A Conversation with Author Gary Lee Miller

A Conversation with Author Gary Lee Miller

Gary Lee Miller is a Vermont-based author who will run a workshop at this year’s Northern Woodlands Conference, “Short and Sweet: The Power of the Seven Minute Writing Prompt.” His writing has appeared in a number of literary magazines, and he’s made a name for himself around the state as the co-founder and principal instructor for Writers for Recovery, a series of workshops for people recovering from opioid abuse and other addictions. Miller also edits manuscripts, and performs with The Trailerblazers, a self-described hillbilly band. Information about his 2014 compilation of short stories, Museum of the Americas, is available here.

Recently, we took some of Miller’s time to discuss his life as a writer, his work with recovering addicts, and other topics that wandered into the conversation. Here are excerpts.

How He Learned to Appreciate Storytelling:

Pennsylvania definitely made me a writer. I grew up in a bar. Literally from the time I was five years old, I was with my dad at the bar, and I listened to all these incredible stories. There were men my dad’s age, 40’s and 50’s, older. They told hunting stories and fishing stories and work stories and they had an incredible sense of humor, incredible timing. They knew how to make you wait for it.

How He Started Writing:

I didn’t start writing until college. I wanted to be a field biologist. I was very much into outdoors and nature. I hunted, I fished, I camped, I was outdoors all the time. But I didn’t understand that you had to take chemistry, physics, organic chemistry and calculus. And it killed me.

I also was drinking heavily in high school and moved onto drugs in college and that was a big thing. But I feel like I started my recovery when I was a senior in college and I started writing and reading fiction.

I came from a family that didn’t have any money. So I had to put myself through college…and I ran out of money my junior year and I had to take a year off to work, and I couldn’t find a job. And I was pretty bummed out. I had a roommate who was a pretty smart guy and he said: Look, you know, you don’t have to go to college to learn stuff. The library’s down the street. So I started reading fiction and I started writing fiction and I went back and I changed my major to English.

Why He Likes Vermont:

I found that Vermont has a lot of the things that I love about the place where I grew up. I still love to trout fish which I did as a kid…I spend a lot of time on the river in the summer fly fishing and that’s a big part of my life right now. And I love to bike, and to get out in the woods. I’m out digging leeks…well, they call them ramps here. In Pennsylvania, leeks are actually a huge, huge deal in the spring. Every church, every volunteer fire department, every fundraiser has a ham and leek supper…it took me years to find a really good leek spot here and I guard that secret. I don’t tell anyone where I go to get them.

How He’s Had to Learn a New Language:  

I grew up in a culture of people who mostly weren’t book smart. Who mostly didn’t talk about literature, film, and whatever – they told their own stories. And now I’ve transitioned and I live in a culture that’s completely different and I speak in fact two languages. It’s kind of sad because my dad died a few years ago and he was the last person I talked to regularly in my native language. There’s just a whole different way of speaking…I don’t know. It’s complicated and I’d love to write something about it someday.

I was quite shocked when I moved into this new culture that guys named Steven wanted to be called Steven and not Stevie or Steve…We didn’t even go with the names. T-bone and Peach Head and Needle Dink the Bug F---er were my friends. My mother called him that. His name was Carl, but no one called him Carl. He was Needle or Needle Dink if you wanted to get formal.

How Writing Prompts Work:

When someone says, here’s a prompt, seven minutes, go, you don’t have time to think, “I can’t do this.” You don’t have time to think, “I’m doing it wrong.” And more importantly, if everyone’s writing for seven minutes, no one’s expecting perfection, because how could you create perfection in seven minutes? You’re only going to produce something that’s flawed. And the expectation is it will be imperfect. And so we can all know from the get go that it’s not going to be perfect and there’s no way to do it wrong.

How Writers For Recovery Helps People Recovering from Addiction:

It’s so freeing for people to get these stories out there. And the groups are so supportive. They’re all people who are in the same boat or have been in the same boat. I’ve had a guy come into the group and say, “I’ve been clean for four hours.” And literally be so anxious and physically shaking. And we have people who have been clean 30 years. And they’re all there together, and they’re all supportive, and sharing, and showing compassion when people cry, which they do. And being there when people tell a story about something that happened to them or something that they did that they’re ashamed of. And I think the prompts are just really what make it all possible.

His Admiration for Stephen Foster:

Years ago, I wrote a website [for PBS’ American Experience] about the composer Stephen Foster. A main point of one of the historians who wrote about him was that Stephen Foster’s work was so amazingly successful and so became a part of America because the longing for home is one of the core values of the American psyche. “Hard Times Come Again No More” is one of the greatest songs I would argue, hands down in all of American history, and it’s because it’s about longing for home. And you know, people who are in recovery have lost their homes. They’ve lost those places that are important to them. Those houses, and communities, and some of them have lost their freedom. The guys in prison. They’re adjusting to a completely foreign sense of place, the guys in jail… one guy wrote an amazing poem about his blanket in the Springfield Prison. Place is just such a part of being human that we can’t not write about it, really, can we?

Museum of The Americas and the Tiny Museum Tour:

There actually was a Museum of the Americas in Vermont. I don’t know what was inside it. When I went to grad school at Vermont College [of Fine Arts], I would drive up from Boston, and I would get off the highway…the first time I drove up there, I come up over a rise and I see this low-slung building, paint peeling, yellow with a cupola on top, and two 1940’s-50’s era cars sitting out front, all rusted out, and a sign that says, “Museum of the Americas.” And my first thought was, oh my God how peculiar, preposterous, pretentious…I don’t know what, the idea of the museum of the whole damn Americas here.

That was my first thought. And my second thought was, I’m gonna write a story about it, and my third thought was, I never want to know what’s inside that museum. I’m going to make it up. And I sat on that for years, for three or four years before I just thought about this old guy and a museum with jars of soil.

The funny thing when the book came out, I did a tiny museum tour. I’m fascinated by tiny museums. So I read in Glover at the Museum of Everyday Life. In Waitsfield at the Madsonian Museum of Industrial Design. And I read in Boston, in Somerville, at the Museum of Bad Art.

The Publishing World Is Cruel:

The honest thing is, it’s so hard. It’s just so hard, I have three unpublished novels, one of which is a terrible detective novel – probably one of the worst detective novels written. I have a little pride in that. I was represented by probably one of the best agencies in New York City, they repped the Kerouac estate…and I had an agent who over the course of two years repeated the following phrase to me so many times: Gary, I promise you there’s going to be a happy ending. And guess what, there wasn’t.

But At Least It’s Lucrative:

I got my last royalty check a couple of months ago and it was four figures, if you count the two after the decimal point.

Why Good Writers Become Bad Musicians:

I play in this little hillbilly trio called The Trailerblazers with my friends Ken and Paul. And I’m what’s known as the “team handicap.” I can’t really sing and I’m not a great guitar player and I don’t know why they play music with me. But I’ll tell you one thing: I’m a way, way better writer than I am a guitar player and singer. But I can write the best story I can write, it can be published in a great literary magazine, and no one will ever clap for me. I can go out to Bagito’s Bagel Shop in Montpelier and put out a cup and play me a Merle Haggard tune with two other guys and sing it terribly and play it ok, and people will clap, and people will say “I like that.” And writers don’t get that.

Will He Play at the Conference’s Open Mic Night:

Oh, sure.

Don't miss Gary Lee Miller at the Northern Woodlands Conference. Enroll now!

  1. Ernest Hebert → in Westmoreland, NH
    May 12, 2017

    What a great read! Gives me faith in the written word and in young writers. Thanks to Northern Woodlands for letting Gary speak for himself.

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