The Rumpus Interview with Jennifer Miller

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For Jennifer Miller’s 32nd birthday, her mother gave her a 1957 issue of Time Magazine featuring the suave and clean-shaven journalism legend, Edward R. Murrow. The gift was a nod to Miller’s debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly. In the book, Murrow acts as spiritual mentor to Iris Dupont, a plucky teenage journalist who digs up her science teacher’s erstwhile affiliation with a secret society and the fatal accident of a student 13 years in the past. Like Iris, who pursues the truth in the face of every adversity, Miller’s book does not quit. Grappling with the invincible influences of grief and guilt—and awkward, adolescent lust—The Year of the Gadfly explores the sacrifices we make when we want to fit in: pubic hair gets dyed; a Milgram-esque experiment is resurrected; fistfights break out.

Like Iris, who has an intellectual crush on the elusive and exacting Murrow, Miller has been nursing a girl crush on her own mentor: Jenna Johnson, her editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I wanted to understand what Miller’s infatuation with Johnson was all about, so I orchestrated a brief stakeout of Johnson’s Boreum Hill apartment.

***

Jennifer Miller: We’re now walking down Smith Street, coming up on the building where my editor lives.

The Rumpus: How’d you find out where she lives?

Miller: Last summer, the first time I met the publicist at Houghton Mifflin, we three met at that Mexican restaurant [pointing]. When we were leaving, Jenna said, “I live just across the street,” so we walked over to her building. Which is this building, right here. Ever since I learned that she lives here, I’ve been avoiding this street.

Rumpus: The last time you passed Jenna’s apartment was after you met the publicist?

Miller: Once, Jenna brought me a book from the office, and I met her here. She was at the door with her key, and I came up behind her and said, “Jenna!” She freaked out—“Ahhh!” I feel like that high school boy who’s always hyper-aware of where the girl he has a crush on is going to be. Actually, that boy probably makes a point of walking by her locker all of the time, in case she’s there, but I don’t want Jenna to think that I’m stalking her, so I avoid walking down her street.

Rumpus: Could you stage a subtler run-in somewhere else?

Miller: I could. One time, I was at this bar across Smith Street called The Brooklyn Inn with [Miller’s husband] Jason and a friend. This was before I knew exactly where Jenna lived, but I knew that she lived in the neighborhood. I got up the nerve to text her and ask if she wanted to come out for a drink, but it was after a half an hour debate with Jason about whether it would be appropriate to text her.

Rumpus: Did she come?

Miller: No, she was out of town… but she did write me back!

Rumpus: What makes Jenna special?

Miller: First of all, she’s a brilliant editor. A brilliant editor. She just got my book. Some editors might have said, “Well, I like it, but it needs work, so we’re not interested,” but Jenna saw what the book was going to be. And she was like, Yes! I know that I can help you get it to that place. That’s what I’m imagining went on inside her head. Her notes were amazing—literally pages and pages—and really practically oriented, like “We need to figure out how to bring out this element of this character. Let’s talk about how to do that. I want to help you realize your vision.”

Rumpus: So it was a collaboration?

Miller: Very much a collaboration. With my agent, too, who I love. Granted, you have a different relationship with your agent than you do with your editor, because you and your agent are the team that’s going into the future. With Jenna, who knows if I’m going to get to work on the next book with her? The editor-writer relationship is really strange. It’s a professional relationship, but a lot of my material is autobiographical, which makes me very vulnerable.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about some of the autobiographical material in Gadfly. One narrative strand follows a high school romance between two characters named Lily and Justin. I understand that this relationship resembles your own high school romance with a boy named Ben?

Miller: Ben had a crush on me for his entire life. He would bring me back presents from his vacations. During bar and bat mitzvah season, he would ask me to dance at every party. I have these pictures from my bat mitzvah in which the two of us are dancing. I’m literally five feet away from him.

Rumpus: Fingertips on his shoulders?

Miller: I had my arms straight out.

Rumpus: What was embarrassing about him?

Miller: He was the number one dork of the class. Total math and science geek. He was part of that crowd who would wear sweatpants in middle school. He was actually a pretty normal looking kid, but he wasn’t cool. He was shy, and really hard on himself. Like, really hard on himself. An A- would be a travesty for him.

Rumpus: What were you like in those days?

Miller: Between sixth grade and freshman year of high school, I was really insecure. I went through a hard time in sixth grade where, because of kid politics, I found myself without friends. I would go over to hang out with these girls, and they would see me coming and just scatter.

Rumpus: Aren’t they awful? I remember eating lunch, and the girls across the table would be snickering and staring, trying to make me think I had something on my face.

Miller: And you’d be like, what’s wrong?!

Rumpus: I ate with one hand covering my mouth until I was like twenty-five. So given that the kids in your class had treated you poorly, were you ever mean to Ben?

Miller: No, I just wished that he would go away. I was really insecure, so the last thing that I was going to do was to give the time of day to a dork.

Rumpus: Was Ben assertive about his feelings for you?

Miller: Freshman year, he asked me out on a date. I freaked out. I didn’t know what to do. I went home. I told my mom. My mom said, “We need to call the rabbi.”

Rumpus: What did the rabbi say?

Miller: I said, “Rabbi, what do I do? This boy asked me out and I don’t want to go out with him.” This was the rabbi that married Jason and me last year. She said, “I have the perfect solution. Tell this young man that you’re focusing on your career.” So I said to Ben, “Hey, I’m not dating,” which was true. Nobody else would ever ask me out. I was too much of a dork myself.

The next year, the division between popular and unpopular kids had evaporated. I was happy. I had good friends. The groups weren’t tiered. Ben and I became friendlier, but we still weren’t hanging out. He had his own group.

So junior year, I was like, “Fuck. Prom. Nobody wants to go to prom with me, and actually, I don’t want to go to prom with any of the guys.” It was such a small class. You knew everyone. Somebody said, “Why don’t you ask Ben? You guys can just go as friends.”

Rumpus: Had you ever asked a boy out before?

Miller: No. I was really nervous. I followed him after lunch one day. I remember this so clearly. I said, “Hey, this might be kind of weird, but do you want to go to prom with me?” He literally turned around and looked over his shoulder to see whom I was actually talking to.

Rumpus: He couldn’t believe his luck.

Miller: Nobody else in my group had fun at prom, but Ben and I had the best time. We sat in the limo talking about The Great Gatsby—such dorks. A couple of weeks later, I was like, let’s move this relationship to a new level. This was going to be a big deal, because Ben had never had a girlfriend, probably had never kissed anyone. I’d had a couple of summer relationships, and I felt so experienced and so worldly.

I basically went through the same process as my character, Lily, in Gadfly. I picked out my outfit in advance. I made a mix tape. I tried to figure out what to wear. “I’m cuter in a dress, but if we’re going to hook up, it’s way too soon for him to go up under the dress, so maybe I should wear a shirt.”

Rumpus: So what happened on the date?

Miller: He had a bacon cheeseburger, and I was thinking, “Are you really going to kiss me after eating a bacon cheeseburger?”We rented Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but we didn’t get very far into the movie.

Rumpus: Ya’ll started making out?

Miller: Yeah, but he was so—so—nervous. He looked miserable. At one point, I said, “Can I get you a glass of water?” And he nodded vigorously. We were sitting together on my parents’ house in our living room. He made the first move, which was a relief.  We dated for three months: June, July, August. I was at camp in August. I get a phone call. The director comes in and takes me out of breakfast and into the office and sits me down.

I thought, “Okay, someone’s dead.” They said, “Your mom’s on the phone,” so I thought, “It’s either my dad or my best friend, Risa.” My dad had been in the Middle East—he flew back. He would have told me otherwise. My mom could hardly… I had kept the relationship a secret from my parents, but one of Ben’s friends had called and told her.

He was coming home from this internship—Ben had been working with scientists who were exploring the conditions under which first life had formed—and he was stopped at a red light in an intersection close to my house. A truck was coming down the street. The truck had faulty breaks. The people who owned the trucking company knew and were totally remiss. The driver had tons of points against him on his license—he wasn’t supposed to be driving. The truck lost control, hit something, and flipped over onto Ben’s car.

Rumpus: Oh, no. What happened afterward?

Miller: Everything got really weird. This was the thing: Ben had been troubled in a lot of ways—intense anxiety, self-esteem issues. According to his good friends and his parents, once he started dating me, he became a different person. Remember: we hadn’t been together that long. It was the honeymoon period. It was only three months, but he’d been angling for this since fourth grade.

Rumpus: And three months is an eternity in kid time.

Miller: Suddenly, everybody was treating me as if I had been the love of his life. He had gone from being anxious and depressed to really happy. I was seen as this symbol. I felt so guilty, because I knew that we hadn’t felt equally about each other. His feelings for me had been very, very strong, but I had felt like I was still getting to know him.

Rumpus: When did you decide to write about it?

Miller: A number of years later, I started interviewing his friends and his parents to learn as much about him as I could. I hadn’t known what kind of work he was doing at his summer internship. His name was actually posthumously added to a publication that he had worked on with those scientists. It’s all about extremophiles—mircoorganisms that live in extreme environments. Like in thermal vents or under intense pressure at the bottom of the ocean. In 2005, when I started working on the novel, I started researching extremophiles.

Extremophiles were such an uncanny metaphor, because here are these organisms that thrive in extreme environments, and that’s what adolescence is, what high school is, but extremophiles also need that extremity to survive. If you try to normalize them, they’ll die. Ben needed that pressure to be who he was, even though in some ways, it was destructive.

Rumpus: When I was first reading your novel, I thought the term extremophile related to an organism that exudes extreme love as well as an organism that loves extreme conditions.

Miller: That’s part of the metaphor. There’s an extreme aspect to adolescent obsession. As adults, we’ve been exposed to a huge world, but when we’re young, our environment is so small and limited that everything is out of proportion. If you fall in love with a girl, there’s no sense that there are many girls out there, because you have a limited pool of girls in front of you, and you’ve become attached to this one, and the idea that there’s some girl out there who’s much better for you than the girl you’re crushing on? It doesn’t even enter your mind. Everything is a devastation.

Rumpus: Iris, the teen protagonist of your book, speaks to the ghost of Edward Murrow, her spiritual mentor. Have you ever had an imaginary spiritual mentor?

Miller: No, not an imaginary one. I’ve just been obsessed with my English teachers.

Rumpus: Did you have fantasy conversations with them?

Miller: Oh, absolutely. All the time. I wouldn’t talk to them aloud, like Iris talks to Murrow, but I’d have what-if conversations. More like Iris feels about her science teacher, Mr. Kaplan—what if we get trapped in an elevator together and we have to talk to each other for three hours? A lot of the girls had crushes on my English teacher. My crush was more intellectual.

Rumpus: You were having intellectual fantasies about him?

Miller: Yeah. I would conduct myself with this thought in the back of my mind: Am I living up to the standard of this teacher? It wasn’t like I wanted the A so I could get into college. I was like, I am doing my absolute best on this test so I can show this teacher that I respect what he’s trying to teach me. Everything that’s in his brain, I want to be in my brain. I want us to be psychically connected so that I can have all of his knowledge.

I can psychoanalyze myself: I was not getting attention from boys, but I was getting attention from these teachers. I basically obsessed over them the way that you’d obsess over your crush. It’s kind of like my crush on my editor, Jenna, though maybe not as much.

Rumpus: There’s similar tension in teacher-crushes and editor-crushes.

Miller: I think that’s part of it. You’re not allowed to know anything about your teacher’s private life or personal world while you’re a student. With the writer-editor relationship, especially if you haven’t worked with them on multiple books, editors keep a little distance, because maybe she won’t like my next book, or maybe she’ll like it, but Houghton Mifflin won’t.

Or maybe that’s just how Jenna is. I get the sense that she’s keeping her social world separate, in a certain sense, from her authors, and I would feel awkward about pushing that boundary, even though I would love to be her best friend, because she’s awesome.

Rumpus: Maybe after the next book?

Miller: Yeah, that’s why I was so nervous about texting her about drinks. When she sent me her cell phone number—I think we were meeting at a party for the book expo last year—she said, in text, “And now you have my cell phone number.”

Rumpus: Oh, what did that mean?

Miller: I was of course overanalyzing it. Did she mean that our relationship has now moved to another level? Was it a warning? “Now you have my number—so don’t use it!” Or “This is a privilege, don’t abuse it!” Or did she just happen to say it? It’s like when a guy texts you.

Jenna is reserved, not as gushy or effusive as I am, and more private. This is part of the mystique.

Rumpus: She came to your wedding last fall, right?

Miller: Yes. I was shocked and so excited. And she just sent me this e-mail to say happy birthday. It’s also our two-year anniversary—I sold the book on my thirtieth birthday, which makes me think she wants to be my friend after all. Like my crush is not in vain.


Kassi Underwood’s essays appear in The New York Times, the New York Daily News, and elsewhere. She’s working on a memoir about exploring the world of post-abortion therapies and cultural rituals. She lives in New York City, but you can also find her here: www.kassiunderwood.com and on Twitter: @kassiunderwood More from this author →