Friday, February 17, 2012

Interview by a college senior

Interview by Benjamin Francis Miller
16 February 2012

When did you first know you wanted to write for a living?

My mother says she knew I would be a writer when I was in second grade. I don’t remember ever wanting to be much else, though I was also a professor for a while and enjoyed looking at poetry and fiction with my students.

What kind of writing do you usually do? Academic, business, literature etc.?

Novels – I tend to not do the same thing twice, so my novels are quite varied.
Short stories – Most of these I do as a response to requests from anthologists.
Poetry – formal poems of various sorts—lyric, monologue, narrative. One epic!

How long have you been writing?

I was a passionate reader before I was a passionate writer, but words have always been a vocation for me. As a child, reading was my vocation and far ahead of school in importance. I read under my desk, in the tub, in the bed by flashlight…

Has any of your work been published?

Little Jordan – novella – David R. Godine, Publisher, 1995
Catherwood – novel – Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996
The Wolf Pit – novel – Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001 The Michael Shaara Award
Claire – poetry – Louisiana State University Press, 2003
The Curse of the Raven Mocker – Southern fantasy novel for children, FSG, 2003
Ingledove – Southern fantasy novel for young adults, FSG, 2005
Val/Orson – novel – UK: P. S. Publishing, 2009
The Throne of Psyche – poetry – Mercer University Press, 2011
A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage – novel – Mercer University Press,
March 2012  The Ferrol Sams Award in Fiction

Thaliad – epic poem – Phoenicia Publishing of Montreal
The Foliate Head – poetry – UK: Stanza Press
Maze of Blood – novel – Mercer University Press
Glimmerglass – novel – Mercer University Press

And I have oodles of poetry and fiction in magazines and anthologies…
You can find out more about me at my blog/website,

What are some of your stronger points as a writer?

My manuscripts are said to be very “clean” and so not much trouble for an editor.
I never have writer’s block and am productive.
I have joy in spilling words on the page.

I also have been lucky enough to collaborate in special projects with some important visual artists like Makoto Fujimura and Clive Hicks-Jenkins and currently am collaborating with composer Paul Digby and painter Lynn Diby in one project and on others with English painter Graham Ward and Clive Hicks-Jenkins of Wales.

How long does it usually take to complete your work?

I am quite fast with a rough draft. However, I would add that length of time is meaningless. The muse’s gifts are unfair—some take forever to do what others accomplish with careless ease.

What are some of the things which get in your way when writing?

House drudgery. Mountains of laundry. Children’s needs. Bills. Taxes. Appointments. Volunteering. The person from Porlock. Life! But life and people always come first—without life, there is no writing, no love, no sap in paper veins, no source material.

Do you have any quirks or problems you find in your writing which annoy you?

I wish to be tidier in my writing room!

When writing about places you haven't been, how much work do you put into researching them? What are some of your tactics while researching?

I never over-research places, particularly places in the past. You should be careful not to burden your prose with research—the same amount of the world should be visible as if you were writing about your own sphere.

What one needs seems to magically appear when you’re working on a book—things that would pass unnoticed normally are all lit up and shiny with importance. When I wrote The Wolf Pit, I managed to please historians of the Civil War by using only primary materials—therefore it was impossible for me to do what, say, Kaye Gibbons did in her Civil War book and have people jaunting around on railroads when the tracks had already been destroyed.

What have been some of the most significant influences on your writing?

A deep, passionate engagement with books and poetry while a child and teen is essential to the writer I am. Lewis Carroll, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Yeats, Keats, Anglo-Saxon, the Bronte sisters, the Gawain poet, Herbert, Marvell, Donne, Fielding, Austen, Stevens, Blake, Dickinson, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman, Faulkner, etc. in English, plus much modern and contemporary writing and work in translation.

What was your most challenging written work? Why?

Novels are all a challenge, each in its own way, because with a novel one is always beginning again with no clear path through an invisible labyrinth. And novels are long.

As for poetry, I once typed my then-long hair around the patten of a typewriter—so retrieving my hair after drafting a poem called “Snow House Stories” was a bit arduous… 

My main difficulty with poetry was coming to the understanding that I was bored with free verse and simple lyric and needed muscular, demanding form and an infusion of story and voices. I was too influenced by other writers around me for a long time, and I threw away most of my poetry. Writing fiction showed me what I desired in many ways, and it also taught me that I wanted poetry to be as unlike fiction as it could be.

Do you have any insight for young aspiring authors?

Read books old and new. Buy books. Scribble in the margins! Soak up the word. Spend time with great masters of the word, not feeble or trendy writers. The company you keep in books will mark you, so be careful what company you choose.

Write a manifesto for yourself now and then!

Don’t let anyone pronounce your fate for good or ill as a young writer.
If you have the requisite tools and skills, dive in and practice the art. Nobody can say what the vagaries of life—the intense grief and joy of youth, the losses that come to all—and the exercise of the heart and mind and soul will do to you by the age of 30. They may just make a writer of you.

On the other hand, don’t set your longings on some outside validation because “success” is often fool’s gold and a fool’s goal and can break your precious heart. Write because you love words and stories or aspire to the song-like heights of poetry.  Write because moving words on the page is a thrill and a kick and makes you glad.


  1. What a very good interview Benjamin Miller conducted here. A very nice set of questions, answered with great focus - and humor too!
    'The company you keep in books will mark you, so be careful what company you choose.' This is such good advice, and not advice I have really heard from anyone else.

    A thoroughly enjoyable interview.

  2. Yes, a great interview and fantastic advice for young aspiring writers!

  3. marja-leena,

    The whole business of advice to young artists is always tricky--pleased that you like it!

  4. Good interview Marly. The interesting thing is that so much of what you say could equally apply to painting, though the fact that we so often appear to be psychic twins might partially account for that!


  5. It is a lovely interview, though I would be surprised if your son does not already know much of this himself. Perhaps he is asking in a calculated way, or it is an assignment for school.

  6. Clive,

    Psychic twins forever! Yes, I often find what painters say to be quite pertinent.

  7. Robbi,

    The interview subject was supposed to be somebody else but that person backed out at the land minute. Happy to fill in...

  8. great article, he wrote some really cool questions.

    I really liked this answer "Writing fiction showed me what I desired in many ways, and it also taught me that I wanted poetry to be as unlike fiction as it could be." I find that really interesting.

    Loved your manifesto.


  9. Susanna,

    Yes, I have found the whole business of writing in multiple genres curious--it really has altered the course of each genre I practice in some way or other.

    Am doing a panel on that topic at West Chester poetry conference in the summer.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.