Last September,The Inlander began serializing the most recent novel of EWU instructor Sam Ligon, the rollicking Miller Cane: A True and Exact History. This has been an exciting project to follow in its weekly installments, rooted in the tradition of the serialized giants of yore, including George Eliot and Charles Dickens. Like Dickens, Sam Ligon employs humor, social commentary, and poignancy with measured control and import. The result is a thrilling road trip of a novel that asks us to examine our mythologies of country and self.
Sam was kind enough to respond to some questions asked of him over email, and here are his responses:
What was your reaction when approached by The Inlander editor Jacob Fries about serializing a novel? My initial response was, no way. Impossible. Why would anyone do that? The more I thought about it—the pressure of such a project, the impossibility of it, the high likelihood of painting myself into various corners—the more insane it seemed. And the more insane it seemed, the more terrifying, the more attractive it became. I found myself thinking I should do this because I couldn’t do it, because I was afraid to do it, because maybe the fear and pressure would be good or cool or interesting, would change how I approached the work, which it did, becoming valuable because it changed me as a writer.
What sort of response have you received from readers, and how has the experience differed from more traditional publications? My dad reads it every week, has the hard copy The Inlander mailed to his suburban Chicago home. My mom, on the other hand, says she can’t read a novel over the course of fifty weeks. I would have a hard time reading it that way, too. I always want to reassure people that it’s okay to read it in big blocks or however they want. It’s okay to wait until the whole thing’s done and read it that way, too, which is what my mom will do.
Miller is, as a character, more complicated than just an unethical con artist (for example he longs to be a good father figure to 8-year-old Carleen). How do you advise students to create characters both layered and surprising? That’s always the hardest thing about fiction, and I don’t know how to teach that—how characters have to be complex, full of contradiction, governed by obsession, driven by the irrational which they will then try to shroud in rationality. All I know is that you have to love your characters somehow, even if they’re awful. And you have to let them do what they’re going to do, and you can’t ever explain it. Explaining the character always reduces her. She’s too big, too complex to be reduced to explanation. All we can do is try to get as close to her as possible, and try to render her as she is somehow. In other words, I have no idea.
Can you speak about the importance of illuminating our country’s darkest corners, about massacre in particular? I didn’t want Miller to just slam the country. I wanted him to be a true believer in the American project, with all the potential good that comes with that—the ideals that we fail to live up to over and over again, like Freedom and Equality, which are just so fundamental to our myth, and so beautiful. He’s a patriot. He loves the country. But he refuses to ignore the horror. His nephew was a shooter at a school massacre. His brother tried to stop his nephew during the shooting, and both were killed by the cops. Miller had seen a lot, felt a lot, like all of us. And he wants to try to tell a version of our history that doesn’t feel strictly mythological—that’s a kind of love too, to try to see us for what we are.
Given your various roles as teacher, editor, writing festival director, event organizer, and writer, how do you see collaboration influencing your career and your craft? I do love collaboration—with an editor, another writer, or one of the reading writers who help make my work better. Kate Lebo and I collaborated on the Pie & Whiskey book and we get to work with other writers on the events. Miller Cane has benefitted from deep collaboration with Kate, Jess Walter, and Robert Lopez, all of whom have done so much to help shape the book.
I used to believe that a writer shouldn’t share any of a given work until a draft was completed. I have not had time for that rule with this book. My reading writer/editors are also doing something they’ve never done—giving heavy editorial advice on a project as it unfolds. Jacob Fries is also an excellent developmental editor. The close collaboration with Jess, Rob, Kate, and Jacob has been by far the coolest part of this project, and has made the novel better than it would have otherwise been. I feel lucky to have had this opportunity.
Catch up on the latest installments of the serialized novel Miller Cane: A True and Exact History at millercane.inlander.com.