Literary Crime Fiction Interview: Derek B. Miller
Debut novelists are given big marketing pushes to try and stand out from the crowd and, often, the spotlight is far too bright in relation to the quality of the actual book. Thankfully Norwegian by Night by American writer Derek B. Miller delivers on the publishing hype with its fascinating 82-year-old Jewish American ex-Marine Sheldon Horowitz at the core.
A meandering novel that straddles the crime and literary fiction genres, it is being promoted hard by Faber with British broadsheet newspapers tipping Derek as one of the writers to watch in 2013.
I was lucky enough to spend an hour talking with the former Boston native about his intriguing premise, the difficult themes it tackles, and his hopes for this new writing career, which would have to complement his “day job” where he is the Director of The Policy Lab, and a senior fellow with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. While The Policy Lab is based in Boston, Miller resides in Oslo with his wife and children.
Matthew: Are you surprised with how enthused the British press are for your book?
Derek: “It does feel that there is a certain coterie of people who have a strong connection to this book and become very strong advocates for it. Word of mouth amongst the intelligentsia of Britain, so to speak, seems to be getting around. As soon as The Times pegged me as being one of the writers to watch in 2013, it must have had some impact.”
It stands out in the sense that it meshes two genres successfully. How do you see it?
“It’s being sold as a crime novel in Britain whereas in half the countries it’s being published, it is not. I don’t really read much crime. The crime came much later than the character - it was a theme driven book. Partly for me to grow as a writer, I needed something that had a more traditional structure than a previous manuscript I had written. Writing in the crime genre forced some discipline on me as a writer, which I need. Ultimately, I really wanted to write about Sheldon.”
What was the launch pad for the themes that you explore?
“There are various themes and the question is whether a story could be found in the interrelationship of the themes. I wrote this in 2008 and the birth of my son was one of the major topics. Sheldon was a character from a previous manuscript that wasn’t published and won’t be in the future, even though I am pulling stuff from it.
“In many ways, I wanted to explore Norway. I knew we were going to move up here. I am less of the view that you should write about what you know than write about what interests you because presumably you’ll learn. It reminds me of an interview with Jerry Seinfeld after his TV show finished. At the end of it there was a Q&A where somebody from the audience said, “Why don’t you do any movies?” I liked his answer which was, “If you go to a bad movie, it’s two hours. If you are in a bad movie, it’s two years.”
“Writing a book takes a tremendous amount of time. I bore easily so I needed themes that I wanted to stay with. My grandparents’ generation was obviously passing and I was very concerned about how they are going to be remembered. Are they going to be taken seriously or are they going to be caricatured? That generation defined the 20th century and the platform we are building off now.
“Sheldon was a Jewish American character that I wanted to portray because I hadn’t seen it done enough or perhaps at all, but I had seen these people in life. There was a disconnect between Jewish men from that generation which was partly their own fault, at least in entertainment. That sort of clownish character has no resonance in my generation. There were 500,000 Jewish American soldiers in World War Two and that doesn’t appear in fiction. The Jewish population in the States is about six million so that’s a huge percentage, not to mention the ones that went to Korea and Vietnam. It doesn’t come up in conversation. It is so prevalent, yet so absent.
“A very particular sense of Jewish identity in the States is connected to that kind of emancipation that took place during the war. Given that so much of the Jewish immigration took place after WWI (though most of my family came earlier), it was during WWII that our “Americanness” was as much forged by American experience as European conduct. I don’t want to sound jingoistic or, tub thumping, but many of the complexities and contradictions that results in Sheldon — who more or less pushed his son into a Vietnam war that he didn’t quite believe in — come from this particular Jewish-American read of the American experience vis-à-vis our experience in Europe. We were given a chance to fight for something bigger than ourselves and we did.”
Korea is almost the forgotten war, so how interesting was it to research that period?
“Korea was a weird war, because I think there were only about 30 American journalists fielded over there during the entire war. We often forget from the American perspective that it was a United Nations war. It wasn’t one of ours, though we are still there. We have never stopped being on the Demilitarised Zone between the north and south. I have a PhD in International Relations and an MA in National Security, so I deal with war in my day job. So I had some background and knowledge here to draw upon — though I had to look up plenty of details.
“The one thing key to me about Korea was how soon it happened after WWII, which is something we forget. It was only five years later. A lot of the young ones who couldn’t fight WWII wanted to fight in Korea. One has to be careful about portraying it as Jewish guilt or Holocaust survivor syndrome, because it’s not. It was more a case of, ‘I wanted to kick ass with my countrymen, but I couldn’t because I was 14.’ It’s an impulse (wise or otherwise) that is inherent to being a guy.”
Taking that into consideration, how difficult was it to write the scenes between Sheldon the Korean War veteran and his son Saul, who is fighting the Vietnam War?
“Emotionally, I sat at my desk and cried when I wrote those parts. It can sound pathetic but, on the other hand, if I am not sincerely touched by what I am creating then I am not achieving what I want. There were two scenes that were the hardest to write that I was putting off for a while, but I knew were going to be central. One was the scene where Sheldon, in his mind, goes on his son’s final journey in Vietnam. I could easily have made it back story and never walked the readers through it. I didn’t know how it was going to play out when I was doing it.
“The other one was the conversation between father and son when Saul comes back from Vietnam. It was only upon writing and editing it that I was able to go back to earlier parts of the book and make sure the foreshadowing leading up to that scene was balanced. It wasn’t an argument. It was a discussion that had implications. It was everything that Saul was trying to do to be the son that he thought his father wanted him to be while for Sheldon it was to recognise that he didn’t have the words to tell his son not to do it. If the scenes didn’t move me, they didn’t get in.”
You also focus on another war that often gets lost in the historical mix, that of the recent Balkan conflict. Why that one in particular?
“This was one I was familiar with from my normal line of work. From a Western viewpoint I think the essence of the story was that as soon as there wasn’t an obvious villain or hero we all turned over the channel. We thought, given the conduct of the Serbs, that supporting the opposition was the obvious thing to do, but we didn’t want to inflame the war. In fact, The KLA also acted atrociously.
“I made up the actual incidents, but I kept the names of actual villages where such events happened. I got those from newspapers. There is a tremendous amount of hatred there. For those of us who don’t truly understand the Balkans, we don’t realise how drenched in blood that region is.
“There are a significant number of people from there who are up here in Oslo now. In my novel, virtually everyone is an immigrant. Some have acculturated. Most haven’t. As for Sheldon, Norway doesn’t really have a Jewish history, for example. It’s largely alien to them. There has never been a Jewish history here like in London, or Prague, or Vienna. And this is unusual for Europe.
“More generally, I wanted to create a set of juxtapositions, because they are fun to use when telling stories. So immigrants — especially hostile ones — against the peaceful blue and sun of Norway was very appealling for a storyteller. Meanwhile, it’s topical too. One of the defining qualities of Norway right now is that it’s punching way above its weight class in terms of international political impact and I think they know it. Last I checked, it was the seventh largest gross contributor to the United Nations which is amazing for a country of around five million people. They have a huge influence on the world in terms of humanitarian and development funding. I’m certain it is well intentioned. But it would benefit by more strategic clarity, policy tools, and coordinated conduct. But now we’re moving into my day-job concerns.”
How much fun was it to write dialogue for an 82-year-old character?
“Fun. Big fun. You have to be true to the references, the tone of voice, the humour and the sensibility. If I may make a bold statement, Jews are funny. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen it all. I wanted Sheldon to be a serious character, but I didn’t want him to lose his sense of humour. Sheldon makes fun of the world. He can get away with anything as an old man. As I writer I would really cut loose with it. I think there should be a lot more characters of this age.
“On a personal note, something that is really fun for me at 42 years old, when life normally begins to narrow and you have to accept who you are and what you do, suddenly somebody threw open a door and said to me that I can go through here too! Behind it is this Wonderland, Narnia almost, populated by people and conversations that I never knew I would have in the literary and publising worlds. Meanwhile, an 82-year-old Jewish man wandering around Scandinavia is suddenly the talk of the town.”
Was keeping Sheldon’s child companion Paul silent throughout the story a conscious decision from the outset?
“I never set out to have him silent the entire time - I just went from scene to scene. If you are a traumatised kid to begin with and then you have another traumatic event like he has at seven years old, I just kept asking myself what would he do here. I kept feeling he wouldn’t speak. If he spoke a language, would it be Albanian, Serbian, Serbo-Croatian or Norwegian? I kept not wanting to answer that.
“The one scene where I decided he wasn’t going to say a word was when they are in the little blue house by the water. He wakes up, sees Sheldon and throws his arms round him. It wasn’t so much a hug of affection; more a drowning victim latching onto something that was floating. I respected what I was witnessing rather than what I wanted to write. If they would have had more direct conversations, it would have made Sheldon’s experiences in the past and present feel diverting.”
When is the next Derek B. Miller tome rolling onto the presses?
“You are the first person I have told this to, which is that I have 350 pages of the next book written. It’s a hell of a start. I don’t know how long it will end up, apart from being somewhere between 250 and 500 pages. It’s more of an ensemble piece than a one-man show, as it was with Sheldon. I’d like to have a draft done in the spring. I want to sit on it and see where we are. What I am sure about is that the only way to follow up Sheldon Horowitz is not to complete with him, but create a new world afresh. As a hint, I’ll be taking readers to New England…
“I am trying to break into an incredibly difficult industry walking the fine line of literary commercial fiction. The American release is coming out in May and other countries during the summer. I’m not depending on this financially. If it does well, that would be a beautiful thing but I am not counting on it. As it is, I’m feeling very lucky to simply be here. A debut novel like this coming out in eight languages and counting? I’m speechless.
“So anyway, the next one is more of a mystery and family drama than a thriller. There is no chase or shootouts. People won’t be waiting three years for it, though! What I can say is that my inspiration comes more from Safran Foer, Chabon, Franzen, Maxwell, Salter, Auster and Ford than the hard-boiled school of crime. So if that appeals to your readers, please look for me.”
Click here to buy Norwegian by Night. Learn more about Derek on his Facebook page.