Writers on Writing: An Interview with Jennifer Miller
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If you follow my Food, Fitness & Fiction blog, you know that all my fiction-related posts celebrate some of my favorite authors. Today is no exception, as I feature Jennifer Miller, author of the compelling and heart wrenching new book, The Heart You Carry Home (Mariner Books, November 3, 2015).
I had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer Miller when she taught a Writing the Young Adult Novel workshop at Columbia University during the summer of 2014. Even though the class was filled to capacity, I begged her to let me in. She did, and has been my gracious mentor ever since, guiding me as I embark on learning fiction writing and working on my first of (hopefully) many novels.
In addition to being a talented author (her previous books include The Year of the Gadfly and Inheriting the Holy Land), Miller is an accomplished journalist. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Marie Claire, Men’s Health, the Christian Science Monitor, and other print and online publications.
Miller (photo below from her recent book signing at BookCourt in Brooklyn) was gracious enough to share the story behind The Heart You Carry Home and her life as a writer. Below you’ll find highlights from our email exchange:
EZ: The Heart You Carry Home was inspired by a personal experience you had many years ago. Please explain what sparked you to write about one woman’s journey as the daughter of a Vietnam veteran and the wife of a Iraq veteran?
JM: Becca Keller is the daughter of a Vietnam vet who flees her war-traumatized husband and joins her father on a cross-country bike trip with his Vietnam vet buddies. She has no idea that her husband has set out to find her and bring her home. Nor does she know that her father is heading for a cult in the Utah desert that could put his life–and hers–in grave danger.
Becca’s story was inspired by a cross-country motorcycle trip I took ten years ago with a pack of Vietnam vets. I was on assignment for the New York Times and had never been so far outside of my comfort zone, even as a reporter. Here I was, a young, Jewish, democrat, traveling with a group of middle-aged, politically conservative Evangelical war vets. (Some of these men wore motorcycle patches that said, “I’ll forgive Jane Fonda when the Jews forgive Hitler.”) And yet, they were gentlemen to me, making sure I always wore sunblock and buying me a leather hair accessory from Harley Davidson to keep my ponytail from tangling in the wind.
While on the road, I learned that these men struggled daily with the scars of war, especially PTSD; that the sacrifices they’d made as young men continued to define them decades later; and that they rode motorcycles as a form of catharsis–a kind of healing. In The Heart You Carry Home, I wanted to open up this largely closed community of biker vets and share the stories that so many Americans simply don’t know.
EZ: What kind of research (besides going on a cross-country bike trip) did you do to write The Heart You Carry Home?
JM: In addition to the Times story, I reported on Native American vets, vets and mental health, and mentoring relationships between Vietnam and Iraq vets for The Christian Science Monitor. I read a lot of books and talked to psychiatrists about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I highly recommend Achilles in Vietnam by Dr. Jonathan Shay and The Good Soldiers by David Finkel.
EZ: What are the challenges and joys of writing fiction versus nonfiction for you? Do you find one harder than the other or do you like the challenge each type of writing poses?
JM: I love reporting: entering communities of people who are nothing like my own community. I can learn how different types of people think and behave and speak. All of that informs my fiction. It allows me to create well-rounded, believable characters. I’m not the kind of creative writer who can sit alone in a room and imagine an entire world from scratch. I’d worry that my fiction would lack a certain kind of authenticity, which I gain from collecting real-world experiences, researching and conducting interviews. That said, I love the challenge of using my imagination: taking those kernels of truth and turning them into absorbing fictional worlds.
EZ: How do you juggle writing for publications like The New York Times and writing a novel? Do you have a writing routine (specific times you write each day, word count, where you like to write etc)?
JM: I treat my writing like a 9-5 job. This doesn’t mean I’ll write for eight hours straight—that’s impossible. But to stay disciplined, I spend the majority of each day working on one project (either journalism or fiction), with a combination of writing, editing and reporting and researching. I take time every day to exercise, because that clears my head (and helps with the strain of sitting for hours on end). My go-to is pilates, but even walking to the grocery store is a great way to get out of the house and refuel. Some of my best ideas come when I’m away from my computer.
EZ: How has becoming a new mom changed your work routine?
JM: My son, Fenn, is six months old. Starting at four months we put him in day care, five days a week from 9-6. I’ve tried to work with him in the house (even with child care), and it’s very difficult to concentrate. I miss him while he’s away, but for me, it’s really healthy to have my own time and space to work. When I pick him up at night, I can feel good about what I’ve accomplished and give him my full attention. I’m also still breastfeeding, so I’m forced to stop my work periodically to pump. I’m super sick of pumping, but I actually think the forced break is a good thing.
EZ: Any advice for writers/first time authors in terms of how to break in/learn the craft?
JM: I have three suggestions:
- Steep yourself in storytelling. This can be books, of course, but also movies, TV and podcasts. There is so much terrific multi-media narrative out there. You can learn a lot about character, plot development and world building from a lot of the new shows launching on HBO Go, Netflix, Panoply, Gimlet, etc.
- Stick with your project. Talent is important, sure, but even more crucial is the motivation to finish that first draft, second draft and third draft. After I turned in the first draft of The Year of the Gadflyto my agent, she gave me notes that involved rewriting most of the book. And I did. With The Heart You Carry Home, my editor asked me to cut 30,000 words. In both cases, major work was necessary to take these books from mediocre/decent to terrific.
- Give yourself a schedule. This is the best way to make sure you really do stick to your project. You could sign up for a creative writing class with regular deadlines (there are great continuing ed classes at most colleges) or work one-on-one with an author-mentor. That way, you get into a groove of turning in pages, receiving feedback and constantly moving forward with your project.
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