Jeff Zentner Interviews Jason Miller, Hilarity Ensues

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Hi – Jeff Zentner here. Recently, I had the great honor of blurbing the book Red Dog, the second book in the Slim in Little Egypt series by Nashville crime novel author Jason Miller. Here’s what I had to say about it:

Red Dog reads like driving a pickup with a lift kit at 80 mph down back roads, while listening to Mitch Hedberg and Steve Earle. Miller’s sentences explode from the page like they were dynamited out of bedrock; his dialogue and plot crackle with the energy of a Midwestern thunderstorm.

In case it’s not abundantly clear, I loved this book, as well as Miller’s first, Down Don’t Bother Me. Here’s Red Dog in a nutshell:

y450-293One hot summer day, in his home in the southern Illinois coal country known as Little Egypt — a Midwest Gothic wonderland of barren vistas, sinister hollows, petty corruption, and deeply strange characters — the self-appointed “redneck detective” known as Slim gets a visit from a shady-looking pair who introduce themselves as Sheldon Cleaves and his son, A. Evan, looking to hire him to find a missing dog. As a miner with a reputation for “bloodhounding” — tracking down missing persons the police can’t find or won’t — Slim is accustomed to looking for people, not pets. On the other hand, he needs the cash to fix his air conditioner. But when he pulls the thread that leads to the Cleaves’ red-haired purebred pitbull — and then the dognapper is discovered with his head blown off — Slim finds himself plunged into a world of underground dogfights and white supremacists. . . all because he just wanted to get cool.

It was my pleasure and honor to interview Miller in advance of his event at Parnassus Books coming up August 25. Full disclosure: we are buds.

– Jeff Zentner
Author, The Serpent King


Something that’s very impressive to me is how you write across widely differing genres and platforms and do all exceptionally well. Twitter (where I discovered you), graphic novels, television comedy, and now crime novels. What are the commonalities for you, in terms of process, and differences, across these forms? Do each call upon a different muse?

jason-miller-500x586JM: I’ve been a voice writer for pretty much as long as I can remember. One thing, I’m a terrible parrot, so it’s something I have to keep an eye on. A voice or a line of narration or a tone or style gets in my head, and it can be a bit like a musical earworm. Very hard to get rid of. On the other hand, this proved useful to me back in the days when I was hack writing. I’ve done a bit of everything: novelizations, comic book ghost work, encyclopedia articles (literally by the hundreds and hundreds).

In my opinion, this is a great exercise for young writers — writing in different styles with a mind to communicating to very different kinds of audiences. The process, as far as it goes, is more or less the same: clarity and what I like to think of as courtesy to one’s readership in pursuit of communication. The muse, of course, is cold hard cash.

I hear you on the cold hard cash, buddy (I’m doing that “cash” finger rubbing motion and making uncomfortably long eye contact with you).

JM: If you just want to chat about money for an hour, I could do that. Money: I Love It and Want More.

Who are some of the writerly voices or texts that have most influenced you?

JM: As with most of us, the list is long. I write crime, so there are a ton of crime novelists in there, everybody from Poe and Doyle to Sophie Littlefield, Joe Lansdale, Nevada Barr, and James Crumely. When I was in college, I read a lot of James Wilcox and Barbara Pym, small-scale comedies of manners. That attention to detail, nuance, and the hidden abrasions and slights of social life and interaction meant a lot to me as I developed my voice as a novelist and the kinds of themes I wanted to touch on.

I wish there really were comedies of literal manners, where you could learn manners…and have fun! My mother never loved me. Moving on.

JM: You get yourself some stacks, you don’t need many manners.

I feel like we’ve seen an object lesson of this somewhere in recent days.

JM: Yea, verily. And I wish we hadn’t.

Two of the most delightful aspects of Red Dog are the physical descriptions, which really bring the characters and places vividly to life; and the dialogue, which is the beating heart of the story, in my opinion. Can you talk about your approach to crafting descriptions? How did you develop your ear for dialogue?

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Down Don’t Bother Me , the first in Miller’s Slim in Little Egypt series

JM: Thank you. One of the important things I wanted to do with the Slim in Little Egypt series was to make southern Illinois (hereafter “SOIL”) really come to life, and not even so much as a specific place, but more an avatar of rural middle America. For me the trick was to include enough environmental description that SOIL felt “real” to readers but without getting in the way of the narrative’s momentum. There’s this great story about the advice Charles Willeford gave to a young Elmore Leonard. He said, you’re struggling because you’re trying to write a great novel when you should be trying to write a great crime novel. That’s always in the back of my head when I’m working on Slim novels.

 

Dialogue, frankly, I learned from listening to my parents and aunts and uncles and friends. They way they express themselves, unusual turns of phrases that surprise or turn back on themselves in unexpected ways. Sometimes the best damn thing a writer can do is to get out of his own way and just listen.

We talked a moment ago about some of your writerly influences. To the extent this question contains an answer that goes beyond the answer to that question: If you were to feed Red Dog into a mass spectrometer for artistic and other influences, what influences would it reveal?

JM: When I was a kid, I read a lot of Steinbeck. I went to a very rural high school and not the best funded enterprise you’ve ever run into, so the programs tended to be pretty threadbare. I ended up reading all the novels I wanted to read on my own, so I discovered Steinbeck and Hemingway and Faulkner and all the writers young men discovered back then, Zora Neale Hurston and the mysterious, brilliant Flannery O’Connor. When I was in college, I read my first Cormac McCarthy. I don’t remember which one. It might have been All the Pretty Horses because that was out around that time and had won the National Book Award. But, man, I couldn’t get enough. I read them all. I even read his terrible stage play, so I think you could scrape some of that DNA from Down Don’t Bother Me and Red Dog.

When I was in college, I also read Eudora Welty and Marianne Moore, and I think I probably learned as much about simple, spare, clear narrative description and scene setting from them as from anyone.

Both of your books really display, in their gift for description, your love of Cormac McCarthy.

JM: McCarthy’s an interesting case, because . . . which one? Tennessee McCarthy or Texas McCarthy? Suttree is in some ways my favorite of his novels, but it’s also utterly maddening, dense to the point of incoherence, and basically a failure of art. But then again so was Moby Dick.

I loved Suttree. I think that’s the funniest of McCarthy’s novels. I suspect he’s a much funnier guy than he lets on. Speaking of funny, this is very subjective, of course, but it felt like humor played a more prominent role in Red Dog than in Down Don’t Bother Me. Do you feel like your comedic voice is assuming a more prominent role in your non-comedic writing?

JM: Absolutely. I’ve always conceived of this series as basically a dark comedy (think of something in the vein of Fargo). In some ways, Down Don’t Bother Me feels like a pilot episode. We’re meeting the characters and setting the table, but the tone, I think, was very much something I was still tinkering with. Red Dog gets much closer to what I’m trying to accomplish here, somewhere between Southern grit lit-crime and a big, rowdy family story along the line of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown novels.

I can definitely see the parallel to Fargo, and I loved how Red Dog was both a continuation of Down Don’t Bother Me in a sense but also very much its own story. What are the challenges of writing a second book in a series like this? What are the rewards?

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Jason Miller presents Red Dog at Parnassus Books — Thursday, August 25, at 6:30 p.m.

JM: The challenge, I think, is to keep things new. Keep things moving forward in a way that feels natural and not cheap or contrived. The obvious reference here is to television series or comic books where there’s always this tension to do something NEW, basically to break the place. And some writers pull that off, but I also find that too often they fall back into a kind of feedback loop. How many dead wives does Burke’s poor Dave Robicheaux have now? Answer: It’s several!

 

So there’s this danger in the familiar, in the comfortable, and all the pressure that exerts on writers, both positive and negative. I’d also say that one of the coolest things that’s happened since Down Don’t Bother Me came out last year is that people I’ve never met before write to me to ask — sometimes to worry — about the characters in the novel. I can’t tell you how many people have written to thank me for not killing Jeep Mabry off at the end of the book. One young lady wrote to ask whether Anci would grow up to be a good feminist (I assured her she absolutely would). So that’s out there, too, the fact that these characters take on a life of their own and are made their own by readers in ways that maybe we don’t always think about. At least I didn’t.

Now, the rewards, of course, are jet-skis. But then all writers know that.

I would say it’s jet-skis and also creating something of lasting beauty. I kid, I kid. It’s only jet-skis.

JM: #JETSKIS. But also oceanfront property.

Sure, sure. You mentioned Anci. One of the things I most loved about Red Dog was the lightness, energy, and spunk that Anci brought to the story. I have to confess that I’m not familiar enough with crime fiction to know if it’s commonplace for a protagonist to have an adolescent sidekick, but I suspect it’s unusual.

JM: Yeah, Anci is a tightrope in some ways. Her obvious reference is to pre-code comics where, like, Robin the Boy Wonder is running around being 12 while Batman is basically murdering gangsters by the bathtub-full. There’s also some Paper Moon in there, too. I can’t speak for all detective/mystery fiction, of course, but I think a character like that is more common in the world of comics than in my stuff. I’m thinking specifically of something like Alan Bradley’s terrific Flavia de Luce novels. Something like that.
It’s impossible to overstate her importance to the series, though. It was basically when I worked out Anci’s character and her significance that these books really snapped into focus for me and really came alive in my imagination.

As a writer for young adults, I can tell you with some certainty that if you ever wanted to spin Anci off into a young adult series, you could do that and (again, making the “cash” finger-rubbing motion, making uncomfortably long eye contact). Do you embrace the natural limitations inherent in setting your stories in rural coal country of southern Illinois? Do you resent them? Both? Neither?

JM: I think I can promise some Anci-centric (?) stories to come. I’ve been planning them for some time now and would LOVE her to have her own side series.

I think you embrace your space, right? All of us write within about some constrained place, time, or attitudes. Rural places are no different. But this does bring up an interesting point. I don’t usually pay attention to book critics but one recurring complaint about Down Don’t Bother Me has been that “coal miners don’t talk that way.” That strikes me as ass-backwards and upside down. More to the point, it’s mean and snobby in a way I didn’t expect. Turns out — and I know your jaw will hit the floor here — there’s a kind of prejudice against working people out there. Assumptions, you might say.

When you make an assumption, you make an ass out of umption.

JM: And when you presume, you make a “pres” out of u and me, but I still don’t think it’s very nice.

What does the future hold for Slim?

JM: The stories will keep getting bigger and funnier. At least that’s my plan. Also jet-skis.

If you could choose any human to buy and love your book, who do you choose and why?

JM: Barack Obama or Joe Biden. For real. I love them and want to be part of their pizza parties.

Man, Obama bought one of my friend’s books and I have legitimately never been more jealous of a fellow author for any reason.

JM: He’s gone now, but I always wanted to get a book to James Crumley. He’s the granddaddy of what people like me do.

Remember when Clinton called Devil in a Blue Dress one of his favorite books? I would die. Literally die. Then come back to haunt you specifically, Jeff.

Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 4.16.57 PMI would have you exorcised so fast. Ok, final question. And it’s the most important so I want you to consider it very carefully: You’ve got John Candy and Jon Hamm. You may choose one. If you choose Jon Hamm, the life and works of John Candy will cease to exist. Also, you cannot ever again eat candy. If you choose John Candy, the life and works of Jon Hamm will cease to exist and you cannot ever again eat ham(m). Choose now, before God and men.

JM: This is easy like peasy. I’ve a vegetarian, so I do not eat the ham. Plus, I like candy just fine. Plus, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is badly overrated. You can hate on me in comments.

A candyman, then. Well met, sir. Thank you.

Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 3.20.46 PMJeff Zentner is the author of the critically acclaimed YA novel The Serpent King, a past selection for our ParnassusNext subscription box, as well as the forthcoming follow-up novel, Goodbye Days (2017).

Insider tip –Jeff Zentner and Jason Miller are two of the funniest individuals you’ll ever follow on Twitter. Do yourself a favor:  @jeffzentner   @longwall26