Writer Wednesday: Sam J. Miller

Sam. J. Miller. Photo courtesy of the author.

Sam J. Miller’s books have been called “must reads” and “bests of the year” by USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, and O: The Oprah Magazine, among others. He is the Nebula-Award-winning author of Blackfish City, which has been translated into six languages. His short stories have been widely anthologized, including in multiple editions of the Best American series. He lives in New York City, and at samjmiller.com.

Today he drops by the site to talk about his latest novel, The Blade Between

The Blade Between is a ghost story about a damaged gay guy who goes home to try to save the town he hated (and the people he loves) from the destructive plans of corporate interests… but he’s manipulated by dark forces both human and monstrous, and his scheme swiftly spirals into supernatural violence. One reviewer called it “James Baldwin meets Stephen King.”

Without context, what’s one of your favorite sentences in the book?

“Love is harder than hate.” 

What makes this book different from anything else you’ve done?

It’s different from my other work in that it’s a grisly horror story, which I’ve never done before at novel length. But it’s 100000% THE SAME as everything else I’ve done in that it’s about fraught gay love and horrific systemic injustice and monsters and charismatic megafauna. 

The Blade Between is set in your hometown of Hudson, New York. How does your version of it differ from reality?

While I tried to cleave as closely as possible to the actual city I love and hate so much, I couldn’t resist throwing in some ghosts and monsters and murder and mass arson. And whales. Well, the whales are real. Hudson really was a whaling city. As to whether their ghosts still haunt the place, I guess that’s tough to prove one way or another. 

If you could pick one room to spend a day in, from one place in your story, where is it and why?

The Columbia Diner, where the final scene of my book takes place, and where my father and I used to go for breakfast before heading to work at the butcher shop, and which has since become a fancy upscale burger joint. Part of why I wrote this book was to re-connect with so many of the awesome working-class small businesses that have been destroyed in Hudson – and thousands of cities like it – by the grim post-industrial collapse of the late 20th century or the gentrification boom of the early 21st.  

The real-life Columbia Diner

Would you be happy living in your story?

I mean, I did run screaming from Hudson as soon as I turned 18, so I probably would not choose to move back there. But I’d like to think I could find joy no matter where I end up, and Hudson certainly would be the place to prove or disprove that. Especially if there are sexy demons and whale ghosts to make the place less boring. 

What was the hardest thing about taking your book from an idea to the finished product?

Knowing that I’d be writing about real places and real things, and addressing a tough issue (gentrification) that tons of people have fraught feelings about. And that I had a duty to do the matter justice, and confront it as honestly as I could, and try to find a resolution that feels real and plausible but also models the possibility of justice. On the page as in real life, bringing both sides of a conflict to the table to forge a better future is tough as hell. 

What needed to change about your life in order to make this book possible?

Ooh, that’s a good question. 

I needed to learn to love my home town. 

I hated it, growing up. I couldn’t be myself, as a queer person, and there was so much racism and so little opportunity that I knew I had to get out. But over the years between my father’s cancer diagnosis and his eventual passing, I made a lot of trips home, and I started to see it with his eyes. And I learned to love it – even if I *also* still hated it. And once I learned to love it, I could begin to be angry about its transformation, the mass displacement that’s going on, and then the soil was right for the seeds of this story to take root and grow. 

Whales in Hudson? Truer than you might think…

What special research/skills/information did you have that specifically influenced how you wrote this story?

I have A LOT in common with the protagonist of this book – we’re both from Hudson, the son of the town butcher (whose market in both cases was located at 310 Warren Street), forced to flee by homophobic bullying… But the bottom line is, I couldn’t have written this story if I wasn’t a native son of Hudson. In a lot of ways I have more in common now with the New York City artist types who are causing all the displacement, but I’m not one of them either. That experience of straddling the line between native son and new arrival allowed me to view both sides through the same critical, loving-hating lens. 

Sam and his Dad, hard at work.

And since this is a story about community organizing against displacement, my fifteen years as a community organizer were essential to this story. Organizing is hard work, with few victories and abundant frustrations, so it was fun to imagine an activist campaign that wouldn’t be hindered by the miseries and limitations of legality, morality, the laws of physics, etc. With whale ghosts to help tip the balance. 

What will readers learn about you as a person from reading this book?

Oh, G-d. They’ll probably learn that I’m a mess. But then again that’s true of most of my stuff. And they’ll learn I love animals, which is also all over everything I do. 

Which character could only have been written by you and why?

I’d like to think that none of them could have been written by anyone else, or if they were they’d be very different – they all have my own wacky janky hodgepodge of fierce beliefs and irrational ideas. But the one who is most ‘of’ me and my work is probably Tom Minniq, the chaos demon monster in sexy human form who has popped up in my work before (like my story “Angel, Monster, Man”) – a sort of problematic embodiment of masculine sexuality and seductive destruction who usually ends up doing the right thing but for the wrong reason, and usually with horrific consequences. 

  • Publisher : Ecco (December 1, 2020)
  • Language: : English
  • Hardcover : 384 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 006296982X
  • ISBN-13 : 978-0062969828

The Blade Between is available at all your favorite online shopping spots, but I wanted to highlight Spotty Dog Books & Ale. You can find them via Bookshop here: https://bookshop.org/shop/spottydogbooks They’ve currently got Miller’s book as listed as one of “Kelley’s Staff Picks”! To make it easier to buy, you can get The Blade Between directly from Spotty Dog at this page.

You can also find Miller on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sentencebender and on Insta at https://www.instagram.com/sam.j.miller/. Go, explore, follow!

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