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Debut Novelist Adrienne Miller Believed in the Voices in Her Head

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An exclusive Authorlink intervie with Adrienne Miller
Author of The Coast of Akron (Farrar • Straus • Giroux, May 4, 2005)

By Doris Booth

June 2005

 

The Coast of Akron

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Adrienne Miller always wanted to write a novel, but she wasn't sure if she ever would. People in her position usually don't write novels and stories. They edit them. As the literary editor for Esquire magazine, she has helped shape and publish stories from Don DeLillo, Arthur Miller, Tim O'Brien, and other literary luminaries, but never her own.

In her private hours, she began experimenting with the voices in her head, playing with characters, writing vignettes. For four years she worked at putting together the pieces of her imaginary world—a world partly drawn from her real life growing up in Akron, Ohio. What emerged is her first novel, The Coast of Akron. Released in May by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the book portrays an odd Midwestern family desperately clutching each other in a web of lies. Each is consumed by hypocrisy and driven by the desire to be more than he or she is. Lowell, a flamboyant patriarch; Jenny, his ex-wife and a tortured artist; Merit, their dysfunctional daughter; and Fergus, Lowell's leaching, delusional lover, inhabit this witty and heartbreaking story of the human urge to own the unownable, no matter what the cost.

It's an exuberant, moving family saga and a triumph for a quality author among provocative new voices. Here, Adrienne talks to Authorlink about her experiences both as author and editor.

"It was never my intention

 

to write a family saga."

—Miller

AUTHORLINK: How did you arrive at the concept for The Coast of Akron?

MILLER: A concept never really announced itself to me. I started playing around with characters. First I came up with the characters' names. Initially, the name Fergus came to me. I thought it a fantastically rich and vibrant name, though it took me a while to get his voice. Next, I wanted a slangy third person's voice, and the name Merit came to me. The characters Lowell and Jenny (Merit's parents) came later. It was never my intention to write a family saga. I just had the characters and voices, put them together in a big house, and watched what happened. After working on a series of vignettes for two years I finally said, "This is not a collection of short stories. It's a novel!" I don't recommend to anyone to write a novel this way, but that's how I did it.

AUTHORLINK: You have written Fergus's narrative in first person, and the other chapters in third person. How did that come about?

MILLER: Given that this was my first novel, I felt I had a lot to prove to myself. I also thought Fergus's voice couldn't sustain an entire novel. His is an over-the-top voice, and was a challenging, yet very fun, performance to sustain. And I didn't want to be stuck in one voice with my first novel; I wanted to see what I could do with different voices and characters, so I inhabited several roles. At times I felt like a ventriloquist. Actually, Merit's voice is probably somewhat closer than the other characters' to my own natural writing voice. But I had the job of entertaining myself while writing the book. So when I would get stuck with one character or one scene, I would switch to another character's voice and write a different scene. As I said, I don't really recommend that mode of writing.

AUTHORLINK: Isn't it more difficult to write in that way, switching from first to third person, from this character to that one?

MILLER: Many writers say it is much easier to write in a linear, chronological way. It might seem somewhat crazy, but it's easier for me to write in sections and vignettes. I don't seem to have the kind of brain to write a story straight through. I wish I had a more organized, ordered mind and could start with an outline. But I like making sense out of chaos. I like trying to capture what it feels like to be alive today in this mess of a world.

AUTHORLINK: In the novel I assume that Fergus and Lowell, Merit's father, are gay?

MILLER: Not gay—sexually ambiguous. I wanted to write about complex characters. I didn't plan to make Fergus or Lowell gay, but it became clear to me, by virtue of Fergus's voice, that many people live in a world of sexual ambiguity. I haven't seen the subject of gender relations and sexual roles explored much in the literary novels I've read recently.

AUTHORLINK: What is the process of writing like for you and how long did it take you to write The Coast of Akron?

MILLER: I spent two years just experimenting with the voices in my head, getting them to a point where I felt they were alive and convincing. The characters became very real to me. I could hear Fergus's nattering internal monologue while I was walking down the street or grocery shopping.

In all, it took me more than four years to complete the whole manuscript.

AUTHORLINK: You serve as the literary editor at Esquire magazine and have been there since 1997. Before that you worked for GQ magazine after graduating from college. Did you always have the desire to write something of your own?

MILLER: I have always had desire to write. After graduating from school I did the practical thing. I got a job in publishing. A lot of people are surprised that a full-time editor has the ability or ambition to write a novel. I had always hoped that I would write a novel, or novels.

AUTHORLINK: How does it feel to have become a novelist?

MILLER: It's certainly more nerve-wracking to be on the other side of publishing. My name is never on any story that I edit at the magazine. The only place it appears is in small print on the Esquire magazine masthead. My name is on this book. I do feel more vulnerable and exposed. I'm getting a little glimpse into one of the reasons why so many writers I know are so crazy! It's a very stressful business, to be out there in public—to have your intensely personal project, upon which you've devoted a half-decade of your life, be publicly judged by readers, and by overextended critics. The experience is not entirely pleasant.

". . . being an insider doesn't automatically guarantee success."

 

—Miller

 

AUTHORLINK: How did you meet and select your agent, Christy Fletcher of Fletcher & Parry?

MILLER: My job at Esquire, and the fact that I knew a lot of agents, admittedly made it easier for me to find representation. But being an insider doesn't automatically guarantee success. I met Christy over lunch early in my tenure at Esquire, in 1997. She struck me as extremely bright, a person of tremendous taste. I knew her and did business with her for several years before we talked about working together on the book. I liked the way she presented herself on the other side, as an agent. She was aggressive and pleasant at the same time. At that point, I had been working on my novel for a year and a half and I showed her a few sections. She really liked it. I would send her sections a couple times a year. She was my agent for three years before the book was completed and sold.

AUTHORLINK: So, how did publishers respond to your submission?

MILLER: We received a preemptive offer from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It was so exciting, especially because FSG was our first choice among publishers.

At the time my manuscript was 600-pages long. Eric Chinsky, the executive editor at FSG, read it over a weekend and called my agent on Monday and offered a preempt. That sort of thing doesn't happen very often. I was unbelievably lucky.

AUTHORLINK: Are you working on another book?

MILLER: Yes, and I'm afraid I'm going about it the same way. Right now I'm experimenting with voices, characters, the landscape. I don't have a plot. I'll be busy on a book tour in the next few weeks and I don't want these new voices to disappear. So, here I am, right back into my bad old habit of writing in vignettes.

AUTHORLINK: Do you have any special writing habits or quirks?

MILLER: While working on The Coast of Akron I wrote every day. When I am really writing seriously and intensely I write for 8 hours a day, every day. And I don't answer e-mail or phone calls.

AUTHORLINK: Do you have any advice for writers who are struggling to get published for the first time?

MILLER: Writers need to be aware that they are going to be rejected by magazines, agents, book publishers, and critics. Rejection is part of the game for absolutely everyone. If you understand that from the beginning, the experience of being rejected isn't as devastating. When acceptances come—and they will—the writer will be pleasantly surprised. Discipline, tenacity, and self-belief are vital. As an artist you must develop a steely exterior to be able to live with rejection, and yet, inside, you must believe in yourself. And the longer you keep at it, the more steel it takes. But the only person's opinion that matters is your own!

"The main joy of my job

 

as an editor is that my bosses encourage me to find

and publish unknown writers."

—Miller

 

 

AUTHORLINK: There were 195,000 books published in 2004. How can you explain to an author why, with so many titles being published, his or her title isn't among them?

MILLER: Well, we don't really know what that statistic includes. It could include everything from greeting cards and calendars to novels. There simply aren't that many first time novels being published by major houses. Look at publishers' catalogues. In each season there are only one or two first-time novelists published by each house, and often not even that many. It's very difficult to get a debut fictional work published, I'm afraid. Nonfiction is much easier in today's marketplace.

AUTHORLINK: In your job at Esquire do you publish first-time writers?

MILLER: The main joy of my job as an editor is that my bosses encourage me to find and publish unknown writers. Writers need to know that editors to whom they are submitting really are on their side. We are always extremely hopeful to find a great piece of writing, appropriate to our magazine. We want to discover new writers! We want to publish new voices! Why else would I still be doing this job?

It's all very well to publish a good story by a well-known writer. But that's not really where my own taste and literary judgment get factored in. In discovering a new writer I can assert my own tastes in a bolder way. At Esquire I am reading not only for quality, but reading for sensibility. The stories must be of interest to our large readership of, well, men. I want to find stories that are appropriate for the magazine, yet also stories that I love, stories that move me, and speak to me in a profound way.

—Doris Booth