realtor’s job, which gave Oscar and Daisy ample opportunity for their trysts, she simply had to have known what was going on between them. A woman can’t be married to a man for twenty-five years and just not know. But on the day Daisy packed her bags and bought a bus ticket to Memphis, no one in Danfield had yet to lay eyes on Oscar. His tobacco shop never opened, he didn’t stop in Gloria’s diner for his usual toast and fried eggs; in fact, he’d apparently never even left the house, for the morning paper still lay on the front stoop of the Highsmith’s modest brick home. Yes, it had to have something to do with Daisy, because a mere hour after the Memphis-bound Greyhound rumbled from the Danfield depot, Della returned home from three days at a realtor’s convention in Little Rock and noticed the morning paper, too. She thought it odd. That’s when she unlocked the door of their modest brick home and discovered all the lights were still turned on too, which was odder still. When she noticed an overturned chair. A broken glass. A pair of rusty scissors. And something staining the stairwell carpet. Something that resembled a human ear.
3) Recently, you said you’d found your home in the Southern Gothic genre. Wikipedia defines the genre as:
The southern Gothic style is one that employs the use of macabre, ironic events to examine the values of the American south.
Indeed, some of your most powerful writing is dark, macabre. Would you mind if I ask about the seeds of such passages?
I’ve always been at home in the Southern Gothic genre, whether I realized it or not. Before, I’d always dilineated my works into Literary Fiction, Horror, True Crime, and Experimental. It was only recently, however, when I discovered the importance of branding oneself that I realized all of my work could, indeed, be considered Southern Gothic because of the settings, the grotesque characters and the macabre events that take place. But why Southern people and places? That falls under “write what you know”.
As for the dark side, I’ve always been an avid horror reader because I love how the genre gets your blood pumping. I guess you could say that in terms of books, I’m rather an adrenaline junkie. However, I’ve always preferred more realistic, “quiet horror”; i.e., the horror of everyday occurrences with ordinary people, and not particularly of a supernatural nature. In my opinion, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson and Joyce Carol Oates are the best of examples of “everyday horrors”.
4) If you were to teach a creative writing class, what would you try to communicate to your students?
Find your voice.
Never fall in love with your words.
Grow a thick skin.
Leave your ego at the door.
Never believe anything until the check has cleared the bank.
Don’t quit your day job.
He took a licking, but kept on ticking . . .then wrote about it.
That was one of my favorite comments. But it made me wonder. When I consider writing about events where I “took a licking,” fear often prevents me from finishing the story, sometimes prevents me from even beginning. Sometimes the fear is of what others may think of me. Sometimes the fear is of offending someone still living. Sometimes the fear is that it simply won’t matter to anyone else. Do you have those kinds of fears, and how have you overcome them?
You can’t worry about what others will think of you or you’ll never get anything written. And if you do write with your internal editor turned on, you’ll compromise the integrity of the work. Let the work speak for itself. I guess I’m fortunate in that I’ve never worried what people will think of me as a person as reflected by my written work. If people get offended, it’s their problem, not mine. I just point them to the front matter of the book where it says, “This is a work of fiction.” Over the course of the years, I’ve put a lot of unsavory characters and events on the page, but does that mean that I’m: a racist? a murderer? a junkie? a practitioner of the black arts? Hardly. All it means is that I’m fascinated by the human condition and that I’ve attempted to try and convey ordinary people coping with extraordinary circumstances.
6) Thank you for helping us get to know you and your writing, Mike. What’s next for M.G. Miller?
December 25th will see the reissue of Bayou Jesus from Southern Exposures Press. It will be available exclusively as a Kindle ebook through Amazon.com. Sometime after the first of the year, SEP, in association with Grand Bayou Entertainment, will also release the audio version, although an exact date has not yet been announced.
2012 will also see the reissue of Her Grave Embrace, an historical horror novel, as well as Murderous, a novelization of a true crime. Seven Devils is in the pipeline, too, a literary sequel to Bayou Jesus. My current work in progress, The Serpent, is also based on a true crime; I hope to have it finished by the end of next year. As of this writing, the likelihood of releasing audio versions of all my titles seems imminent as well.
Thank you for inviting me over to chat, Jan. Now if you’ll give me another cup of coffee, I might tell you why Daisy cut off Oscar Highsmith’s ear.
Thanks, Mike! I’ll definitely accept your invitation to another cup of coffee and can hardly wait to learn more about the mystery of Daisy and Oscar!
Leave a comment by noon Wednesday, December 21, to be included in a drawing for an autographed copy of Bayou Jesus!
Visit M.G. Miller at his website:http://www.mgmillerbooks.com/Or his blog:http://mgmillerbooks.wordpress.com/On Twitter:@m_g_millerOn Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/pages/MG-Miller/165654790177878