Smart, funny, savvy, dark… The short stories and novels of SFF author Sam J. Miller offer a delightful mix of literary sensibility and speculative fiction genre drama and excitement to win over readers. Since 2013, his stories have garnered multiple award nominations, including a win for the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award for best short fiction. His first novel THE ART OF STARVING won the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy in 2018. His new near-future dystopian novel with utopian dreams, BLACKFISH CITY, is out on shelves now.
We chatted with Sam about his sci-fi and fantasy and horror writing, his inspirations, and what he’s working on now.
RECURSOR: What first drew you to writing?
SJM: I think my start as a writer came when I was in second grade. I would tell people I had seen horror movies that I had not, in fact, seen. And I would narrate the plot of the movie to them in great detail, stretching it out over many (school) recesses, when all I had to go on was the one-paragraph description on the back of the box at the video store. So if I had to point to the beginning of my writing career, it was telling lies so people would like me.
Have you always written SFF/horror, or have you dabbled in other genres?
While I’ve always written speculative fiction, there was a while when I thought there was only one set of things you could do with it — you could be exciting or scary or have a really good plot. There were other things that literary fiction seemed more appropriate for — such as profound, interesting characters and unsettling epiphanies about the nature of human life.
I feel like, as a writer, I had a split personality, engaging these two areas separately and failing at both for a long time, until I read Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” which is my favorite sci-fi short story and which does both of those things so well. It’s got a great plot with great science. It very much shows the kind of intelligence and creativity that you expect from science fiction.
But it also has a compelling narrator — a robust character whose experience and work with aliens helps her and the reader to a powerfully overwhelming realization about what it means to move forward into the future, knowing how much suffering lies ahead. That story really rocked my world in the best way.
I read that in 2012, and that was when I started to get better at getting what I want to get onto the page.
So, Ted Chiang has really influenced you. What other creative artists are influences on you?
Octavia Butler is my other big science fiction godparent. She tells great stories that are scary and exciting but also engage with the issues of history and oppression that I’m fascinated by and attempt to engage in my writing.
Of all the golden age science fiction and fantasy writers, the only one of them who I genuinely love and reread to this day is Ray Bradbury. He has such a poetic, beautiful way of writing and valuing the poetry of the prose.
In college, I studied Soviet cinema, and I was obsessed with filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertoz, who used editing in an aggressive, bold, terrifying and creative way to combine unrelated things and make something new. I think there’s a definite Soviet montage influence on my work, in the way paragraphs or sections or scenes or sentences bump up against one another and abruptly contradict each other or reinforce each other or create meaning in unconventional ways.
And of course, I’m a punk rocker. So, I value short sentences, short words. I want things to be as simple and as dynamic as possible.
Your short story “Things With Beards” and other works of yours deal with people living at the fringes of society, struggling with things that are difficult to talk about, or pretending to be something you’re not. What is it about those characters and situations that appeals to you?
My heart is always with the underdogs and the monsters. I don’t think I’m the only one who empathizes with Frankenstein’s monster more than with Frankenstein, or with King Kong more than the airplanes. The world is a big, scary place, and some people get treated very poorly by it, and my heart is always with them. Often, those are my protagonists, but often it’ll be someone else who can help me illustrate some mechanism of hate or oppression or marginalization in another way.
Can you give us an example?
I wrote a story called “When Your Child Strays Far Away from God,” written as the church bulletin newsletter from the pastor’s wife. She is a conservative Christian fundamentalist whose son goes missing, and she finds out he’s addicted to this strange drug called spider-webbing that enables people to enter into a shared hallucination. She decides to take the drug so she can follow him into this fantasy world and bring him home.
I wrote it because I wanted to get into the mindset of someone who is very different than me — I’m a gay, Jewish agnostic. Sometimes people who hold beliefs that are radically different from mine can be scary. So I wanted to get inside her head and make her human to me. I wanted to know that these are good people. They might do bad things or say or think things that are hateful to me, but they’re still human; they’re still motivated by the same things as everybody else. It behooves me to not only understand them, but to be able to love them, even if we hate what they’re doing.
Our first response might be hate, but it’s not helping. I think it’s important to feel hate and anger at the world, but then to channel that into something constructive and creative and to fight in a way that makes the world better, that’s motivated from a place of love and who you want to defend, not who you want to oppose.
Sci-fi is good at providing a way to look at the world without just turning on the news.
Exactly, because then we have some distance. I think of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, the reboot, which came out when the war on terror was kicking into high gear. September 11, 2001, had just happened, and we couldn’t have conversations about, Is is right to torture people? Are suicide bombings a legitimate tactic of resistance? Are our enemies human? Does the fact that we’ve experienced this horrific loss justify us in behaving horrifically?
But you could talk about robots in space and let us have a conversation about it that maybe we couldn’t have if we were being real about who and what these things were rooted in.
Your recently released novel BLACKFISH CITY similarly addresses current issues.
I wrote BLACKFISH CITY in 2016 and sold it the week before the election in 2016 , so I feel like I was working out a lot of anxieties about the future of climate change and demagogues who manipulate the masses, who achieve selfish, short-term goals that end up causing real big problems for folks afterwards.
What else do you have in the works?
I’m working on edits for my second young adult novel, which is similar to THE ART OF STARVING in that it’s a gritty, contemporary novel about a teenager with mental illness. But this one has dinosaurs, sky whales, air krakens and other fun stuff, the stuff that makes life worth living. Right now, it’s tentatively called DESTROY ALL MONSTERS.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
For me, science fiction is a way of imagining worlds that are in many ways worse than ours but also in many ways better. People have power and hope and are galvanized to fight for a better world. That’s the sort of kernel of love that I try to take from my science fiction into the real world.
Sam J. Miller lives in New York City now, but grew up in a small town in upstate New York. He is the last in a long line of butchers. In no particular order, he has also been a film critic, a grocery bagger, a community organizer, a secretary, a painter’s assistant and model, and the guitarist in a punk rock band. His fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Award, was long-listed for the Hugo Award, and has won the Shirley Jackson Award. He’s a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop. His husband of fifteen years is a nurse practitioner and is way smarter and handsomer than Sam. You can visit him online at www.samjmiller.com.