Interview with Western Pennsylvania Author Gregory Miller
Gregory Miller was born in State College, PA in 1978. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in over 50 publications, and a novelette, Strike Three, was nominated for a 2010 Pushcart Prize. His previous StoneGarden Publishing short story collection, Scaring the Crows: 21 Tales for Noon or Midnight, was published in 2009.
He is also an anthology editor for Static Movement and recently co-edited the Sam's Dot Publishing anthology Potter's Field 4. A high school English teacher, he lives in the Monroeville area of Pittsburgh with his wife and two young sons.
1.What made you want to write the books Scaring the Crows: 21 Tales for Noon or Midnight and The Uncanny Valley: Tales from a Lost Town?
The short story is my favorite type of writing to read, so it’s also my favorite type of writing to write. I always try to write the kinds of things I like to read…If I try to slant my writing for a particular audience or publication, it never works. I have to write what I enjoy.
Scaring the Crows is 21 short stories, almost all told in the third person. The Uncanny Valley is 33 interconnected short stories, all told in the first person by a different character from the same small town. Both books contain stories in a variety of genres, although most have a fantastical element to them – especially the stories in The Uncanny Valley. I love the magical, the supernatural, the surprising, the horrific. I love trying to capture the elusive “Sense of Wonder.”
2. Where did the ideas for your books come from?
From what I read, what I see around me, what I’ve experienced. In “The Piano,” for instance (in Scaring the Crows), the narrator hears his ailing grandmother playing songs from when she was a little girl – in the 1920s. It’s like she’s a living time machine. And to him, the faltering voice, the missed notes…None of that matters. To him, her music sounds perfect. And he thinks to himself, “What will happen to her piano, the thing she loves so much, once she passes on?” Because it’s very much on her mind, and she keeps bringing it up when they talk.
Well, my grandmother and I once had that same conversation, and that was the inspiration for the story…at the time, she was still living in her own home, but we both knew the day would come when she would be gone, and she wondered what would happen to her piano. Also, she would still sometimes play songs from 85 years before, which always amazed me – to think that some of those songs debuted the same year The Great Gatsby was published, and she had been there to hear them.
So I wrote the story as a slightly altered reflection of reality, to commemorate my feelings of love for her, and, in a way, to prepare myself for her inevitable passing. That story is important to me now because since it was written, she has, in fact, passed away…She was 96 years old. But when my grandmother had to leave her home due to her failing health, the piano ended up in my parents’ house, where she continued to play it until she died. And now my mother plays it for my children…So despite the loss, that’s a beautiful legacy from her, isn’t it?
So consider how much of me is in that one, five page-story, and how much writing it helped me come to terms with time, old age, loss, life, and death. It seems to connect with readers, too, because we all share those sorts of experiences. Many of my stories address these kinds of issues, because they’re the issues that we always come back to late at night, when we can’t sleep…they’re always there, in the back of our minds -- and there are no easy answers for what we should feel about them, and there are no easy ways to understand their roles in our lives. Writing is one way to try to find those answers, and to understand those roles.
Other, more fantastical stories often have little elements from my life in them, but of course come much more directly from my imagination. Sometimes I write to scare myself, or to create a situation that interests me and see what certain characters would do in those circumstances. Sometimes I write to create things, or places, or people I wish were real. Uncanny Valley is a town steeped in magic, both light and dark. It’s a dangerous place, but also a place of wonder. Wonder is something we should never lose, even as we grow older.
3. Is there another kind of book you want to write that you haven’t already written?
I’m still working on the “long form” of writing – a novel, that is. I have two young adult novels written, but in different degrees of completion. One is fairly polished, while the sequel is still just a rough draft. I’d love to see those published and out in the world, but they’re not quite there yet. I’d also love to write a long, classic ghost story in the vein of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, which in itself is a tribute to authors like M.R. James and Sheridan Le Fanu. It’s very, very difficult to effectively sustain a truly creepy mood for an entire book.
4. What was the first published work you remember writing?
My first short story was called “The Final Days of Tomorrow” – isn’t that an epic title? It was published in my high school’s literary magazine when I was 14. It’s awful, but who cares? Writing it was a big step, and seeing it published, in whatever form, was a great ego boost at the time. It gave me confidence and kept me going.
5. Do you any have pet peeves about writing styles? What turns you off in a book?
I shouldn’t have to slog through 100 pages of a book for it to pull me in. A good writer can pull a reader in within a page, sometimes less. That’s why Charles Dickens is so incredible. When I finally gave Dickens a try, I chose Great Expectations. The very first paragraph hooked me. It was amazing. The same goes for Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ray Bradbury, and all my other favorite authors. I know I can depend on them…they never let me down, and their first pages always, always pull me right in to the world they’re creating.
6. What other kinds of writing do you do?
I published a book of poetry in 2005, but I haven’t done much since. It’s called Four Autumns, and Foothills Publishing took a chance with it. I’m proud of it, but it’s not a genre I work much in anymore.
7. What cultural value do you see in writing/reading/storytelling/etc.?
I’m a teacher, and on the last day of school, every year, I read William’s Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech to them. He sums up the value of writing and reading better than anyone else I’ve come across. He said, “The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” Truer words have never been spoken. I also love what C.S. Lewis said: “We read to know we are not alone.” That quote, so beautiful, speaks for itself.
8. What do you think most characterizes your writing?
My mentor, Ray Bradbury, taught me that the art of revision lies in the art of cutting. Every word should be necessary. So many of my stories are short, but, I hope, pack as much punch as some much longer ones. Scaring the Crows is comprised of 21 stories, but is only 140 pages long. The Uncanny Valley is almost exactly the same length. But my philosophy is quality over quantity.
9. What is the biggest thing that people THINK they know about your subject/genre, that isn't so?
That speculative fiction is escapism, or that horror is frivolous and gratuitous. Neither have to be, and both are often quite valuable in expressing and communicating the elemental aspects of being human that we benefit from discussing. But at the same time, readers should always have fun reading, and writers should always have fun writing. Good speculative fiction and good horror often provide both quality and fun.
10. Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
My favorite author is Ray Bradbury. I’ve known him for 15 years, and both he and his writing have influenced me on every level. Without him I wouldn’t be a writer, a reader, or a teacher. So he’s had a huge impact. He’s my mentor, my teacher, and a dear, dear friend. His writing showed me at a very young age just how powerful and entertaining the written word can be.
I’ve read The Martian Chronicles every year since I was 12 – that’s 21 years! – and it’s still as powerful and breathtaking as it was the very first time I picked it up. The same goes for Dandelion Wine, The October Country, Something Wicked This Way Comes…the list goes on and on.
I also love the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Stephen King, Joe Hill, Norman Maclean, Neil Gaiman, Somerset Maugham, Richard Brautigan, F. Scott Fitzgerald…Again, the list goes on and on. I also love the ghost stories of M.R. James, who I think is the greatest writer of truly terrifying supernatural stories who ever lived. He died in the 1930s, but no one has matched him in his ability to create and sustain a slowly-building but truly shocking atmosphere of horror. I only wish I could read them all again for the first time…But even now, having read them dozens of times, I still feel what he called the “pleasing terror” such stories can create when I read his work.
11. What are some day jobs that you have held? If any of them impacted your writing, share an example.
I’m a high school English teacher, so that’s a wonderful balance in my life: to write, and to teach writing and the value of reading. They compliment each other beautifully.
12. What do you think is the future of reading/writing?
They will always be here, and they will always be valuable
13. Where can we find your books?
The best place is on Amazon. Both of my books are there, along with the anthologies I’ve edited. The Uncanny Valley is also available as both a paperback and for the Kindle.
14. Do you have a web site and/or any social networks readers can visit?
I’m on Twitter (@GreggyMiller), and I have an author’s page on Amazon With some help, I’m also preparing to launch a blog site, authorgregorymiller.wordpress.com. That should be up and running soon. I can also be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to drop me a line!