Jonathan Miles Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Jonathan Miles
Photo: Erica Larsen

Jonathan Miles

An interview with Jonathan Miles

Jonathan Miles discusses the similarities between his novels, how to go off the grid when everyone's plugged in, and what "stuff" means when it comes to people's lives.

Your debut novel, Dear American Airlines, consisted of one man's rant against life, disguised as a consumer complaint letter. Want Not, your new novel, seems like a striking departure; it's an expansive third-person novel with almost a dozen major characters. What were the origins of Want Not?

It began with an image, as most stories do for me; a mental film clip that jolts you sideways into an alternate fictional universe and in some sense strands you there. For spoiler reasons I won't say any more about the image, except that a character soon grew from it—a character who hosted a kind of party in my head inviting all sorts of strange, troubled people.But along the way she (the character) also seeded an idea in my head, an idea about our tangled relationship with stuff. About all the physical debris that we lug through our lives, and the emotional ties we develop for that debris. Following that idea led me straightaway to the place that much if not all of that stuff sooner or later goes: the trashcan. So I decided to try to tell the stories of all those people crowding my head from the perspective of their stuff—their disposed stuff, most of all. I rifled through their trash. I found all their secrets.

And in some cases you found their food.

Yes. One set of characters adhere to a philosophy that's sometimes called "Freeganism," and involves dumpster-diving for sustenance. It's a somewhat radical position that says because our society wastes so much edible food, one is morally obligated to make use of that waste. So they scavenge their meals out of trash cans and dumpsters and whatnot. For them, it's part of a larger rebellion against society and civilization, part of a larger desire to drop out completely. Not that long ago, to drop out of civilization was usually a geographical maneuver—a generation ago, you moved to a remote patch of Alaska, and before that any other out-there frontier. But there are no frontiers left, as one of my characters laments. Going off the grid is all but impossible; the grid extends everywhere. The way they've devised for going off the grid is to drop out of commerce. To squat in abandoned buildings, to scavenge their food from the trash—to-go under the grid, rather than outside it. Of course, eating from the trash is not the only questionable eating that goes on in the novel. There's also some roadkill. Though I love my characters, I cannot claim to feed them very well.

Did you eat from the trash to research the novel?

Yeah, within certain squeamish limits. I took lessons from some Freegans in New York City, who make extremely compelling claims about the amount of food waste we produce as a society. It was easy to eat day-old bagels and sealed yogurts that were one or two days expired, and bruised fruit and vegetables, that sort of thing. What was harder for me to stomach was one dude's routine of taking all the leftovers from those 100-item deli buffets in Manhattan. The contents of all the heat trays get dumped into one steamy bag—about thirty different cuisines mingling into a single glop. His defense was that they all get mixed together in your belly anyway. I admired that in theory but not in execution.

In some ways the novel is driven by recycling—everything seems to be a recycling (or upcycling) project, up to and including the characters. Elwin Cross Jr., for instance, could be said to be a recycling project—dumped by his wife, and salvaged (we hope) by the artist he meets in New Mexico. And Christopher, the young neighbor that Elwin takes in, is yet another kind of salvage job.

Well we're stuff, too—or often treated like it. We've all found ourselves in someone's metaphorical waste basket. A marital pre-nup, for instance, could be said to be the romantic equivalent of "planned obsolescence." Our relationship with stuff is not alien to our relationships with others. That's why we cling to old love letters, mementoes; the emotionally-radioactive stuff packed away in our attics. Or why we trash those things. Many of us have picked up something at a flea market or antique store and felt some kind of weird tingle, or a kind of weight of sentiment—an almost physical and often melancholy awareness that this object had meaning for someone, an emotional residue. Yet here it is, priced at a dollar. I wanted to pick apart that odd sensation in Want Not, as my characters interacted with their stuff and with one another. Or to put it another way: Who might feel a prick of sadness at the sight of a teddy bear on the highway side, but less sadness at the sight of roadkill?

One of the most moving threads of the novel involves Elwin Cross, Sr., an elderly historian afflicted by Alzheimer's Disease. For him, stuff is crucial—it's what triggers his disintegrating memories. Even his junk mail is essential. Was it difficult to write in the guise of a man with late-stage Alzheimer's?

Closer to middle stage, but yes. Not in a writerly way but a personal way. My mother suffers from Alzheimer's, and without cheaply psychoanalyzing myself I would venture that part of writing Elwin Sr. was a way for me to try to get some kind of grasp, however loose, on this god-awful disease. Like Elwin Sr., whose memory of his wife's death regularly eludes him, my mother can't remember that she's a widow. For years I tried to remind her, whenever she'd complain about him being late, but this was often horrible and grueling—imagine informing your mother that your father is dead, and the resultant trauma; now imagine doing it one or two times a week—and so after a while my sisters and I opted to let it pass, to grant her the delusion. I'll admit that this has led to some awkward exchanges. A couple years ago, she got quite upset when she concluded that if my father wasn't sleeping with her in her bed at the nursing home, he must be sleeping in the other bed in the unit, that being her roommate's. That was a very tricky conversation to navigate.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry about that story.

Exactly. Which sort of sums up my reaction to life. It's like that great old blues line: "laughing to keep from crying." I suppose that's one quality that Want Not has in common with Dear American Airlines—that struggle against the absurdity of life. In Want Not, it's the absurdity of plenty. If you're going to make sense of life—and I think that's what novels do, what any art does—then you have to confront its absurdity. It's the raw meat of existence.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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