Today’s post feels appropriate for Memorial Day, since many innocent humans who suffered and died as a result of living in war zones controlled by evil, power-hungry despots are remembered in it. Duke Miller is my guest today. Duke’s a truly gifted and unique writer whose work is often influenced by the grim realities of his past as an emergency relief worker.
Like other writers I’ve featured recently, Duke and I go back a while. We both worked with an indie publisher from about 2013-2016, and I’m a huge fan of his novel Living and Dying with Dogs, as well as his poetry collections.
Unlike me, however–who pretty much gave up on all attempts at creativity during the pandemic–Duke continued to write his truth regularly on a cool group blog called Tin Hats. It’s an honor to host Duke today.
Mary: So Duke, when did you first know you were a writer? And when did you decide you were going to write at least one book?
Duke: I first tried to write my sense of self when I was about fourteen years old. Before then my writing consisted of school assignments. I was dyslexic. I wrote all of my letters backwards. When I held a sheet of my writing up to a mirror, it was perfectly legible. They didn’t call it special education back then, but I remember being placed in an unsupervised room and asked to throw bean bags through the open mouth of a stand-up wooden clown face. I got pretty good at that and slowly the therapy began to work and by the time I was about ten I started writing the letters facing the proper direction. My first short story was about an acacia tree and how a boy floated down from the sky using a full-grown acacia tree as a parachute. If you don’t know what they look like you can google them and understand where I was coming from. Interestingly enough, I ended up in Africa surrounded by acacia trees. They became a link to my past.
I tried to write my first book when I was about twenty years old. But it was a failure since I was more interested in girls and booze, running around acting crazy. I considered my life as a movie back then, not a book, and so I portrayed different roles upon the stage. I relied upon my youth, looks, and naiveté to see me though. However, when I hit twenty-two years of age, I decided I was way too ignorant. I had graduated from college without any knowledge whatsoever. For one year I drove a truck and read everything I could lay my hands on. I probably read three or four hundred books that year. (Jack London’s Novel) Martin Eden guided me and became a great friend.
Reading, as you might know, is the best way to learn how to write, since everything in this world is derivative and we say, “Yes, that writer was influenced by so-and-so”. Hard to beat Shakespeare and the Bible for those iconic images and turns of phrase. I’m an atheist, but I have read the Bible cover-to-cover and continue to go back to it for those phrases and themes that have destroyed great parts of the world. It is very unfortunate, but that is our history.
Mary: I haven’t read the Bible cover-to-cover, but did attend many years of Catholic school and Catholic religious services, so I’m familiar with the more commonly read texts. In my experience, their phrases, stories, and themes come to mind at odd times, usually when something particularly good or bad has happened. It’s also interesting how you talk about considering your life as a movie when you were young. I don’t know if I saw mine quite that way, but do recall filtering certain thoughts and actions through my brain as though they were text, perhaps snippets from a book or screenplay.
Anyway, I’ve heard your work classified as “magical realism”–which is accurate–but based on my experiences reading magical realism, your work is also more surreal and poetic than most. How do you classify your genre?
Duke: I write in the “Duke Miller genre.” It’s sort of poetic “automatic writing” that becomes informed fiction. My readers tell me they like it, but can only take small doses of it at a time.
Here is an example:
All my writing starts as a poem.
“The Child in the Bath”
A toddler taking a bath in a metal tub, throwing a yellow ducky at the dog, smiling up at me
But then, the prose says, is that all you want when you could have full-grown people who suffer profoundly, are eager to complain bitterly, who firebomb great cities
I drum my fingers, fidget with a square of chocolate, listen to the sound of drugs moving up the mountain road, wonder about men killing women
These are the thoughts that drive me to the kitchen table at 3:30 in the morning with my eyes burning holes in my head
Mary: Thank you for that example, Duke, which I think serves as a great introduction to your work. For people just learning about your writing now, which of your books would you recommend?
Duke: I’d recommend Tragedy Wears Many Hats and Living and Dying with Dogs. The others are fine, but I like those the best. They are for people who like poetry informed by a life of dealing with madness on a massive scale. That’s the way I write and as they say down here, “ni modo.” Nothing to be done.
Mary: Where do your characters originate?
Duke: All my characters are facets of me, and most importantly, the females I have known. When I write about a “character,” I’m really writing about myself. I’m writing about the way I absorbed different aspects of a person who I held or spoke with late at night. There is a great melancholia hanging over me. I write a lot about bodies lying there in the field or along the side of the road. The living and the dead are extensions of me. They take form in the present with my five senses and then walk the halls of my memory later on when I am removed from some lousy situation. I give them life in my mind and they are always shifting around, turning into something new every moment. That is a fact of life for me and those people and events get into my dreams. I think a good writer of fiction must have a very active imagination. They can hopefully remember their dreams. Write them down in the middle of the night. Otherwise important images and dream conversations will be lost.
Mary: Definitely good advice about writing down the dream stuff. So many great songs and stories in history are the result of a writer keeping a notebook under the pillow or bed. But your life, Duke, has taken you to places most people reading this blog have never been and will never go. I feel as though your writing–much like good war journalism–forces readers to look at things they wish weren’t part of our world, but will never stand a chance of changing unless those in power take a hard look and use the resources they have to enact real change. That’s one reason I’m grateful for your work. And speaking of things we wish weren’t part of our world, how has the Covid pandemic affected you?
Duke: The Covid pandemic doesn’t particularly bother me. I hated to see all the political mistakes that translated into needless deaths. But I’m used to big die offs of the human species. I once slept in a field with ten thousand dead. Unfortunately, hardly anyone was concerned, since the dead people were Black Africans and like an African politician once told me, “Every white death in Africa, is worth ten thousand black deaths in the eyes of the world.” I think that’s true. Very few of my friends or family know or even care about eastern Congo. Millions upon millions have died there in the past thirty years. Most preventable deaths. But no one cares. This is one of the reasons I am occasionally depressed. These kinds of ideas inform my fiction. I haven’t included Covid in my work. I have other things that move me.
Mary: That’s a lot to digest right there. As a White woman who’s never been to Africa and has never truly educated herself on the situation in eastern Congo, I plead “guilty as charged.” I do hope you take comfort in knowing that the work you did as an international aid worker made a real difference. Also, your writing sheds a unique light on both the horror and the beauty of your experiences.
So what are you reading now, and/or what books have influenced you most?
Duke: I’m often asked the question about what books or writers have influenced me. The list is long but here are few examples: Brautigan, McCullers, London, Thompson, Baudelaire, Gauguin, Plath, Bukowski, Kosinski, Parker, Rilke, Barth, William Goldman, Loren Eiseley, Thoreau, and Böll. Here are seven books that are important to me: The Temple of Gold, The End of the Road, Jesus’ Son, Blood Meridian, The Sheltering Sky, A Separate Peace, and Green Mansions. There are many, many others and all writing is derivative in one way or another: nothing new under the sun, which comes from Ecclesiastes “there is no new thing under the sun.” We can’t win, which is why I try my level best to put two words together in an odd way, with a new feeling rising up from their trace, their touch upon my lips. I’m currently reading Woolfe, Chekov, and Sartre.
Mary: Thanks, Duke. My to-read list is now considerably longer. What are you writing these days?
Duke: I write in several places, including a blog called “Tin Hats.” Fellow writers Jan, Aaron, Kari, and I are the Tin Hatters. We started it after our old publisher Booktrope went bust in 2016. Buried in my hard drive are a bunch of love poems, an unfinished novel on Africa, and a reworking of Flipka, an out-of-print novel by Jan. The central character is a woman who thinks menstrual blood is paranormal. The plot spins out of control from there. Hard to write, since my new kittens take up much of my time.
So here’s a final question: What’s something about you that you wish more people knew?
Duke: I’m not a very public person. I have dealt with a lot of stress in my life and am still dealing with it. I prefer to be pretty much alone. I was never able to play the marketing game concerning my books. I used to tell book managers, “Fuck Facebook and Twitter”. I think I was ahead of my time. Of course, only a handful of people have ever heard of my books. That’s the result of leading a life far removed from making a buck at all costs. I much prefer the ends of the world. The lonely paths. I need to say one last thing: I’ve met the best and the worst people at the end of the road, places like the Ukraine, Syria, Myanmar. I often ask myself why I’m not there? You might be surprised about who is out there, waiting just for you and the meeting can be either good or bad. Who knows? It’s called life and death.
Incidentally, I had this song on repeat play for the hour or so that it took me to answer these questions. Music inspires my words.
Mary: Thank you for being here, Duke. As always, I’ve enjoyed talking to you and appreciate your time, insight, and musical tips. Please keep writing.
Duke Miller worked in 25 different counties in mostly war zones or unstable countries as an emergency relief worker, coordinator, and director. He worked with the displaced, refugees, inmates at reeducation camps, migrants held on US military bases, and relocated refugees in the United States. He can hardly stand to watch what is happening in Syria, Myanmar, Yemen, Tigray/Ethiopia, the Congo and the Ukraine. We are repeating the same old story and it will continue until it stops on a moment’s notice and like one of his loved ones says, humans are doomed, but the world will be just fine.