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Author Archive: "Sheila A."

On Storytelling: The Powells.com Interview with Donald Miller

Donald MillerDonald Miller is a Christian writer, but the question that Miller asks with his latest memoir, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, is applicable to anyone who has contemplated the meaning of life. The question is: If somebody were to make a movie of your life, how many hours of footage would show you goofing off on the Internet or planted in front of the TV? (Probably more than most of us would cop to, right?)

This is what happened to Miller when he agreed to adapt his bestselling Christian memoir Blue Like Jazz into a feature film. Turns out, even the life of a bestselling author is... pretty boring. This revelation sent Miller on a two-fold journey to learn how to craft a meaningful story for his script and for his life. Working with two seasoned movie producers, Miller learns how to write a character – i.e., someone "who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it" – and how to be a character. The result? Blue Like Jazz the movie (coming out in late 2010) and an inspiring, funny, heartbreaking new memoir that will appeal to anyone looking to craft a more meaningful life story.

Donald Miller graciously took some time during his 65-city book tour to talk about storytelling and the craft of writing.

÷ ÷ ÷

Sheila Ashdown: I came across your book in a serendipitous manner. I knew of you as a "Christian writer," and I thought, "Oh, I'm not a Christian, it's not going to be my bag." But as a writer, I was intrigued by the premise of A Million Miles. So I flipped open the book and landed on this passage:

I wrote a memoir several years ago that sold a lot of copies. I got a big head about it for a while and thought I was an amazing writer or something, but I've written books since that haven't sold, so I'm insecure again and things are back to normal.

That totally made me laugh, and I thought, "Yeah, I can spend some time with this dude."

So, I read the book and loved it, of course, but it got me kind of obsessed with wondering about your readership. Have you run into a cross-section of people like me? Readers who consider themselves storytellers, but are not necessarily Christian?

Donald Miller: Well, I think this book will probably find a little bit of that market, but in the past it's mostly been Christians, and then Christians will hand the books to people who aren't Christians, because they feel like the books can explain them. So a Christian will hand it to their non-Christian friend and say, "Here's what I'm like." I've gotten a lot of that. But I don't think I have a huge readership outside of that of Christianity.

Sheila: Interesting that your Christian readers have been kind of ambassadors for you in that regard. Do you have any sort of audience in mind when you write your books? Or while writing this one in particular?

Miller: You know, I really don't. I wrote a book about guys growing up without dads, and that was definitely to a specific demographic. But other than that, I took William Zinsser's advice that you write to yourself and you hope that there are people out there who are like you. I've maintained that throughout my whole career: If I think it's funny, somebody else will think it's funny.

Sheila: That's a cool idea, that you're writing to yourself and hoping readers can find a kinship with you.

Miller: Exactly. I think writers would do better to consider that idea, because you know yourself really well, and you never know your demographic fully. You only get into trouble if you try to please somebody you don't really understand.

Sheila: Yeah, and I guess it's not an organic process if you're trying to write to or for someone instead of writing what comes from you intrinsically.

Miller: Exactly.

Sheila: This particular book is very "meta" — if you'll permit me to use an English-class word. You know, it's a story about how life is a story. Did you have trouble pitching that? Like, did your agent or publisher think it was too new-agey or not as easily categorized as "Christian spirituality" as your previous books?

Miller: Yeah, I think they assumed it would just take on that tone — that Christian spirituality tone — and then, when they finally got the book, they liked it enough that it just didn't bother them. God doesn't come up in the book till pretty far into it, and that wasn't intentional; it just kind of happened that way. So, no, they didn't really have a problem with it. The publisher basically said, "Okay, well, we never really understand your ideas when you come to us with them, but somehow they kind of work when you're done."

Sheila: It's good that they've got some faith in you — and faith in the process.

Miller: Yeah, I'm glad for it, because half the time I don't know what I’m trying to say.

Sheila: Can I ask how you came up with your idea for the title?

Miller: All my books have been titled based on a piece of the prose from inside the book, so I'd written this piece of prose that had the phrase "a million miles in a thousand years," and I thought, "That has a nice ring to it." So I pulled it out for the title and everybody really liked it, so we stuck with it. It doesn't really mean anything.

Sheila: That sounds too easy.

Miller: [Laughter] We've had some fights before on book titles, but this one wasn't hard.


Rapacia: The Second Circle of Heck

The Circles of Heck series is great, twisted fun, set in an inventive underworld where "darned" kids go until they turn 18. Second in the series, Rapacia is full of dark humor, wordplay, and puns galore — and Basye even manages to sneak in some lessons about greed and temptation.


Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma will delight Stewart's ever-growing legion of fans. Reynie, Kate, Sticky, and Constance are absolutely fantastic characters — they're brainy, loyal, funny, and more — and this latest installment in the series has an engaging blend of friendship, puzzlers, and page-turning adventure.


Misfits and Other Heroes

Suzanne Burns's Misfits and Other Heroes is a strange and compulsively readable collection. Her cast of characters is carnival-esque, her prose is fresh, and the stories are sad, bizarre, and resonant. This book is a fun-house mirror of human experience, where everything feels distorted yet true.


Juliet, Naked

Juliet, Naked is a warmhearted and surprising look at loneliness, regret, and redemption as seen through the story of Annie and Duncan — an unhappy couple of 15 years — and their connection to a reclusive ex-musician. In typical Hornby style, heavy subject matter is infused with levity and humor, and this latest novel is a quick, engaging read that shows the human capacity for reinvention.


Vegan Brunch

Vegan Brunch is the latest compendium of vegan delights from Isa Moskowitz, the friendliest cookbook writer in town! This innovative and inviting book has all the recipes, tips, and mouth-watering photos you need to serve up brunch with flavor and style.


Escape from Cubicle Nation

I work for Powell's — a pretty far cry from a "corporate prison" — but even so, I found Escape from Cubicle Nation to be equal parts inspirational and practical. Mixing contemporary research with anecdotes and exercises, Slim's engaging book will help you make the leap to self-employment.


Asta in the Wings

In Watson's captivating debut novel, the Hewitt family lives an isolated life in rural Maine. But when circumstances force them into society, they must reconcile their home life with the outside world, learning that isolation has many forms. A heartbreaking novel of otherness and normality.


Emperor Penguins

This early reader is full of fun facts about emperor penguins — their lifecycle, habitat, predators, and even what they like to do for fun. With easy-to-understand explanations and plenty of illustrations, Emperor Penguins is a great choice for young animal lovers.


Snow Wonder

With so much to do — like sledding, ice skating, and cookie-baking with grandma — it's "snow" wonder that this brother-and-sister duo has such a great day of wintery fun. Early readers will love Snow Wonder for its rhyming story, sticker sheets, and colorful illustrations. (The little dog is especially cute!)


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