Interview: Jennifer Miller
Current Mood: excited
Current Song: West Side Story overture
I was recently introduced to Jennifer Miller, journalist, novelist, and dachshund enthusiast, via a mutual friend. Her debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly, is the story of an intrepid teenager reporter who happens to chat with the ghost of Edward R. Murrow. When the opportunity to interview Jennifer presented itself, I grabbed my handy notebook, a pen, and my fedora.(1)
Congratulations on the publication of The Year of the Gadfly. Your experience as a journalist informed your first novel. Have you been interested in both journalism and creative writing since you were a kid?
I've always wanted to be a fiction writer, but I was a reluctant journalist. When I was naughty, instead of taking away my TV privileges, my parents would force me to read the newspaper!
Oh my goodness. That's fantastic.
Eventually, I came to love working in both fields. Reporting really informs my fiction writing, because it introduces me to strange and amazing people and places I'd never be able to meet otherwise.
What drove you to write your first novel?
Gadfly is partly based on the death of my high school boyfriend, Ben, who was killed in a car accident the summer before my senior year. I wanted to give Ben new life in this book and honor his memory. The first date scene in the book (you'll know it when you read it!) is almost exactly what happened on my first date with Ben.
You must have been writing directly from the heart. Was Gadfly your first completed manuscript?
I have a non-fiction book, Inheriting the Holy Land, about Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. It came out in 2005.
Iris, the protagonist of Gadfly, confides in the ghost of Edward R. Murrow. Which famous reporter would you have liked to have as a co-worker?
That's a great question. I would have LOVED to know Murrow. He was totally committed to his job. He insisted on flying bombing missions with the British air force during the second world war and took down Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950's. The only problem is that I absolutely despise cigarettes and Murrow was a chain smoker. (Actually, most journalists of his era were.)
I'm the most anti-smoking person ever. Was Mariana Academy inspired by schools you attended as a teen?
Yes! Mariana is a hybrid between my prep school and my brother's. My prep school was very alternative. We called our teachers by their first names and had an open campus. But the school was also incredibly politically correct -- maybe too politically correct, so some of that made it into the novel. My brother went to a very traditional all-boys school where the teachers were strict and the school required a uniform. Mariana Academy is mostly like that -- which is why the students in the novel are so eager to rebel.
As a journalist, what beat(s) do you most like covering?
I don't have a specific beat, but I've been drawn to covering veterans, motorcyclists, and Native Americans. In fact, I've covered motorcycle-riding Native American vets! A few years ago, I rode across the country on the back of a motorcycle with a group of Vietnam vets. That reporting formed the basis of my next novel, about a young woman on a cross-country motorcycle trip with her veteran father.
My favorite story that I've written recently was a piece for Hemispheres Magazine (that's the inflight mag for United/Continental Airlines) about a small town in Italy that elected a prince. The town believes it's a sovereign country, even though only 300 people live there!
(Click here to read the article.)
For you, what is the most enjoyable part of researching a story or outlining a novel? Do you find the prep work to be tedious or inspiring?
The answer depends on the type of prep work. If I'm out reporting and interviewing sources, I have a fabulous time. I love meeting new people and learning about their lives. Because one of the characters in The Year of the Gadfly is a scientist, I spent a lot of time researching his field of study (microbiology). It was interesting, but also a little overwhelming, since I don't come from a science background. But part of the reason I like fiction is that it allows me to get inside the heads of characters totally unlike myself. I know a lot more about microbiology now than before!
Tell me about The Free Bird Writer's Workshop. How did you come to be involved in the group?
Free Bird is a creative writing workshop founded by a friend of mine in New York. It's local to Brooklyn and the sessions are often held at the Free Bird Book Store in Carroll Gardens. It's a wonderful used bookstore with creaky wooden floors and a shelves stacked high with novels. It smells like old books, which I love!
Any words of wisdom for aspiring reporters?
Yes! Be intrepid! Don't be shy about cold- calling sources or simply walking up to people you've never met but are eager to talk to.
Any advice for hopeful novelists?
Absolutely! Writing a novel is a marathon, not a race. I worked on the Year of the Gadfly for seven years and wrote countless drafts. If you're really committed to a book, don't give up. Keep working and revising -- and be willing to take suggestions. Criticisms are often opportunities to make your work even better than before.
List your ten favorite books of all time.
This is tough, but okay:
1. The Great Gatsby
2. To Kill a Mockingbird
3. The Lord of the Rings (all of them!)
4. Reservation Blues
5. Moby Dick
6. Jane Eyre
7. The Three Junes
8. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
9. Everything by P.G. Wodehouse
10. Ender's Game
Visit Jennifer's website, and see how many journalists you recognize in the Gadfly trailer.
This interview is part of the 2012 Summer Blog Blast Tour. Here is today's roundup:
Benjamin Alire Sáenz at TheHappyNappyBookseller
Jennifer Miller at Bildungsroman
Ashley Hope Perez at Crazy QuiltEdi
If you dig books about teen reporters, check out my Extra! Extra! Read All About It! booklist.
(1) Okay, so I didn't actually wear my fedora when I interviewed Jennifer, but I do own one. And it's dark blue and black plaid. ENVY ME.