The Literary Life and How To Live It
by Sean Murphy
An Interview with Adrienne Miller
What's going on in Akron? Ohio, that is. First the Akron-bred Black Keys drop Rubber Factory, easily the best rock album of the year, and now Adrienne Miller, who until now would understandably be associated with the Big Apple because of her role as literary editor of Esquire, releases her debut novel, a sprawling, earnest and unwieldy homage of sorts to her hometown. And it's the real deal. The Coast of Akron has hit the streets like a set of Goodyears, already garnering reviews any novelist would run over a relative to receive: accolades from Dave Eggers and Joanna Scott, and The Village Voice which (accurately) hails it as "a big, brashly ambitious novel that does not deal in half-measures." It is equal parts encouraging and refreshing—as we lurch into a new century's literary landscape increasingly compartmentalized, fast-sales-oriented and fad obsessed—to watch a writer announce herself with a work that is substantial, intricate and occasionally messy—a work, in short, that is not unlike life.
Adrienne Miller was born in 1972 in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up around Akron, Ohio. As Esquire's literary editor (since 1997), Miller has published stories by Don DeLillo, Aleksandar Hemon, Arthur Miller, Tim O'Brien, George Saunders, and Elizabeth McCracken, among others. Under her literary stewardship, Esquire won the 2004 National Magazine Award for Fiction, as well as numerous Best American and O. Henry Awards.
Murphy: First and foremost, congratulations on the early and positive buzz for The Coast of Akron! It must be equal parts gratifying and terrifying—as perhaps only a handful of people could understand: well-known literary editor of highly regarded and historically important magazine now about to have her work reviewed and critiqued…How different (or similar) would you say your experience has been to any other writer hoping to break through?
Miller: Well, in terms of the actual writing of the book, my experience was absolutely no different from that of any other first-time author: I had a job, I had a life, and I had a book to write. There is no public expectation for anyone's first book -- there is an audience of precisely zero awaiting your arrival – and there was certainly no audience waiting for me. When I finished The Coast of Akron, after about five years of work, I had very little confidence – because it is such an idiosyncratic and personal novel -- that it would even find a publisher. My job seems to be both a help and a hindrance to the publication process. Unlike a lot of other first novelists, book reviewers might recognize my name, so I'm very aware that my job in itself seems to help the book get reviewed. However, I'm finding that the book is often reviewed in a much more skeptical, more jaundiced -- and sometimes less generous -- way than most "debut" novels are. I feel as if the bar is set much higher for me. Of course, I feel that I shouldn't be treated as if I'd skipped a grade. I mean, it's only my first novel! And believe me, I know that I, like any other first-time novelist, have a lot to learn. Also, my book isn't necessarily straightforward realistic fiction, and it's risky in a lot of ways, so I know that it won't suit everyone's tastes. But I have to be suspicious whenever the book is reviewed by a writer whose work I haven't, for whatever reason, been able to use for Esquire. I'm surprised by how often that has happened – the book being reviewed by someone I know (and wish I didn't). People warned me all along about this.
Murphy: Did you always know you wanted to write fiction? One on hand it would seem that being immersed in the writing of very talented authors would naturally impel—and enhance—one's creative endeavors; but it is easy to imagine how the sheer volume of words might be overwhelming or perhaps intimidating. How are you able to wear both hats with such an impressive degree of proficiency?
Miller: I know many novelists and short story writers who also teach, and I don't think it seems remarkable to anyone that they do both. My job as a fiction editor at a magazine isn't a whole lot different than a creative writing teacher's job – I read lots of manuscripts and make comments on them. When we accept a short story, I work on that piece at a very detailed level, as a teacher would in a creative writing workshop. So I don't really find an interest in teaching/editing and an interest in writing to be all that much at odds. It would be a much more interesting story if I had a job as an astronaut or a cop or something entirely unrelated to writing.
Murphy: When I used the word "messy" before in describing The Coast of Akron, it was intentional but not meant in a critical way; on the contrary, a bad novel can be—and often is—a mess, but to convey the messiness of contemporary life (in general) and the effort, illusion and obsessions your characters (in particular) are pushed and pulled by is not an inconsiderable achievement. Or put another way, sometimes messiness—certainly in art—has its own sort of beauty, and I think your novel admirably illuminates the methods to the madness, and vice versa, of these little people with such big hopes and hugely derailed dreams.
Miller: I'm not really a tidy writer, and the books I like the most are pretty untidy themselves. I was really trying to capture some of the feeling of what it's like to be alive right now – what life looks like, sounds like and feels like, and it's messy. I also attempted to write a book in which the reader feels about the characters the way we feel about real people. I wanted the characters to be maddening, irritating, and good – or capable of good -- like us. And just like real people, I wanted the characters' actions to sometimes make sense to us, and sometimes not. An example of this is Merit's weird, creepy affair with her stoner assistant Randy – you kind of understand the attraction, and you kind of don't. I mean, how many affairs – or couples, for that matter – do you know who make sense? Human beings' motivations are often quite muddled, confused and confusing. Tidy motivation doesn't exist in messy real life. We wouldn't spend so much time talking about other people if motivations were clear.
Murphy: Much of the action—and certainly the denouement—occurs in the mansion (one review described it as a "massive faux Tudor", which I think is perfect), named (and anytime anyone is wealthy, or weird enough to name their house, serious trouble usually festers not far beneath the fastidiously polished veneer) On Ne Peut Pas Vivre Seul—"One Cannot Live Alone." But it becomes increasingly clear that all of these characters do live alone, and are lonely.
Miller: I wanted to write about characters who were deeply alienated, characters who were desperately searching for a connection to other people, as we all are. I set out to write a novel that was, above and beyond everything else, sad…although I didn't really think the novel was all that sad until recently. (When I was writing it, some of the stuff, especially stuff involving Fergus, really cracked me up, and I mean audibly.) But a couple of months ago, when I was reading over the last set of proofs, I came pretty close to having a nervous breakdown. I literally couldn't look at the book anymore and remain semi sane. And I'm finding that now it's actually very difficult for me to have to read aloud from the book, because I find a lot of it truly upsetting. The humor in the book now strikes me as a desperate gallows humor, a laugh before dying, like Rita Lydig's famous last words (while being fanned on her deathbed), "Is it a Spanish fan?" (And then she died.) Whatever humor exists in the book is used by the characters to mask a very deep, and very real, psychic pain. That's why the laughs are so uncomfortable. I should also say that if a line, a moment, a scene, was making me uncomfortable to write, then I knew I was on to something. I had to follow that strain of discomfort.
Murphy: With a cast of characters that includes a wealthy fraud of an artist, a quietly desperate housewife and her compulsive, priggish husband, a delusional gay bon-vivant wannabe who is both home wrecker and host, as well as an alcoholic who turns out to be an unrecognized genius—mostly by her own machinations, one is obligated to at least inquire about your inspirations!
Miller: Oh boy, I was afraid you were going to ask this. This book is not my adorable little memoir about my adorable time in New York, and I promise you that there are very few autobiographical elements in it -- I don't have a crazy Uncle Fergus, or any Fergus-equivalent in my life, thank God. But I did start with the name "Fergus" – several years ago, in London, I heard of someone with that name; I wrote that name down, and I let that name guide me. As cheesy and as mystical as this sounds, I let all my characters tell me who they were. I started with the names, then the voices followed, then the characters. I really didn't have any guiding principle during the writing of this book other than: follow it if it's working; get rid of it if it's not. Fergus's voice was probably inspired, in part, by the last couple of lines of Diana Vreeland's memoir D.V., a really outrageous and insane piece of work, and one of my true favorites. The lines are: "Don't ask me her other names. People called Pink don't have other names." Very few of the other people whom I've recited these lines to – and there are many such people -- seem to think they're as great as I do, by the way. So Fergus and Pink are probably how it all started. I also knew that I wanted to write about a young woman, and wanted her voice to be a slangy, colloquial third-person – I wanted her to sound like a midwestern woman around my own age. I wanted to have a statistician character, because I happen to like statisticians (a familial weakness), and I thought it was time for one to get his due in a novel. Lowell exists because I initially thought he and his voice were funny (I no longer think either of these things). I wanted to write a book in which much of the information is traded through gossip (because that's how the world works, as far as I can tell), but I didn't set out to write a sprawling family drama – after about two years of work I had these three very distinct and (at least to me) addictive voices, but I didn't know how they fit together. So I just stuck them all in one house and made them into a family. I wouldn't recommend this formless way of writing to anyone. The writers who start with a rigid outline seem much saner to me, and much more productive…although I certainly don't understand them.
Murphy: How difficult is it for a writer to appear in Esquire? How many submissions will you typically see in a year? Presumably you've compared notes—so to speak—with other literary editors…what is the percentage of quality vs. quantity in terms of unsolicited stories the top tier publications receive?
Miller: This is a difficult question to answer, because not only am I looking for good stories, but I'm looking for good stories that are appropriate for Esquire. Often I'll have to reluctantly pass on a really great story – a story that I, as a civilian reader, love -- because it doesn't match the magazine's style or sensibility. So, that is to say that I'm not only reading for quality, but also for appropriateness. During the year, there seem to be busy submission periods, and less-busy submission periods: during the busy months, we can receive a thousand or so stories; during less busy months, we can see a hundred. Most of the stories I read are quite skillfully done, but, by and large, most seem to lack a certain…what? Zest? Call it tension, drama, a fire in the belly. It's what separates all the merely good stories from the really exceptional ones. When a piece of fiction – or any kind of art -- works, you can feel it viscerally. But I don't need to tell anyone that. We all know what we like, and how what we like makes us feel.
Murphy: What were the circumstances that led you to your position at Esquire? Did you know you wanted to write during and immediately after college but reckoned a "day job" was unavoidable? Did you purposefully avoid graduate school and the MFA scene?
Miller: It so happens that I actually was intending on getting an MFA in fiction, and, by the second semester of my senior year in college, I had even decided on a grad school. I knew I wanted to write, but had no clue how else to make that happen other than the MFA track. The spring before my college graduation, I remember enrolling (as I recall, they wanted a check to hold my place), but, through a professor of mine, I found out about a job opening as an editorial assistant at GQ. I called the editor in question at GQ – after a shot of Maker's Mark -- and for whatever reason, he offered me the job. I'm a horribly pragmatic person – it's one of my least-attractive characteristics – and I knew that I'd probably never have another chance to work at a national magazine (the whole set-up seemed impossibility glamorous to me at the time), so I took the job. And, for my first years in New York, I supported myself as an assistant at a glossy magazine, making no money, often wondering why I was doing it at all, living in a studio apartment so tiny that its kitchen was nothing more than a hot-plate, subsisting on pre-sliced, semi seedless deli watermelon and Annie's macaroni (the brand with the rabbit on the box, prepared on that much-used hot-plate). A few years were spent like this, then, long story short, the job as literary editor at Esquire opened up. I interviewed for this position many times, and wrote a few passionate letters that laid out all the reasons why I, naturally must be hired as literary editor. Much to my astonishment, I got the job. I freely admit that luck and timing have both played important parts in my editorial career, but, I must say that luck hasn't been so much a factor in my writing life. In fact, my professional (meaning: editorial) luck has meant a fair amount of frustration in my writing life. Having a job you like is about the worst bit of luck a fiction writer can have.
Murphy: You've commented that working closely with other writers has helped and not hindered your own creative process. Do you think your professional experience accelerated or impeded your own path to publication? For instance, I remember being told repeatedly back in college workshops that the best (and perhaps only) way to learn to write good fiction is to read good fiction. Then, after enough emulation and hard work and the years of awful, unworthy writing one needs to get out of one's system, perhaps—at some point if you are lucky and ambitious enough—a distinctive voice inevitably emerges. I tend to buy this theory. What about you?
Miller: If I hadn't been making my living as an editor for these last years, I would have probably found a way to make a go of it as a writer. That means I probably would have published a novel or two by this point. I'm not saying that the novel or two would have been any good, in fact, probably just the opposite. And, yes, I definitely do think that reading and evaluating fiction for the last decade or so has made me a much better writer than I otherwise would have been, chiefly because being a professional reader means that I try to read my own stuff with the same dispassionate judgment with which I have to read other people's stuff. I'm not saying I can always read my own writing with a kind of coldly critical eye – who can? -- but working as an editor has at least trained me to try.
Murphy: Several of the writers interviewed for this series teach fiction at the college level. While not in the classroom, you undoubtedly see more manuscripts in any given month than most professors receive in five years. How do you feel about the quality of fiction in the 21st century: What positive trends have you noticed? What awful ones? Is it true to presume that regardless of genre or generation, good writing will ultimately rise above the fads and formulas?
Miller: I'm really quite resolutely unfaddish in my literary taste; I hate faddishness of any kind, in literature, art, fashion, everything. It seems to me that an author must write about one thing: life. That's it. Culture changes, but life –and human beings – do not. I'm really a traditionalist in my tastes, I guess. Character and language: what else is there? Other readers have other values, but those are mine.
Murphy: MFA or No-MFA? Any comments or opinions for the folks who are adamant (pro OR con) about the value of MFA programs? I've read some highly regarded book reviewers (Jonathan Yardley from The Washington Post leaps immediately to mind) who comment frequently on what they feel are the deleterious effects of "workshop" training on contemporary fiction. Again, as someone who has been very much on the front-lines of what ostensibly passes as the "best and brightest" short fiction, do you have any opinions one way or the other?
Miller: Writing workshops seem to be valuable mainly because they provide the great gift of time to writers. Whenever someone asks for career advice from me – "I got into grad school. Should I go?" – I'll usually advise them to go, especially if the program gives them money. And they'll have a book-length manuscript at the end of their two years. But I also think writers should be forewarned that grad school won't really help them get their book published later, or help them get a job (although a job is probably not what any MFA grad really wants). But what they will have is a book. And that's very cool. That's all that matters, really.
Murphy: If you had to say which writer influenced you most, and which book, what would they be? Any other notable influences, artistic or otherwise?
Miller: Many of my artistic influences have been musical. I have obsessions with both Cole Porter (one of whose songs plays a cameo in my book) and Mozart. Oh, and I loved the Smiths and The Legendary Pink Dots, and lots of other arty-type bands that would take an hour to list. I really wanted to be a musician more than anything else, but a conspicuous lack of discipline, and talent, kept me from pursuing that dream. In college, I started out as a poet, so, initially; it was poetry that melted me into a puddle. I can't really say what or who influenced the book – all writers probably want to feel that they are influenceless – but I can say that early literary ardors include Martin Amis (London Fields, which I read when I was eighteen, made me decide to become a writer), Gore Vidal, M.F.K. Fisher, and – I know this is a weird one, and from out of left field -- Quentin Crisp. (One of the book's most probing and perceptive critics noticed a Quentin Crisp connection, which I was amazed, and a little frightened, by.) I should add that I do recognize that my early influences were all supreme stylists; style was, when I was extremely young and impressionable, the literary virtue I most prized. But my literary taste has, I think and hope, become a lot more expansive than it was then. (Oh, and I love Flannery O'Connor, beyond measure.)
Murphy: Lastly: any advice for aspiring writers?
Miller: Apply seat to chair. Concentrate. Apply seat to chair. Concentrate. Repeat daily, for the rest of your life.