Jeffrey Aaron Miller is a 1997 graduate of the Creative Writing program at the University of Arkansas and author of numerous books and short stories. He has held a wide variety of jobs over the years, from social worker to bus driver, from postal carrier to pastor, but through it all, he has remained a storyteller. He is a resident of Rogers, Arkansas, along with his wife and kids.
He specializes in young adult, fantasy and science-fiction stories, and his most recent novel, Children of the Mechanism, was released in March of 2014. Readers can learn more about Miller and his works at his website, www.jeffreyaaronmiller.com.
As a child, I had an overactive imagination. I filled notebooks with scribbled comics and stories. Over time, I created a fairly complex universe full of hundreds or characters, dozens of alien races, and a whole history full of wars, conquests and the rise and fall of empires. I suppose my interest in science fiction and fantasy was largely informed by the fact that the first movie I ever saw in a theater was Star Wars. It was both the first movie I ever saw, at a drive-in theater in California in the summer of 1977, and the second movie I ever saw, at a theater in a shopping mall in Dallas in 1978. It definitely captured my imagination and set me on a specific creative path.
What was the inspiration behind the story of Children of the Mechanism?
I actually wrote an extensive article about the inspiration behind Children of the Mechanism.
Basically, when I was in college, I saw a documentary on CNN one night about children in the Holocaust. The idea of children growing up in concentrations camps, not knowing any other version of normal life, disturbed me. So I wrote a story about children living and working in what one reviewer called “an exaggerated Dickens-meets-Stephen King factory.” The workers accept that their awful conditions are normal because they’ve never known anything else. That short story was turned in as a creative writing assignment and later appeared in print in a now-defunct magazine.
Eventually, I decided to turn the short story into a novel because I wanted to explore that world in more depth. By the time I got around to writing the novel, I was more inspired by the conditions of child laborers, which I had become aware of over the years. The story became more about the dehumanizing conditions of sweatshops.
For you, what is the most difficult aspect of writing a novel?
I really, really enjoy writing the first draft. It is a beautiful experience, taking something that has been shaped in my own imagination and translating it into words on a page. However, rewriting and revisions are a slog. They can dampen a lot of the joy of writing. In fact, by the time I’ve done final revisions for the publisher, I’m usually pretty sick of the story.
In your opinion, what distinguishes a good young adult story from a bad or mediocre one?
Clichéd characters really hurt a young adult story. Characters shouldn’t be fit into molds or based on stereotypes, such as the classic bully, the jock, the spoiled princess, etc. Instead, each character really needs to feel like a complex and believable person. Really good young adult stories have strong and memorable characters that stay with you long after you put the book down.
When it comes to marketing your books, which methods have you had the most success with?
Marketing books is a tricky thing because you never really know what will produce results. An ad might get a lot of response or it might get none, and it’s hard to predict how it will go. The most success I’ve had in marketing or promoting my novels happened in a rather unusual way. A friend of mine who is a seventh grade English teacher told me about a university professor who has a regional workshop called “So Many Books, So Little Time,” in which he recommends books to English teachers for the upcoming year. My friend suggested I send him my first novel, Mary of the Aether.
Now, what I didn’t realize is that this professor mostly works with the big publishing houses. I sent him the book and didn’t hear anything for months. But as it turned out, one day he was on his way to a meeting, and he didn’t have a book to read on the flight. He happened to notice my novel sitting on a corner of his desk, and the cover art stood out to him. So on a whim, he picked it up and brought it on the flight. He read it and liked it so much that he read it again. And eventually, he e-mailed me to let me know that he was adding it to his recommended reading list (which you can find here). It got promoted throughout the region as part of his conference all summer long, and this led to quite a bit of local attention. I wound up doing a number of writing workshops across the state as a result.
What does your work environment look like?
My work environment is a small desk facing a blank wall inside a very cluttered upstairs bedroom. I try to avoid distractions, so there are no posters or pictures on the wall, and the windows are behind me. Of course, the internet is the biggest distraction of all, but there’s not much I can do about that. Listening to instrumental music on headphones helps drown out random noises while I write. Also, the little table to the left of the desk is cluttered with empty cups, because a steady supply of caffeinated beverages helps keep me going.
What book do you wish you had written?
That’s a hard question to answer because all of my books come from very personal emotional spaces inside my own head. Each one is inspired by very specific experiences or thoughts. The novels of other authors don’t feel like me, if that makes sense, so I don’t really wish another author’s book was my own. However, I wouldn’t mind some of the success that bigger writers have experienced, so maybe I wish I’d had that J.K. Rowling experience or the Hugh Howey experience of hitting the big time.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?
I received a lot of great advice from my creative writing professors in college. The University of Arkansas has a really good program, and I was challenged constantly. One of my professors was always pleading with us to use concrete imagery in our stories and to avoid abstract descriptions. She said the way to tell the difference is to ask yourself the question, “Can I pour gravy on it?” If the answer is yes, then it is a concrete image. An abstract description would be something like, “It was a sad and lonely city,” whereas a concrete description would be more along the lines of, “The city was a collection of crumbling buildings set in weedy lots, the streets lacking traffic except for a stray animal here and there.” See, you can pour gravy on crumbling buildings, weedy lots and stray animals, but you can’t pour gravy on loneliness and sadness.
What did you think of the three Star Wars prequels that were released between 1999 and 2005?
Oh, a sadness entered my heart as soon as I read this question. I was certainly caught up in the hype when the prequels came out. I attended every midnight release. Heck, I waited in line for five hours to buy tickets for The Phantom Menace. At the time, I liked them, though I was not blind to their faults, but the movies have not aged well. Whereas I have maintained a love for the original trilogy, my feelings toward the prequels have soured considerably. I still love the Star Wars universe, however, and I look forward to the new movies that are coming out. Help me, J.J. Abrams. You’re my only hope.
What are you working on next?
I am working on the revisions for my latest novel, a post-apocalyptic story called Fading Man. It should be complete and ready to make the rounds at publishing houses in a few weeks. It is the story of a man named Joe Mund and his troubled wife, Eleanor. Joe has memories of a place he’s never been, a city called Verum. He has spent years trying to find this place, and his journey has finally taken him into a plague-ridden wasteland called Tockland, where the water is poisonous and scadglings roam the ruins.