A conversation with Jennifer Miller about her new novel
The Year of the Gadfly, Jennifer Miller's second book and first novel, seems informed by her career as a journalist and by the work that went into her acclaimed Inheriting the Holy Land. There is a relentless authenticity in her prose, part Catherine O'Flynn and part George Orwell, and Miller effectively places her characters in a vice and squeezes the truth out of them.
The novel follows Iris Dupont, an outcast teen with an interest in extremophiles and an obsession with journalism. At the exclusive Mariana Academy, Iris works for the school newspaper and communes with a disembodied, chain-smoking Edward R. Murrow. When she infiltrates a secret student society, she finds the story of her career, and a conspiracy that forces her to consider the nature of loyalty and the price of reporting the truth.
Extremophiles—microorganisms that thrive only in the most inhospitable of conditions—are an effective metaphor for the pressures of adolescence, and Miller cleverly teases the reader with sly literary allusions and cultural ephemera. Her tendency to spell out such references brings to mind William Blake—"Enough! or Too much"—but it feels well-suited for the target audience. If there weren't already a push to shelve certain books as New Adult, The Year of the Gadfly would create the genre ex nihilo. It is the ideal crossover work; a perfect introduction to literary fiction for those who might otherwise choose books based on movie trailers and cross-promotions at Taco Bell.
The following interview with Jennifer Miller took place by phone, and she was kind enough to discuss her life, her career, and the six years that went into the novel, which comes out this week.
Describe the transition from journalist to novelist.
My parents pushed me to become a journalist because at least then I could make money, whereas being a novelist... not so much. But I'd never considered myself a journalist. In fact, when I was writing Inheriting the Holy Land, I didn't even realize it was journalism! I started working on The Year of the Gadfly in 2005 while Inheriting the Holy Land was in production. Thematically, both books are about young people who are outsiders in their communities. That's a theme I've always been attracted to, and it led me from one project to the other.
How did you first conceive the novel?
Initially, I considered writing a nonfiction book about three people in my life who had died prematurely. One was my grandmother, who passed away in 1996. I was very close with her. She died of cancer at 70—but a very, very young 70. She would later inspire the grandmother character in The Year of the Gadfly. The second person was an Arab-Israeli friend of mine who was killed by Israeli police during the second Intifada. He was 16 years old. The third person was my boyfriend Ben, who was killed at 17, just before our senior year of high school. I wanted to explore each of their lives and somehow weave their stories into a narrative. It was never going to be a viable book, and anyway, I really wanted to write a novel.
But my agent discouraged me from pursuing fiction. She'd been getting signals from Ballantine that they wanted another work of nonfiction. So I submitted a proposal, but it wasn't about the Middle East, so they turned it down. They wanted to put me in that box, and I didn't want to be in that box. I ended up parting ways with my agent. She was wonderful—she's fantastic—but at that point we had different ideas about my career.
But you did end up writing about your high school boyfriend who was killed.
Yes. His name was Ben and he had a long-time crush on me. We were both pretty dorkish, but I was incredibly insecure about my unpopularity. Early in high school he asked me out on a date and I didn't know what to do, so I told him that I wasn't dating—which was true because no one else ever asked me out! By the time we were juniors, I didn't care as much about popularity distinctions. At the end of that year I was trying to figure out what to do about prom. I wasn't interested in any of the guys in my class and someone suggested, "Why not Ben?" It was a revelation. Why not Ben? So I went up to him and asked him. He literally turned around, because he thought I was talking to somebody else behind him.
How did his death influence The Year of the Gadfly in particular?
We went to prom and shortly after that we started dating. We were together for the summer. Ben spent those months doing an internship with scientists studying extremophiles—microorganisms that exist in extreme conditions. In August—two weeks before the start of the school year—Ben was driving home from the lab. He was stopped at a red light and a truck with faulty breaks was coming down the hill. It was a terrible collision. The Washington Post did a huge investigation of the trucking industry. I remember watching that investigation happen and the way their reporting of the incident affected major change in the D.C trucking industry. So there was a congruence of these different things: My learning to love and appreciate this guy who'd been studying extremophiles, his tragic death, and then investigative journalism. All of these elements came out in Gadfly. Extremophiles in particular are a metaphor for adolescence in the book—this period in our lives when we experience extreme pressure.
Your own adolescence was interesting. Your father is Aaron David Miller, the Middle East scholar and State Department negotiator. What role did that play in your writing?
I grew up exposed to journalists and diplomats. My dad worked for six secretaries of state and often traveled with them. He had these amazing stories about the press corps, and being in high-level negotiations with Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak. I'm sure this is why I eventually became a journalist—but why I resisted journalism for so long. You never want to admit that your parents influenced your life that much.
Growing up, did you feel the kind of extreme pressure that you talk about in Gadfly?
My parents have always been extremely supportive, and the mantra in our house was always, "Do your best." But there was definitely an implicit pressure in the house, by example, that you have to strive for a certain amount of success. I also went to school in an environment where that pressure was felt deeply. My dad had a non-traditional career, so it seemed natural that I would, too. I've gone to graduate school, but it's not the same thing as becoming a lawyer or a doctor where you follow a set path and you can mark your success by the way you're promoted and how much you're paid. The career that I'm in doesn't have a set structure. But I've got that impulse to keep striving, which definitely came from my father.
Speaking of graduate school, you have a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. How did that help develop your craft?
After Inheriting the Holy Land came out, I really wanted to do an MFA but I was terrified that I wouldn't get in, so I didn't apply. I had failed to sell my second book and I needed to do something so I went to journalism school. Still, I really wanted that MFA and finally mustered the courage to apply. Columbia accepted me in 2008. When I started the program, I'd already been working on Gadfly for three years. The character of Iris didn't exist until my first semester at Columbia, and I don't think she would have existed had I not been to journalism school. So I have journalism school to thank for my protagonist, and the MFA program to thank for the novel that really started to take form.
Education plays a major role in The Year of the Gadfly.
Mariana Academy [where much of the novel is set] is a weird hybrid of my brother's and my high schools. I attended Georgetown Day School, which is extremely progressive. We called the teachers by their first names. We had an open campus. There's no cafeteria so you bring your lunch or go out, and when you have a free period, you can just leave. It was very relaxed, very much in the philosophy of giving kids a lot of freedom. Intellectual freedom. Creative freedom. And independent thought thrives in that environment.
My brother went to The Landon School, a very traditional all-boys school with a serious honor code. Kids there have a lot of money but also feel tremendous pressure to succeed and conform. A large part of Gadfly is inspired by an incident in which a bunch of Landon students were conspiring to cheat on a math test. My brother found out about it and wanted to stop the cheating, but he didn't want the scandal to reach the administration. So he went to a guy on the student council. And of course the student council member was in on the scam, so the cheating went forward. My brother then went anonymously to the administration, and as a result was basically made an outcast. He ended writing about it for the high school newspaper, criticizing the honor code. In writing Gadfly, I was drawing a lot from his experience, from watching that.
It seems like journalism is this inescapable part of your life, then. And it's certainly central to the novel.
People think of nonfiction and fiction as totally separate, but my work as journalist—reporting, talking to strangers, getting inside their heads—is enormously useful in writing fiction. Placing a journalist at the center of a novel is my tribute to that. It's also a great narrative tool to make an investigative reporter the focal point of a novel. It helps push the story forward to have Iris Dupont digging up everybody's secrets. Now obviously, I wanted Iris to be more than a tool. I wanted her to be a well-rounded character who could stand alone. But her drive as a journalist is a fundamental part of her identity. Fiction aside, I think journalists are fundamental to our democracy. It goes back to issues of free thought and free speech. Journalists are upholding those ideals, but keeping them relevant and real.
Throughout the novel, Iris, your reporter-protagonist, has a running dialogue with a disembodied Edward R. Murrow. How did you settle on Murrow?
I see Murrow's work as a victory for everything that is great about this country. I have a strong sense of my identity as an American. That's important to me, and I see Murrow as a heroic American. When I was working on The Year of the Gadfly, I knew that in order to write about him, I had to get to know him. So I read biographies and watched recordings of his broadcasts. For all of his good, he was also human—a very flawed man, who over the course of his life, committed his own transgressions. I put that in the book too. Iris, especially as a teenager, has this kind of inflated ideal about who and what Murrow is and she's holding herself to an unreasonable standard because of it. She feels like she has to be true to his legacy, but of course his legacy is an invention. He did amazing things, but he also lied and cheated.
You've been in the business of words for a long time. What have you learned, and what advice can you share?
If you're passionate about something—especially writing—just keep working at it. When I talk to other writers, there seems to be some agreement that if you keep working, you'll achieve some kind of success. I worked on The Year of the Gadfly for six years. It took me four years to finish the first draft. I gave it to my agent and we had a long conversation and it was clear to me that I was going to have to throw out half and pretty much rewrite the entire book. At that juncture a lot of people would be understandably frustrated. But I said Okay, let's brainstorm version 2. And when version 2 wasn't as good as it could be, I wrote version 3. I sold the book knowing that I'd have to do at least one more major rewrite. I was like, "Sure, let's do it. I've dedicated years of my life to this. I will take any advice I can get and I will keep doing this until it's right." It takes a certain amount of defiance, and a certain amount of obsessiveness.