Jonathan Miles is New York City-based author and journalist.
Epilogue: What are you working on right now?
Jonathan: Another novel, which I'm presently in the middle of.
What’s it about? How’s it different from Dear American Airlines? What kinds of challenges have you given yourself?
That’s a good question. Without going into too much detail—I don’t want to lock myself down—this one is a completely different book in pretty much every way. It’s a third person, sort of panoramic novel. It’s basically everything that Dear American Airlines isn’t. The nugget of description would be it’s a novel in which a cast of characters grapples with waste. The cheeky answer I’ve been giving is that if Dear American Airlines came out of my frustration of being stranded at airports too often, this novel comes out of my frustration of having to take out the trash. It’s a much different venture. Dear American Airlines would be pretty tough to even get near, again. That was for me, kind of singular.
It’s basically about waste, the many different uses of the term; what people dispose of, literally and metaphorically and what we in this society consider waste.
What’s that process like? Does the success of Dear American Airlines make it more difficult to move in a new direction? Or does it make it easier?
You know what’s funny? I don’t know what works. At all. It’s as difficult as it was before. It doesn’t seem to get any easier. I always take some solace in the fact that I’ve proven that I can finish a novel. That’s about the only solace, the fact that I’ve written the end before. Maybe one day it gets easier. But I don’t think so. It’s always this battle between you and the empty sheet of paper, or the empty screen. Precedent doesn’t really help. At least that’s how it feels. With Dear American Airlines there was a novel that went into the trash before Dear American Airlines that I spent seven or eight years working on and dumped after about 700 pages. If anything, that’s the precedent that weighs more heavily on my mind than any success, real or perceived, with Dear American Airlines.
I’m a really insecure writer. Luckily I have some people who are good sounding boards for what’s good and what’s not because once I start working on something, it becomes impossible for me to discern quality, I guess.
It’s true. You get too deep into it to know what in the world you’re really doing. It’s like building a house from the inside; you have no idea how it looks from the outside. You have to yell at somebody outside through the window, to ask how it looks.
You have lots of experience over a wide variety of magazine platforms. How does that experience inform you as an author?
That’s an interesting question. It informs a lot of things. I should start of by saying that I really backed into journalism, almost accidentally. I really had no aspirations to be a journalist. I was living in Oxford, Mississippi working at a bar and took a job at a newspaper for six bucks an hour as a cub reporter. It was just a job that I thought, well, I was already writing fiction at the time, and I thought, well, this shouldn’t be too hard. Get paid to write. Should be easy enough. For a while, that was the gist. I thought of it as a way to get paid to practice writing on a very shallow level. There are so many great lessons for fiction writers in journalism. One of them was going into that newspaper in Oxford, MS, a little daily, and having to turn out 30 inches of copy a day. There were no excuses. I couldn’t say, “I’m just not feeling it today,” or “I can’t hear the muse.” There was no excuse; I had to file 30 inches of copy a day. That almost becomes a physical exercise that is incredibly beneficial. That’s what you have to do if you want to write. You’re going to have to go when you don’t feel like it—most of the time I don’t—and you gotta crank out 30 inches of copy or 1500 words a day, you have to go in and keep building. That was one benefit that I absorbed from journalism. The other was reporting a story, getting the details right, getting the facts right. I do think that, in this novel, I have been reporting, so to speak. Not long ago I was down in New Jersey checking out an intersection making sure that it would be viable for this scene where a driver hits a deer. That’s not to say that that’s necessary but I think that’s something journalism gave me. To verify. And obviously you use your imagination in fiction.
I do that too. Make sure a scene’s accurate because, especially if I’m writing about a location in New York, there’s probably four hundred people that live right there and they’ll call me on it.
They will. John Gardner called it the "fictional dream," what we go into when we’re reading fiction. Anything that pulls you out of that fictional dream blows it, basically. Not long ago I was reading a short story and it mentioned someone being someone being heavily into Robert Johnson in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s, Robert Johnson the blues singer. I was like no-no-no-no-no, Columbia didn’t release Johnson’s albums until the ‘60s. Automatically, boom. It was a small error. From that point on, there’s a little voice in the back like, you didn’t trust him on that, you’re going to trust him on his characters and believe what they’re doing? There is a sense, if you’re writing a certain kind of fiction, that you owe it to the readers to get those details right because if you stumble, you will blow the fictional dream. It’s one of the reasons I went to O’Hare halfway through Dear American Airlines. I had Bennie staring at that carpet, and I thought, “Man, I don’t know what that carpet looks like.” I could have made it up; I could have said, blue carpet, what have you. But I knew that if I did that then walked through O’Hare and saw that the carpet was gray, I’d be miserable.
The other thing journalism does is it opens you up to this whole wonderful wide world of experience. I vividly remember, again this is being a daily beat reporter in Mississippi, sitting in a trailer in Yalobusha County, Mississippi, with a family who’s patriarch had just been killed in a shotgun murder. The family is pushing the autopsy photos at me and demanding to me, or rather through me, “Why did this happen to him?” And seeing that kind of grief…to be able to witness these intense moments can only bring depth and color to a fiction writer. So I think journalism has been an absolute blessing, inadvertent on my part. But I wouldn’t change it.
It’s great practice.
It’s mental exercise. The good journalist is the one who knows his details and works his details. Details tell everything in a story. For a fiction writer, it’s the same thing.
Do you think it’s possible to write a great fiction book when you’re young? I feel like any attempt I’ve made has been extremely problematic.
That’s what I found out. For all those years, trying to write a novel and finding out that I didn’t know anything. Novel writing in the twenties…a dangerous task that few succeed at but many should try.
What’s your writing process like? Colson Whitehead said he couldn’t write if he had a doctor’s appointment that day.
That’s good to hear that. Glad to hear that I’m not a freak.
So what’s your approach? Since you always have a lot of other journalistic projects on the side.
When it’s going correctly I can balance it all. I do set myself a daily work minimum. To try and get 500 words, on a good day maybe 700, a great day maybe 1,000. But trying to heed to that minimum, try to do that in the morning and work on the journalism in the afternoon, or whatever in the afternoon. That’s the ideal. It has worked in the past that way, but it’s pretty intermittent when it works that way. But yeah, a doctor’s appointment that day…I’m not going to even try. An interruption—that’s the thing. I’m still trying to gently teach my children how this works. You sit there, it takes you so long to get started, you’re straightening your desk, you’re clearing every possible distraction, trying to get to the point where you’re so blank that you have no other choice but to write. And that takes a while. You have to enter this fugue state, this dream state, where you can actually see all this going. So right now, I’m three hours into the morning already, then an interruption happens and you have to start all over again. So it can be awful. When it’s going right, it’s an easy balance. But it doesn’t always go right. So at lot of times it’s just the gnashing of teeth and messiness.
What do you make of the prosperity for long form projects? There’s just so many things going on now, blogging, microblogging…What kind of things would you be practicing if you were 20 years old right now? What do you make of the landscape?
I hate to give my editors credit but I think you learn to edit by being edited. I started writing for a magazine called the Oxford American when I was in my early twenties doing long-term journalism. I had fights over editorial matters but that’s a necessity for a writer; there’s no question, good writing is just good editing. There’s truth to that. That may be one of the dangers of blogging, for young writers. The unedited anarchy of it. It's like learning to drive on a salt flat. You can go as fast as you want, in whatever direction you want. As fun and exhilirating as that would be, I'm not sure it's the best training ground for learning to drive around town..
I guess we’re not too separate from that. You tell me.
Well what I’m talking about is the riffing that’s part personal essay, these word dumps that you see, these insta-reactions that you get. But all writing, for writers, is good. That muscle needs to be exercised. But I think you learn from publishing and being edited ways to construct a story, you learn about how to draw a reader in, you learn about the details that you need. I think it’s very helpful to be edited and to have that process, to undergo that process, rather than to slapping something onto the blog at 2 AM. I am absolutely thrilled that blogging wasn’t around when I was in my early twenties. I would be haunted by some of it.
I think we’re in this really weird period now, because we’ve got this new technology and no one knows what to do with it. Nobody knows how to make money from it, how to distribute it, et cetera. It's moving more quickly than anyone can keep up, so we’re in this weird interim. But I think it will sort itself out. With journalism, and with fiction as well. There’s all this hand-wringing going on, whether it’s about the Kindle, whether it be the publishing industry and its woes…but as a novelist, novelists have been an endangered species almost since it began. The novel has been declared dead so many times by now, every generation declares it dead but it still keeps inching along, nudged forward by readers. Look, I don't think Muddy Waters was wringing his hands when the 78 rpm record was replaced by the 33 1/2 rpm long-play album. That's the delivery device. What Muddy Waters was about was the music, the song. The way in which an artist's work is transmitted to the world is sometimes beyond the artist's control, and it's a distraction to fret too much about it. With music, it's the song that ultimately matters. No matter how that song is beamed into a listener's ears, the point is still to either break the heart or move the feet or what have you. The same goes with lit. I'm not sure there's any point in being sentimental about whether the reader is reading the words from paper or on a digital screen. The hunger for narrative—for stories—will remain. Stories are one of the ways our brains process information. It's an intrinsic need. So I don't think we're staring at the apocalypse. The essentials will remain, and narrative will survive.
Jonathan Miles Interview
Photo By: Leah Overstreet