Tag Archives: Emily Jeanne Miller

Q&A with Emily Jeanne Miller

Q&A with Emily Jeanne Miller, Author of Brand New Human Being

Jaime Boler: Thanks, Emily, for letting me ask you these questions.  I really appreciate it.  You have worked in journalism and you have an MS in environmental studies from the University of Montana and an MFA in fiction from the University of Florida.  What is your first love: environmental studies or writing?  When did you discover you wanted to be a writer?

Emily Jeanne Miller: I always wanted to write, but I didn’t know what. I think that deep down I always wanted to write fiction but I didn’t know how to begin, and moreover I was afraid to try. Growing up, I loved the outdoors and I loved books. I worked as a journalist for a while after college then went to grad school in Montana, where I took an elective class on James Joyce. When we read the short story, “The Dead,” something burst open for me. I had to write fiction. So I did. I started there, and have been at it ever since.

JB: How did you come up with the idea for Brand New Human Being?

EJM: The original inspiration for the book was a father and son I saw late one night, when I was at hot springs resort in the middle of nowhere in Montana. Something about them struck me; I wondered what they were doing there, just the two of them, so late at night. I’m not sure I thought about them again until 2001, after I’d left Montana for Florida, where I went for my MFA. For a workshop, I wrote a story based on the father and son from at the hot springs. It wasn’t a great story, and I rewrote it a bunch of times over the next several years–well, nine years. I was still basically rewriting it when I sat down in the fall of 2009 and started what would become Brand New Human Being. The father and son from that night are now Logan and Owen. The hot springs scene is still in there, though now it plays a pretty minor role.

JB: In Brand New Human Being, Julie is working on a big asbestos case.  You covered a wide range of topics when you were a journalist.  Did you ever write about asbestos cases?

EJM: I did not write about asbestos cases, but a huge one was in the news all the time, so I was reading about it constantly. A friend of mine made great documentary about it called “Libby, Montana,” that really intrigued and amazed me, particularly on the human level–the impact environmental problems can have on the lives of individuals and families, and over generations. I also did work for the Clark Fork Coalition, a non-profit group devoted to cleaning up the Clark Fork and nearby rivers, mostly from mining-related contamination, so I was learning a lot about that.

JB: You set your story in Montana, a state in which you have lived.  As a writer, do you believe it’s easier or better to write what you know or is it more difficult because it’s familiar?

EJM: Both can be true. I didn’t write about the West until I’d moved East. I seem to have trouble writing about the place where I’m living, but then something about leaving a place brings it into sharper focus. I guess I tend to write about what I know, but from a distance.

JB: Logan is angry in this novel. He’s angry at his father for dying, his wife for being distant and overworked, his friend for wanting to sell the store, and at his son for sucking his thumb and wanting to “be a baby.”  Is Logan the real problem here?

EJM: Definitely–and that’s a big part of what the novel’s about: Logan getting out of his own way. He has to let go of a lot of the old anger he’s carrying around to be able to move forward in his life.

JB: Despite the distance with which Gus raised Logan, Logan desperately wants to be a good father.  In fact, one of my favorite things about Brand New Human Being is the father-son bond between Logan and Owen.  Sure, Logan’s not perfect, but readers can feel how fiercely protective Logan is of Owen and how much he loves him.  How difficult was it to write this father-son bond–something we women can never experience?

EJM: I didn’t find it very difficult, maybe because I just thought about people/animals/things I love fiercely, and went from there.

JB: I love the title.  Early on in the book, Logan talks about Owen’s birth and how he was this “brand new human being.”  In the end, though, Logan has become a brand new human being himself.  He’s come to terms with his father’s death and realizes he’s not the one that died.  What came first for you: the story or the title?

EJM: That’s so eloquently put! Actually, that line’s been in the story since almost the beginning, but the book went through several titles before landing on that one. My original title was “Gold,” which my agent nixed for its vagueness. Then we decided on “After Augustus,” but that didn’t work for a few different reasons. We considered about a hundred more, until finally my editor’s assistant came up with “Brand New Human Being,” which I think is really catchy, and works well for the story (for exactly reasons you describe).

JB: Do you have a favorite character in this story?  Is any character most like you?

EJM: I have a favorite character–I like them all for different reasons, which I think has to be the case if they’re going to feel multi-dimensional and sympathetic to readers. One character I would have liked to spend more time with, though, is Donna Zilinkas. She plays a peripheral role in the story, but she was surprisingly fun to write.

JB: Can you describe your road to publication?  When did you begin work on the novel?  Did you receive any rejection letters?

EJM: I started working on the novel in the fall of 2009. I worked every day, hard, for almost a year. Then I revised it a couple of times–major revisions–and then I sent it to a couple of writer friends to read. I did one more revision based on what they said, and when it was as strong as I believed I could make it, I contacted several agents in early February 2011. After that things happened quickly. My agent, Lisa Bankoff, took me on on Valentine’s Day; the next week she sent the manuscript out to a handful of houses. Two were immediately interested, so I spoke with those editors, and the next day I accepted a two-book deal from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Which is not to say I haven’t received rejection letters. Over the years, sending out short stories, I’ve received plenty of those.

JB: How do you deal with both good and bad reviews?  Does one bad review dampen all the good ones?

EJM: Since this is my first book, I’m learning as I go. It’s really gratifying when someone says the book resonated with them. So far, I haven’t been too upset by anything a reviewer has said. One thing that does irk me, I’ve found, is when a reviewer gets major factual thing wrong about the book, and in the next turn criticizes it.

JB: What was the most difficult part about writing Brand New Human Being and what was the most rewarding?

EJM: The most difficult part was the discipline to keep at it. Some days I really, really didn’t want to sit down at the computer. Like, at all. That’s hard—you just have to. There’s no way around that. The process of finishing, finding my agent, and selling it was thrilling—and I don’t mean financially. So much of writing is solitary, and it can fill you with self-doubt. Producing a book that even a few people like and take seriously feel very, very good.

JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself while writing this novel?

EJM: One thing I learned was that I could do it—I mean actually write a book. I had no idea whether or not that was the case.

JB: Please tell us what a typical day of writing is like for you.

EJM: While I was writing Brand New Human Being, I tried to stick to a 4-pages/4 miles daily quota, which meant I would try to be sitting at my desk by 8:30 a.m. If I had to do things (like pay bills, or do other work, or interact with a sentient being aside from my dog), I’d try to schedule those around lunchtime. After lunch I would go back to work, and around my dog’s dinner time (4 or 5p.m.) I’d get up and tend to him. Then I’d go for a run or walk, during which I’d think about the book, and then I’d sit down once more to jot down what I’d thought about, for the next morning. And then I’d leave it alone for the night. (Except when I would think about it, going to sleep.)

JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?

EJM: I love being outside (except this time of year in DC, when it’s scorching): walking, running, hiking, swimming. I love dogs. I read a lot. I love a good TV drama (Friday Night Lights and Deadwood are my all-time favorites), though I tend to get obsessed and gorge myself on them. I think I watched the entire Season One of Game of Thrones in a week.

JB: What are some of your favorite books and/or who are some of your favorite authors?

EJM: Writer-wise, I love William Trevor and Alice Munro and John Cheever; his story “Goodbye My Brother” astonishes me every time I read it. As for novels, I re-read The Great Gatsby regularly. I also adore Richard Russo. Two of my favorite novels I’ve read in recent years are “A Month in the Country” by JL Carr, “The Museum of Innocence” by Orhan Pamuk, and “The Sisters Brothers” by Patrick DeWitt.

JB: Any chance of this getting made into a movie?  If so, who do you see in the lead roles?

EJM: No word yet from Hollywood, but I’ll keep you posted. I do love the “who-would-play-whom” game. I’m thinking Kirsten Dunst or Claire Danes could make a good Julie. And how about Jake Gyllenhal or even Seth Rogan as Logan?

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Brand New Human Being?

EJM: I hope they feel as if they’ve spent some time in the company of good, complex people who are doing their best, if not always doing very well. And I hope they enjoyed the experience!

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

EJM: Yes, I’m working on another novel. Too early to talk about specifics, but it’s safe to say this one will be about a complicated family, too. And chances are they’ll have a dog.

JB: Thanks, Emily, for a wonderful interview!
 

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Book Review: Brand New Human Being by Emily Jeanne Miller

Brand New Human Being by Emily Jeanne Miller (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 272 pages; $25).

“My name is Logan Pyle.  My father is dead, my wife is indifferent, and my son is strange.  I’m thirty-six years old.  My life is nothing like I thought it would be.”  Thus begins Emily Jeanne Miller’s fast-paced and deeply heartfelt debut Brand New Human Being.

Miller has worn many hats in her life.  At Princeton University, from which she graduated, she studied comparative religions.  She holds an MS in environmental studies from the University of Montana and an MFA in fiction from the University of Florida in Gainesville.  Formerly a journalist, Miller covered a wide range of environmental topics, such as Indian casinos, nuclear bomb testing, rock climbing, and grizzly bears.  We should be lucky she turned to fiction writing, as her first novel overflows with humor, tenderness, and humanity.

Initially, however, I did not like Logan.  I thought Logan’s biggest problem by far was Logan.  That is partially true, but he managed to win me over.  All the credit goes to Miller.

Logan’s father, Gus, died four months ago.  The son deeply mourns the loss of his father, perhaps more so because it was marked by a lot of distance.  By distance, I do not mean miles.  I refer to the distance of the heart.

Logan’s mother died when he was a child and Gus was a single-parent.  When Logan was in his late teens, Gus remarried a woman only five years older than his son.  Logan still has issues with Bennie, his father’s young widow.

When Miller’s story begins, Logan is husband to Julie, a lawyer, and stay-at-home dad to four-year-old son Owen.  Former grad student, Logan’s status is ABD (all but dissertation).  Home life is far from ideal.

An important case involving workers at a vermiculite mine preoccupies Julie.  When she is with Logan and Owen, her mind seems elsewhere; and it is.  Husband and wife once loved each other fiercely, but her time is short.  Both Logan and Owen miss her.

Owen cries out for attention.  He seems to know instinctively that things are not right in his household.  He just senses something is off.  As a consequence, Owen is “regressing,” sucking his thumb, and wanting to be a baby.  Logan is often short with him and with his wife.

Then, there is the outdoor-equipment store called The Gold Mine that Gus left Logan.  His friend, Bill, helps him run the business.  An unidentified buyer made an enormous offer on the store and the land it occupies.  Bill wants to take it and pushes Logan to accept.

If all those things are too much for one man to deal with, it only gets worse.  Julie’s boss wants to dig up Gus, who once worked in the mines himself.  His body may help their case.  Logan just cannot agree to exhume his father’s body, at least not right now.

For Logan, the final straw comes when he catches Julie kissing another man at a birthday party.  Something in him snaps.  He packs up Owen and his most prized possession, a 1920s Louisville Slugger, and gets into his truck and leaves Julie and his troubles behind.

Or so he thinks.  Bad luck follows Logan, and misadventures seem to follow.  After he gets revenge on the man he saw Julie with, he ends up at his father’s old cabin and finds something unexpected and welcome there, something or someone that could really jeopardize his marriage to Julie.  It is here that Logan discovers his choices–past, present, and future–matter.

By the end of the book, Logan is a different man.  Since his father died, Logan has been fixated on his own mortality and grief-stricken.  Like a lot of men, Logan does not know how to cope with his grief.  But that is no longer an issue for him.  “Somebody did die,” Logan says.  “I guess I just took a while to understand that it wasn’t me.”  When Owen was born, Logan marveled at his son, a “brand new human being.”  Now Logan is a “brand new human being” himself and everyone around him is better for it.

Miller’s story explores marriage, family, death, love, betrayal, and forgiveness.  What stands out most to me, though, is the bond between father and son.  Logan may be sharp with Owen at times and he may want him to act like a big kid, yet it is clear that Logan loves his son and would do anything in the world for him.  Written with humor and poignancy, Brand New Human Being shows us no one is perfect.  No one is without faults.  The secret to life is learning how to accept the deficiencies in others and, most importantly, the ones in ourselves.

Truth be told, if Miller had not chosen to write this novel in Logan’s first person perspective, I do not think he would have ever won me over.  I am thankful she decided to tell the story like she did.  Logan is not perfect, but none of us are.  This novel will compel you to do your best to be a better human being.  Who knows?  You just may be a “brand new human being” too.

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