Airin Miller is a Rolling Stones girl and her fiction shows it.
I first met Airin when we were both students at Bennington College, and my initial impression of her was that she’d make a hell of an image on the back of a book jacket, spritely pretty and with the good blue-collar pedigree attractive in authors. Raised in the gritty suburbs of Baltimore and the daughter of a police officer, her fiction evokes the naivete, longing, and hard living of what her fellow Baltimore native John Waters lovingly deemed “extreme white people.”
Bennington College, for those not familiar with it, is one of those New England liberal arts experiments that straddles the line between institution of higher learning and, for lack of a better word, “art farm.” Intimate, isolated, and populated with “indigo” children, the environment was a playful microcosm for a circus of mad egos to manicure their bohemian identities with the imaginative seriousness of children playing house. There were rock stars, abstract expressionists, filmmakers, and physicists and we all were legends in our own minds, but perhaps none styled themselves with so much self-consciousness and romanticism as the writers—a clique that divided its education equally between workshops and the campus pub.
Airin and I knew each other inasmuch as we belonged in this little sub-society, and, perhaps, both of us hailing from markedly less tony backgrounds than many of the sophisticated, cosmopolitan beau monde from which elite New England colleges draw their enrollment, we shared a similar insecurity of being impostors in the ivory tower—hillbillies in hipster attire. We both responded by writing tough, visceral fiction celebrating the respected lands of our rearing, some of which you can read in Epiphany. My own story about meth addicts in rural Tennessee can be found in Winter/Spring 2009 issue. Airin’s latest offering, “A High, Hard One,” appears in our most recent issue. It explores the crush of a teenage girl with an auto mechanic amidst a fiercely hot summer of beer-fueled softball and Corvette T-Tops burning down Back River Neck Road.
I recently chatted with Airin via email, me in New York and her in her new digs out in Portland, Oregon
Keith: I have a sense that the world can essentially be broken into two camps. People who prefer The Rolling Stones and people who prefer The Beatles. Which one are you?
Airin: I prefer The Stones. My rationale has long been that The Beatles are too buoyant for my taste. I considered reconsidering my position when my friend Richard said, “Norwegian Wood. Listen again. It’s dark.”
Keith: Nothing with "Norwegian" in the title has been anything but dark. I kind of pegged you as a Stones girl given the blue collar elan of "A High, Hard One," The story's so queasy, nostalgic, and apt in its milieu. The jelly sandals, frozen lima beans, ladybugs, ice cream wrappers, and the numerous other details evoke a sort of sticky, sweet, scabby-legged summer of lower middle class adolescence. Where does this story come from? Is it autobiographical?
Airin: While the story isn’t autobiographical, it is set in the landscape of my childhood. The summers were humid, gluey and close. Most everywhere was without central air conditioning. It was cooler outdoors. People spent the day in their yards. As the temperature rose, there came an increased feeling of hazard - all the indoor yearning or seething let loose.
Keith: Now, when I first met you, it was in an undergraduate writing workshop, and you were working on a memoir project. When did you start writing fiction?
Airin: Fiction has long been my medium of choice. When I was quite young, I used to dictate stories to my Grandmother.
Keith: What's the earliest story you remember creating?
Airin: A story about my grandmother's house, talking animals, and pilgrims. My grandmother's basement had a small crawlspace tiled with yellow linoleum squares. She kept chipped dishes in there, teacups, her childhood books and toys. I was convinced it was the passageway to my own Narnia. I wanted to be transported to an anthropomorphic/olden world.
At the time I thought my Ma was terribly cruel for not letting me churn the household butter.
Keith: This is the point in the interview where I'm usually expected to ask you which authors inspire you. I'm going to go against the grain and ask you if there are any authors or types of literature you detest?
Airin: Yowza! That's a fanged question. But no, I don't detest any particular style of writing or, heavens forbid, particular writers. I recently re-read a letter from Martha Gellhorn to Bill Buford in which she wrote, "You cannot, must never, fuck up writers: it is as wrong as fucking up miners or nurses or any people who work hard and honestly trying to do something seriously as well as they can." I read this quote aloud to someone in the middle of a debate; it was a way to say, in chorus, "Let me do my work." I also think it's the truth. I admire all writers for their endurance and their grit.
Of course, I have my own particulars. There are gremlins that sneak into my work and piss me off. I don't like fiction perfectly wrapped in birthday ribbons. I worry over endings that are too neat. I have a hard time with pop culture references. Perhaps it's unchecked Luddism, the aspirational butter churner still alive inside me, but I find technology unlovely. I wrestle with this in my fiction and in my reading habits. I welcome work that uses technology and pop culture well, with purpose. Before I moved, I remember you were working on a story that used Facebook in an exciting, unconventional way. I find that very daring!
Keith: I find it hard to write about contemporary life without acknowledging Google and Facebook. It's getting to the point where it's all science fiction anyway. So, anyways, complete this sentence, "Good fiction should ___________"
Airin: Good fiction should be unafraid. It should have balls. It should take risks.
Keith: Anyways, next question, lifted from the Proust questionaire. "Who are your favorite heroes in fiction?"
Airin: Rather than steady heroes, I tend to think about who has recently knocked my socks off. In the summer, I do get a bit Southern. I've been re-reading Flannery O'Connor, Barry Hannah, some of Faulkner's short stories, and Jayne Anne Phillips. I'm currently in love with Jayne Anne Phillips' collection "Counting". I've also been reading a lot of poetry. Perhaps late on this, but I think Richard Siken's book "Crush" is a brilliant, sharpened gem."
Keith: How does "place" inform your work? I mean, I almost look at a "High, Hard One" as a piece of "southern writing." It has those trappings and that pathos. Has living in New York and Portland informed your work?
Airin: Certain places inform my work. I'm a sucker for Americana, places that feel like the real McCoy: gas stations with cheer wine, the homes of hermits, car garages, small towns. I never realized how Southern my mannerisms and sensibilities were until I went to graduate school in Virginia. I thought a lot of my colloquialisms were Baltimore-born, but I heard them echoed in my (true) southern friends' voices. Yes, in my writing, I often revisit Virginia and Maryland. I'm also greatly affected by Montana and the other mountain states. I imagine New York has indirectly influenced my work. Perhaps in my dialogue; I loved overhearing half sentences on the streets of NYC. I am excited to see how Portland will affect the landscape of my pieces. Portland is a very moody, sexy city.
Keith: If I were to lock you in solitary confinement for one month with one book, one movie, and an endless supply of one food item what would they be?
Airin: Moby-Dick, Badlands, and cheese
Keith: Nice. Hey, you've just won the MacArthur Genius Grant. What are you going to do for the next two years?
Airin: Ride the Trans-Siberian railway to Mongolia. Write. Travel on. Spend weeks without once checking my email.
Keith: What are you working on right now?
Airin: I think it is bad luck to discuss current work. I'm working on a fiction project; that's as much as I can admit out of fear of losing steam. And working
on adapting to a new city!
June 24, 2011