Five Questions with Miah Arnold
Kirby Johnson: You mentioned at one of your Houston readings that Sweet Land of Bigamy evolved from several shorter stories. When did you discover that the story of Helen needed the space of a novel, and what was it like to have the tale incubate for so long?
Miah Arnold: The first story I wrote not for any class but for myself, back in 1995, was called “Terrible.” Like is usually the case with me, I just heard this man talking to me as I walked down the street in Manhattan, where I was living. The character Terrible was a sort of anti-romanticized version of my father crossed with a thousand stories I’d been told as a child. What people always remember, though, is that he is a grown, grizzled, druggie who carries a doll.
So I heard this man telling me his story one night, and I still remember the first line clearly, though the story now has a different line. I’ll just never forget it. Almost everybody who read that story loved it – and I workshopped it a lot, and I showed it to friends. It never got published though. Something was off chord, or perhaps, he was too much for his own story. (A large chunk of the story is now in the novel, reformed.)
Still, I wrote about the town Terrible was living in for many more years. Different people. I always was trying to pull him into new stories but it rarely worked the way I wanted it to. Until one day I was thinking not about him, but about his girlfriend, Carmen. Somehow I’d never considered her much, and at some point, I realized she had an
estranged daughter. And as soon as I knew that, I heard this girl – named Carma, then – breathlessly telling this sad and tortured story like she’d been waiting years to get it out. Even as a short story my teacher, Chitra Divakaruni, said: Carma is too much. So then she was Clara, and she remained Clara until one of the very last drafts of the novel and she was Helen.
That story, though, won a prize, eventually. Kevin McIlvoy, one of my favorite writers, had chosen it, and wrote that it was “a story with teeth.” I loved that. It made me so proud, and it also made me think: I’ve been resisting – too scared to write, maybe – a novel a long time. Maybe these are the characters. Then one night I was out with friends and I tentatively spoke out this idea for Sweet Land of Bigamy, and nobody fell out of their chairs, blown away by the brilliance of it, but nobody choked on the idea, either. That’s usually about all I require in life, and so I got on with it. And so just like a story in my head starts when I hear the first line: this novel came to life the night I dared announce I was writing it.
KJ: At the same reading you explained that several of your characters are based on people you know from growing up in rural Utah. How difficult was it to navigate between the fictional spaces and characters and the real? What sort of reactions have you gotten from your friends/family since the book’s release?
MA: Mostly in my novel I pay homage to the names of families and people I knew by sticking their first or their last name on a character who just needs a name and is mostly unrelated to the real person. Sometimes I get special pleasure from this – I have a character with my dad’s name, for example, who is a biker with a great line, and I knew he’d like that. I changed the name of the county and the region of the country, too. For example the novel takes place in the fictional Chipeta County, Utah – but I chose Chipeta as a county name because it has historical significance to the Utes living around the Uintah Basin. I figured if I was renaming things, I could even the world out a little. Of course, then this figure – Chipeta – and her real story ended up becoming important to my story. It helps Helen fall in love with Chakor. So sometimes I think I’m being crafty, but then I find myself having to contend with new ideas, and having the book changed in ways I didn’t suspect.
One name I didn’t change, though, was a nickname I remembered from growing up: Terrible. I knew, also, that Terrible had a doll and I met her and dressed her up (though the Terrible of my novel would never have permitted such a thing). I knew nothing else about the real Terrible, I don’t even remember what he looked like: but the detail of his name and his doll inspired me to write.
KJ: You have a very unusual story about how you found a publisher for Sweet Land of Bigamy. Could you tell us about that?
MA: My method was different, and I think this might be a trend happening in writing because I’ve been hearing similar stories lately. In my case, I sent my novel out cold to a number of agents and was rejected by all of them. I was pretty surprised because I’d put it through a lot of readers, and not the kind who go easy on a piece of work. I had five or six major revisions based on comments. The last drafts people had really loved. I thought: I’ve done my work. I’ve written long, and hard, and I’ve revised. An agent will be a cinch.
But then I sent it out over the course of 18 months or so and no agent wanted it. A few went so far as to belittle me for writing in multiple points of view because, they said, a debut novelist needs a straight narrative. As a last ditch effort I went to the Houston Writer’s Guild annual conference where there were supposed to be 10 or so agents. I made appointments with some. Ben LeRoy of Tyrus Books was a late arrival to the conference, who the organizers were excited about getting, but who I decided not to meet with because Tyrus was a publisher of crime and mystery fiction.
In the course of the conference, I read an informational page he put out: “We publish novels about regular folks having to deal with the repercussions of crime and the toll it takes on people.” I thought, well, I’m no crime novelist, but this is my story. The voice of his page I identified with and I made a split-second decision to find him and give him my work – even though it was too late for an appointment. I waited outside the door he was seeing people, and when there was a hesitation of the next person up, I jumped in and gave him my work. I said: this might not be up your alley, but maybe it is.
Six months later, I got an email from Ben saying he thought he might love my novel, and asking if I’d found representation. I hadn’t. He said he was interested, and I said I’d try one more time for an agent. I contacted Alia Habib, who had contacted my friend David MacLean after hearing a piece of his on This American Life. David had representation, so he passed my name to Alia, and then she offered to read the book. I’d just had a baby and wanted a final, perfect draft after my hard bouts with the agents so I’d sent it to her a full year after she asked to see it. I didn’t hear back from her, but when I got the note from Ben I shot her a note asking whether or not the silence was due to her not liking my book, or due to her being busy (I’d sent it over the summer and I know agents often take the summers off). She got back to me within a few days, and agreed to take the book. She told me that most agents pick up clients through recommends or via finding their work in journals – which I still find very depressing when I think about all that sending out cold that I did, and that so many people do. However: I am very happy to have found Alia and to have found Ben.
KJ: Your essay, “You Owe Me” (originally published by Michigan Quarterly Review) will appear in Best American Essays 2012 and is about your experiences while teaching children with terminal cancer. Many writers out there are also teachers but may have never worked with children or as close to illness as you have. How has this changed the way you work with your adult, presumably healthier, students?
MA: I believe in my students, meaning: they show up and my assumption is that they have very important stories to tell me, whether they know it or not, and that they are capable of telling their stories. I don’t care if they’re profound or if they’re funny or if they are sad or if they are somewhere in between all that, as most stories and people are. I believe there is great power in listening to and responding to other people’s work. Sometimes, for this reason, I prefer student work to that of ‘great’ writers: part of what makes something great, to me, is the conversation I get to have with the author afterward and in revision and about other subjects.
The corollary to all this is that I expect my students to work. When you stop expecting a person to work it hurts them. It is saying: I don’t think you’re going to live. Or in the context of class outside a cancer center: I don’t think there’s any hope for you. My students do a lot of work. A lot of revising, a lot of responding, a lot of writing. I require them – except on exceptional days when I can see they need a break, and sometimes there are a few of these days in a row – to participate.
KJ: What is next for Miah Arnold? What are you working on now?
MA: I’m writing some nonfiction! A piece on painful sex, a piece on step-mothers, some more essays on teaching. I’m also writing a lot of short-shorts that Nano might see one day, to help me begin populating a world for a new novel. I know my next novel will be told in a long, straight voice, so I’m searching for a voice I think can sustain a novel, which to me means, an interesting voice, but not overpowering.
KJ: Bonus Question! Is that “secret” note to someone on pg. 227 at the very bottom?
MA: Not anymore! You noticed it before my husband, I think. Which, in his defense, is because I added it in a last draft, after he’d already read several thousand other drafts. But yes: it is a little love note.