Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Interview: Toronto Powerhouse Writer K.D. Miller

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Interview: Toronto Powerhouse Writer K.D. Miller

Interview: K.D. Miller

I've been stalking K.D. Miller since pretty soon after I arrived in Toronto and came upon her "Semper Alicia" — a short story about an Alice Munro book club in southwestern Ontario — in New Quarterly. Although I've never actually met K.D. face-à-face, she is quite gracious and has, so far, always answered my emails. I'm thrilled that she was willing to let me in on murder, e-books and passing the sugar.

1. Mind telling us about yourself? Where do you come from and what part, if any, does this play in your writing?

I was born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1951. I would almost be tempted to say that those bits of information – where and when – brand me. What could possibly affect us more than time and place? Not that I am in any way limited to writing about or as a Recovering Hamiltonian Baby Boomer. I do have an imagination, and it is free to roam. But there is no doubt that I mine my own past for fictional material, and that I keep returning to it. And I confess that I am puzzled by writers who claim to put “nothing personal” into their writing, to make it all up out of whole cloth. Excuse me? Cloth is a weave. Where did the warp and weft come from?

2. You make juggling hilarity (Semper Alicia) & suspense (Brown Dwarf) look easy, what’s your secret?

Humour is all about suspense. Timing – or lack of it – can make or break a joke. And when you’re waiting for a punch line, you’re tense – even a little scared. I would compare it to the feeling of waiting to be caught in a game of hide-and-go-seek. Another thing the two have in common, from the standpoint of writing a funny or suspenseful scene, is difficulty and delicacy. They’re like a dance, or a balancing act. One false step...
As for my secret, well, I was very lucky to grow up in a household where the atmosphere alternated between hilarious and scary. (I suspect now that one of my parents was bipolar.) Not the most tranquil of upbringings, but a goldmine for a writer.

3. 1962 was a big year: Cuban Missiles erupted, Marilyn Monroe died and Bernstein dissed Gould at the Philharmonic. What gives about that year and Brown Dwarf?

It’s that Baby-Boomer thing again, I’m afraid. Oh, I know – every generation thinks that its own coming-of-age year was the year. But in 1962, I really was more or less the age of the two girls in Brown Dwarf. And twelve is a very important age. While I was writing the book, I had a stick-note on the wall above my desk that said, THEY ARE TWELVE. Whenever things started to veer into what seemed improbable or even just unlikely (the two of them going hunting for a serial killer, for example) I would look up at my stick-note, and just carry on. When you’re twelve, anything is possible.
As for the importance of 1962 globally, it was very much a cusp year. Soon, the Beatles would explode on the scene. Soon, Kennedy would be dead. For Boomers at least, two defining phenomena.

4. I know this is a big question, her being our Chekov and all, but can you articulate a particular thing that Alice Munro does that the rest of us don’t (aside from her being Alice and us being us)?

Alice can see. She really can see what’s in front of her. I don’t just mean in terms of physical detail (though that is so important) but also in terms of seeing into people – what they want, what they’re capable of. She can practically see around corners. One thing I’ve never found, anywhere in her work, is a single shred of cliché. And what is cliché, if not a kind of wilful blindness? Cliché is also a form of fear, or at least gutlessness. And Alice is such an incredibly brave writer. So how would I sum her writing up in a few words? What makes Alice, Alice? I would have to say, the courage to see what is in front of her.

5. When you were a kid, which stories didn’t the grown-ups tell you? If it’s any of our business…

Actually, the story that never got told is my stock-in-trade. I did not grow up in one of those polite, restrained families where people actually said, “Please pass the sugar.” In my family, you all but threw the sugar at whoever wanted it. Still, there were limits. What may have gotten me going as a writer were the moments when I would walk up to a pair of adults talking quietly, and they would either shut up when they saw me, or abruptly change the subject. One story that never got told, just hinted at, was the story of how my uncle may or may not have killed a man. A vagrant, who may or may not have wandered into the neighbourhood and molested a little girl. My uncle may or may not have set out to teach him a lesson, then accidently taken it a little too far. Which may or may not be why he enlisted and went overseas (this was in the forties.) All I know is the rumours, the fact that my uncle was decorated for bravery, and the fact that, when I asked him what he did to get those medals, he just shook his head and changed the subject.

6. E-book or Old Skool?
Both. Philosophically, at least. I’ve never handled an e-book, and I don’t like reading for hours on the screen. But I have no knee-jerk objection to them. They would be a godsend for a student juggling umpteen textbooks, or for someone travelling a lot. Also, I’m not afraid of them, for the simple reason that I think traditional books will be around for a long time. The best inventions solve a problem. Traditional books – light, portable, relatively cheap – simply do not present the user with a problem that cries out to be solved. So I think everybody should relax and stop worrying. Whatever form it takes, reading and writing will continue.

7. Can you say a little something about your rewriting process?

I practically rewrite before I’ve written! Yes, I am capable of just letting it flow. But for me, so much of the fun of writing is re-jigging, rewording, moving stuff around. I hear people groan about rewriting, and really don’t understand. Also, I have never done what almost every writing book urges us to do – that is, blast out a first draft all in one fell swoop. No looking back, no second thoughts, just go start to finish and then collapse. I simply don’t work that way. Very often, I don’t know how a story is going to end. The ending makes itself known, sometimes when I’m rewriting the first paragraph for the millionth time. So I guess I would describe my process as write a bit, polish, polish, polish, write a bit more, polish, polish, polish ... and so on.

8. There’s an Anne Perry documentary out (Anne Perry Interiors). There is a moment near the end, when she finally broaches the guilt that has shaped her life. Brown Dwarf has an Anne Perry-like thread. How does guilt work on the people in your book?
NOTE: Anne Perry is a best-selling murder mystery writer who, as a teenager, helped her friend murder her friend's mother with a brick. Peter Jackson's movie, "Beautiful Creatures", is based upon this infamous Kiwi case.

First, I should tell you that it took me almost ten years to write Brown Dwarf. It started out as a traditional murder mystery. But it didn’t seem to want to be that. It got shelved more than once, but it wouldn’t go away. And the one thing that stayed the same, start to finish, was the concept of culpability. Rae Brand is not, technically, guilty. But she is culpable. And this culpability is like a stone in her shoe, affecting her every step. As for guilt, that’s interesting. Brenda’s bulimia is certainly an outward sign of an inner guilt. But as she becomes increasingly Jori-like, her guilt atrophies. Then the human remains are found, and it reasserts itself. As for Jori, she may be one of those happy souls who is incapable of guilt. But that would make her a psychopath, wouldn’t it? And no, I don’t think she is psychopathic. Well. I guess we’ll never know, about Jori.

9. Critics love your work, as they should. Does that make it easier or harder to write?

My first published story in fact won a national literary contest. As a result, I was paralyzed. Just about couldn’t write, for almost a year. Well, I got over it. Though I’ve never been absolutely slammed, I’ve had a couple of reviews that left me feeling a little bruised. I won’t say that critical reaction is a matter of indifference to me – I love to be praised, and want to believe the compliments when they come. But ultimately, of course, there’s just the writing. You write because you must write. And in order to write at your best, you have to put all the end-product stuff – launches, reviews, prizes – out of your mind. Easier said than done.

10. We have to do this sort of thing in the press all of the time, but if you had to describe K.D. Miller’s work to someone who’s never heard of her, what would you say (aside from, “Uh, that’s me.”)?

I think I would say something like this: You know when you’re in a rock garden, and you see a particularly pretty, sparkly rock? Do you pick it up to look at all the dark, squirmy things underneath, that you know are there, or do you prefer just to focus on the pretty part and try to forget the other?
K.D. Miller is a writer who simply cannot forget the damp, dark, teeming population that thrives under the sunlit quartz. She doesn’t want to forget it. And she doesn’t want her reader to, either.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Go to Thom Vernon’s Author Page