Thursday, March 23, 2023

Q&A with Michael Miller




Michael Miller is the author of the new historical novel High Bridge


Q: What inspired you to write this novel based on the lives of President Grover Cleveland and suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage?


A: My epiphany came as a consequence of abiding by the cliché to take time to stop and smell the roses. Twenty years ago, I lived in Manlius, New York, a healthy stone’s throw from the Village of Fayetteville. At that time, I was largely focused on my work and my family. You might say I was lost in a blur of responsibility.


One day, for reasons now forgotten and with time to myself, I was walking on Genesee Street (the main road) to the Fayetteville Free Library. While acquainting myself with “drive-by” businesses, I passed a historical sign indicating that Grover Cleveland grew up in a house down a side street, Academy Street. I raised my eyebrows and tucked that fact away.


Another day not much later, my wife read an ad in the daily newspaper about the presentation of a new, one-person play telling the story of a local woman, Matilda Joslyn Gage. Like many of you, I was unaware of who Ms. Gage was, but I was curious.


Needless to say, after seeing the play, I was impressed by the ideas and courage of Matilda. I did a bit of follow-up research which only added to my sense of awe and respect.


The gears began to mesh. I began to wonder if Grover and Matilda lived in Fayetteville concurrently, and if so, did they know each other. Therein lay the germ of my novel, High Bridge. Those seeds lay dormant for a dozen years before I put pen to paper and began my writing journey.


Later, through the bounty of the internet, I learned that Matilda and Grover may have lived in Manlius at the same time, but there appears to be no evidence that they knew each other.


On the other hand, there is evidence they did meet in the Executive Mansion in Washington (as the White House was known in the 19th century). President Cleveland hosted the leadership of the National Woman Suffrage Association of which Matilda was a co-founder and past president. Likely they discussed their common roots in Fayetteville.


Q: How did you research the novel, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: My goal in writing this book was to bring my two protagonists to life and reacquaint people with them. To do so, I had to anchor High Bridge with the true stories about them, their times and places. This demanded a great deal of research.


Being a lover of nonfiction and biographies, I began by reading books about the Industrial Revolution, the Burned-over District of Upstate New York, and the Erie Canal. I read great biographies about Grover Cleveland including those by Alyn Brodsky, H. Paul Jeffers, and Allan Nevins.


Most of what is known about the life of Matilda Joslyn Gage comes from books by Angelica Shirley Carpenter, Sally Roesch Wagner, and, of course, the writings of Matilda herself.


It should come as no surprise that most of what is known about Grover and Matilda centers on their achievements as adults. Little is available on their childhoods. That was unfortunate for it did not give me much to work on, yet on the other hand, it provided opportunities as I framed my novel.


Aside from reading works about Grover and Matilda noted above, I combed the internet. After surfing superficial sources, e.g., Wikipedia and Find-a-Grave, I took deep dives into archived local newspapers and original resources accessed through the Library of Congress, the New York State Museum in Albany, New York (City) Public Library, and the Fayetteville Free Library.


There were many surprises, but maybe what impressed me most was the tremendous dynamism of the 19th century, arguably the time of the greatest changes in human history. Through my research, I better appreciated how social, scientific, political, and economic events contributed to the world as we now know it. With this backdrop, Matilda’s and Grover’s lives melded with those of movers and shakers of the 19th century, e.g., Frederick Douglass, robber barons, and inventors.


Q: The historian Laurence L. Cook called the book “a brilliantly crafted novel that blends true history and fiction to tell a story of two American icons.” What do you think of that description, and what did you see as the right balance between fiction and history as you wrote the book?


A: Quite frankly, I was gobsmacked when I read his review. I greatly appreciate Mr. Cook’s compliments, not only because he is a respected, lifelong presidential scholar, but particularly because of his intimate knowledge of Fayetteville and environs, having lived there. Mr. Cook captured the essence of the challenge of writing a book such as mine – one that highlights real people, their issues, and their needs.


Your last question about balance is an intriguing one. Certainly, there is no formula, no ratio that can be applied to all novels based on historical events and people. The ratio must flex with the story, characters, and author.

For me, I wanted to breathe life back into these fascinating people. To do that required careful tethering of the story with actual events and descriptions of real places in their times. After all, actual events are often more compelling than fiction.


Q: The novel focuses on the upstate New York community of Fayetteville in the 19th century--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Fayetteville is an essential character in the novel. Fayetteville was the stage upon which Matilda came into her own as a feminist and champion of universal equality. Grover played and learned on the fields and markets, and he developed the fundamentals of his life while living in Fayetteville.


Like so many villages, towns, and cities in New York, Fayetteville bloomed because of its location on the Erie Canal. For example, Syracuse, New York, thrived because it was a strategic site on the Canal, but the growth of Casenovia, New York, was limited because it was not on the canal.


The Erie Canal was fundamental to the geographic, sociocultural, financial, and industrial expansion of the United States. It has been argued that New York cemented its hold as a great American city because of the Erie Canal.


Like so many towns, Fayetteville had its special places and nooks and its idiosyncratic characters. The novel could not have been written without being grounded this village.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I plan to work on a novel that focuses on the 19th century and the turn of the 20th century. That is, times that are just a bit later than the main action in High Bridge. I find these times to be fascinating. They were times of profound changes and progress that affected us broadly – at the national, community, and everyday personal levels.


During the so-called Gilded Age and pre-World War I period, the United States was coming into its own as a world power. It was a time of culture-shaking inventions, time when the demographics of the country changed fundamentally. It was a time of contradictions. Tremendous wealth was amassed by a few, while the greatest depression the country had experienced, the Panic of 1893, mired the masses. These are grand backdrops for a historical novel.


I am fascinated by historical novels that are defined by their time and place, yet carry time-independent relevance. While I admire authors who write novels that make fantasy seem normal (e.g., Time and Again), I prefer novels that are grounded in reality (e.g., People of the Book). I don’t think my mind works in ways to weave worlds that don’t exist.


That said, I can reimagine situations and envision worlds of “what if.” Those scenarios demand twisting thoughts and considering altered interpersonal interactions. Where I go from here is unclear. What I am sure of is that I will focus on people who were left behind either by the culture or their colleagues and did not get their just due.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you about Matilda Joslyn Gage, Grover Cleveland, and my novel High Bridge. These people are fascinating and often forgotten having largely been dismissed to the “dustbins of history.” Some of that relegation is because we largely navigate our worlds with blinders of the here and now. The blinders are often set by our desire to forget bad times or by people hellbent on establishing their cause or themselves as key.


My hope in writing this book is to bring Matilda and Grover into our consciousness. Perpetuation of our ignorance comes at our own peril; indeed, progress is shaped by our memories of convenience.


For example, I believe that the women’s movements of the 20th century would have been different, possibly more effective had participants been aware of and appreciated Matilda’s writings and aspirations. As Gloria Steinem said, Matilda Joslyn Gage was “the woman who was ahead of the women who were ahead of their time.”


Matilda and Grover have been living in my head for decades and I am delighted to share them to you. Please, visit my website ( for some of my thoughts and references to learn more about them and their times.


The scheduled launch of High Bridge spans two events. The first was on Saturday, March 18 at the Grover Cleveland Birthplace Site at 207 Bloomfield Avenue, Caldwell, New Jersey, ( and the second is on Thursday, March 23 at the Fayetteville Free Library ( at 300 Orchard Street, Fayetteville, New York; dates chosen to align with the birthdays of Grover Cleveland and Matilda Joslyn Gage, respectively.


Come the spring, I will be having additional readings/interviews including the Odyssey Bookstore, 9 College Street, South Hadley, Massachusetts, on Tuesday, April 4, and the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum ( at the Forbes Library, 20 West Street, Northampton, Massachusetts, on Wednesday, May 3. Both of these events will be hybrid.


You can get a listing of future, scheduled events on my website ( Please reach out to me through my website ( if you have any questions or would like to arrange an event.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment