An Interview with Douglas W. Milliken
August 14, 2019
by Meghan Lamb
Douglas W. Milliken is one of those enviably prolific writers you can’t help but marvel at. He has written so, so much, and everything he writes is so, so good. The compellingly weird and lovely titles of his books speak for themselves (in Douglas’s own original language): White Horses, To Sleep as Animals, Brand New Moon,Cream River, One Thousand Owls Behind Your Chest, The Opposite of Prayer, In the Mines, and—most recently—Blue of the World, a story collection released by Tailwinds Press on April 15th.
On his website, Douglas self-identifies as: “Writer. Performer. Crank.” While I can’t personally attest to his “Crank” status, I can safely say he’s one of my favorite writers, and—as I discovered when reading with him at Nat Baldwin’s Apohadion Theater series in Portland, Maine—one of my favorite performers. This is all to say, Douglas is one of these rare writers whose living, breathing conversation embodies the lyricism of his writing (and vice versa). He’s also funny as hell.
ML: Blue of the World opens with a dedication to Barbara and Donna, “whose endings were the beginning.” In light of these exquisite stories—whose endings, likewise, read as their own beginnings—I’m curious to know who Barbara and Donna are, and how their ending-beginnings may have shaped this collection.
Oh man, this interview is going to get dark real quick. Donna’s my mother and Barbara’s my paternal grandmother. They died within a week of each other in October of 2008 after both suffering massive strokes. For being ex-in-laws, they were incredibly close: they were often mistaken for mother and daughter, a fact only partly attributable to how much they looked alike. It was a strange and eerie blow to lose them both at once.
And to be honest, their simultaneous deaths were only part of a much greater season of loss and losing and grief. By that following January, I was living alone, unemployed, and looking at the long solo winter ahead as either something I could choose to consciously fill or something I’d passively allow to fill me. I opted for intention, doubled-down on my writing practice, and finally began treating it like the job it is, composing new material every morning, transcribing my notebook work in the afternoons, and spending the weekends editing like crazy. That’s how I drafted my first novel, To Sleep as Animals, as well as a bunch of the stories in Blue of the World. A lot of that hurt and bereavement was definitely being channeled into seriously self-destructive behavior, but I somehow managed to harness enough to do something productive, something that, in its way, was keeping me alive.
None of which is say that Mum and Gram’s deaths were what made me a writer, but they were the events that pushed me toward making writing the central activity of my life, the thing to which every other thing necessarily became secondary. Which makes for a very strange thing to feel gratitude for, especially when you consider that neither of them ever had the chance to see me in any significant way succeed as a writer.
ML: Your stories begin with evocative, curiosity-inducing first sentences, and your titles often generate an interesting tension with the language of those sentences. For example, your micro fiction piece entitled “Pretty” begins, “He dumps the tin can of unsorted keys out over the kitchen table.” As a writer who spends a great deal of time considering word choice and syntax, I’d love to hear a bit about your process. How do these sentences (and these juxtapositions of phrases) reveal themselves to you?
I grew up in a region where every little town—like an island isolated by forest and field—had its own distinct dialect and accent, something that really defined its place as discrete from the surrounding communities. And going to a consolidated school of thirteen or more towns, I had plenty of opportunity to hear them all. So, I think I just naturally picked up on how particular pairings of words or specific sentence structures could distinguish one place or person from another.
I can also remember reading fantasy and sci-fi novels as a kid and, whenever I reached a sentence that I didn’t like the rhythm or construction of (which was pretty often), I would pause to reconstruct the sentence in my head until it felt correct: half the joy of reading was rewriting the books as I read them. Combine these things with my periods of fanaticism over Gary Lutz, e. e. cummings, and James Joyce, and you’ve got someone who really truly loves exploring the potentiality of language. (I guess that’s just another way of saying “editor.”) It’s the carrot that continually tricks me into writing new material: the endless hours and days of editing are the reward, reading passages out loud again and again, literally scissoring apart passages and reassembling the sequence across the living room floor. Which, framed this way, sounds much more like play than work, so I guess it makes sense it’d be my favorite part of the process. I’m not sure that actually answers you question. But to create an idea and break it apart, reconstruct it and dissect it again, again, again…where else in life do you get so many opportunities to even approach that vicinity of perfection?
ML: Many of your stories feature moments of surprising humor, horror, and beauty: from a massive train accident in the desert to an old man’s runaway slipper; from the shooting of a rare albino moose to a strangely lovely, frozen-stiff orange. Your writing attentively reveals connections between the colossal and the delicate, often exposing the absurdity of those connections. Do you notice these kinds of connections in the course of writing a story, or do you collect them and develop your stories around them?
I suspect a lot of the absurd things are probably culled from real life (like nursing on a frozen orange while night-cruising the New York Thruway) because I—more than anything—am a ridiculous person (the amount of time I spend each day singing at my cat and dog is shameful). But I try to remain relatively ignorant when starting a new story, allow as many opportunities to surprise myself as possible. Like when I sat down to write “Saltwater Baldwin,” all I really had in mind was a dream image of the ocean taking an orchard. The rest of the first draft was the resultant sequence of associations that followed (and countless drafts later, a coherent narrative—and I guess some kind of crime story—emerged). So, in that way, composition these days is more about discovery than dictation.
But before 2012—when I started attending residencies and felt the resultant self-induced pressure to produce work, thus proving I had good cause to be there and wasn’t just some freeloading heel—I took a much more premeditated approach, spending weeks and months thinking about a story before setting any of it down in ink. So, there are a lot of those stories in Blue of the World, too (“After the Intromit” was just a one-line entry in a checklist of ideas—dog story—for maybe three years before I’d mentally catalogued enough details to chart an entry point into its narrative). I don’t think either method is better than the other, but one is certainly more fun.
All that said, I think Mala in “Hyacinth & Waxwing” comes the closest of any of my characters in explaining my experience of the world: whether the phenomena you’re witnessing are big or small, astronomical or mundane, when you look at them long enough, they all begin to resemble each other and in many ways prove to be the same exact thing. Which sometimes feels like the greatest profundity. And sometimes feels stupid as hell.
ML: I love how your stories in Blue of the World deeply examine aspects of masculinity most narratives struggle to face, from Cuthbert’s loss of selfhood (with the loss of his job) in “Under the Wing” to Jacek’s aging and physical disintegration in “Hyacinth & Waxwing.” When writing, do you consciously seek to explore less-observed territories of masculinity, or does this theme tend to emerge organically?
Not masculinity in particular (although I was conscious that a lot of father-son issues were coming up, and a lot of men responding to the absence of women, and a lot of young men running up against the limitations of their learned definitions of manhood), but the less-observed territories of the endless shit show of being a human? Yeah, I’m definitely drawn to that. All the shameful little thoughts we have each day, impossible to admit to let alone escape: that’s where the best stories exist.
For this book, though, I was more focused on structure: I wanted stories that left the main character right on the cusp of realizing what sort of person they reallywere. They don’t quite make the realization. But by the last sentence, they can finally see it flashing along the horizon. Which leaves them with a choice: do I accept what I now see in myself, or do I deny it and press on deliberately unchanged (another very human—and stereotypically masculine—thing to do).
ML: I’m always struck by the presence (and presencing) of non-human animals in your stories, from the aforementioned albino moose in “Adventure Stories for Men & Boys” to the pasture of cows in “Butterscotch.” Oftentimes, these animals read as the most resonant voices in your stories wherein so much meaning lives—unspoken—beneath the surface. As your narrator says upon noticing the cows in “Butterscotch”: “The best jokes are the ones no one has to say.” Do you think of these animals as characters in your stories? Or do you view them as something else altogether?
The cartoonist Brad Neely has a drawing of a horse (his name is Wisdom Horse) braying, “Hey humans, before there were ideas…there were animals.” I think that pretty succinctly exemplifies the role animals play in my stories and in life, just constantly pointing out—in their mute and simple way—how ridiculous we are for confusing our convoluted shenanigans as anything remotely important (nothing more efficiently makes me feel like a total boob than the damning stare of my blue-eyed dog). The narrator of “Butterscotch” is locked into some tense marital drama that he can barely pretend to comprehend. Yet the cows are standing still, wasting no energy while eating some grass. Of these two parties, only one has this business of life figured out.
ML: The landscape plays such a significant role in so many of your stories. The scenery is often uncannily beautiful, defamiliarized by extreme weather, changes over time, or your narrators’ internal emotional changes. Sometimes, this landscape is singular to Maine (and identified as such) but you also incorporate scenes from New York, Connecticut, and other unnamed elsewheres. Do you see yourself as a Maine writer (which is to say, has the atmosphere of Maine shaped your identity and interests as a writer)?
Place has always had a significant impact on how and what I write, but not always in obvious or anticipated ways. The few years I lived in New York State, I almost exclusively wrote about Maine. Then, I moved back to Maine and began writing about New York. It’s like, without some distance-making tool, I can’t write about where I am. And also, the stories I’ve written while in residence at the Hewnoaks Artists Colony or the I-Park Foundation, or while traveling in Mexico, or Italy, or wherever: none of that could have been written at home. Even if I wrote about the same characters doing the same things, it would nevertheless result in very different pieces (it’s a theory I’ve had opportunity to test: the version of “Girls’ School” I composed at home is so different from the version I rewrote in a farmhouse in Essex, NY—the version ultimately chosen for the book—that they might as well be separate stories altogether).
Since so much of my life has been lived in Maine, its various landscapes and people can’t help but have an impact on the things I write, whether the stories are set there or not. But spending a summer in Reno and its surrounding mountains and desert was a profoundly shaping experience. And I’ve probably never felt more welcome in the universe than during the few days I spent in the Badlands of South Dakota.
So, I don’t know where on the spectrum that places me as far as being a regional-specific author. By chance or by circumstance, Maine’s my home and will likely continue to be for some time: whether I stay or leave, it has marked me. But I’m not sure the appellation of “Maine writer” really comfortably fits me. Maybe because its connotations feel in some ways restrictive or inaccurate (something I suspect is similarly felt by some Southern writers or New York writers and so on). Or maybe I’m just sheepish about having never really lived anywhere else.
ML: So many short story collections feel like utilitarian parcels, boxes of recently-written stories whose compartmentalization—and organization—is guided by the simple drive to assemble and publish a book. Blue of the World, however, reads like a mysteriously-wrapped gift package filled with thoughtfully arranged surprises. I know you’re a prolific writer who probably had to make some difficult decisions about what you’d include and leave out of Blue of the World. How did you make those decisions? What guided your organization of this collection?
As a teenager in the 90s, two of my favorite things were geeking out to concept albums and making mix tapes. Individual songs are great, but the impact they can have simply by having a context—something greater than the individual parts—has always held a huge allure for me. And the way the pieces transition into one another is clutch to how (and if) that greater-meaning is conveyed. So, that’s had a significant and lasting effect on how I consider assemblage and arrangement. Like, what conversations are these seemingly disparate things having with one another? What message is expressed by the whole that wouldn’t be apparent from the individual pieces?
And also (something that harkens back to your last question), I read a ton of Stephen King as a kid, then later dove deep into Denis Johnson, Steve Erickson, and Louise Erdrich, so the idea of world-building—of constructing an expanding mosaic of interconnected stories—is deeply ingrained in my approach to storytelling. A piece often doesn’t feel complete until I know how it fits into the greater body of stories (even if it’s in a completely invisible way), and while that puzzle-piecing has on occasion totally saved a flagging story, it also often feels like pure indulgence of immature fancy. The fact that you picked up on that intentionality really validates that choice, makes me feel less like a little boy pretending his hours away.
ML: What are you reading now? What are you working on now?
I am not exaggerating when I say I’m waiting for this snowstorm to pass so I can drive into town and get new books from the library. But the last books I read with real enjoyment were Jenny Hval’s Paradise Rotand Sam Shephard’s Spy in the First Person, both of which, like your novel Silk Flowers, are like tiny ninjas (swift, efficient, and devastating) yet are about as similar as toothpaste and orange juice. I’ve also been slowly working through Enlightenment—Time Histories,a retrospective of the German artist Hanne Darboven, but that’s as much for research as personal enjoyment. I’m currently dividing my energies between writing a series of associative vignettes (maybe for a novel?) about a woman’s chosen family dissolving amid a city fallen to war, finding a publisher for a monograph about domestic violence, and preparing for the publication later this year of my second novel, Our Shadows’ Voice(Fomite Press), about the endless and hounding permutations of grief.
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Meghan Lamb is the author of All Your Most Private Places (Spork Press, 2019) and Silk Flowers (Birds of Lace, 2017). She recently served as the Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University, where she developed a novel set in the Pennsylvania coal region. Her work has appeared in Quarterly West, DIAGRAM, Redivider, Pass
Douglas W. Milliken is the author of two novels, To Sleep as Animals and Our Shadows’ Voice (forthcoming 2019), the collection Blue of the World, and several chapbooks, including The Opposite of Prayer. His stories have been honored by the Maine Literary Awards, the Pushcart Prize0, and Glimmer Train, as well as published in dozens of journals, including Slice, the Collagist, and the Believer, among others. He lives with three mammals of decreasing size near a post-industrial dam on the Saco River. www.douglaswmilliken.com