Writing on the Edge of Controversy: An Interview with J. Eric Miller

The Write Room’s Jennifer Dunn interviews author J Eric Miller as he discusses his thought-provoking fiction, as well as his views on reading, writing and teaching on the edge of controversy.

J Eric Miller is the author of two books, Animal Rights and Pornography and Decomposition, both of which have been translated and published abroad.  His stories have appeared in a number of literary journals, and he was recently a featured author at the Festival America in Vincennes, France.

JD: What are the sorts of “subversive” things you like to write yourself? I know you write about animal rights, and sometimes even correlate animal abuse with sexual abuse.

JEM: I don’t know that I would ever say to myself, “this is something subversive,” but I certainly hope most of my fiction will get people to think outside the box. It’s hard to do that without going to extremes…to find subjects that make readers relate to material that they hadn’t actually related to before. Of course, animal rights are certainly a big issue for me. I’ve found that we’ve been taught such a great deal about how to think about animals that it’s very hard for us to go back and reconsider. You have to do something awfully off the map for people to reconsider that kind of power relationship [between human beings and animals].

JD: I read that you never meant for any of your stories to be easy to swallow. Is that what you mean? For example, when I read Invisible Fish, the ending disturbed me. I had to put it down and digest it, and it took me a couple of days before I returned to your work. What would you say to that or to someone else who had a similar reaction?

JEM: I think that’s good. I want that. When I teach creative writing class, which I do frequently, that’s what I tell my students…if they want to have some kind of impact and put together a career as a professional writer and become somebody who is read, both living and dead and in whole form, as opposed to a piece here or there, then their writing has to be something that the audience is thinking about afterward.

JD: Do you see any of your students attempt to explore the controversial?

JEM: Absolutely. Now that we are in a post-Virginia Tech academic culture, I want to make sure my students are aware of that, although, I have never encountered anything that I felt was dangerously violent. We are all keeping our eyes more open than we have in the past, because we have been asked to. I think things have changed in the last few years. I’ve read a number of texts in class that were clearly meant to push the buttons of other students….I’ve always appreciated works like that. And I always find it tricky because the bulk of responses in class come from people who have sort of failed to understand that there is probably a point behind what this person is doing. It’s rarely the case where someone is just being completely gratuitous.

JD: There is a faction out there that seizes on anything dealing with a taboo topic and automatically goes to ground against it. What would you say to people like that?

JEM: I don’t think we have to defend literature from anybody, although we can usually find somebody who will criticize it. Of course, that person doesn’t have to have read it; in literature class, everybody does have to read it. What I tell people at the beginning of every class is that you have to be ready for somebody in the class to write something that is going to offend you. It might not be an obvious thing, either. If I write a story about cancer–and it’s an amusing thing to me and to most of the people who read it—you, who are in that class and just had a very close friend, relative, or dog even [with cancer] will be hurt by that story since you will not think it’s proper for this person to make light of what is to you, at that moment, a very serious subject. I tell everybody that they are going to have that experience, and on those days, you have to feel free to let it go. Because then your response becomes overly personal and you can’t guide anybody.

I also tell the people who are writing things…that are on the edge of controversy that the best way to do it is without putting your obvious impression or lesson in there. When you get to controversy, you want to relate your story like a reporter, as opposed to trying to make your audience understand what it is you are going for, because the thing about controversy is that there are no easy answers. Ideally, you try to get people to think about something. You try to get them to think specifically about that subject. To come up with an axiom, or something based on one, is usually a mistake.

JD: Like message fiction?

JEM: I think message fiction is fine if you are not too sure what the message is. I think it’s our job to get people to think about things, not to think things. I want people to think about animal rights but I don’t necessarily want them to have my point of view on animal rights. It’s a very messy subject. Most subjects are. There are no easy answers. If you are an animal rights person and mice invade your house, what do you do? What’s the easy answer? I’d rather write a story that asks that question rather than pretend that there is some easy, humane, religious, spiritual whatever kind of answer you might come up with, because there’s not.

JD: Where did your stance on animal rights stem from?

JEM: You know, I’m not really sure. People can take the easy answer, which was that my father was a taxidermist. He was a hunter, too, so I grew up hunting. Every community I lived in was a small community where hunting was always pretty common, and agricultural communities where there was livestock around. I’ve been around animals my entire life. I think you’ll find that hunters, especially, are close to animals. They all have dogs; if you meet a hunter, you will find that they all adore your dogs. Certainly, my father was no exception. The animals I grew up with in the house, I really was fond of them. That fondness would sometimes cause you to think, “Geez, can I feel this way about that deer? Can I feel this way about a cow?” Thinking about it causes you to either compartmentalize, which a lot of people in those cultures do, or ask yourself some questions that are very hard to answer.

JD: You lay out questions that don’t have an easy answer.

JEM: Yes. Nobody wants to be preached to. If  you want to be preached to, or you want to preach, that’s a different kind of writing anyway. Write an essay. Write a pamphlet. It’s very hard to make it fly in fiction. I don’t teach fiction like that. Most people don’t, and most people don’t read fiction like that. That’s a very small market…as a culture, we have been done with that type of writing.

JD: What advice would you give to budding writers?

JEM: I was thinking about this the other day, right before class, because we had just started a fresh semester. I thought, “You know, the number one thing I hope people leave the class with is a focus on being smart, and not just being clever. You can be clever, but you have to make the effort to actually be intelligent. We live in a time where clever is a choice we consciously make over intelligence, and that’s a quick fix. It’s like sugar. But writers who are going to last, and are going to mean anything, have to ask of themselves more, and ask for their work more. And that’s it.

Jennifer Dunn

Read J Eric Miller’s work of short fiction, The Cell, (here).

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