– Conducted via email. 5-6 June, 2016 | The Girl in Green launch, SCRIBE
Today I’m very lucky to be interviewing Derek B. Miller author of THE GIRL IN GREEN
Hi Derek, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I’m a native New Englander, born and raised in Greater Boston. I lived in New York and then Washington DC for college and graduate school and later moved to Europe in 1996, making this my 20 year anniversary. That’s something of a milestone for me, and its odd to think that in only six or seven more years I’ll have spent more of my life in Europe than America, given how relentlessly American I am (just ask my Norwegian wife).
I worked in international affairs for over twenty years at the UN, with think tanks and now as director of The Policy Lab® which I founded in 2011. We mainly work on helping organizations turn knowledge and creative thinking into strategic assets in the design of solutions, most often on humanitarian, development, and peace and security matters. This has given me a distinct footing into the material in the novel.
In terms of writing, I started on fiction in 1996. I did this quietly and didn’t mention it most people because it was probably considered weird or pretentious or socially “off.” Also, people aren’t interested in hearing you blather on for a decade about your efforts to write one or more manuscripts that never become novels. But I loved everything about it and I toiled away at the art and craft of it until 2008 when my first novel (but not my first manuscript) was finally sold. That was Norwegian by Night which met some very positive critical reception. Today, I’m writing more and more. I see myself doing this until I drop dead or the critics kill me.
What was your inspiration when creating the characters Thomas Benton and Arwood Hobbes?
The Girl in Green is set in Iraq, and about two-thirds of the book is firmly planted in the year 2013, which was an interesting time. The U.S. troops were mostly gone, Iraq was kind of on its own (though with constant international interference, including from Iran), and ISIL hadn’t quite broken off from al-Qaeda and become its own, distinct problem. In that turning-point moment, the international humanitarian organizations were still operating in refugee camps and around the country trying to protect civilians and provide support to the local population. So this novel is not a war book, and it is not about soldiers. It’s something else. To some extent, it’s something still undefined. Maybe it’s the first “peace book?” I don’t know. But it’s stepping into an uncharted space, anyway.
Benton and Arwood are different responses to a kind of life and to a kind of trauma. Arwood in particular is of a certain breed of people — and I’m certainly among them — who can’t help but notice the absurd, the manic, the comedic, and the hilarious in the midst of the nightmare that can be this world. I don’t think it’s a mere defense mechanism. It’s like being able to see a band of color that other people miss but can be taught to appreciate. I think Heller was like this. I think Vonnegut was too. Kafka in his broody way also. Arwood is the one who has this optic but is now sort of stuck with it and can’t see the world otherwise. And that is part of his trauma. But also his intelligence.
There is some important relationship between comedy and intelligence I haven’t fully investigated yet. I have noticed, though, that while there are lots of smart people who aren’t funny, there are no truly funny people who aren’t smart.
It might be slightly off topic but humor, it seems to me, is a function of the capacity to experience something from at least two perspectives at the same time and to hear (and enjoy) the interplay between those perspectives. In a sense, you need to know what is considered a norm and also how it is being violated to open the space for the comedic moment. And this is deep and human and necessary. In my view, the day we lose our sense of humor is the day we no longer know what is supposed to be normal because that space will have collapsed. That’s why the line, “It that supposed to happen?” is hilarious: It saves us. It opens everything up again. It gives us room to breathe when all else is lost and madness is the new norm. It proves we can still see the comparison. It is the essence too, as I understand it, of Jewish humor which is a well-spring for this outlook and you find it in Heller, you find it in Seinfeld, you find it in Sorkin. I think I draw from this too given my background.
The duality needed for humor is the same one needed for critical observation. This is Abraham standing on a hill and watching God Himself about to destroy Sodom and Gomorra — and saying, in effect — “Forgive me for asking, but are you sure about this?” In that moment is all the humanity, all the wisdom and all the comedy we could ever need. And you’ll notice how they are exactly the same.
All of this gave me Sheldon Horowitz in Norwegian by Night, and now inspired Arwood though he’s not Jewish and is an utterly different character. Benton is more of a straight-man in this relationship and he internalizes the pain from 1991 in a different way. Watching these different responses to a common experience gives their relationship a richness that I was happy to explore.
How much information did you already process/had to research about the troubles in the Middle East and the West’s foreign-policy agenda?
I’ve been steeped in this stuff for so long that the distinction between my education, my professional work and novel-driven research utterly dissolves. I don’t even remember. My relationship to the Middle East began in 1990 when I lived in Jerusalem for a year and — shortly after my arrival — Saddam invaded Kuwait, and then, in January, Desert Storm was launched, which resulted (from my perspective) in SCUD missiles being launched at me while I was in a bomb shelter for about a month. After that I did a Masters degree at Georgetown in national security, and later I worked at the UN and think tanks and did a doctorate. I wrote a book (with funny and unappreciated footnotes) on media pressure on foreign policy and I spent years reading thousands of articles and White House press conferences, and HANSARD minutes from Parliament (etc.) about the Iraqi civil war of 1991. This book was my way of getting that knowledge out of me, rather than into me. But it wasn’t an intellectual activity. It was a very emotional one. To the extent that the book is engaging or powerful it’s a result of this whirlwind of feelings and ideas I needed to manage and turn into a story.
What was your inspiration for the girl in the green dress character?
At the beginning, she was every child who had to suffer through the God-forsaken nightmare of what’s happening over there. As the novel developed, she became a person and someone I came to understand and care about. There’s a lot of politics around the issue of who can “represent” someone else these days, especially in the academy. Some of it is well-founded but some of it is juvenile and misdirected. But one way to cut through it — intellectually and emotionally — is to remember that only a few people care enough to even try. What inspired me was that I was moved, and so I cared. And so I tried.
With a large market of novels examining the troubles in the Middle East and the West’s foreign-policy, what sets this novel a part from the rest?
This is a novel about people, and relationships and destinies. It’s not really about examining the troubles of the Middle East, though obviously the problems people face affect the lives they live. Also, I have reason to believe — now that I’m in my 40s — that I don’t exactly see the world the same way everyone else does. This shows up in my novel.
You don’t shy away from the vast complexities of the Middle East and the exploration of region. The Girl in the Green is, first and foremost about the characters and their experiences within Iraq, why did you think it was important to tell this story?
Because that’s what a story is! It’s about humanity and relationships and drama and response to circumstance and decisions and their consequences. It’s about the force of personality encountering a world and seeing what happens. It’s the slamming of emotional states together to create sparks and see what catches fire. It’s the stuff of time and location and culture giving structure to possibility but also subverting it. These characters — these people — could not have experienced the particular drama they did were it not for the circumstances they faced. That’s what makes this a story and one we haven’t read before.
What was the most difficult thing to write about?
The slaughter of civilians. I hate gratuitous violence, I hate sadism, and don’t watch movies where people are being tortured or abused (I make some exception for zombie movies and scary science fiction), and I don’t want to put anything into the world that I’m not proud of or couldn’t justify to my children (when they’re adults). But there are legitimate reasons to go dark. Think of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Probably the hardest book I’ve ever pushed through, but utterly necessary and flat-out brilliant. I needed to face some of that and write it too, but in my own way. Sometimes it was head-on, and other times — as Emily Dickinson called it — I approached it “slant” like Vonnegut did for Slaughterhouse Five.
Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t included?
I don’t spend my time reading war books and Middle East thrillers. I’m not against them, and there are great ones, but they aren’t my thing. My favorite authors are people like Michael Chabon, Mark Helprin, Richard Ford, James Salter, William Maxwell, and Siri Hustvedt. I like Ian McEwan and Sarah Waters and Anne Proulx and Nick Hornby and David Sedaris and Bill Bryson and Per Petterson. This is what I think of as good stuff. I have no idea how The Girl in Green fits into a market, or this world of writers and readers, but — as with all serious writing, whatever its mood — I hope you come for the writing and the chance to be enveloped in a fictional dream and pulled away and enriched from the experience. This is what I’m hoping people find here. Though, admittedly, there are beige buildings and a lot of sand.
Thanks for the opportunity to share all this with you.
Thank you for your time, it was a pleasure.