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!