Author One-on-One: Curtis Sittenfeld and Emily Jeanne Miller
Curtis Sittenfeld: I love Brand New Human Being, and I also think it's a hard book to describe, plot-wise. When people ask what your novel is about, what do you say?
Emily Jeanne Miller: I've had a hard time with this, too--my "elevator speech." A writer-friend who read an early draft described it as the story of a man going from being a son to being a father, and I liked that. I liked it so much, in fact, I've said it a couple of hundred times since.
Sittenfeld: The setting of the novel is an unnamed town in Montana that you make vivid both through physical descriptions and with a storyline about environmental problems tied to mining. Did you have a specific place in mind, or is the town fictitious?
Miller: I lived in Missoula, Montana, while I was getting a Master's degree in Environmental Studies, and I also started writing fiction there. I don't know if it was the time in my life, or the work I was doing, or the stunning natural beauty that was all around, but the place really captured my imagination. That said, the city is fictional, and so are most of the other places I describe (as anyone who knows Missoula, or Montana, will quickly discover). The same is true with the mining case in the novel: the environmental issues are real, but the case and the facts I describe are not.
Sittenfeld: It seems to me that the idea of authenticity is especially prized in relation to the American West. Because you grew up and now live in Washington, D.C., do you feel worried about being considered an outsider looking in?
Miller: Sure--but only because I worry about everything! But really, no. Isn't being an outsider looking in what being a writer always is, to a certain extent? I know there are people who believe only person X can write a story about Y, but I'm not one of those. I think people can--and should--write about what they want to write about. Everyone has a unique voice, and thus something unique to add. Besides, this book isn't about the place (which is why I fictionalized the city, going back to your question above), it's about people--and I do have impeccable credentials when it comes to being one of those.
Sittenfeld: I know that when your agent submitted this novel to publishers, she did so under the name "E.J. Miller," and because your protagonist, Logan Pyle, is male, everyone assumed you were a man. What made you decide to write from a man's point of view? Have you had any male readers says Logan does things a man wouldn't? (I was totally convinced by him, but then again, I'm just a woman with a man's name!)
Miller: This question reminds me of a conversation you and I had, many years ago, about writing. Regarding a story you'd written, you said that in your secret heart, you were a cranky twenty-three-year-old woman. I laughed, and said in my secret heart I was a lonely thirty-five-year old man. I don't know if or why I really am that man, but I wrote this book from Logan's point of view because it just seemed clear to me that it was his story to tell. For a long time I was writing it in the third person, but then one day, for no reason I can recall, I started writing in his voice, in the first person, and something clicked. His story unfolded more naturally that way. I'm pleased to say that so far, people--men and women alike--seem very convinced by the voice.
Sittenfeld: I first met Logan Pyle ten years ago, when you wrote a short story about him. What made you know his particular story could or should expand into a novel?
Miller: I once heard a writer say that only failed short stories can become novels, and I think she was right. Brand New Human Being began as a failed short story that continued, through many rewrites and expansions, and over about a decade, to fail. The thing about this story (as opposed to other short stories I've written that didn't work) was that I couldn't seem to put it down for good. It felt like unfinished business, and stayed with me in a nagging way that kept me coming back until one day, distraught over shelving another novel I'd been working on, I went back to him once more. This time, I found there was lots more say. While I wouldn't necessarily recommend the ten-year gestation period to aspiring novel writers, I will say it paid off for me, in that by the time I sat down that last time, I already had the novel's basic frame--the setting, the main characters, and several plots, each with a beginning, a middle and an end. Of course there was still plenty left to figure out, and plenty that changed and surprised me over the course of writing the book, but I did feel I had a running start.
Sittenfeld: You and I are second-generation friends--not only are we close, but so are our dads, who went to college together and like to gossip on the phone. Will it be your dad who calls mine first after reading this interview or mine who calls yours?
Miller: Hmm, that's a tough one. They both know their way around a Google Alert, and are a quick draw with the phone. If I were betting, I think I’d have to hedge.
"A fast-paced tale of family life."
-- Real Simple
"What a treat to read Miller's whip-smart first novel. Brand New Human Being gripped me with its wry humor and wonderfully real characters, and kept me captivated until the last page. This is a fast-paced, first-rate book by an immensely talented new writer."
“Miller's debut novel tackles the meaning of parenthood in the modern world. Introspective and honest, it focuses on the small dramas inside Everyman's living room: the way all parents strive to be better than they are, the way a marriage can start to fray even with the best intentions, and the way love, however elusive, is always worth fighting for. Miller’s novel is sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, but always a worthy, exciting read.” "
--Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men are Gone
The strength of BRAND NEW HUMAN BEING is its realistic portrayal of trauma and its aftermath
. Death, birth, disease and survival all have their messy consequences in these pages. Miller...is especially good at showing the sloppy nature of relationships in the wake of upheaval."
"Touching...Miller explores Logan’s resentments and insecurities with sensitivity and nuance."
"Miller is at her best in scenes with Logan and Owen together—dad’s brutal honesty with his son about death in general (and Owen’s near-death experience in particular) exposes the depths of his emotional frustration...the first-person-present narration gives the novel a breezy energy. A solid debut..."
"This respectable debut follows the mostly self-inflicted trials of Logan Pyle as he navigates the suddenly confusing waters of fatherhood, marriage, and complex family history...this coming-of-age novel for adults peels back [Pyle's] emotional layers as he tries to find firm ground in the shifting continents of his life."