The literature, the librarian, and the luck that saved Ben Miller’s life.
Ben Miller, veteran NER author of “The Haunting of Byerly Hall: WC”
(NER 40.4) is interviewed by longtime NER fiction reader Andrew Kane.
The version presented below is an excerpt. Read the full interview here.
Andrew Kane: One of my favorite aspects of “The Haunting of Byerly Hall: WC” is the way it evokes an incredibly specific time and place. Could you talk a little about the particular ways the social climate and the landscape—physical, emotional, psychological—helped to shape this narrative?
Ben Miller: Well, there are actually two very specific timeframes here—the one you mentioned enfolded as a flashback into the (for me) unprecedented experience of starting a fellowship year at the Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge. . . . And what could 2014 in Cambridge have to do with 1979 in urban Iowa—a rusty city on the Mississippi River? For me both were points of startling transition.
In 1979 I was 110 pounds thinner than I had been in 1978. I had starved myself into a new shape in the aftermath of sexual abuse. This new shape I hoped would be the one that could survive, and integral to the survival was not only vanquishing the obese son who had been preyed upon by a parent, just as vital was my attachment to writing. Art did not fix anything but was the one thing I found I could still believe in . . .
AK: Throughout the essay, you bring your fellow members of the Davenport Writers’ Studio to life through assiduous characterizations, and reconstruct their work with what feels like a genuine affection for—if not the cat poems and Boy’s Life submissions themselves—then the act of sharing those works with outside listeners. Later, you write how the group’s president, David Collins, “peered across [you] as if [you] were a lake. . . . Seeing, then, more than [your] disaster, something beyond it, the rest or what else might be.” What are your thoughts on this notion of seeing and being seen in the context of making art?
BM: I’m glad you focus here on the “seeing.” I’m fascinated by the portrait—whether by the painter Goya or essayist Lytton Strachey or composer Virgil Thomson. I define a portrait as a certain face in alignment with a certain time and a certain place. And of course the end result is as much about the seer as the seen.
There was so much to adore about this unique group of writers. I feel there is still much to learn from them. The choices they made. The fortitude they showed. They deserve a book of their own, and “W.C.” is part of that work-in-progress.
It wasn’t just that I was this kid desperate for any connections. I knew another bad connection could be the end of me.
But as soon as I meandered into the first club meeting and chose a folding chair I could feel I was no longer in the city where my educated parents had had no luck, succumbing to a bitterness that by turns paralyzed them and caused them to exploit their sons and daughters in various ways. I was elsewhere.
I mean, these adults—just like teachers and clinic doctors and almost all neighbors—had every reason to be spooked by my rag-tag appearance and office supplies arranged around a copy of Eliot’s The Wasteland—but they were not afraid, I saw. They welcomed me. A group that did not fear me, reject me? That was a first. I had been welcomed often as a child into the sweet warm kitchen of the one nice neighbor, homebound Mr. Hickey in the clip-on bow-tie, but a group?
To cover rental of the stale room there was a dollar attendance fee but the fee did not, I was quickly told, apply in my case. They did not want to take my money either? (Lucky: I had none.) Then, over a few hours, I heard that each club member was so in love with the notion of being a writer that obvious failures did not discourage them. When the whole thing ended the last miracle. I was invited back.
Ben Miller is the author of River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa (Lookout Books, 2013). His prose has been featured in Best American Essays, One Story, Southern Review, AGNI, Raritan, Yale Review, Kenyon Review, Antioch Review, and elsewhere. Chapter 12 of it all melts down to this: a novel in timelines will appear in Best American Experimental Writing 2020. Miller is the recipient of creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
Andrew Kane is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. He currently writes for NPR’s Ask Me Another, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Rupture, The Normal School, and elsewhere.