The Transcript of Mark Miller’s Appearance at The Douglass Branch of the Chicago Public Library

The Interview

Questions 1. When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I wrote my first short story when I was 12. It was about a professional stuntman who was not very good at his job. It detailed the elaborate stunts he performed and all of the injuries that resulted. In the end, all that was left of him was his head, which was ultimately launched into space, as I recall.

But about ten years after that I was in a college volleyball class because they told me I had to take PE, and so there I was at one end of the gym with a septuagenarian volleyball teacher who looked and sounded like a penguin and was too old and frail to actually do any of the moves, and at the other end of the gym was this Folk dancing of 18th century America class…and in retrospect, maybe I should’ve taken that class instead because I was not learning much about volleyball and it is becoming increasingly important to learn how to act like an American from 200 years ago.

But they are doing this dun dun dun dun dun CLAP CLAP CLAP dance and the penguin is barking something about jumping 6 to 12 inches off the ground and tossing the ball up approximately 2 feet and striking it with the base of your palm in an overhead swing, and the other end of the gym is dun dun dun dun dun CLAP CLAP CLAPing, and then this one dude and I make eye contact and it’s like we both hit upon the absurdity of everything all at once, and I tried to stifle my laughter and he tried to stifle his laughter, and then every time we looked back at each other it became harder not to laugh because we knew how hard the other was struggling.

So I think that comedy is best when it exists where it shouldn’t and that it is most powerful when one weird thing piles on top of another, and we become increasingly captive to the completely normalized absurdity of the world around us. And somewhere between those two points in time I realized that this is what I wanted to do.

2. How long did it take you to write this book, and what kind of research do you do before writing?

The Librarian at the End of the World was just sort of the culmination of a few weird ideas I had in my head for a number of years. The joke started when our shower at home was broken for a week, and I would bathe quickly with a washcloth at the sink each morning…and my wife and I just started joking about the five point technique and the speed…and then it became a joke between us that there was this underground league and I was a world-class speedbathing athlete.

Then one of the characters, Yves Duthe, was just a guy I made up one when I nearly got arrested at Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta 30 years ago, and I made up a ridiculous accent and told them that I was a Frenchman who had emigrated and had the right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and they told me to stay right there while they got their supervisor, and I ran as soon as they had stepped away.

But all these weird ideas had been floating around in my head for a long, long time, so when I sat down to write it, it poured out me like some kind of fever dream. I mean, it was really fast! The first thing I wrote was the scene where country western sensation JT McDrew is fellating himself in a music video, and I don’t even know where it came from, except we had just been to Lambert’s home of the throwed rolls in Missouri and I guess I was just inspired.

I posted it on a friend’s Facebook wall for his birthday…and he just commented, I have no idea what this is or why you posted it…but I have to read more now! So, don’t encourage me. Because I wrote the rest of the book in less than two months, I think. I did have to do some research about Uzbekistan, politics in the eastern bloc, the creation of LSD, cheesemaking, the CIA, and I had to refresh my memory on cataloging standards for Library of Congress and Dewey decimal system. Oh, and the insurance industry, Vikings, and orgy etiquette.

And hold on, let me go off on this. So I got the name Yves Duthe from a French Canadian folk singer my high school French teacher derided us stupid Americans for not listening to. I was always just going by memory and what I thought she’d said his name was, but I just looked it up and the dude’s name is Yves Duteil, and he was apparently pretty famous, but I was spelling it wrong this whole time, and that doesn’t matter because I’m not actually talking about THAT guy, just using a name that was sort of a personal touchstone…and the point of this is that everyone in my high school back in the mid 1980s KNEW that she was a lesbian and that her marriage of convenience husband in the math department was gay, but they couldn’t PROVE it, even though she ate lunch with the volleyball coach privately in her office everyday, and that was considered sus at the time, and even though her husband was considered less manly than many jellyfish. But they had to be very careful not to let anyone KNOW and HAVE PROOF of who they were…and that’s really shitty, but apparently the kind of American some people want, and my NEXT novel is a pretty big broadside against this 80s revivalism crap people keep talking about. The 80s were an ass decade, and we should not go back, except of course, for reading books that talk about how bad the 80s were.

Oh, I’m sorry. What was the—Did that answer the question?

3. Did you write with the intention of this being a standalone novel?

I did, but after I wrote it I realized how much fun it would be to write more like it. So the follow-up, The Two Headed Lady at the End of the World is forthcoming from the same publisher, Montag Press, in the next couple of months. That one started out as a straight-forward romance novel a friend and I co-wrote one weekend about 20 years ago. We hated it but liked the characters. I always wanted to do something with them but we had done it as a kind of cynical exercise because our lit work was not getting much traction. It was a sweet little romance novel about these twins going back to their ten-year high school reunion… and after Librarian, I thought, why not get back into that world and have some fun. What if they were conjoined twins…no one has written a romance novel like that before! And it descended rapidly into insanity.

I am now outlining a third in the series, The Corporate Entity at the End of the World. But that looks like it is going to be so expansive that I might have to quit my day job. So hey, everyone buy some books so I can get really weird!

4. Have you read reviews for your book? If so how do you deal with the criticism?

I know that what I write is not really gonna be everyone’s cup of tea, so I try not to sweat it much. But honestly, most of my reviews have been tremendously positive. One reviewer kind of dismissed it by saying it was like “Lovecraft Turns Beatnik Drops Acid,” and she went on about how vulgar it was in places. And I don’t think she MEANT it as a compliment, but I sure took it that way.

5. How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?

I actually came up with a very good organizing system during the process of it. I have a master word doc of all my plot points beats and jokes as they come to me. It is just a list organized chronologically , you know, first this happens, then this happens, hey wouldn’t it be funny if THIS happened, oh and at some point he has to say ___, and then later, this other thing has to happen, and then he’ll say __, and that will bring that back together! And then you can write each plot point out in a separate word doc and link it to that line on the master doc. Then once you have several of those in a row, you can add the transitions between each and combine them in a separate file we will call the DRAFT doc.

6. Are your characters inspired by people in your life?

Oh yeah, totally. That has led to some really awkward conversations. Because even if something is inspired by someone real, once they are in the book, they take on a life of their own. My friend Mike was once like, Hey, that was me wasn’t it.

Yeah.

Dude, you were really hard on me! I would never actually do that stuff!!!

I know, but it isn’t you anymore. It is this weird version of you that exists only in my head…and not because of anything bad or weird about you…but like, if you were you but not you and God was on an acid trip.

So like, it’s easier just to tell them, No. That’s someone else.

7. What was your hardest scene to write?

When I started writing it, I just threw a bunch of balls in the air…just things I wanted to happen. And that was fun and great, but the longer you write the more you start thinking, Uh, I’ve got to tie all these arcs together in a way that makes sense. I was pretty stuck on that for a couple of weeks…and then I was walking home from the train one day, and it just started coming to me. I had found myself becoming really attached to the characters and the story and wanting to make it somehow more real in the end. So I ended up pulling back on the absurdity and making it more somber…and I think people responded very well to that kind of heft. On reviewer described the ending as “breathtaking,” another said that in the end the novel became art. It was rewarding to know that at least for those two readers what I had done had crossed over into something more meaningful.

8. You book delves deep into the absurd comedy. Who are some of the comedic voices you looked to for inspiration while writing?

The first book I ever read that just made me go WHOA was Heller’s Catch 22, and then I stumbled across Mark Leyner’s Et Tu, Babe, which was the first book to make me laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe. And then, awkwardly, I started reading reviews of my work where people were comparing me to some of my literary heroes, so that too was crazy to read. But, they’ve got me pegged.

9. Did you ever have writers block, if so how did you get back to writing your story?

The most important thing I can tell you is not to do what I do. I still have a day job. Full-time writers have to be a lot more dedicated than I am. Wake up at 5 every day and write for an hour and a half before everyone else gets up? Nope. Write even when you don’t have something to say? Nope. Work on multiple projects at all times to stay fresh? Sadly no.

I write when I feel like it. Sometimes that works great, and I spit a book out in a couple months, and then sometimes I fret for a year about how I am going to tie everything together. So when I have writers block, I don’t write. I do other things. I think about my projects, but I don’t have a cure-all for it. It passes, and when it does I get back at it. I think mostly for me writers block is just some combination of dreading the amount of work I still have to do, not knowing exactly how to get from point A to point B, and just having other real-life stuff take up all my energy. Maybe I would be a better writer if I had more discipline about my practice, but I don’t know that a regimented practice would lead to the kind of organic chaos I like to put on the page.

10. What is the best piece of advice you’ve gotten about writing?

Don’t spend too much time explaining things to your audience. They’re smart. You’re just wasting their time if you spell everything out. If they want to know they will look it up. Also, get an editor. An honest-to-God professional editor. It will make you a better writer.

11. What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Wanting to be a famous writer before becoming a writer. Not reading a lot of contemporary fiction. Thinking the first draft is the best draft. Explaining too much. Falling for scams. Anyone promising you fame and riches if only you submit your manuscript and pay them to publish it needs to be derided widely and loudly.

12. Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?

The Two Headed Lady at the End of the World is an epic love story between conjoined twins and the men who love them, two soldiers stranded in a long-forgotten underground bunker who have to come to terms with their feelings for one another, and a sentient CPU who falls for a Pentagon fax machine. That’s slated for publication in November and is, from what the review team is telling me, a lot of fun.

Then I am outlining the third, which is about a turf war between multinational fast food taco restaurants in the de-militarized zone of Salt lake City.

And I can read you the foreword of The Two-Headed Lady at the End of the World if you’re interested…

Foreword

We were talking about hiding under our desks when the nukes came. That was the straight-faced suggestion made by people in positions of authority. After the initial blast, we were to wash our hair with strong soap and seek a fallout shelter. There we could live the remainder of our days in sterile comfort, eating canned foods and wondering what the outside world was like. If we survived long enough, we would die of starvation, exposure, or cancer at a more leisurely pace. It was a mundane paradise compared to being incinerated so quickly that only our shadows were left, burned on the sidewalk beneath us. Or beneath where we once stood, you know, a millisecond ago, before we were incinerated.

I swear this is a book about love, and the 80s were supposed to be incidental. But then, Donald Trump was in the news again for no good reason thinking people could imagine, Papa resumed preaching, Florida tried to shove all their gay people back in the closet, the Supreme Court found a matching set of Wham! shirts at the Goodwill, and it was like eighties reruns were playing in all dimensions. At this point, all we would need to have the complete set of Garbage Pail Kids is some good Satanic panic.

But I digress! ‘Round about 1987, we were in history class—Zero, Steve Ham, Snazi (so called because he liked the Surf Nazis Must Die movie, not because he thought there was a master race that he was part of somehow in spite of his obvious shortcomings) and I—talking about instantaneous death, when the first seedlings of this novel were planted: What if I got lucky and found someone desperate enough to go to prom with me, but then we all died before the big night? I laughed out loud and had to explain myself to the class, which was awkward because no one else got the joke.

Flaming death never fell from the sky, which was a bit of a shame, because prom was shit, too.

But if you’ve been keeping up with current events, you might be worried for the first time in a long time that we are all going to die. That’s the feeling of the 80s hitting the fan and blowing back at us. Armageddon of one kind or another was always lurking around the corner. I spent 30 years not thinking about mutually assured destruction, and it would just figure that the second this book was about to come out Russia would start prattling on and on about how awesome its nukes are. I suppose if it comes to blows, it will be less painful than global warming, so everyone lighten up already. Besides, this is a book about the kind of romance that transcends prom and global annihilation. Love in all its many manifestations reigns supreme. Stick with it. You’ll see. And if you lived through the 80s, you might get a little wistful. But that’s just nostalgia fucking with you. You can’t go back, nor should you want to. The eighties were shit, so don’t try.

PS. And, Holy Christ, they made a new Top Gun movie.

You can buy The Librarian at the End of the World on Amazon.

DM me to be on the advanced read team for The Two-Headed Lady at the End of the World.

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