Interviewed by Joe Squance
Recently, Miami alumnus and former literary editor for Esquire magazine, Adrienne Miller was invited back to campus to share her thoughts on becoming a writer and getting published from the perspective of someone who has sat at both sides of the desk. As an editor (Miller started her career at GQ in 1994, fresh from an undergraduate degree in Creative Writing and Journalism, before transitioning to Esquire in 1997, where she culled the finest fiction for almost nine years), she has worked with the likes of Denis Johnson, George Saunders, Dennis Lehane, Arthur Miller and countless others. Her novel, The Coast of Akron, which was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2005, is just about to drop as a Picador paperback. OxMag’s own big shot editor, Joe Squance, managed to steal an hour with Miller in the cluttered office of Miami University’s director of creative writing, to pick her brain about ventriloquism, Rex Reed, and the non-decline of the modern short story.
J: How did Coast of Akron come about?
A: Well, I’d always wanted to write—it sounds too grandiose even to me to say that I “wanted to be a writer,” because, growing up in Ohio, I didn’t even know that “writer” was a possible career choice. So I knew that I wanted to write, but I had no idea how to go about it. For years, since I was in college, I’d been kicking a voice around in my head, a tragicomic voice that I somehow always knew would find its way into my first novel. And about six years ago, I met someone named Fergus. It was a real “aha!” moment for me, my encounter with a real-life Fergus, because I knew that I had found the name to give to that voice in my head. This character is not in any way based on that actual living person, but it was my first—and last—encounter with anyone named Fergus…
J: Other than, maybe, dogs…
A: (Laughs) It’s a good, sort of, golden retriever name, or Irish setter. So I just started working with that name. I’m a very character-centered, or character-driven, writer, which has both benefits and drawbacks. So I started working with Fergus and it was, you know, I had ten pages and then twenty pages and then fifty then a hundred, and then I thought, well maybe there’s something here. That’s not to say that anything from that original draft ended up in the final book, because, well, it really sucked. But I had the voice, and then I had the name, and I knew that I’d found something I needed to follow.
A: And I followed it and it became a novel. And it took me a very long time to write. It took me about five years to write, but so much of that time—I’d say the first three years of that time—I spent just kind of teaching myself how to write a novel. And none of that stuff ended up in the book, but yeah…
J: What did that involve? What kind of stuff were you teaching yourself how to do?
A: How to do plot, how to do story, how to do character, how to get momentum in the book, in the pages, how to make it move. These are the problems I had as a writer—I knew that I could write sentences, and I knew that I could do character, I just knew that I needed help with movement. And that was my education those years. It seems to me that learning how to structure a book is something no one else can really teach you. You just have to figure it out on your own.
J: So, to what extent do you think a lot of what you taught yourself was reactive to the kinds of things you were reading as an editor—maybe identifying things that just weren’t working in other stories you were rejecting?
A: Yeah, it’s weird because you’re influenced both positively and negatively by the things that you read in workshop, or books that you read, and I was influenced positively, obviously, by the really great stories and by the great writers I got to work with. But I also just read so much crap—I mean, so much, just unbelievably bad stuff, and there was a certain sort of very misogynistic, gritty realism genre of stories I was reading at Esquire, just the same type of story, over and over and over again. So I was also negatively influenced by my time at Esquire: I didn’t want to have anything to do with so many of those worthless stories that I had to read for my job! I wanted to write something beautiful—something fanciful, rich, vivid, funny. Mostly funny. I wanted to write a comic novel principally because so rarely do I read anything that actually attempts any sort of comedy. So, yes, that was a sort of goal that I set for myself. In my next book my goals are totally different, incidentally. But in the first one it was very much a reaction against Esquire, frankly. Because, given my job, it is kind of curious, I suppose, that the book that I wrote could in no universe be published in Esquire. As an Esquire editor, I would have had to pass on my own book!
J: Well, I was sort of relieved by the humor in your book, and I kind of feel like there’s not a lot of humor these days, or it’s sort of relegated to the magical realists, like George Saunders or Aimee Bender.
A: Or sort of the forced whimsy of some of the others in that category. But let’s be polite and not name names.
J: Alright. But it sort of reminded me of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, which has a real nice humor throughout, but is still set in a very realistic place. So what do you think is behind this? Or why do you think authors have trouble incorporating humor into realism. Is it a risk?
A: I think it is a risk. I didn’t know actually what a big risk it was when I was writing it, and now, after having published it, I can say that I think that it seems that literary writers are sort of afraid of humor because they’re afraid humor will detract from the seriousness of whole enterprise. Because literary writers, as we know all too well—the most important thing is to be taken seriously. And any sort of whimsy or—in this book there’s a lot of broad humor, there’s a lot of physical humor, there are farcical elements to it, and some stupid gags, and self-congratulatory word-play, and lots of things that you’re not supposed to do in literary fiction. But these were the things that were interesting to me to attempt in my first novel. It was a conscious decision on my part, but a decision I think a lot of first novelists probably don’t make. And it definitely may have been an unwise decision. I’m definitely willing to entertain that possibility.
J: There’s a lot of humor in the voice, too, especially Fergus’s voice.
A: Oh good, I’m glad you thought so.
J: I was surprised, though, by the structure of the novel, in that there are shifts between first person and third person. That’s not something you see very often. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated is really the only example I could think of off-hand where there’s a switch between first and third. So I was curious what your process was like coming up with deciding how to make that switch, and why you think third person works for Merit where it doesn’t really work for Fergus.
A: That’s an interesting question. I’m not a particularly organized or systematic writer—I’m more sort of intuitive, and I didn’t have a sense of what the structure would be, or how the voices would sound, I just sort of followed my instincts in terms of what sounded right.
I tried to write Merit in first person initially, and I spent probably a year trying to get her voice convincing as a first person narrator. And it just didn’t work. It was interesting: it didn’t work remotely. I tried to do Fergus in third, because I sort of wanted to do consistent voices. But I feel that Merit, in a lot of ways, was a lot more fluid and was a lot easier for me to write in the third person. I think maybe it was a lot more my, sort of, natural writing voice.
I think my both strength and weakness as a first person writer is that I sort of approach every first person narration as an act of ventriloquism, and as sort of a performance piece, which is essentially what Fergus is, which I think makes him—makes those sections, I hope, both interesting and amusing, but also maybe a little daunting as readers, because that’s not really something that we see or are used to. But I felt that it was my job, writing first person, to really try to fully inhabit this character as an actor would. It was much more difficult for me to do, as I said, than Merit, and I think that it’s going to be a couple of years until I capture another first person voice again.
A: Yeah. Everything that I’m writing now, that I try to write in first person, it ends up sounding like Fergus—it’s a nightmare! I don’t know why I’m drawn to this over-the-top, campy voice, I just know that I can never go back to it again. I mean, it’s not my natural writing voice at all, so I have no clue why I’m so drawn to it.
J: That’s weird.
A: I know, it’s really weird. Maybe I’m really a tragicomic gay man with a caustic little comment for everyone. Maybe that’s who I am at heart: tragicomic and caustic.
J: I doubt it. But your intuitive structuring seems to have worked really well in The Coast of Akron. It seemed to work similarly in Everything Is Illuminated, and so I sort of saw that book and Michael Chabon’s book as strong influences. What other influences do you think played a part in this book, or in your writing in general?
A: This is really embarrassing, and I’m sure that nobody you’ll ever interview will say this is an influence, which probably is a good thing: Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal.
A: His transsexual novel, which was made into a phenomenally bad movie, probably the worst movie ever, starring Raquel Welch and Rex Reed. Oh my God. It’s a train wreck of a movie, and maybe not even a very good novel, but I just love the voice, and also Vidal’s divine meanness.
This is another completely random one, but my taste is just very idiosyncratic. There’s this memoir called D.V., by Diana Vreeland, who was the editor of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in the fifties and sixties. And she has a similarly fabulous sort of over-the-top voice. I mean these probably aren’t good books to, um—I wouldn’t recommend first time novelists actually read D.V. and Myra Breckinridge for influences, but that’s where I started from.
When I was here in college I was really really really interested in Martin Amis. London Fields was then, and still is now, one of my favorite books. And also his book Money, which is a great comic novel, and just a great high style low-life first person voice that I was probably influenced by. I love—I mean, obviously as any writer does—I love Lolita as one of my favorite books. I mean who can even attempt to approach any one of those sentences? I like Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited. Actually, during the years I spent writing Coast of Akron, I was reading a lot of British novels, less so now.
J: It sounds like you’ve pulled from a wide variety of influences—even in the book there are references to The Canterbury Tales, and at the same time pop culture references and Shakespeare… and it’s also a lot about art, and about artists. Was there a lot of research involved in that, or is art a background of yours?
A: It’s so not a background. I worked at the Akron Art Museum like my poor character Jenny. I was a little docent at the Akron Art Museum. And that is the extent of my artistic education. And I’m also a very horrible painter and can’t draw my way out of a shoebox. I’m just not visually inclined at all. I have illegible handwriting…so I guess that sort of artistic talent, because I’m so lacking it, is something I’ve always really coveted.
I was, actually, not terribly confident about all the art stuff in the book, because I just kind of made it up in a vocabulary in which to talk about art. Since I didn’t really have an education in it, I just used the vocabulary I am familiar with—that of literature. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it was the same vocabulary. So what I’m saying is that I basically just faked my way through.
J: It is very convincing.
A: Really? That’s so funny. In terms of the sort of social aspect of the art world, and the sort of gossipy nature of it, I viewed my time in New York and my time associated with the literary world as a sort of departure point and as that kind of basis for the satire of the art world.
J: How did you hone in on Goya’s “Straw Mannikin”…
A: Have you ever seen that picture?
J: I have, and it’s the creepiest painting I’ve ever seen.
A: Isn’t it just bizarre? I can’t figure out if that face is actually human, and the way he’s sort of like a marionette but there’s something about his body position that makes you think that’s actually a real man. I’m just completely fascinated by it.
J: It is the eeriest painting. I mean, the faces of the women are so bland.
A: The women are so vapid, but also gleefully just sinister. And there’s something hugely sadistic about that, but also just so blank at the same time. It’s crazy.
J: Yeah. It was an interesting focal point for the early parts of the book.
A: Oh good. Yeah, I actually always thought that should be the cover. It’s never come up as a cover option, which is so curious because it seems like the obvious cover for the book.
J: Well I have some questions about the editorial side of Adrienne Miller. I’m sort of wondering, is it still worth it, do you think, to write short fiction? You’ve described Esquire as a “cultural enterprise”—there’s less room in the culture anymore for short fiction and so there’s less room in the magazine for short fiction, all the paid markets are dwindling… so what do you think is the future for short fiction?
A: (Eric Goodman’s phone rings) You know, it’s like, every couple of years, every five years, it seems like there’s (We listen patiently to his outgoing answering machine message and anticipate a long, protracted response, which turns out to be, anticlimactically, a dial tone.) Oh, it’s a hang up. That was disappointing. I was hoping it was going to be this two-minute long message from a weeping student.
But every half decade or so it seems like there are a few very trendy short story collections that do extremely well. You know, we hear a lot about the death of the short story, and short story collections don’t work and they’re not published, and it seems to be true. But then we have instances like, I mean this was about five years ago, Melissa Bank (The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing), which was really not a particularly literary collection, or a commercial short story collection, but it did extremely well. There are writers like George Saunders, who maybe don’t sell particularly well but are extremely critically important, and who will always be in print.
So there are exceptions to the rule. Alice Munro is obviously an exception; she only writes short stories, and she’s seen as the great, you know, late twentieth century North American writer.
So, that said. It is really difficult for a short story to be published in a magazine, that is true. I had to pass on truly wonderful short stories by extremely prominent writers all the time, and it had nothing to do with the quality of the story—there was simply not room in the magazine. There are really only two or three glossy magazines that still publish short fiction, and the space in those magazines is ever-shrinking.
So the magazine side of short fiction publishing is bleak. It just is.
But if we’re talking in a broader, larger career way about having a short story collection published as a book, it happens. It’s more difficult than having a first novel published, and it’s still difficult to publish a first novel, especially a literary first novel. And it is true that an agent, or that an editor, before taking on a story collection wants to hear, wants to be reassured that there’s a novel happening somewhere in the background.
But my advice to writers, though, is that the marketplace is not your problem; it’s your problem if you want to make a living only as a writer, which is something very few people do. And actually, at Esquire, I worked with so many prominent writers, and very few of them are full-time writers. Almost no one can make a living at it. So it just kind of depends on what your expectations are.
Your only requirement as a writer is to write what you need to write. But, that said in a practical way, I do think it’s important to send the stories out, which will really help your collection find an agent, a publisher, if pieces from it have been placed. You’re not going to make money from it, but you have to think about it in a very practical, careerist way. Like, what’s the point of having something published in a tiny journal with a limited readership? It will give you legitimacy, and it will help you get the book published. So that, to me, is the real value in publishing short fiction.
J: Esquire won the national magazine award in 2004, for publishing up-and-comers like Arthur Miller…
J: … George Saunders, and Stephen King.
A: Exactly. So we were nominated for that award for several years before that but never won. The magazines always nominate a slate of three stories, and always, every year before, the Esquire slate had contained at least one, but usually two stories by new, emerging writers. Heidi Julavits, for instance, we published her first short story; Nicole Krauss, too. But we win for Stephen King, Saunders and Arthur Miller. You try to break new ground, but, as always in life, you’re rewarded for giving the people what they already know.
J: Do you still try to launch new writers or are you just inundated by work from more established authors?
A: We are, but I think it’s not really very interesting to publish a mediocre story by a known writer. That’s just not where I felt that my taste as an editor could be applied. Anybody can do that; anybody can see the name on a cover letter and say, Hey we’ve got a winner! My role was to find new, important voices and that was the great joy and the great satisfaction in my job, to publish first stories or second stories by people who went on to have real careers.
J: Do you sometimes feel constraints? I mean, at a certain point isn’t a big name more lucrative to the cultural enterprise than maybe a solid piece of work by an unknown writer? Do you ever feel like you have to make a decision between the two?
A: You know, I have to say that the decisions about what stories to publish were ultimately up to my boss as the editor-in-chief of the magazine. I gave him stories I thought we should run, and I would talk to him about the story, and/or send him a sort of reader’s report about it, expounding on the piece’s merits. A bigger name helped me get him to read the story, but only up to a certain extent. If the author was Stephen King, he would read it. If the author was Dennis Lehane, he would read it. Frankly, if it was, well, anyone else, the playing field was level. So that’s to say that an MFA student and a Pulitzer Prize winner were almost equal in the magazine’s eyes.
My former boss is a journalist; he doesn’t have a background as a fiction writer, as a fiction reader, a fiction student. So he would respond really only to the story, and in a very basic, very uncynical way: does he like the story or not. I think at other magazines it’s probably different. It was frustrating, but also equally liberating, because he’s not a fiction reader, he doesn’t have any real preconceived ideas about fiction. He went into every story blank.
J: So it’s just, if he likes it…
A: If I could get him to like it, yeah.
J: Well that’s encouraging.
A: Yeah, it actually sort of is because the process is actually very pure. He’s not influenced by the star writer power, because nobody’s a star in a journalist’s mind, unless you’re Stephen King or a journalist.
J: Okay, so I have some general questions about reading submissions. What are some of the most basic mistakes you saw that prevented a manuscript from moving forward?
A: In the editorial process, or that prevented it from being read after the first page?
J: From being read, from moving forward off the slush pile and onto a desk.
A: It’s very helpful to have an agent, first of all. I really hate to say that, but it’s true. I don’t know if it helps at some of the smaller journals—it probably does, it probably gets the stories read faster just because there’s a filter. And agents have a tendency to be more aggressive about getting a response than a writer. If I have a story for two or three weeks from an agent, I’m going to be getting a call or an email from them. So, in that very practical way, it helps to have an agent. Or if you don’t have an agent, then mention in a cover letter that somebody whom the magazine has published, or maybe another editor or agent has referred you or the story to me.
I also liked to see in cover letters that an author has read the fiction in Esquire, and could point to short stories that he or she has read in the magazine and has liked. I mean, not as an ego boost, but more as an indication that this person was at least submitting something that was appropriate and that he or she felt was in line with what we publish. Because Esquire, as I mentioned, can only publish a certain sort of genre of story. Within those parameters there are lots of things that the magazine’s fiction can do, but the sensibility of the story can’t be wildly off-base. So a cover letter helps the editor, in a very quick way, get a sense of, does this person know what kind of stuff we publish, or is this just a submission that’s been sent to the five magazines and the hundred journals that publish fiction? Has this story been sent out to everyone, or is it just exclusively for me because this person thinks that Esquire is the appropriate place for it?
So the cover letter is important. Also, in the cover letter it’s good to list your credentials too. Don’t include a résumé—some people include these crazy four-page résumés—but just a very quick, thumbnail bio: that you’re a grad student at Miami University. Editors would like to see that, or that your story is part of a collection, and that you’ve been published in this journal and that journal.
J: How important are connections? It seems that making and maintaining connections plays a relatively significant role in being successful in publishing.
A: Yeah they are, but connections are sort of like luck in a way: You make your own luck, and you make your own connections too. I mean, I’m from Tallmadge, Ohio, I went to Miami University, I certainly didn’t know anyone or start out with any impressive connections. I didn’t have a writerly role model, or an established path to lead to the life of a writer. It was through (Miami professor) Jim Reiss, with whom I worked as an assistant when he was starting Miami University Press, that I got my start in publishing. And through another professor who’s no longer at Miami, I learned about a friend of hers who was an editor at GQ. I didn’t think that that connection could ever be relevant in my life. But she suggested that I call him, which I reluctantly did and he, quite out of the blue, said that he had a job opening. And, for whatever reason—I had very little experience, and was, at the age of twenty-two, an emotional ten-year-old—he hired me. As an editorial assistant, you just have to be hungry and aggressive, but also nice, and receptive, and devoid of attitude. Believe me, at the beginning, I was all too thrilled to be making copies and sending faxes. So I didn’t start out with any connections, but I was open enough and receptive enough to be able to identify opportunities when they were presented to me.
So my advice to young writers: Take advantage of the connections wherever you are. You might feel, as I did as a student, and as many students do, sort of isolated, and cloistered from the rest of the world, but only physically might that be true. If I hadn’t gone to Miami, I wouldn’t have found out about a dinky assistant job at GQ, and I wouldn’t later have moved to Esquire, and who knows what my first book would have been—it wouldn’t have been a reaction against Esquire, that’s for sure, and who knows when and where it would have been published. So, taking a long view of it, everything that’s happened to me professionally has been the result of having gone to school here.
J: So, be receptive.
A: It’s so vitally important to be receptive. An example of working whatever connections you have: I was brought back to campus several years ago to give a little speech. A young woman was sitting on the floor during the speech, and, at the end, she asked several very pointed questions. And you know how it is when you’re teaching, and you feel as though you’re teaching to just a few people in the room, even if there are a hundred people there? Well, she was that one person, and I remembered her so vividly after that. A few months later, she sent me a very beautifully written, and also very strategic, letter, asking if she could meet me over spring break. So she came to my office and we chatted, and I gave her an internship at Esquire after she graduated. And I told her about the internship program at F.S.G. (Farrar Straus & Giroux), where she ended up getting a full-time job. And this woman has had many other wonderful jobs in publishing since then. But my point in using her as an example: she made that phone call and sent that letter. She was aggressive.
In terms of my career and whatever success I’ve had, I can say that I’ve always been extremely hungry and extremely aggressive. When I was an editorial assistant at GQ, I was surrounded by people who had similar jobs, but who were disgruntled even at the age of twenty-two because they had to fetch coffee and answer phones for people. But I was very willing to do anything. And so I sort of created this job for myself. It wasn’t the perfect place to work, but I saw the opportunity there. Throughout my career I’ve been aware of seizing opportunities. I think that’s really important for people to do, and to realize that, if you want to work in publishing, you’re going to start at the bottom. We all do. Everybody does and will, and that’s fine, that’s just the way the whole game is structured. You have to take a broad view and understand your role in the machinery of the place as a whole.
J: I think that’s all I have. Anything else you want to throw out there? Any practical advice you’d like to share?
A: Young writers shouldn’t be surprised by rejections from agents or from editors, or from magazines. I would say, at the beginning, expect the rejections but don’t be discouraged by them. Just assume that they’re going to come. And when the acceptances finally start coming—and they will if you’re tenacious about it—then you can be pleasantly surprised.
I would also recommend to young writers—to me, the most important thing seems to be discipline more than anything else, more actually than even talent.
A: Mm hm. More even than self-belief. Discipline; writing every single day. And that’s really hard when you get out of workshop, and when you have a job, as you know, as I know, as everyone knows. It’s very very difficult, but I wrote this book—this book took me five years to write because I was writing it at night when I came home from work and everybody else was going out to parties. You’ve got to write every day. You’ve got to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of a chair and do it every day, I would say for at least an hour. For me, I can’t write unless I write for at least three hours, and ideally quite a bit more than that. But most people write their first book when they’re not in grad school. They write their first book with a job, and with other obligations, with a spouse and a family. They work early, or get up early and write. I’ve seen so many people in my time in New York just sort of give up their dream, and there’s nothing that’s sadder and more heartbreaking and more tragic than that. If you want to be a writer, nobody else’s opinion matters. The only thing that matters is your own willingness to work at it every single day.
The great thing about being a writer is that you don’t need other people. You don’t need an audience—an audience is great, a readership is great and it’s great to have your work published—but writing is one of the few art forms that you can actually do alone, without any intrusion. If you are a dancer, or an actor, you actually need an audience or else you’re just a crazy person moving around in front of the mirror in your bedroom, but as a writer you’re on your own, whether you’re Stephen King or whether you’re an undergrad. The reality of your life is the same: you are alone in a room trying to write, and trying to do good work.
J: So would you say that the writers who fail are the writers who stop trying, for the most part?
A; Yeah, I think so. We’ve talked a lot about very practical advice for writers, but I think some of the writers who’ve failed, or who think of themselves as having failed are the ones who don’t write the books that they want to write, people who maybe see a way to make a living, who started out, maybe as a literary fiction writer, and ended up as a soft journalist or writing press releases or ad copy or something—people who want to make a living with words, but who do it in another way and don’t go back to their fiction. I think that that is something to be avoided as well. Don’t sell out, write your short stories, continue writing them. Don’t write a historical romance just because you think it could sell when you know that you’re really a short story writer. Because even when the historical romance is published, you won’t be proud of it. Not that there’s anything wrong with historical romances, but if that’s not what you’d set out to do.
J: Right. That’s pretty sad.
A: It happens. As Joseph Campbell said, you must to follow your own bliss. It’s a horrible cliché, I know, but it’s true. You must, as an artist, do what you need to do and everyone else be damned.
J: Good advice. Thank you.
A: Yeah, thanks.