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Q&A with ARK's Jesse Miller — Part 1

In honour of ARK's release, we sat down with author Jesse Miller to discuss inspiration, publication, and more.

Paperback cover of ARK by Jesse Miller

What is the story behind the story to your book? What I mean is, what led you to the story. Is there a situation, current event (whether normal or odd), person, or thought that inspired you? If you felt an urge to write it, why did you?

Some of what led me to the story is from my earlier life right out of grad school, trying to pay bills and figure out how a creative life fits with a professional life—the enduring struggle. I had a number of jobs, both over and under the table. One of those unders was working as factotum in Saratoga Springs, and having access to a number of these massive, over-elaborate Victorian mansions.

Looking back, I recognize how valuable those experiences were to inform this book. I needed to be in those spaces and drink that world in, and ultimately be nervous in some wealthy person’s home, and clean up after their young, wealthy college tenants to help me see how this book might work. As Charles Bukowski might remind us, the artist is always sitting on the doorsteps of the rich.

Now, I hound my students all the time about the mechanics of good fiction, how characters reveal so much about themselves with objects they carry around—in their cars, in their pockets, in their rooms—but there’s something equally revealing about the items people leave behind, and the way the leave them behind. Think about every hotel room you’ve ever left and how you’ve left it, and what that says about who you are. There’s a certain darkness there I think. A lot of that question led me to the idea of a Cinderella, the unblinkingness of the Brothers Grimm version, and other versions of the “Ashypet” with a kind of lidded vengeance seething right below the surface.

I read a book on Cinderella stories from different cultures and different perspectives way outside the US, with widening and narrowing apertures of happy ever afters. If you ignore the scrubbed and sanitized Disney version, the version without real desperation and gore, it so interesting that people all over the world have told and retold this story in various way. And even if we root for Cinderella, we recognize ourselves in the unsettling and desperate actions to climb out of our stations.

In many of these Cinderella stories I read, I noticed that birds played such a critical role in transforming the Cinderella character. From there, I let myself drift on some things, and I thought about birds a lot, and birds in other stories.

I recalled the Sunday school stories of my youth, and the end of the world, and the dove as the harbinger of hope, but also as a kind of catalyzing event of rebirth. And then I thought about Noah and his ark, his big collection of everything. That felt Joycean to me, the everythingness in the idea of the ark, and I’ve always been thinking of Joyce. I just like to think about Joyce, you know? And what came from that was how centrally important Odysseus—a man of many turns—was for Joyce, in the many dazzling turns of that novel. And there was the leapfrog: what if in my book there were TWO centrally important things, these birds sweeping along the elliptical orbit of these two throbbing focal points, foci—Noah’s story and Cinderella’s story—and the book evolved from there.

What are your thoughts about it being published?

When I started this book many years ago, perhaps lifetimes ago, I had this sense about being able to write my way out of the jam that I regarded as my life then. I thought if I could just capture the full expression of how I felt about language and about being alive at that moment, something transformative and tectonic would happen to me. This book would happen, and then things would happen to me.

I was thinking about things the wrong way—that dumb adrenalized bottom-line way younger men think. Ultimately, the rain/snow/shine of showing up every day to do the work of the book, the process of writing over many years, gave me the version of myself that I regard as significant, not just the product of that process. This book really shaped me as a writer.

And getting this book out is an event—a big one! But the event is really a reminder. The event of getting published reminds me of the truest deadline in life—that big FAT sleep—and how things don’t have to happen. They can, and if you work at it, they might, but as Charles Bukowski has warned us, days run away like wild horses over the hills, and I, like everybody else, need to get on one before they all go away.

I will say, being published by Common Deer Press—the world’s greatest press— reminds me in this increasingly fractal way, that little creatures can and often do great things.

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