Friday, May 31, 2013

Derek B. Miller

Derek B. Miller is the director of The Policy Lab and a senior fellow with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. Born and raised in Boston, he has lived abroad for over fifteen years in Israel, England, Hungary, Switzerland, and Norway.

His new novel is Norwegian by Night.

Recently I asked Miller about what he was reading. His reply:
I am a solitary reader. I enjoy this solitude so much that I generally avoid reading book reviews, getting into long discussions about books, or otherwise socializing the experience.

I just finished the first draft of my new novel, and while writing it I was reading — one might say studying — a fabulous edited volume from Andrew Delbanco called Writing New England: An Anthology from the Puritans to the Present. I've been especially interested in the way New England has been portrayed in fiction and in early American religious and philosophical writing. Boston was founded in 1635, and is almost a hundred and fifty years older than America itself, so New England writing is rich and formative for the American experience as a whole. Delbanco's anthology both explained and presented that beautifully.

I used that book as a spring-board to delve more deeply into some other writers going as far back as the mid-1600s. Cotton Mather, in particular, got a lot of my attention. Later, I turned to Emerson, E.B. White, Robert Frost, William James, and Longfellow, to name a few.

I've been reading William Maxwell too. They Came Like Swallows is a quiet, and very sad book about a boy losing his mother. I have the first volume of his early novels and stories from the Library of America. I would recommend it to anyone. I wanted to see how he expressed those feelings without over-sentimentalizing them.

I've also been reading James Salter. I was recently asked by The Times of London to review his new novel All That Is. It is my first book review, and I relished the experience, though I wonder if I'll do any more. As for Salter, though: When an 88 year old master author decides to write a book called All That Is, you should read it.

I just finished Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon. I've always loved the movie, and I don't know why I never thought to read the book. Naturally there is much more material in the novel, so it was a real pleasure riding shotgun to Grady Tripp with a dead dog in the trunk. Chabon has such a wonderful way of simply landing on the perfect line without over-writing it. He makes it look easy, which is how good he is. I'm keen to read more of his work and have already bought a few of his novels.

I'm re-reading White Noise from Don DeLillo. I loved it years ago when it came out, and I wanted to see whether the comedy stands up to time. It absolutely does. The notion of consumerism causing death anxiety, which is only alleviated by consumerism is simply wonderful material. This book is actually making me want to go back to Joseph Heller. I like novels that have purpose.

I just bought The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham while in London. I have a Penguin edition I found for about a quid in a pile of books. It is described on the back as his most "serious" and "most ambitious" novel. This is often how I find material, by stumbling onto it, or being directed there by other work I've recently read.

And I also recently finished The Writing of One Novel by Irving Wallace, also bought for nothing in a used book store. This is an overlooked and very valuable piece of work by a novelist who took the time — with copious notes — to reconstruct the act of crafting and editing a novel. While he doesn't delve into the theory of storytelling (for that you should read John Gardner), nor the creative act itself, he does take us into the life of being a writer with great detail. It was written in 1960, and here we are fifty-five years later and — aside from technological matters — everything about the experience is familiar.

As an aside, it is powerful to be reminded that the essence of the craft and the life of the writer that comes with it is largely unchanged. There is something to said for noting these continuities and not being dazzled by the outward changes to the industry, the role of the writer in society, and all the technology. Wallace gets us as close as possible to watching it unfold.

I would say that one exception to my solitude as a reader is the joy I get from reading aloud with my family and also being read to. My wife and I read to each other often. I'm the one who started the tradition, but now she's most often the reader. David Sedaris is a favorite. Each Christmas we read "Santaland Diaries" out loud until we laugh so hard we can't anymore. And I read to my children every night without fail. With the kids, I only read "real books" — that is, no electronic devices are allowed at bedtime. And with Camilla, we usually know in the first few pages whether we've come upon something that needs to be shared. She has a wider range of fiction interests than I do, whereas I'm increasingly limiting my reading to books I think are worth reading aloud.
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--Marshal Zeringue