By J. J. Anselmi
J. J. Anselmi: I’ve been thinking about your style as a mixture of David Foster Wallace-esque maximalism and Barry Hannah-style absurdity, conveyed in sentences that mimic the bizarre beauty of Davenport, Iowa. But your prose is also markedly different from any writer I’ve encountered. Who were some of your stylistic influences for this book?
Ben Miller: I’ve always admired those books that have “a sound” just as bands are said to have “a sound.” The prose of Virginia Wolf, for example, possesses a sound that unforgettably envelops readers. So does the work of W.G. Sebald and James Agee. To me the act of writing, on one level, has always been an effort to tune a page so that it resounds as experiences do in my particular mind, and heart. Locating this sound has been an intensely personal endeavor, but a process fed, as tributaries feed a river, by authors mentioned above, and others, including Welty and Turgenev.
JA: I’m a student of writing, so I continuously found myself enjoying the challenges the book presents through both form and unique sentence constructions. But do you worry about accessibility to a larger audience?
BM: I am a student too! It’s good, always, I think, to remain a student in the best sense of the word: open to learning, eager to be surprised. When you stop being a student the discoveries end. And if you think about the reading life, it is often those books which overturn our assumptions that most excite. Accessibility is a concept created anew with each work of literature, on each page—and if the prose tends to be dense, as mine sometimes is, the author must expend effort creating alternative ways for readers to enter and comfortably remain in the space of the book. Mood (via an accumulation of the right details), for instance, can be a powerful aid, as well as the sheer raw rhythmic momentum of sentences. Think of Dostoyevsky and his complicated riffs on universal themes—passages hold readers via galloping rhythm and a weight of ideas lifted by gusts of feeling far above the realm of the dry and conceptual. The sensation of wordiness is blown away.
JA: You mention originally attempting to capture your life through fiction a few times in River Bend Chronicle. When did you start writing creative nonfiction, and what prompted the shift?
BM: I still write fiction of various sorts. In fact, during the ten plus years it took me to create River Bend Chronicle I concurrently developed a long novel entitled Meanwhile, in the Dronx… which explores the meaning of place with equal detail/ferocity but from completely different angles. (Excerpts from each project have appeared in The Normal School.) Every form is a flipside of another form. In our minds opinion and fact, fantasy and sensory impressions, co-exist in the forever shifting matrix of consciousness that—in toto—produces what we come to consider our “understanding.” The choice of form, then, is a choice to tilt the equation one way rather than another for vital reasons. A choice followed by critical self-questioning required to fulfill the given form’s potentialities—questions which acknowledge the form’s limits while recognizing the importance of pressing against them, stretching them, to obtain a firmer grasp on the vagaries of existence. Any nonfiction work excluding the role imagination plays in forming a life would be sadly lacking, and any fictional work that entirely skirts facts would necessarily be starved.
JA: You paint both your mother and father in an amazingly vibrant way. They also seem to have some tragic mental problems, yet you don’t use psychological diagnosis as a way to explain their actions or who they are. Why?
BM: My parents were creative but stymied people, shadowed by childhood traumas often hinted at but never quite identified, and this relentless sense of mystery about the exact source of their difficulties thickened the atmosphere of our home. At times—to me, at least—the place resembled a gothic extension of a fume-puking English moor. It was important, in River Bend Chronicle, not to tidy up confusion in retrospect—to let hints hover eerily in front of the reader as they hovered in front of children, tormenting and tantalizing. That haze or smog was us: a morass of dissolving identities, stories only partially told, censored by fear and shame. And, frankly, to this day the stories of my mother and my father are little clearer than they were back then. Any facts that emerge are swiftly engulfed by more fog. One truth tends to devour another.
JA: Among other things, your book seems like an examination of how our past shapes us and whether or not humans can consciously shape identity. Some people say it’s all free will. Others say it’s all determinism. What do you think?
BM: This is a good last question, striking to the core of the long roar that is River Bend Chronicle. My experience with experience is one of tension—a brutal entangling battle, really—between the shapelessness of evolving internal forces of intellect/emotion and those harder, less dimensional realities of the outer world—its insistent rules and structures designed to create an artificial efficient order, its history that counts each individual while rarely taking into account what it means to be a unique individual from a particular family, with all the complexities that entails. I’d contend that any shape we manage to attain is the result of no conclusive and permanent victory of identity, but a lucky fleeting by-product of the continuing process of push-and-pull between our ferociously tender internal realities and the equally ferocious, if brittle, conceits applied by the larger society. There is no winner. There can be no winner. If energy lasts, and determination exists, a person can cull ample dignity from a lifelong struggle to be who exactly they are, not who they are assigned to be, or thought to be, or even who they dearly wish to be.