Friday, December 4, 2015

Q&A with Jennifer Miller

Jennifer Miller is the author of the new novel The Heart You Carry Home. She also has written The Year of the Gadfly and Inheriting the Holy Land. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. She teaches writing at Columbia University, and lives in Brooklyn.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for this novel?

A: In 2005, I rode across the country on the back of a motorcycle with 25 Rolling Thunder veterans. I had wanted to report on them. I grew up in D.C., and was always fascinated with them…

I called the national headquarters—I thought they might help me connect. I got a call back from a vet who was leading a group of 25 vets from California to D.C. I got motorcycle gear, and traveled with them for two weeks.

I wrote a story for The New York Times about the trip. I got interested in veterans’ issues—Native American veterans, and mental health. I had a wealth of reporting. After The Year of the Gadfly was out, it seemed natural to try to go back to the reporting, and turn it into a book-length thing.

Q: Why did you decide to write it as a novel rather than nonfiction?

A: I had [considered] it. There didn’t seem to be a lot of interest, especially coming from a young woman. My age and gender worked against me. I was just back from reporting in the West Bank and Gaza; I thought I had the reporting chops to write about Vietnam veterans, but I was told [no] by a number of people in publishing.

It was extremely frustrating. I had to put it on hold. It could have been a great nonfiction book, but I’m happy I was able to come back to the material, and use it in a way I’d never expected. I was able to get to themes, character traits, and explore the world of veterans and bikers as I could have in a nonfiction book. I still feel the end result was able to communicate what I wanted to communicate.

Q: Your characters include veterans from the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. What similarities and differences do you see on the impact those wars had on the veterans who fought in them and the country overall?

A: In terms of similarities, something I saw in talking with Vietnam vets and Iraq/Afghanistan vets is that it doesn’t matter where you fought—it is a singular experience of being in a situation that binds veterans across generations. They feel understood despite the vast age difference and how the military has changed. That’s a part of the connection.

Also, when you’re out in the field, the first priority is the people you’re with, trying to protect them, looking out for comrades.

A couple of things that have changed—Vietnam vets [generally] went in alone and came out alone. These days, there’s more emphasis on keeping people with their unit. Part of the reason has to do with the situation a lot of Vietnam vets experienced after their service. When you have that network, and more people are looking out for you, perhaps you’re more likely to seek help.

There’s still a stigma today about mental health issues, [but] less than in the Vietnam era—the military is more aware of the problem, and there are more proactive efforts that were not addressed in the previous generation.

Also, what we say today—we may oppose the war but support the troops--[is different from] protesters spitting on [Vietnam] vets. This happened to a lot of vets I interviewed.

There’s less open hostility to vets, not that they feel the civilian population understands what they [experienced]. They feel the majority of the population doesn’t get it, [which could be] partly because we don’t have a draft.

I did reporting on the relationship between Vietnam vets and Iraq vets, and the older generation was reaching out, helping to navigate civilian life, navigate the VA.

In the relationship between [characters] Ben and Reno, Ben doesn’t want to acknowledge the connection, and admit they have anything in common. He doesn’t want to admit there’s anything wrong with him. Through the book, he [eventually realizes] he brought the war home.

The idea of asking for help is one of the main themes. The characters are struggling to go it alone. Most of them learn they have to depend on one another.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes as you went along?

A: I’m trying to remember at what point I developed the ending. I knew they were heading to Utah, and at first I didn’t know why. I started writing the book, and in the middle of the process, I had been reading a lot about the Vietnam War, and motorcycles, and I rented some classic Vietnam movies.

After I saw Apocalypse Now...I was heading in that direction, and things started to crystallize in terms of what might happen to them.

Feeding into that, there was a weirdo story my husband told me about friends who knew a waiter who tried to recruit them into a cult, and told them he had a box in his stomach that contained [much] of the world’s knowledge. That’s where the idea of a heart embedded in a stomach comes from.

You carry knowledge home with you—the experience of war, and how that fundamentally alters [a person]. It all came together to inform [the book].

Q: Which authors have inspired you, both in general and for this book in particular?

A: For this book in particular, I fell in love with Tim O’Brien when I first read The Things They Carried.

I’ve always been really interested in the literature and poetry of the First World War. It’s always been very compelling to me, certainly the devastation of it, the first time in modern history we start seeing works of art created by [those] who have been in the field. [Evidence] of their mental distress is very apparent. Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen…I put [a reference to him] in there on purpose. He was actually killed in the war…For a while I had nods to Graves’s Goodbye to All That

I saw an amazing play, The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion, which imagined that Robert Graves and T.E. Lawrence knew each other at Oxford, and [looked at] how they were dealing with PTSD. It’s one of my favorite plays; I was able to interview the author.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a couple of things—a long feature…about mental health. It’s not about veterans, it’s about religion and mental health. And my husband and I are working on a novel together. It’s frivolous compared to The Heart You Carry Home, but we think it would make a great romcom…

Q: Anything else we should know about The Heart You Carry Home?

A: Two things. One, I did a lot of research into post-traumatic stress disorder…For people who may have family members with PTSD, it could be a way to understand, and to talk to them about what they’re going through.

Also, as I did with The Year of the Gadfly, I’m Skyping into book clubs, and occasionally [meeting] in person…People can contact me

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous interview with Jennifer Miller, please click here.

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