Wednesday, January 28, 2015

12 or 20 (second series) questions with D.D. Miller

D.D. Miller (photo credit: Neil Gunner) is originally from Nova Scotia but has lived, worked and studied all across the country. His work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies. Writing as the Derby Nerd, Miller is known around North America for his writing and commentary on the rapidly growing sport of roller derby.

He currently lives in Toronto and his first collection of stories, David Foster Wallace Ruined My Suicide and Other Stories, was published by Wolsak and Wynn in Spring 2014.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I don’t know that it has changed my life in any way other than I’ve been doing a lot more interviews like this lately!

I have identified as a writer for so long and spend so much time with writers and that has all stayed the same. It does give you confidence though: that there are people willing to publish and read your work. It makes it all that much easier to get up and write in the morning.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I’ve been writing fiction for as long as I can remember. I loved reading fiction and I think it was as simple as that. I wanted to write the kinds of stories that I was reading.

I wrote a lot of poetry when I was younger, in high school in particular, but it didn’t last much beyond that. I’ve written some short and longer screenplays to varying degrees of success as well, but in the end I always come back to fiction in terms of my creative writing.

I do write non-fiction—mostly sports writing—quite a bit. But I do so as an alter ego, The Derby Nerd, and it is about something super specific: roller derby. I came upon it by chance: I fell in love with the sport and no one in Canada was writing about it. I basically copied the style of coverage others were doing south of the border and eventually adopted my own style for covering the sport. There was no precedent, really, so it’s been fun to make it up as I go along!

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I write a lot and all the time. So things generally come quickly, but they usually fall apart quickly as well, which is good because I am able to move on when something just isn’t working.

Rarely do I write a first draft that is “complete.” Of the twelve stories in my collection only one really resembles its first draft (and it’s, not surprisingly, the shortest piece in the book). I have a tendency, especially in short fiction, to write big and then whittle away until I find the core. It’s not rare for a 3000-word story of mine to have begun as a 7000-word first draft.

Usually, the first draft is a way into the story and the characters for me, so I am learning a lot about them and the way to tell their story. Then it’s a process of finding what it is that the reader needs to know, which I find usually isn’t that much.

4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

It depends. I’ve set out to write novels before (two are buried in the proverbial drawer) and am currently trying to finish one, and in all three cases, I had a particular story in mind that I simply knew was too big for a short story.

As for my short fiction, they begin a number of ways: sometimes an end point comes to me, or an opening, or just a scene or bit of conflict. Very rarely it’s a character, but that has happened as well.

Once in Northern Alberta, I was in the washroom at a small truck stop and there were these little pocket-porn magazines for sale in a vending machine. Almost immediately I knew that this moment was going to be a pivotal scene in a story. It eventually became one of the stories in the book. That’s usually where fiction comes from for me.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I don’t enjoy doing readings of my work.

I actually quite enjoy speaking in public and talking about writing (my own or others), and I actually like QandAs and would much prefer doing these than having to read my own work. But I understand its function, so I do my best to entertain.

I usually have to read excerpts, and I find this awkward. Rarely do I have a story short enough to be read in a comfortable sitting (nothing bothers me more than when people read for too long, especially from fiction), and just by coincidence, my shorter works have not been conducive to readings (IE: they’d be boring or depressing read aloud). I feel that my writing is meant to be read, not heard.

Since I knew that I would have to do a lot more readings after the book came out, I decided to experiment with something: I’ve been trying to find stories within my stories—sometimes cutting bits and pieces out—sometimes reading excerpts that only include one secondary character, and I’ve actually enjoyed this process and think that my readings have been better because of it. And I also think that I end up understanding my stories better.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Putting the collection together was an interesting process. There definitely is a consistent theme throughout, but I did not start writing stories with this in mind or with the idea of a collection coming together out of particular stories. I compare it to a band putting together an album: they usually have a whole lot of songs from which to pull the tracks for the album, and often bands will find “through lines” in the songs that eventually make the collection. I felt like putting together this collection was like that. However, the decisions were made on thematic connections, not theoretical ones.

In terms of those larger literary questions, I do my best to stay as far away from them as I can. I did an English Lit. undergrad right out of high school thinking it was the logical thing for a writer to do. In the long run, having access to all that great writing and an environment where people respected it and wanted to talk it about was obviously a huge influence and important introduction to the literary tradition, but my writing suffered considerably during that time. All that I produced were smart-assed, self-indulgent metafictions about writers and writing. It was fun and cathartic and actually ended up teaching me a lot about craft, but the work itself was horrible. So I leave larger literary questions to the critics.

This purposeful distance has also made me unaware of what questions are being asked in current theoretical literary discussions. When I was immersed in that world in he mid-late 90s, it seemed as if we were at the end of something: the implosion of “deconstruction” or postmodern/structuralist theory as the dominant mode of criticism. It seemed to be a way of thinking about literature based centrally on the notion that it didn’t, or couldn’t, exist. At that time there was this awareness arising that the logical conclusion of post-structuralism was in the deconstruction of deconstruction.

So after this implosion, what has emerged at the “ground level” is a certain return to a more “traditional” form of style or writing. I am definitely noticing this in short fiction trends.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I think it’s probably the same as it has always been: to tell the stories of our times, to entertain.

I think writers are the front line of exploring the human psyche, probing it, not necessarily to find answers, but to express the complexity of it.

Because of its intimacy, I also think that reading is an excellent way to nourish a sense of empathy. So maybe that’s the role of the writer in the “Me Era”: maybe writing is the way we remind ourselves how to empathize with others.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Essential, and so far in my life, not difficult at all. I’m not particularly precious about my writing. If there is a craft or mechanics thing that I am doing wrong, I want to know and learn how to fix it. Most importantly, I know that I am not a very good judge of how a reader will respond to my work; I have a tendency to be straightforward and linear and sometimes too blunt (the over writing I mentioned earlier), so I have always thought it was incredibly valuable for me to have an outsider point these things out to me.

Traditional publishing is changing significantly right now and I fear that the close-editing process is something that could easily be lost or cast aside. I feel incredibly lucky to have had an editor work so conscientiously on my writing through the production of my book. I’ve always felt so lucky to have anyone care enough to want to read my writing so closely.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I don’t know about advice, but I have two mantras that I follow, and I don’t really know where they come from. One, I think, may be Alice Munro, but I may also have made it up: “Everyone can write, but writers write.”

The second comes from Jack Hodgins who I think was quoting someone else (and who I am now paraphrasing!): “To write good fiction you have to write one good sentence and then follow it with another good sentence…”

It reminds me that this is, first and foremost, a craft. It’s not just thoughts and ideas (everyone has those); it’s the putting them to paper in good sentences and well-constructed stories that makes a writer.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

It was challenging at first, but I think mostly because it took me a while to find the voice for my non-fiction writing. Aside from sometimes lacking the time I’d like to have to do both, I actually appreciate having both genres to give me a break from the other. But when it all comes down to it, all writing, for me, is work—sentence building and story telling—so I see it all intertwined at the level of craft.

I’ve been working on a book-length work of non-fiction and a big part of the early struggles have been in finding my voice, or the point of view, for the book. It’s been an interesting challenge though. It’s as if I’m right back at the beginning, but it’s an interesting process.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Because I teach at a college, my schedule changes ever-so-slightly every semester, but generally I like to get up and write right away, at least for a few hours. Then, ideally, I go for a run and either teach or get back to writing in the afternoon (usually switching from fiction to non fiction).

Whatever my schedule, I try to write five days a week, at least for a few hours a day.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I find I work a lot of things out in my writing while I’m running, so if I am having a bad morning or just a morning where I am lacking focus, sometimes I go for a run to mull things over.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Salt water. Atlantic ocean salt water specifically. I smell it as soon as I get off the plane or train in Halifax whenever I get home.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I think all of those things are just wrapped up in life. That’s so broad, I know, but I think books come from everywhere all the time.

I think maybe McFadden was speaking to tradition, to the shape that a book has and how it is part of a larger and much longer dialogue. I am not recreating the form every time I sit down to work on short fiction; I am engaging in a long tradition of creating short stories, and the way I write and my goals in writing are shaped by that tradition.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

There has been such a resurgence in the short story as of late, and this has been incredibly inspiring to me. There have been so many collections by new(ish) writers that have been excellent: Sarah Selecky, Elizabeth De Mariaffi, Nancy Jo Cullen, Kelli Deeth, David Derry, Spencer Gordon to name a few.

Bill Gaston has a new collection coming out in June as well. This will be his first collection in seven years (he’s published a few novels in between). I think he is one of our best short story writers.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Publish my fourth book.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Postal worker—mail deliverer. I still kind of want to do it. I like the endurance aspect of it. 

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I honestly have no idea. Perhaps just being read to as a child, which led to a voracious reading habit, which led to my wanting to create the kinds of stories I enjoyed reading.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

This is tough: I guess I’ll take ‘great’ to mean a certain thing: namely, something I think everyone should read/see. I’m going to say Boyden’s Orenda as my book choice. It feels like an easy answer, and it’s not necessarily my favourite book published in the past year, but at the same time I couldn’t believe how much I liked it as I was reading it. Plus, the whole time I was reading it, I just kept thinking to myself that everyone who lived in this country needed to read this book. I’m not sure that the story of early colonialism in Canada has been told as well or in as readable a way.

In terms of film that’s tougher. I really, really liked Inside Llewyn Davis, but everyone else seemed to hate it, which has made me question why I liked it so much (and I haven’t had a chance to rewatch it yet). Fruitvale Station was a pretty phenomenal movie that also didn’t seem to get much critical attention; but I did like Her and thought it was dealing, even if lightly, with pretty important questions about contemporary culture and the way we interact with technology and each other in light of this technology.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Right now, I’m getting pretty deep into a non-fiction book about the current roller derby revival, but I’ve also been jumping in and out of working on a novel for the past few years that I am determined to finish.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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