Earlier this year I spoke for more than an hour with the writer and graphic artist Tyler Gore about River Bend Chronicle. Here are more outtakes from the short interview that appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/features/interview-with-ben-miller
Q. In the book, every family member seems so separate from each other. How does this happen in a crowded house?
A. Eight people in a three bedroom home. You would think everyone would be close but the fact of closest quarters–and no room for privacy in the physical sense–causes each individual to create a mental shell to curl up inside of, to protect whatever can be protected. There was in that wretched house a constant sense of panic bordering on the absurd, breeding the absurd. That doesn’t lead to the sorts of interactions that naturally develop relationships. So what you had were harried or hysterical interactions continually and not any open, free exchange of thoughts or feelings. “Sharing” seemed liked the worst possible thing that could happen because once you let something out in a house lacking private spaces it would be there for everyone to utilize in any manner they wanted to, and that was scary. So we burrowed and burrowed and burrowed into our brains or–alternately, ran to a neighbor’s house or lost ourselves in sports or partying or other activities to relieve that growing sense of despair and isolation amid a mob. In the chapter “The Reinvention of Ice” and also in the epilogue I comment that brothers and sisters were blurs that raced by. Out of loneliness and love and curiosity we sporadically tried to grab each other, reach and hold each other…but there was really nothing that we gave each other to hold on to. We were all spinning fast, on our own singular mental and emotional tracks, out of control, out of luck, yet with this endless frantic sense of trying to move ourselves forward to some elusive better place.
Q. Also every family member seems to harbor these frustrated, but inescapable, artistic ambitions.
A. I think this gets back to the junkification question and the fragmenting of the family core. That hope of dredging from the wreck some kind of restitution and sense. Art is about freedom, and art is about synthesis, and the ideal of art is one that forever appeals to the traumatized, and rightly so. A second chance is to be had there, or seems available. And a tribute to the strength of that appeal is that it existed even in children who were confronted daily with tragic results of parental art worship. My mother never being able to quote accurately poems she loved, and my father’s dusty shelves of self-published novels no one would ever read. The art pursuit for these adults was darkened and shadowed in the extreme, but STILL it remained very clear to we children why they refused to relinquish the dream of making art. Art was in fact their only chance left to have a synthesis, to gain a firmer grasp on their shattered reality. There would be no other way. They were people who wouldn’t seek medical help. They did not have the money for it, and did not have, I think, the understanding of what it would mean, say, to have the support of a professional in their darkness. They had always been so alone. But solitariness is innate to the art pursuit and art beckoned, in part, because of that. What was hardest to see, and what was most ridiculous at times to see, was how they had fingered art as something good that might help them and yet didn’t pursue it seriously. It devolved into those poems sloppily warbled in a parked car with a dead battery as if Dylan Thomas might get us home! It became that moment when my father asked me to take his decades-old writing to a local writing group to read instead of my own fresh writing. And because of that lack of seriousness, that hope of art, unrealized, forever dangling, only served to deepen their confusion.They wanted it–the art cure–to be easier than it ever could be. And there just seemed to be no way inside them to accept the fact that things weren’t going to be easy–that they weren’t going to get the break they felt they had longed deserved. By break, I guess I mean, incisive sentences and stanzas pouring out like sweet wind. The other wind poured from them: sour. So a genuine love of art devolved into the hollow and bitter gestures. I get this garish image of someone who is drowning and who is thrown the life-ring, and who actually touches the life-ring but then chooses not to cling to it, but rather to lazily put their elbow on it and to rest their head on the elbow. The drowning man, the drowning woman, not clinging to the life-ring! they are sort of, you know, just touching it, not letting it float them, thinking about maybe letting it float them, as if they were not going to drown in a few seconds, as if they had all the time in the world to decide whether to survive. That sums up house extremes of lassitude, of self-neglect. Daily displays of dolor amid crisis drove me, at one point, to post on my bedroom door a sign reading OFFICE HOURS 3-5. I felt all this work needed to be done, and fast.
Q. In the book, your parents seem almost jealous that some children are taking paths to escape the troubled home environment…
A. There can be a desperation, a panic so blinding…that it causes it to you work against the interests of loved ones. A lot of this was understated. Neither parent would would outwardly reject a success a child had, but there was a sense, very thick in the home, that the world outside our walls was a foul world of materialists and elitists and that deep involvement with it was polluting. We were told that on the way to school, warned. And the grain of truth in that idea became the boulder in the living room. We had our fine disaster we were used to! Why trade it for the bigger one of America in the 1970s? Watergate? Greed? Why become a conformist-sheep-to-slaughter? Everything gets turned backwards and sideways, sometimes, in families beset by shame. It was the case in my family that that happened. There was always a sense of you know: we’re suffering, but we need to suffer right here in this room to fulfill our destiny. We CONSIST ONLY of our sense of helplessness, sadness, and the doomed aura those feelings spawn. The dreary equation made each week seem like the climax of generations of ruin–made each trip to Kmart feel like it might be the last. And the death in the air was, in an odd way, as vigorous as hope. It was a massive shadow, a pervading feeling of grief, a long snaking echo of loss, and it ran like a dark river over every frail object in the house, out the doors and over the city like a direction we must sail in, never divert from…