What would you do if a miracle happened to you? That’s the question behind Anatomy of a Miracle, the new novel from author Jonathan Miles (Dear American Airlines, Want Not) and this month’s selection for our First Editions Club.
It’s about a young, paraplegic veteran named Cameron Harris, who lives in Biloxi, Mississippi, with his sister and caretaker, Tanya. One day, as he waits for her outside the Biz-E-Bee convenience store, the unimaginable happens: he stands up from his wheelchair, suddenly healed. As news of his inexplicable recovery spreads, Cameron becomes a celebrity — and the target of investigations by journalists, scientists, and even the Vatican. Everyone wants to discover the explanation for what happened, and to do so, they dig into Cameron’s past.
What makes the book even more fun to read is the way Miles has written it — as if the book itself is an investigative report. Miles knows journalism; he’s a former columnist for The New York Times who has also written for several other outlets on topics ranging from cooking to cocktails to the outdoors.
Join us for a book-signing and happy hour to celebrate Anatomy of a Miracle right here at Parnassus this Thursday, March 15. In the meantime, enjoy this Q&A between Miles and our Musing editor, Mary Laura Philpott.
Most books are about more than they seem to be about. That is, there’s a character or plot that drives the story, and then there are deeper, more universal themes illuminated by that story. If you agree that’s true, how would you fill in these blanks? “Anatomy of a Miracle is about ______. But it’s really about ______.”
JM: Anatomy of a Miracle is about a young Mississippi man whose spontaneous, inexplicable recovery from paralysis gets hailed as a miracle. But it’s really about (I think) the filters we all use to see the world, and the ways in which we process and interpret information. It’s about the way we use stories to build a worldview.
Anatomy of a Miracle is presented as if it’s a piece of longform journalism. Why did you want to apply that structure and angle to this story?
JM: In the novel, millions of people hear about the purported miracle via news reports, and their reactions vary widely. Some deem it a divine miracle; others call it a physiological mystery; others suspect a hoax. I wanted readers to experience that for themselves — to process the story in a way similar to the fictional audience, to feel the weight of their own worldviews.
You seem to have some sympathy for people whose lives become the focus of in-depth reporting. Were there any real-life cases in particular you had in mind as you crafted Cameron’s story?
JM: There were multitudes. To venture (or even accidentally wander) into the public eye, in the internet age, is to invite a swarm of inquisition. From all ends of the media, yes, but also from doxxers and trolls and various other species of internet insect life. As a journalist I’ve spent lots of time with celebrities, and the dark aspects of fame have always fascinated me. In most of their cases, however, the fame was sought or was at least a byproduct of some success. In the novel, Cameron’s fame is as sudden and incomprehensible as his recovery, and in some ways becomes the flip side—the curse—to his blessing. He can walk again, but he can no longer harbor secrets. It’s not a bargain he sees coming.
How have you evolved as a writer from your first books to this one?
JM: In evolutionary terms, I’ll place myself somewhere between a trilobite and a lizard. I’ve emerged from the water but I’m still a ways from walking upright and playing cello sonatas. What’s of greater interest to me is my evolution as a reader, which of course gets refracted onto my writing. As a young man I regarded novels as instruction manuals for existence. I came to them hollow, seeking to be filled. (I soon found that, as a general rule, the better the novel, the worse the example for living contained therein; but bad examples are instructive too.) Now that I’m older, with gray hairs to prove it, I no longer crave instruction. What I crave is engagement — art that forces me to look differently at something I thought I knew or understood, that refreshes my sense of what it means to be alive.
We can’t overlook your mixology expertise. If you were making a drink for a book club to enjoy while discussing this book, what would it be?
JM: Well, the main character drinks Bud Light by the case, so if that’s your flavor, pop a top. But his physician is fond of Sazeracs, and the Vatican investigator likes his Negronis, both lovely drinks. I should note here that Cathead Distillery, from Jackson, Mississippi, and Broadbent Selections, a Virginia importer of fine wines, have teamed up to serve a signature cocktail at my reading events, including my stop at Parnassus. Most novelists show up at their events with just a pair of reading glasses and a copy of their book. I like to also pack a bartender.
And finally: favorite thing about bookstores?
JM: Everything. Bookstores have always been where I’m happiest. The kid-in-a-candy-store analogy doesn’t work for me, because even as a kid I preferred bookstores to candy stores. If you ate too much candy you’d throw up. But if you read too many books you’d just get happier and wiser.
(Anatomy of a Miracle will be published Tuesday, March 13, 2018. Reserve your copy now, then come grab it tomorrow or get it at the event on Thursday!)
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