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Christopher Miller Interview

More than ten years ago, I interviewed author Christopher Miller about his first book. Soon I’ll be interviewing him on his second, and maybe even third book. Check back soon…

October 2002

Pie Driver interviews Author Christopher Miller

I met Christopher Miller in the summer of 2001 up in Portland, Oregon. He had just sold his first novel, Simon Silber, Works For Solo Piano, and was contemplating a move to the Big Apple. In the brief time we chatted, I inundated him with questions about publishing, but never felt I got the time to really get the answers I wanted. After all, his novel hadn’t even been published yet. But the book was published in May 2002 and I ran down to my local bookstore first thing and picked it up. You should too. It’s a great story about an eccentric composer and his slacker biographer. A great read for sure. Pie Driver tracked down Miller recently and blackmailed him into submitting to an interview:

I’ve read the bio in the back of the book and talked a little about your history, but can you talk a little about the class you took at Washington University with William Gass?

It wasn’t a class but an independent study – Gass wisely refused to teach writing workshops, and I’m sorry to say that I never took his philosophy class. The independent study was a little disappointing because he was, or seemed, so utterly indifferent to my writing, and I’d admired his for so many years. It’s too bad, because there’s no one smarter than Gass, no one who has thought as much about style and structure, no one better qualified to mentor a younger writer with similar tastes. And I guess I went to Wash U. with some naïve idea that he’d take a special
interest in me, as if grooming his replacement.

Why did you take the grad school route?

Good question. I had vowed not to because I didn’t like the grad students I met as an undergrad, and because my father was a professor of literature and I felt duty-bound to strike out in a different direction. For a decade I did the starving-artist thing, working low-paying jobs in the so-called caring professions; when I applied to graduate school – already in my thirties – I was working at a group home for profoundly retarded adults, and I’d had enough. There’s a limit to how often you can hose feces off a profoundly retarded adult before you convince yourself that whatever bad effects graduate studies may have on other people, you’ll manage to avoid the pitfalls. I’m not sure I did avoid the pitfalls, but at least the shit I encountered in graduate school was only metaphorical.

How long did it take to write your novel?

About five years from start to finish, though I was working on other things too in those years, including a short novel that I started before Silber and am still working on, though I’m not sure it’s getting any better. It isn’t even getting any longer.

Describe meeting your agent and working with him to get him interested in your novel.

I met my agent through one of his clients, Deborah Eisenberg, who taught a writing workshop at Washington. I showed him the first 50 pages of Silber – all I had at the time – and he said he’d be interested in seeing the rest when it was finished, though that wasn’t for another couple of years. In the meantime I’d almost changed his mind by twice sending him the manuscript of
another novel, the hopeless one I just mentioned.

What was the hardest part once they bought the novel?

Probably the wait – almost two years between selling the book and seeing it in print.

How extensive were the changes they suggested, and were there any changes that you fought?

The most extensive change was to the ending, the last 10 or 20 pages, because my original ending was a mess. I knew it was a mess when I submitted the novel, but I was hoping I could get away with it. I’m glad my editor made me change it. As with the other changes he suggested, he didn’t try to fix it for me, just forced me to face the fact that as it stood it didn’t work, and then left it to me to find a solution. I didn’t really fight any of his suggestions, though I didn’t always find ways to follow them even when I wanted to. For instance, he kept urging me to include more of Norm’s aphorisms, and I wanted to–I think they would’ve been fun to read–but I couldn’t think of any more.

Why the move to NY?

I’d been reading a lot of Ben Katchor, whose comic strips make New York City seem like the most poetic place in the world.

How has it been?

I didn’t like it much while I was there, but now that I’ve left–I moved to Vermont last month to teach at Bennington–I’m suddenly incredibly nostalgic for NY. It takes me so long to warm to a new place–and I move so often–that it’s been years since I liked a place while I was actually living there. Who knows where I’ll be when I start to like Vermont?

Working on the second (or third) novel?

I’m working on two short novels, one about a small town where everybody is obsessed with food, and another I like to describe as a novelization of a non-existent David Lynch film.

What sort of work ethic is being employed?

I force myself to sit down and at least pretend to write twice a day, every day. I always drink coffee when I write, and I only drink coffee when I write. Coffee and writing are so inseparable for me that if I have an inspiration when I’m not drinking coffee, I don’t even write it down. “Naw,” I tell myself, “that one doesn’t count – I’m not drinking coffee.” I also chew Nicorette when (and only when) I write. I’m the only person I know who’s managed to addict himself to nicotine gum without first being addicted to cigarettes. It’s like getting addicted to methadone without ever
trying heroin.

Did any other authors/novels give you inspiration for Simon Silber?

I had been wanting for more than a decade to write an homage to Pale Fire (Vladimir Nabokov), and that book definitely served as a model for mine, just as it’s served as a model for half a dozen other books I can think of (Edwin Mullhouse, The Debt to Pleasure, etc). You could teach a whole course consisting of books that wouldn’t have been written if not for Pale Fire.

Top five books?

Maybe not my all-time favorites, but five books I’m feeling especially gung-ho about at the moment:

Hilaire Belloc-Cautionary Verses
Kazuo Ishiguro-A Pale View of Hills
Lydia Davis-Almost No Memory
Flannery O’Brien-The Third Policeman
Gilbert Sorrentino-Gold Fools

Favorite books of 2002?

Ben Marcus-Notable American Women
Lydia Davis-Samuel Johnson is Indignant
Martin Amis-The War Against Cliché

Any advice to aspiring authors?

Read everything (there isn’t much) ever written by Lydia Davis. If you don’t like her, you may be aspiring up the wrong tree.

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