Stoked to get these two books in the mail today.
The Center for Documentary Studies (where I work!) and The Hinge Literary Center are pleased to be bringing the essayist Ben Miller to Durham on the occasion of publishing his moving, sharp, and funny memoir-in-essays, River Bend Chronicle. The book is a path-breaking amalgam of the lyric essay and the documentary impulse, portraying the life of a boy in Davenport, Iowa, growing up in a very unusual, tragicomic family on the edge.
Ben will be reading from the book at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 15th. Fiction writer and essayist Belle Boggs, one of our CDS writing instructors, will be leading a discussion afterward. But in the meantime, CDS writer-in-residence Duncan Murrell asked Ben a few questions about the Midwest, writing, family, and makeshift ice rinks.
* So, do you still call yourself a Midwesterner?
I’ve said this elsewhere, but it is worth repeating: when I came to New York in 1986 to attend the writing workshop at NYU, I brought my Midwest with me, stuffed in the duffle of consciousness—literally (it felt like) dragged my entire freaky Midwest off the train and into Grand Central (and under the Merrill Lynch Clock no longer there), and though this great city in the last 27 years has expanded my perspective in many incredible ways, the curious faces and places of childhood have always been gathered close around, begging further serious exploration. It was, after all, my rough and tumble experience in urban Iowa that enabled me to survive in a big city where I had no connections. In Davenport I learned how to be alone, and embrace the liberating aspects of anonymity. There I learned how to make a dollar go a long way, and to be an inveterate commuter—get wherever I had to go by foot or bicycle, if the car conked out, as it often did. There I attached to the music and literature that gave me a frame of reference for New York I still draw on. In Iowa I first met the sounds of Monk and Coltrane and Bobby Short via Salvation Army records and discount cassettes from Target. In Iowa I became enraptured with Millay, E.B. White, Thurber, Marianne Moore, Fitzgerald, Hart Crane—while other teenagers were out having their kind of fun, I spent one summer cavorting with The Bridge, a copy constantly in my pocket like a hiker’s compass.
* You’ve been publishing pieces about Davenport for some time. What has the reaction been in your hometown, especially since the publication of River Bend Chronicle?
Just today, actually, I received a letter from a former high school classmate in my P. O. Box at the regal main post office across from Madison Square Garden—one of my favorite venues in New York. (I am inordinately proud of P.O. Box 8499, NY, NY, 10116. To me it is akin to booking—for almost nothing—a suite at the Waldorf of Letters where envelopes, wafer-thin Gatsby’s, mysteriously appear out of nowhere.) This classmate, now living in Minnesota, had seen a review of the book, bought it, and wrote to say he had always wondered what happened to me, and was “greatly enjoying” the stories I relate. A response like that is encouraging. I wanted, and strived for years, to create nuanced portraits that could be relished not only by those unfamiliar with urban Iowa, but by natives who, may have, like me, often been besieged by dull automatic “cow” and “corn” references after revealing to others where they grew up.
* Your style is so distinctive—long sentences and chapter-length paragraphs, overflowing with detail—but it also feels necessary to communicate the complex and evocative portraits you create. How did you remember it all? Do you have any tips for writers of documentary work about the past?
The form IS necessary to me, at least. It’s necessary because I haven’t yet figured out another way to replicate the situation in my skull, that arena of head-on crashes of thought, feeling, fact, dream—where reality fragments, spewed rudely, call out for a permanent setting like jagged tiles in a mosaic.
The thing to remember about my remembering is that this book was accreted in layers like an oyster shell over a period of more than ten years, really, when the note-taking period is counted. And when you spend that long on a project, you have time to return to scenes again and again and again, in varied moods that, like flashlights, can sometimes bore new paths through history’s murk. Remembering is you allowing you to remember. Remembering is being open to remembering. Remembering is also respecting the limits of memory, and using tweezers to separate true and false filaments each memory consists of.
Persistence is key, relaxation, patience. Returning to what is instantly recalled—a partial picture—and sitting with it, mediating, not forcing things, waiting for the image quaver and its focus to sharpen. Ezra Pound said something to the effect that “all times are contemporaneous” and like so many things he said, it’s daffy and a bit menacing, but I do believe that in the slant of today’s sun, in the spread of today’s shadows, the past awaits, ready to stir.
* Does this sort of writing — documentary, personal, literary — distance you at all from family and friends? How do you manage that without going crazy?
Ha! I think you have to be sort of crazy to spend more than ten years seeking to capture the essentially elusive essence of existence in a certain time in a certain place. But there are degrees of crazy. There is a crazy—the crazy of pursuing a quirky dream dear only to you—that functions as a productive counterbalance to the conformity of social routines that sustain us, certainly enrich us, while also, in a way, limiting access to our inner or barest selves.
In fact, I’d say that being a little crazy—crazy like that—is a good way to stay sane. We think of being sane as being “centered” or “grounded” but there is much of every life that remains unstable always. In a second what seems solid and given can dissolve—due to a bad accident or a bad choice—and then nothing is the same ever again. Contradictions and luck form us to such an extent (an often painful extent) that there’s a self-protective instinct against acknowledging the frailty of identity unless one is forced to do so, as I was.
A large theme in RBC is this great wrenching conundrum of my life—the fact that the same place that saved me—that made escape from a toxic family situation possible for me—was the exact same place that almost did me in.
On almost every page of the book light brings forth darkness, and vice versa.
And all the hard work I invested in the creation of RBC was, in part, aimed at shrinking distances that long ago separated family members hurting from, and confused by, losses suffered. Book as roar, trying to bridge chasms of silence.
* If you could still buy one, would you buy yourself a mail-order ice rink? Where would be the best place in the world to put it?
I’d love to receive a mail order ice rink in P.O. Box 8499. And I’d set it up on the roof of our co-op apartment building on Convent Avenue and 149th St. and serve hot chocolate to skating neighbors because I have awful balance caused by a terrible fear of falling. The one time in my life I went skiing involved me sitting on the skies and sledding, in an extremely awkward fashion: push, sled, stop, push, sled, stop…down a steep river valley hill as college classmates—wasted on schnapps—observed, unbelieving.
* Did you originally conceive of River Bend Chronicle as a memoir, or did you begin with individual essays? When did you see that it was a whole book?
I see now, clearly, that I wanted to a write “a life” rather than what is thought of as “a book.” In a life every single detail would somehow be connected, and yet achieving a definitive shape would be near impossible. I do not exaggerate when I say RBC represents but 25% of Iowa material created since the 1990s.
You are writing a life when the book has no perceivable perimeters and any stoppage of work—even after years of work—is accompanied by the feeling that the work has hardly begun, thus work re-starts, fiercely. When coveted definitions are minted by the same process that pries them apart as your material devolves into a nebulousness of tangled narratives. O found! O lost!
When you do not want to ever stop writing. When no criticism or rejection can make you stop. When you have absolutely no prospects for a “sale.” When little about the writing is calculated or reasonable…but reconstitution of logic/form is the act’s dearest desire. When the daily work is driven by a foggy, but thrilling and exacting, sense of being “on the ground” in vital territory at long last. When the same set of sentences can, alternately, seem to you to resemble a familiar world re-born or weird mothering of nothingness.
As a paean to this journey, I’ll be giving to every book buyer a wave-shaped bookmark cut out of the roil of excess material around my island of a book.
* Can you talk a little about the experience of working with Lookout Books? How did you find each other, and what was the editorial process like?
I honestly believe there is no other publisher in America who could have done this book as well, and as lovingly, as Lookout Books. The design itself is a reason to buy the thing—every element is pitch perfect—font, page layout, sub-heads, photographs. I’ve always loved how Let Us Now Praise Famous Men marries images and text—and too have doted on the text/image broil in Sam Stephenson’s Jazz Loft Project book—and when I suggested a similar idea to Emily Smith, she was blessedly gung-ho.
I was invited to submit the RBC manuscript by Ben George, then the Lookout editorial director. We had previously successfully worked together on the essay “The Reinvention of Ice” for the journal Ecotone, also out of UNCW.
* If you could be anything other than a writer, what would you choose?
You mean if I could be anyone other than a man who has worked 40 hours a week for 18 years manually coding computer files while writing wildly on the side!? I’d like to be in the sun more. I’d like to be far from corporate screens and the numbness they inflict. I’d like, I think, to be the singing (as opposed to skating) park ranger in green attire (forest green’s my favorite color) who spends weekdays serenading redwoods and weekends fishing. I love fishing.
* What is your writing process like? What are you working on next?
I’ve already said a fair share about process, but I’ll add this. The other week I had an interesting conversation with Edith Pearlman at AWP in Boston. We spoke of that experience of writing as sculpture—as a chip-chip-chipping away at the raw material to locate certain edges that matter. She uses a manual typewriter, as I often do, and it slows things down nicely, encourages craft.
I’ve always loved, and been influenced by, the resplendent form of the children’s picture book, and since wrapping up RBC in January I’ve given myself the treat of developing ideas I’ve had for years. One project concerns an orphaned girl, Lily, who is adopted by a rusty shovel named Drastic—they live in a salt dome beside the Interstate. Another book is about an escalator who dreams of being a chef. Once these are done, hopefully later in the spring, there’s a novel draft I want to begin, well, chip-chip-chipping away at.
The love of my life is a career public defender. During the 16 years I’ve known her, she’s defended countless numbers of people who can’t afford an attorney, most of them vastly overcharged by law enforcement because there’s no incentive against it and because the pressure on defendants to plead guilty is enormous.
She takes phone calls all day and sometimes into the night from clients and their families who are understandably bewildered by the judicial system and its complexities of law, rules, language and customs. On Christmas Day, because the jail won’t allow family visitors on that particular day but will allow attorneys, she goes to the jail to visit as many of the jailed as she can whether they’re her clients or not.
She has stood up in court and asked, point blank, how all of them — defense attorneys, judges, prosecutors, law enforcement — can in good conscience participate in a system of drug laws that targets the lowest level, nonviolent offenders, swells prisons to beyond their capacities, and ruins people, families, and whole communities. She feels, deeply, what’s at stake for all of her clients, and it keeps her up at night. Her case list is enormous.
She is a fantastic and experienced trial attorney, as are her colleagues, and yet all of them often hear how they’re the dregs, how they’re incompetent, how there must be something wrong with them for having chosen a life of defending those people who are obviously guilty, criminal process be damned. They take this abuse quietly because arguing about it isn’t in the interest of their clients. She and her colleagues are thick-skinned in public and suffer in private. They’re tireless, out of necessity they’re always good for some gallows humor, and they’re above all committed to upholding the dictates of the Constitution in every one of its myriad implications in the daily lives of poor people.
This is a long way of saying that my wife is my hero, and that I hope you’ll go see this documentary about people like her, which is screening at Full Frame this week.