Interview: Sam J Miller

1. Can you talk a little about your work as a community organizer? Do you see your passion for community as coming from the same place as your passion for writing? Do these two things have similar goals/aims?
By day I work as an organizer with a group called Picture the Homeless, which was founded and is led by homeless folks, and we work on bringing people experiencing homelessness together to fight collectively to fix the systemic problems they face. Because of the myths and stereotypes surrounding homeless people, most policy-makers and media debates feel perfectly comfortable ignoring them even as they make decisions that impact them. So it’s our job to support homeless people building power through direct action, trainings, meetings with decision-makers, public speaking, media work, etc. Mostly we work on police reform and housing policy. It’s super radical and super fun and that’s why I’m still on the job after eleven years. I think my writing and my activism come from different places – writing and reading fiction is an activity focused inward, on what Nabokov calls “aesthetic bliss,”* whereas my organizing work is focused outward, on fixing the problems I perceive in the world – but they definitely feed each other. Working with homeless folks has opened my eyes to some shocking, horrific realities that most people turn a blind eye to if they can, and that finds its way into my fiction. Poor people today are already living in a dystopia, and are already reduced to pawns for other people’s profit, so the worldbuilding in “We Are The Cloud” is pretty rooted in the reality I see firsthand every day. And organizing has shown me that when people come together, they can do anything – that’s the idea I metaphorized in “The Heat Of Us.” At bottom, of course, my writing and organizing probably spring from the same impulse, as everything does – an attempt to find meaning and joy in a cold and hostile universe, and to help others find that too.
2. What is your writing process? How has it changed as you’ve grown and changed as a writer?
When I was younger I used to write every day, and I think that was a really important stage in my development – certainly my prose rhythm and sentence structure got pretty tight during that time. But the overall quality of my work, especially around story structure and character, suffered, because I was constantly executing ideas before I’d had a chance to really sit with them and learn about what excited me, what they needed, etc. Now I mostly just let story ideas bounce around in my brain until they start to glom onto each other, take shape, turn into something interesting and exciting, and then I’ll start to write for an hour a day here or there, when I can, and not stress myself out too much if a couple days go by – because when I beat myself up is when I start to force myself even when it’s not flowing, and that rarely yields good results for me. I’m fortunate that I can write pretty much anywhere, and often pretty fast – for my birthday every year I take the day off from work and go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and sit there all day and try to write a complete story rough draft. Overall I work better late at night, or early in the morning. And getting input from my writer friends is a huge and essential part of the process. That’s one of the most important things Clarion taught me. No one is in this alone. Your comrades make you better. And you make them better. I’m privileged to be part of an excellent writers’ group in NYC, and to have my Clarion 2012 brethren and a bunch of other great readers and writers to critique my drafts and make them better… and sellable.
3. Your list of short fiction is really extensive and varied. What is it about the short form that appeals to you? And piggybacking on that, what is it about speculative short work that appeals to you?
Short stories are fun because you can create the wildest worlds and people, in miniature, and then smash them up or flip them sideways or abandon them. They’re like experiments – what can I do with this crazy idea? So I can do horror, then fantasy, then hard SF, then super crazy multi-genre mash-ups, so as not to get too bored or stuck in one way of doing things.  As for – why work in these genres at all? I write speculative fiction because that’s how the world looks to me. Life is magic. The world is science fiction. We carry tiny rectangles in our pockets that can access the sum total of human knowledge! And have you ever seen an ocean? THAT SHIT IS CRAZY. To me the world is so full of wonder and horror that speculative fiction is the only literature equal to the task of reflecting it. By telling the most ridiculous lies, we as speculative fiction writers can present the primal truth of human existence in ways that other genre and non-genre lit could never begin to do.
4. Can you give any info on your current projects? Can we expect to see a Sam J Miller novel any time in the near future?
I just finished a draft of a super-dark-edgy-fucked-up novel, “Rules of the Body,” about a bullied gay teen boy with an eating disorder – which I was. SO CROSS YOUR FINGERS AND PRAY IT GETS PUBLISHED. And, also, always, a couple hundred baby-bird story ideas squawking in my brain, demanding to be fed.
5. What are five pieces of writing that have influenced you the most? (I realize this question is totally impossible, but I thought it might be fun to try)
Actually, it’s pretty easy. Octavia Butler’s “Mind of My Mind.” Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.” Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Isaak Babel’s “Red Cavalry.” I mean, that’s a somewhat arbitrary cut-off, because I could list dozens of other books that inspired me just as much (Jean Genet! James Baldwin! Charlotte Bronte! Zora Neale Hurston! Borges, Gogol, Cortazar, Atwood, Highsmith!), but if I look at who I am as a writer, and what I want to do, those are things that keep me going.
* “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” – Vladimir Nabokov
Thanks so much to Sam for agreeing to do this interview. He can be found online at his website and his twitter. Go check out his website and read all of his stories! Twice!
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