Interview with Author Gary Lee Miller

Museum of the Americas, Gary Lee Miller’s debut story collection, published in 2014 by Fomite Press, ponders love and longing and loss and redemption through the experiences of highly unconventional characters, the kind of people who, says Miller, “nobody pays much attention to.”

Steve Almond called the collection, ‘vivid and arresting.’ The stories, he said, “have a gentle fabulism that grows darker as Miller plumbs the human psyche.” 

Miller’s new short story “The Salted Leg” appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of The Missouri Review and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He’s currently working on a novel, which he hopes to complete in September during his second residency at the Byrdcliffe Artists Colony in Woodstock, NY.

Miller grew up in the 70s and 80s, in Eldred, Pennsylvania, a tiny town of about 800 that sits along the Allegheny River, in what he recalls as ‘a storytelling culture.’

“My dad was a drinker and when I was five years old I was sitting next to him at the bar drinking orange pop, listening to all the hunters, fisherman and factory workers tell their stories. Storytelling was a big part of life there and these guys had it. They had timing, they knew what to tell and what not to tell.  They had irony and description.

“I sat and listened to them and it was fantastic. I ended up going to college to be a wildlife biologist but I was terrible at math and chemistry.”  Miller, who worked to pay his own way through college, struggled for three years before dropping out because he ran out of money.  “I was living in upstate New York and couldn’t find a job… I didn’t know what to do. My roommate said, ‘Look, you don’t have to be in college to learn stuff. Go to the library and read books.’”

Miller took that advice, going through the fiction section in the local library book by book.

“I loved it. Within a few months I was writing. I came back as a senior, changed my major to English. I did the entire English major in a year. I got straight A’s…I had a teacher who said, ‘You know you have a little talent and if you work harder, you can do something with it.’ That guy, that one person, was the first person in my life to say, ‘You can do something. You’re a good writer.’”

Miller went on to earn an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier where he resides with his partner and his teen-age daughter.  Miller says he has had great teachers, Steve Almond and Ellen Lesser among them, but he credits his writing passion to ‘growing up in a culture with people who loved to tell stories.’

Many of Miller’s stories are set in rural Pennsylvania.  His story ideas “come from things  I’m obsessed with or things that happened to me. I don’t ever really tell a straight story of something that happened to me … I just take a little kernel of it and create a completely different story.”

In the title story, “Museum of the Americas,” which displays curated samples of earth, ‘I was driving through Vermont and decided to take a back road. I drove by this place and there was a sign that said ‘Museum of the Americas’. There were two cars sitting out front and I thought, ‘What a bizarre thing, a Museum of the Americas on this little tiny road in the middle of farm country.’ I made a promise to myself that I’d never go and see what was inside. I’d just make it up.”

In the resulting story, Tom Grant owns a decrepit and mostly forgotten museum displaying, in rows of Bell jars, earth samples from all over the Americas that he inherited from his father. He also inherited a set of rigid ‘Christian’ values and terrible memories of abuse. When an elderly couple visits the museum, on a mission to connect with their dead son through a particular earth sample, Tom’s carefully constructed world begins to collapse. Tom at first refuses them, but their quest eventually forces him to confront his own shortcomings and longings.

“In His Condition” explores the emotional and psychological ravages of alcoholism as the narrator, on a seven-week long bender, ponders his uncle’s addiction and that man’s recovery through his devotion to collecting butterflies. He is home, in the house where he grew up, searching for his own “saving thing” as his mother, downstairs, calls doctors and “drunk farms”, hoping to find a placement for him.

Several of Miller’s stories, set so carefully in place and time, edge toward the magical, while others, including Night Train, Killing Houdini and Certain Miracles weave lyricism into traditional realism and historical events. Afficionados of short fiction may detect whiffs of Russell Banks, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Denis Johnson and Daniel Woodrell in the work of Miller, but Miller offers a bit more lyricism in his prose, along with a tad more tenderness in his resolutions.

Even so Miller’s route to publication was full of disappointments and rejections.  Before assembling his story collection, he’d written two novels and signed with ‘a very high-powered New York agent, top of the line.’

“He looked at me and he said, ‘Gary, I’m going to tell you something right now. There is going to be a happy ending to your story. These books are going to be published.’”

For two years the agent did everything he could to “make it happen but he couldn’t…That was a devastating time. I didn’t write for another two years.”

Finally, he sent one of his novels to Fomite Press, a small publisher in Vermont that describes itself on its website as “a post-capitalist operation in which the authors get almost all profits, and Fomite gets little or nothing beyond expenses. We have no plans to make money with the press, only to serve the writing community by bringing out high-level literary work and making it available.”

The publisher, Marc Estrin, got back to Miller quickly.  “He said, ‘You’re a good writer but I don’t like this book…Do you have anything else?’ I sent him my story collection and a day later he emailed me back and said, ‘I love this book and I want to publish it. Will you please let me publish it?’ I said yes.”

With his first collection published and a novel in its final stages of creation, Miller has this advice to young ambitious writers: “Don’t wait for the world to tell you when you’re a writer, just write. Start writing, send your stuff out. Form relationships with magazines and with other writers and read all the time. You can’t be a writer if you don’t read. Find a book you like and try to figure out how it works. Go through the book, write all over it, make notes, and underline sentences you like.

“Persist, don’t give up, just keep writing and don’t ever be afraid. Find a newspaper, find a blog that will let you write for them and get your work out there. Just start being a writer. Say it now, say you are a writer right now and be one. That’s number one. And persist is number two. Every minute you’re not writing, somebody else in competition is.”