Cofounder of Salon.com, ravenous reader Laura Miller talks with PopMatters 20 Questions about C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) and other influences that led to The Magician's Book.
The Magician's BookPublisher: Little, Brown & Company
Subtitle: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia
Author: Laura Miller
US publication date: 2008-12
Cofounder of Salon.com where she is currently a staff writer, Laura Miller is also the editor of The Salon.com Readers Guide to Contemporary Authors. She's a journalist, a critic, a ravenous reader, and a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review. Her work has also appeared in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, Time, and other publications. Her book, The Magician's Book, publishes this month. She talks with PopMatters 20 Questions about C.S. Lewis and other literary influences.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Embarrassingly enough, I only tend to cry at shamelessly manipulative stunts like dying animals and children, while the books and films that move me more deeply, like Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, or the film You Can Count on Me, leave me dry-eyed. I'm trying to stay away from rank tear-jerkers for that reason, but I did get choked up while reading Charlotte's Web to the four-year-old twins I write about in The Magician's Book, and I feel OK about that.
2. The fictional character most like you?
I like to think that at my best, I'm Jane Eyre, whose fierce integrity and independent spirit I admire, but I worry that I'm more like Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch, a woman all too easily swayed and misled by others.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Pablo Casals playing Bach's Suites for Cello. When the world feels random, cruel and pointless, Bach persuades me that there is a ravishing order underneath, beyond and above it all. Casals adds the warmth that performances of Bach often lack. I'm not religious, so this is the closest I get to prayer.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars, which I saw on the day that it opened. It has the better villain, which is what really makes a story.
5. Your ideal brain food?
The capacity of great critics to inspire is often underrated. I like Edmund Wilson, W.H. Auden, Virginia Woolf and James Wood.
6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Most critics write about writing. I wanted to write about reading and the relationship between reader and author, so intimate and remote all at once. In what other circumstances do we allow the thoughts of a total stranger to enter the privacy of our own minds? When the chemistry is perfect, it's a mystery, like love. That's an experience that people hardly ever discuss. I wanted to change that, and hope I have.
7. You want to be remembered for...?
At the most fundamental level, we want writers to articulate our thoughts and feelings with a fullness and completeness that we can't manage ourselves. I'd like to think that some of my readers will remember me as the writer who made them say, "Yes! That's exactly it." I'm not sure why that seems so necessary and so satisfying, but I never forget the writers who've done that for me.
Of course, I'm not a novelist, but the fictional equivalent is the storyteller who can make you believe that entirely imaginary people are absolutely and palpably real. I wish I could do that, but my talents lie elsewhere.
8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?
Two books that try to chart the confusing, exciting and intoxicating relationships readers have with a favorite writer are Nicholson Baker's U & I, an idiosyncratic tribute to John Updike, and Geoff Dwyer's Out of Sheer Rage, a perverse account of the author's inability to write a book about D.H. Lawrence. When I remembered what those two mad geniuses pulled off, I was able to convince myself that my much more sedate project might work, too.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
What matters is what you're writing now, not what you've already written; when you're in the middle of working on it, the book and your relationship to it are alive in a way that they'll never be once you've finished. So I'll say that I wish I were writing The Voyage of the Dawn Treader right now. I'd like to be living in that book.
10. Your hidden talents...?
I'm a really good cook. When you're work is so much inside your head, you need something regular, tactile and sensual to do every day, to remind you that you live in a body and why that's a good thing.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
Write every day. That way, the book you're working on is never out of your awareness for long. It will always be percolating in the back of your mind, growing on its own. No part of writing is as hard as getting the engine warmed up, so try not to let it cool down.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
My friend, the critic Daniel Mendelsohn, gave me a set of 1930s English Art Deco china (an impulse that I think he now regrets). When people come over to my apartment for dinner, I no longer worry about my place being too small or funky, because I can serve them in high style.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or...?
Sweats! Why do you think I picked this line of work? Writing books is not a job for people who like to dress up or make small talk.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Daniel Mendelsohn, mostly because he is a great wit, but also because I still owe him for the china.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I want to meet William Shakespeare. I'm convinced that after talking to him for half an hour, I could settle the authorship controversy once and for all. I agree with most scholars that Shakespeare most likely is the man who wrote the plays, and I'm curious to see what the vicinity of that much talent would feel like. It's easy to think of him as superhuman, but what was it like to lift a glass with him?
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
The recipe is simple but not so easy to come by: A bathing suit, a big, flat smooth rock to lie on beside a cove on a quiet Greek island, an Anthony Trollope novel, and two weeks off.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or...?
Coffee is the only one I can't live without, and cigarettes the only one I can't live with.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
A major city, definitely. I love greenery, but good bookstores, libraries, coffee, Asian food and interesting people to eat it with are indispensible.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
For once it's someone I'm pretty sure is much smarter than I am, so I'd say, "What can I do to make your job easier?"
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
Another nonfiction book that will take some of the broader ideas in The Magician's Book much further. More than that I'm not ready to say.