J Eric Miller [Jason Miller for our purposes] has written some of the most shocking and subversive fiction you are bound to read. His story collection “Animal Rights & Pornography” will knock you on your ass. His most recently published book [comprised of the novellas, “Bloodletting” and “Fruits of Lebanon”] isn’t as blatantly graphic As AR&P, but each has that illimitable freakiness and sense of danger about them that is the calling card of this literary iconoclast.
Steven Hansen: Somewhere I read that you are the product of the union of a miner and a taxidermist. I assume your father was the miner?
Jason Miller: My father was both a miner and an amateur taxidermist. When the mine went bad, he tried it as profession, but that never really worked out.
SH: I figured that maybe I'd assumed wrongly that your mother was the taxidermist. ... Has either of your parents ever showed up in your writing?
JM: That's a tough question to answer because when you say "yes", people read too much autobiography into your pieces. But to say "no" is disingenuous.
Variations of my parents are in my work; at the same time, often when I use an event I remember happening to us as a family or to them as individuals, often, I'm just using the event, and built around it are different people entirely, the characters created for a piece as a whole...and that incident or series of incidents is useful.
In the end, it is impossible and perhaps not useful to separate the stuff out. In the end, writers use people and happenings, and when you've done it for awhile, you realize you owe the real people and the real happenings nothing. You're a craftsperson. You're shaping.
My mother, incidentally, is a social worker. And my father went on to get his Master’s Degree in something like Environmental Science. We were at the same college at the same time. I'd see him on campus wearing a backpack I'd sewn together in home ec in sixth grade. At the time, it was embarrassing. Now, it's charming.
SH: "...when you've done it for awhile, you realize you owe the real people and the real happenings nothing." Can you expand on this? I think this part of what you just said needs clarification.
JM: Writing students--I teach creative writing--have a tendency when calling upon things that have their basis in real life experiences, and characters that have their basis on people the writer actually knows, forget sometimes that once those things become part of a story, they are just that: a tool of [the] author. The writer feels he or she has to present things as they happened and people as they are.
But writers of fiction, anyway, don't owe experience or people that. They should use the events they've witnessed and participated in and the people they known as they like, as it suits the story.
I once wrote a novel very quickly, in about four days, eating candy orange slices and drinking champagne, and I was very proud of it, and I took it to the house of a woman I was having an affair with. I left the novel on her porch because she wasn't home. When she called, she was breathless with anger. She hated the novel. There was a character based on her in it and she felt I hadn't done her justice.
She described how she threw the novel away not in her own Dumpster, but one down the block. I could imagine her carrying it like a dirty diaper. That was the last time I looked at that novel.
Now, in retrospect, I know she accidentally did me a favor. Though it was not fair of her to have a personal reaction to the character, it was a bad novel so I'm lucky she distanced me from it.
Still, that's the kind of thing that falsely reinforces the idea in a writer's mind that he or she has to capture some reality, which he or she doesn't. In fact, usually, the reality is a mistake. It is not dramatized and it is not part of a narrative. It is part of the chaos of life and writing means to give that chaos shape.
SH: That’s good to know because the stories in 'Animal Rights & Pornography' are fairly nihilistic and brutal. Which is not to put a value judgment on them as 'bad' somehow cuz I really enjoyed the collection, but damn, I'm just wondering where all that comes from?
JM: That collection, those stories, they are a product of my imagination. Most things in there haven't happened, of course. Well, they have, but not to me. The truth of those stories to me is a kind of emotional truth. I set out to explore the idea of what is really obscene and to do so I needed to craft graphic and sometimes disturbing stories. I'm deeply bothered by the nature of the world. The food chains. The suffering. This is what I see.
The stories, they're about power, in ‘human to human’ and ‘human to animal’ relationships and how very often, power is misused.
What is obscene? A close up of a man and womanize' genitals as they have sex or a coat made out of seven hundred foxes that were born and raised in torture and then anally electrocuted, skinned sometimes alive, and sewn together for fashion?
When I started writing the book, those things were in my mind. I meant to explore them.
In terms of real world experience, I'll give an example. Once I found a pigeon much like the one described in “Mercy Killer” and I eventually ran its head over with my car to put it out of its misery. What happens with that real life incident is that in the story, I blow it up as an exploration of my guilt, and the guilt I assume we all feel, having made a decision like that, or the opposite decision, to do nothing, that place we go into when there is no good thing to do.
SH: One of my favorite stories in “Animal Rights & Pornography” is “In the Pride of Lions,” where animal nature comes to the forefront in one of our so-called civilized relationships. Aside from the ability to communicate with words, is there anything else the separates us from the beasts?
JM: Yes. Our ability to empathize. Which is a responsibility. When I can understand how my actions will have a physical and emotional consequence for you, then I owe a debt to that understanding. Children grow into it. Animals, most of them, at least, don't quite reach it. Children and animals are innocent then because they don't have to try to arrange their behaviors according to consequences that are more complicated than the simple "This will be good or bad for me." A choice is easily made when all you have to think about is whether or not it will cause you pleasure or pain. Humans of a certain age have to think beyond that. It's sort of a pain in the ass.
SH: One of the most memorable and heart-breaking characters you've written, imo, is the doomed chimpanzee in the story "Invisible Fish." I don't think I've ever read such gut-wrenching story as that one. Nothing ends right in that story. It's just, in a word, brutal. Didn't the sadistic guard’s infection at the end kind of ruin that perfect sense of futility and injustice so far engendered by the story? And has anyone threatened you with violence because of something you've written, ever?
JM: Thanks for the compliment.
The ending of "Invisible Fish" can perhaps be read as if there is too much poetic justice. Originally, I had him moving on to work at petting zoo, but that felt a bit forced. I think the thing to remember is that whether or not he got his comeuppance, the chimp, and all the other animals, still suffered, as do the storeowner, for that matter. Everything was compromised by the contact with that sadist. I guess I mean for the end to remind us that punishment never undoes the wound. Perhaps though in the mind of a reader it makes it all a little easier to swallow. For the most part, with that collection, I didn't mean for anything to be easy to swallow.
I've never been threatened over anything I've written. I've been cried at and yelled at and I have most certainly had hate mail. But nobody claimed they would hurt me.
SH: Well, if you don't write a story about the bliss that poor chimpanzee is enjoying in monkey heaven, I'm going to fly down to Georgia and beat your ass! ... Just kidding. But damned if that story didn't make me feel that way. That's powerful writing. What, for you, is the purpose of writing stories? Activism? Making people aware of the dark side of life, or what? And, what got you started down the writing road?
JM: Activism has better venues than fiction. Activism should be activism. I write because I'm vain, the same reason most people do. I think that my imagination deserves an audience. It's absurd, of course. This planet doesn't need another piece of fiction. There's enough out there already. I always tell my writing classes that when we start writing we usually try to imagine we're doing it because we have to, because we owe our gift to the world. But that is bullshit. We write because we want to have a voice. And on a planet with six billion people, not everybody can be heard. So we must think we are something special to demand, or try to demand, attention.
Writers remind me of models. Whereas a model thinks her or his bone structure is so extraordinary everybody ought to look at it, a writer thinks that what goes on in his or her heart and brain is so extraordinary everybody ought to be exposed to it.
I tell my students: accept the fact that writing is an exercise in ego.
As far as my start, it was pretty young. What solidified it for me was reading The World According to Garp. I was 12. I decided I would be a writer for real, and I joined the wrestling team.
SH: There's a character in your novella "Bloodletting" that dies in the middle of a long run, and he is the only person in the whole story, according to the details contained in the story, who "'...knew how to get happy.'" I know that you're an avid runner. Any connection there? Do you know how to get happy?
JM: We get simple when we run.
And I think that's what happiness is. The cliche about ignorance and bliss. The less we think about things the better. The further into the run I get, the less capable I am of thinking deeply. You find yourself vision questing. That's why I run hard. I run like something is chasing me.
As for real happiness, the kind that leads us through a life, well, it's hard to come by. My son gives me happiness. It is seeing him happy that pleases me. And I remember when I was young my father said to me that our only responsibility in life is to find a way to be happy. Now of course, I don't think that about my life. And I don't think my father thought it about his. But I hope my son can always focus on that. I hope he can always be made to be happy.
SH: Having a child changes you in a lot of ways. Do you think it will affect/has affected the way you write? And, if it has (or has not), please elaborate.
JM: I don't think it has really changed anything about the way I write. Of course, as you get older, ideally, anyway, your writing takes on more depth; having a child ages you, in good ways. It takes some things out of focus and sharpens your focus on other things. Most of us would agree that those things you pay more attention to are the more important things in life. Family, etc. But in terms of subject matter: no. I don't think about him reading what I write. I don't think about anybody I love reading what I write. I can't afford to.
SH: Is it coincidence or serendipity that the actor Jason Miller, your namesake, played Father Damien Karras in the 1973 classic horror film "The Exorcist"?
JM: Coincidence, and, of course, there is the Jason Miller that wrote “That Championship Season.” Not me.
SH: I think they're the same guy (Father Karras and the author of "That Championship Season"). But then you probably knew that and are just toying with me. So... what does the future hold for the enigmatic J. Eric Miller? Are you running toward something or running away?
JM: Well, I'll continue to teach and continue to write. We'll see where that gets me. At this point, I'm not sure I want to run away from or toward anything. Sometimes, I'd like everything to just stop and be still. But it doesn't and so I guess I'm keeping up.
Editor's note: Here's a link to the inimitable "Invisible Fish" nominated for BASS and Pushcart.