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An Interview with Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller was kind enough to drop by today to talk about his debut novel, The Art of Starving. I’ll kick things off, as usual, by shamelessly stealing from Sam’s author bio to make introductions…

Sam J. Miller is a writer and a community organizer. His fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Apex, Strange Horizons and The Minnesota Review, among others. His debut novel The Art of Starving will be published by HarperCollins in 2017, followed by Blackfish City from Ecco Press in 2018. His stories have been nominated for the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards, and he’s winner of the Shirley Jackson Award. He lives in New York City.

Art of StarvingWelcome, and congratulations on the publication of The Art of Starving! Without giving too much away, care to give readers a taste of the story?

Sure! THE ART OF STARVING is about a bullied small-town gay boy with an eating disorder (all of which I was) who believes that starving himself awakens latent supernatural abilities (which mine did not), and uses them to embark on a Mission of Bloody Revenge against the bullies who make his life miserable (including Tariq, who he is hopelessly crushed out on), and to figure out why his sister ran away from home. It’s gotten starred reviews from Kirkus & Booklist & Publisher’s Weekly, and I’m scared as hell to have something so personal out in the world and OMG it’s all becoming super real super fast.

Lest anyone accuse you of not being prolific enough (they wouldn’t dare), you also have Blackfish City scheduled to come out next year. Can you talk a bit about that one as well?

BLACKFISH CITY takes place in a future where rising sea levels have transformed the globe, in an Arctic floating city called Qaanaaq – a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, complete with geothermal heating and sustainable energy, but ravaged by organized crime and income inequality and a new disease called “the breaks.” Into this powder keg steps a strange new visitor—a woman riding an orca, with a polar bear at her side. The book follows four people from different walks of life who are all connected to her mysterious mission in Qaanaaq, who are slowly drawn into a complex web of intrigue and violence and rebellion and redemption.

You’re also an incredible short story writer, as attested by the multiple award nominations. Were there any challenges moving from short fiction to longer form writing? How does your process differ between the two?

Awwww, stop, you! I’ve been writing novels as long as I’ve been writing short stories, so there was no challenge transitioning… I am similarly inept in both departments. But, hopefully, getting better – the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy workshop really helped me get my shit together in that department, and then being part of the incredible Altered Fluid writers group in NYC… and just generally existing in community with fantastic fellow authors like yourself, whose work I devour and adore and learn from. Spoiler alert for all my fiction, and also my life – your community is your superpower. My process for novels and short stories is the same in that I have a whole bunch of ideas bubbling up in my brain all the time, and some will percolate for years without germinating, and then suddenly two or three of them will collide and I’ll say AH-HA and the story will take shape, whether it’s gonna be 5 pages long or 500.

Speaking of awards, do you remember where you were and how you heard when you learned about your very first award nomination? What did you do to celebrate?

I was sitting at my desk in the Bronx when I got the email that my short story “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides” was a nominee for the Shirley Jackson Award. I literally howled. Well, maybe it was more of a wail-scream. First thing I did was call my BFF and sister-from-another-mister Lisa Bolekaja, who I know loves Shirley Jackson as much as I do. And then we both howled. And then I called my mom, who gave me “The Haunting of Hill House” when I was fourteen, and more howling ensued.

In addition to your writing, you’re also an artist. I particularly love your dinosaurs, and the way you combine them with photographs of people in unexpected places. Aside from the obvious answer (because they’re awesome) what attracts you to dinosaurs? For the pictures involving dinosaurs and people, do you pose the people with an end result in mind, or is the drawing ultimately inspired by the pose your subjects provide?

Dinosaurs are the most amazing monsters ever, AND THEY’RE REAL. For me, dinosaurs trigger the child part of my brain – I was super super obsessed as a kid – when I was five, people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said “a dinosaur.” My husband and I got married under a T Rex skeleton in a guerrilla wedding at the American Museum of Natural History. Some writer/readers get hyped on spaceships or swordfights – and I can get down with those sometimes – but my Kryptonite is dinosaurs. Thank you for the nice words about the drawings! Usually the illustration comes first – I’ll be practice-sketching some new challenge, a cool facial expression or a hot dude from a difficult angle, and then it kinda works, and I’ll scramble to find a photo background to go along with it. And maybe a monster. Basically because I don’t think any of those pieces are very good on their own, maybe I can overwhelm with Quantity until I get to Quality.

Totally topic switching away from writing and art, one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about strange non-writing related jobs. What’s the most unusual job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

My father was a butcher, as was his father, and he trained me as a butcher for several years before Wal-Mart came to town and our family business went belly up. There’s something very illuminating about being covered in blood all the time. It teaches you some valuable lessons about mortality and how our whole lives are structured around violence and suffering. So that’s helpful for a genre writer. Also, my father treated every single person who came in our store with incredible respect, and he really valued them and the stories they had to tell, and he was excellent at drawing them out of people. Like the man who lived in the woods and came in to buy hot sauce, which he put on the nightcrawlers that were his primary food (or so he told us; I think maybe he was trying to gross my mom out) or the elderly couple who bought dog food in bulk and nothing else – my father felt certain that they were eating the same thing as their dogs, since there were no other places in town to buy food. His spirit and his whole-hearted embrace of everyone he met have served me well in my life as a writer.

Let’s talk about your city of residence for a moment. Even if they’ve never been there, almost everyone has a picture of New York City in their heads. They’ve seen it in TV shows, movies, books, ads, iconic photographs, and so on. What do those media depictions overlook, or get wrong about the city? Or, on the other side of things, are there any that really get NYC right? What are your favorite places in the city to gather inspiration? Where would you point first time visitors if they want to go somewhere off the beaten tourist path?

To me the most important thing to understand about New York City is that it is a huge magnificent messy place full of tons and tons of wonderful people and countless powerful vibrant gorgeous communities – but it’s also a place where greed and skyrocketing rents and mass displacement are destroying everything that makes it awesome, from the quirky shops to the diversity to the amazing food to the spaces that incubated decades of important artists. This is true of most major cities, I think, but New York City is particularly heartless when it comes to crushing the old (and poor) to make way for the new (and rich). That’s why there’s sixty thousand homeless people living in shelters right now, and they’re overwhelmingly people of color who’ve been displaced out of their communities as those neighborhoods become increasingly appealing to wealthier, whiter, newer New Yorkers. It’s also why the NYPD is so committed to brutalizing and intimidating the communities who might object to the way they’re being eradicated. Not too many stories can get that degree of complexity correct. Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper; Zoraida Cordova’s Labyrinth Lost… I appreciate that the TV series Gotham (which isn’t technically New York City) understands the extent to which a corrupt and abusive police force is part and parcel of the city’s bigger-picture problems. For visitors to NYC who want to see the real city, I’d direct you to the small threatened magical spots that are struggling to survive – like the Punjab Deli on Houston Street, or Rainbow Falafel off of Union Square, or Junior’s in Brooklyn, or the thrift stores on East 23rd Street, or Books of Wonder on 18th. Get some vegan soul food at Uptown Veg on 125th. Come uptown to the Cloisters. Dance at the Ritz until stupid late and then get french fries and milk shakes at the Westway Diner. And walk around Chinatown and buy fruit from the vendors on Grand or Mulberry Streets. Get the best cheese danishes in the city at Moishe’s on 2nd Avenue. See an old movie at Film Forum, or a midnight classic screening at IFC. Or go to the New World food stalls in Queens. OH LORD I COULD GO ON AND ON. Go for a bike ride up the West Side Greenway. Bike riding through the city in general is a great way to see the city’s secret self, especially on a summer night… although, watch out, drivers are crazy.

Now I want to tour NYC with you. But for the moment, to wrap things up, now that The Art of Starving is out in the world, what’s next for you? Do you have any projects in the works you want folks to know about?

Well, I’m currently hard at work on my second YA novel, tentatively titled THE STORIES ON OUR SKIN, which is contemporary fantasy with tattoos that grant magical powers, and a gay boy artist whose crush offers him his body as his canvas, and they fall in love, but they both have Secret Agendas and Their Own Shit they’re working out, and stuff gets messy, and there’s deranged fundamentalist villains and shadow dragons and a complex magic system and lots of cursing and gay sex. I’m also working on a second non-YA novel, which is shaping up to be a ghost story about small-town gentrification that draws heavily on experience of growing up in my father’s butcher shop…

It sounds amazing! Thanks so much for stopping by!

THANK YOU SO SO MUCH FOR HAVING ME!!

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