Milam, author of the short story that is THE2NDHAND’s latest broadsheet, No. 27, lives in the far northwest corner of the United States, Bellingham, Wash. Like “A Little Money Down,” much of his work strikes a balance between traditional narrative modes and more experimentally-styled structures — commensurate with his frequent explorations of contexts outside the psychologically or historically normative, whether explorations of transgressive hicks or narratives of our own time positioned from perspectives far in the future — our paranoia is real.
Below is an email back-and-forth interview I did with him as the latest broadsheet was making its way to the streets. His excellent book of shorts, Still the Confusion (2006), is available via Amazon here. You can reach him through his website, futuristick.org.
Todd Dills: I’ve described “A Little Money Down” as being about a high-dollar criminal entering the real world and finding in it a raft of indignity. He doesn’t much feel up to the challenge. A decent description, if smacking of the reductive properties of the language of marketing, would you say? And what situation were you in in your life when you conceived of the story — what was the primary inspiration?
Doug Milam: Yes, to me the character sees the challenge as a farce — the challenge of ordinary living, what often we call the grind. A farce because in his mind crime pays, or could pay — it’s a better way out, if life is money. It’s interesting that you bring the word marketing to bear, as so much of “life” is sold to us rather than anything we create for ourselves. I think the character wants to create his life, whether by trickery or violence, rather than be fettered.
I was working odd jobs at the time, so the story is close to home. Racist bosses, and Phil and Octavio for example are facsimiles of people I knew working in warehouses and the like; for me a peripatetic existence, walking about at work with room to think because the labor is manual. So I suppose the primary inspiration was personal experience in the work arena, and thinking about honest work for a shitty wage, and how in America one can be a criminal and not only get away with it, but do well even if not, if it’s spun right in the end. But yet, to still live this only in the mind, in a fantasy. Well, that’s more of an outline in a sense but I didn’t write it from that kind of structure.
TD: What do you do these days to pay the bills (dishonest work for decent wages, perhaps)?
DM: These days I work as a coordinator, as it’s now been called, for a non-profit organization which publishes scientific manuscripts. The title was editor but such is publishing, it seems. As a tangent there’s a recent article by Nikil Saval called “Birth of the Office” [in the journal n+1] which touches on the drag of working in the heart of American publishing, New York — recommended.
TD: Who exactly reads those scientific manuscripts?
DM: Engineers, academics. These are anthology volumes no commercial store would stock. Mostly library subscriptions, or one-off sales.
TD: Did you actively seek out the foot, as it were (or perhaps the brain would make a better metaphor), of American publishing, or did other circumstances dictate your current job? What did your work as a fiction writer and poet have to do with the job decision, if anything?
DM: It was the job offer I needed at the time, to stay afloat, so it wasn’t so much by design, although editing is my longest-running trade.
The job doesn’t have a writing component, but I appreciated that I’d be working with print and that it would be nothing ad-driven. And working with literate people is good support for a writer.
TD: When I try to imagine the Milam reader I think of an otherwise totally sane journalist who spends the majority of his off time digging through boxes of administration files from the Reagan era looking for evidence of government knowledge of UFOs — a loner sort but a bit of an obsessive, an ingenious digger. Your fiction feels paranoid in all the good ways — characters on edge or at odds with monolithic systems outside themselves that it’s ever evident control their lives in myriad ways. You’re doing a great job of laying bare the exterior reasons for a character’s being that he or she may not have any awareness of.
Then again there’s always at least a small streak of sentimentality in there that softens the blow, a possibly bit overempathic response asked for from the reader — good counterpoint to the clustering of the armature of paranoia. What are your thoughts on where this all comes from in terms of the literary tradition you’re working in, whether that’s going back eons or just a decade or so?
DM: Sharp observations. I myself am quite taken up (no pun intended) with the paranormal, government cover-ups, etc. I spend as much if not more time reading nonfiction as I do fiction, and I could talk about those subjects for a distressingly long time.
The reflection from writer to reader and back is a very interesting topic. One could write a book on this alone. Anyway, it’s sad to me that such an obsessive reader is often typified as unbalanced in some fashion; perhaps this is why I try to soften the blow as you mention, to show that such people do have heart and cause all the same. It’s upsetting that loners or those not “on message” can’t be heard…
That sentimentality is partially relayed by my own affinity for Kerouac’s genuine heart of sadness and Ginsberg’s Kaddish suffering and dealings with paranoia; these coupled with Burroughs’ masterful insights on addiction cooked up in bureaucratic spoons by institutions and machines bent on control…the Beat tradition I identify with, in those areas.
And I do have a long love for history. History itself is an intriguing word as it marks the dawn of the writer. The first stylists were historians, in a sense. Not academic, of course, as we think of the profession, but Homer’s tales were historical, as Schliemann arguably proved in the 1800s with his discovery of Troy. I think appreciation for the fact that writing can last as long as it has motivates me in some way. Not that I’m aiming to be “canonical” — there are so many problems with this — but the wonderful thing about writing is that you can communicate with the future as well as the present. Of course, writing is also a pain in the ass sometimes, to be sure.
TD: It is almost like speaking to another era entirely — something one is of course acutely aware of when revisiting old work.
DM: It is. The writer is looking forward while the reader is looking back. There’s a creative tension in that acuity.
TD: To me, your “Chicago” poem [something of a cycle of poems from Milam's time in Windytown at the turn of the century] speaks of its era, for sure. I don’t know of a document that better captures what the city felt like to me my first few years there, before redevelopment or “gentrification” all over the north and northwest sides and downtown went into hyperdrive. Ever revisit your intentions/inspiration in that poem?
“Chicago” does capture my time there, yes. As I recall I began writing it in ’99 after a bad breakup and it was one of those fabled instances when something said, “look, and listen,” and I’m glad I picked up the pen. The intention was to record and the inspiration was heeding that ‘something’, that impulse, to really see where I was at, what was around me, what I was feeling.
I had a job that summer taking photos for an urban mapping firm, and I think that also spurred me to explore the city more than I would have.
One thing I miss about Chicago, amongst others, is the amount of walking I did. Much of the poem was written in the field. Not during the job, but afterwards, on weekends, etc. I’d sit by the lake, or on my rooftop in Ukrainian Village, or near Comiskey, and it was “there.” The verse arrived like it never had before.
With such fortune I had this idea of walking for months in other cities, capturing the place, putting out a book of travelogues in verse. I then went to Europe and lived in Berlin for a time, but I realized that the process wasn’t going to repeat itself. It was unique to being in Chicago, having a sense of home. I came back from Berlin and that’s when the coda of the poem was written. That “something” came back to me. So the inspiration was more than merely heeding a calling, an impulse; it was particular to place and to this day, now that I no longer live in Chicago, it remains unique.
TD: Why were you in Berlin?
DM: I had quit my newswire job in Chicago, was feeling restless, discontent, so I traveled for two months and then wanted somewhere to “plant my feet” for a while. I’d been to Berlin before and loved the political energy, the mix of economic systems. I spoke passable German and chose to live there for four months, then my money dwindled. I thought of declaring myself a student and enrolling in one class so I could stay longer, as I understood it, but I shunted that.
I shared an apartment with a violinist. It might sound trite but there truly is a different tolerance and appreciation for the arts, for non-utility living. Refreshing. My flatmate told me of growing up in a society without advertising (in the old East Germany) — can you imagine?
TD: And if the verse arrives, how does the prose get on the page? How true is the old cliché about the often workmanlike nature of writing prose v. that of poetry?
DM: I can say that at times prose bursts forth; at other times it is a plodding affair. I type a word and sigh, that kind of thing. It can be drudgery and there are pieces which I’ve never finished because it was too much like work rather than an energetic swim. And then there are some pieces which are nearly first takes. A mix. Certainly writing a novel on bennies would help, production-wise. But then one might be accused of being a mere typist.
TD: What’s next for you on the literary front? The personal front (you’re married — kids?)?…
DM: I’m trying to finish a longer story, may be around 50 pages, an epistle with a play thrown in. I hope I can wrap the thing; it’s gone through several tortuous revisions. And there’s a novel I’d like to write, if I have time. I’ve got an old draft that needs work. Some brief poems here and there. And more fanciful ideas for other novels, but that’s chasing vapors.
No kids planned. We’ve talked about it but again, the time factor. Not to mention the money factor. Playing soccer (best sport in the world, perfect marriage of the mental and the physical), meditating when I’m disciplined, and waiting for condo litigation to be settled. Bourgeois suffering, my wife calls it. Indeed.