"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Author Interview: Rod Miller

Today we're going to visit with author, Rod Miller. With three books just released, it has been an eventful spring and will be a busy summer for him. Born and raised in Utah, Miller has worked as an advertising copywriter for more than three decades for ad agencies in Idaho, Nevada, and Utah. He comes from a cowboy family, and is a veteran of the rodeo arena, riding bareback broncs for the Utah State University Intercollegiate Rodeo team, and in pro rodeos around the West. He is a member of Western Writers of America and several other organizations dedicated to preserving the history, culture, and literature of the American West.

Tell us about your recent release, Things a Cowboy Sees and Other Poems, and why you were inspired to write it.

After some 20 years making my living as an advertising copywriter, I took a notion, for unknown reasons, to try writing poetry. Never before had I considered writing anything other than what I wrote for work, nor had I any notion that I could write anything else. But I had long been a fan of cowboy poetry and had read and heard a good deal of it, and one day I wondered if I could write a cowboy poem. That was about 15 years ago, and I have been at it ever since—a simple case of curiosity, I suppose, started it all.

Soon after I started writing poems I started submitting them to the cowboy and Western magazines that published poetry at the time and submitting to whatever anthologies I could find out about, and experienced a good deal of success seeing my work in print. With that encouragement, I wanted to have a book of poems and searched high and low for a publisher willing to consider a cowboy poetry collection. That proved difficult, nearly impossible.

Finally, after a decade or so of looking, I learned about Port Yonder Press. It’s a relatively new publisher, growing deliberately, and they’re trying a number of things including poetry and various kinds of fiction, and some of what they’re publishing has a Western and cowboy flavor. Incidentally, later this year they’re publishing an anthology of short Western fiction, cowboy Christmas stories, and I have a story in that. But, anyway, to get back to the point, I submitted a proposal for a poetry collection, they accepted it, and Things a Cowboy Sees and Other Poems is the result.

They put together, I think, a well-edited, well-designed collection and I am extremely happy with how it turned out. Retail distribution will be a challenge, as it is with most poetry books, but we hope to push demand with reviews and publicity. It’s distributed by Ingram so is readily available through any bookstore, and, of course, on Amazon. Direct sales at Cowboy Poetry events and at workshops and other speaking engagements is also in the mix, and I have several appearances lined up through the summer and fall.

Tell us a little about your other books.

My other recent release is an altogether different kind of poetry book. It’s a limited-edition chapbook of only 150 copies, with a cover screen-printed by hand and a hand-sewn linen-thread binding. It’s called Newe Dreams, “Newe” being a word in the Shoshoni language that means “The People” and by which they sometimes refer to themselves.

Each poem represents a dream of one of The People foreshadowing an event that will affect Shoshoni culture, ranging from the earliest encounters with whites to the destruction of a Shoshoni village in northern Utah in the 1950s. Since much of what is seen in the dreams is unfamiliar, the descriptions can be cloudy, even confusing. Some, related to the Bear River Massacre, are horrifying. It is recently released by Laughing Mouse Press, a small art publisher in Colorado, and available through their web site, LaughingMouse.net.

In mid-May, a regional press headquartered in Utah, Cedar Fort, will release a historical novel titled The Assassination of Governor Boggs. It’s a cold-case investigation detective story and a frontier Western with a touch of mystery.

Lilburn Boggs, former governor of Missouri, was shot in the head while reading the newspaper on dark and stormy night in 1842 in Independence, Missouri. He was given up for dead and his assassination was widely reported in newspapers—but, he survived and lived another 18 years. Scant evidence pointed to Porter Rockwell, a Mormon ruffian, who was hanging around the area under an assumed name. Boggs, while governor, had ordered the Mormons expelled from Missouri under threat of extermination during the 1837-1838 “Mormon War,” so there was a great deal of animosity toward him among people in the church. But there wasn’t enough evidence to indict Rockwell, let alone try and convict him, and the crime remained unsolved. Boggs did not pursue Rockwell’s arrest for long, out of fear the gunman would return and finish the job. But with the Governor’s death, his family wanted answers so hired a Pinkerton agent to investigate. The detective’s inquiries take him from one end of the Old West to the other, eventually leading to an encounter with the notorious Rockwell, one of the most feared gunfighters of the day.

Earlier books include Massacre at Bear River—First, Worst, Forgotten (Caxton Press, 2008), a history of the events leading up to and the aftermath of the deadliest massacre of Indians by U.S. troops in the entire history of the West. I also wrote a brief biography of one of America’s great explorers and adventurers entitled John Muir: Magnificent Tramp (Forge Books, 2005, paperback 2009) and a Western novel, Gallows for a Gunman (Kensington/Pinnacle, 2005).

You write in several genres. Which book gave you the biggest challenge? Why?

Book-length fiction is most difficult for me, I think, for a couple of reasons.
Poetry, while challenging, is condensed and easy to get your mind around in terms of plot, structure, point of view, and all that other stuff, allowing you to concentrate on the beauty and intensity of the language. Which, of course, is what matters in poetry. Nor do I find short fiction overwhelming. And, like poetry, short fiction allows a writer to play with the words more and lift “how” you say it to a level of importance approaching or even surpassing “what” you say. That part of writing is most enjoyable to me.

Nonfiction is more in line with my education in journalism, so not as challenging, overall. Much of what ends up on the page is pre-determined by the facts, the people, the events you’re recounting. Still, you want to present the information well, wrapped in an interesting structure and with good use of language. And that’s both challenging and enjoyable.

But when it comes to writing a novel, it gets pretty complicated for me, dealing with a story, sub plots, back stories, a big cast of characters, and so on and so on and so on. And making up stories is not my strong suit—I’m not one of those writers who can spill out tales endlessly; I have to dig pretty deep to come up with characters and situations and stories. Still and all, it’s great fun.

Finally, I have written advertising for all these years and that introduces a whole new set of challenges. In advertising, you must, of necessity, boil everything down to a single essential idea, then when conveying that idea you must limit your words to the barest minimum and make every one count both in terms of relaying information and moving the reader along. So, because of that, it’s always a challenge to me to stretch things out. Everything I write, from poems to books, tends to be shorter than average.

What works best for you to promote your books? And what have you tried that didn’t work?

After more than three decades in the advertising and promotion business, I long ago gave up trying to understand with any certainty what works and what doesn’t and why. There are just too many variables involved, and they are ever changing. What worked well yesterday may well have flopped the day before, and may or may not work come tomorrow.

My 2005 Western novel, Gallows for a Gunman, was featured in a holiday season article in USA Today, “How to Stay Sane on the Plane,” about current paperback books worth reading. Surely that helped some, but who knows how much? I’ve had reviews, interviews, feature stories, and other publicity in magazines and newspapers large and small, and, again, you have to believe it helps but it’s impossible to track it. And, of course, publishers tend to make their royalty statements as obtuse as possible, so you can’t even tell if you sold any books, let alone when, where, or why.

Direct sales are easier to track but no easier to understand. Personal appearances, from readings to signings to workshops to conferences to book groups to lectures are also all over the place in terms of moving books. Some, where I anticipated good sales, produced little to nothing. Other events surprised me with the number of books sold. But don’t ask me why or how, as I have no idea.

All the online opportunities for promotion available nowadays—web sites, social media, blogs, all that stuff—gives a writer more ways to access prospects and readers. But, the numbers tend to be small in most cases. I can’t even imagine how many online mentions it would take to reach the number of people who saw my book in USA Today, or read about me in Western Horseman magazine, both of which reach hundreds of thousands of readers. But, online interaction can be personal, which mass media never can be. And, reaching even one potential reader can be valuable, and every contact can lead to many more. My fear with social media is that authors can easily become so absorbed in it that they spend all their time maintaining web sites and writing blogs and “Facebooking” and “Tweeting” they forget to write books and stories and poems. In the long term, that can only be harmful—and it offers little or no possibility for payback. Our energy and attention has to be focused more on actually writing, and not so much on writing about writing.

So, to finally get to the point, my approach is to grab every reasonable opportunity to get in front of readers (and writers) that comes along and assume it will all help, at some level, with emphasis on opportunities that reach the most people.

What is the hardest part of the writing life?

Getting published. I’m not one of those writers who “has to write.” I don’t do it out of necessity or compulsion. I write for fun and enjoyment. But, at the same time, I write to be read. If what I write is seen only by me (and maybe my family and friends), I don’t consider the time invested any more productive or rewarding than, say, chasing a golf ball around a well-groomed cow pasture.

But, finding a commercial publisher for anything these days is difficult. Not to mention frustrating, disheartening, maddening, demoralizing, depressing, exasperating….

Do you have advice to people who like to write in more than one genre? Or just advice in general?

While genre jumping can be fun, it’s certainly no way to build a career. When you switch subjects and styles as I have, you’re essentially starting over with every book, seeking out a new audience—not to mention a new publisher.

But when a subject interests me enough to want to write about it, I just sort of assume there are people out there who will be interested enough to want to read about it. I guess we all think that, otherwise we wouldn’t bother writing at all.

So, that’s the advice I’d offer—write what interests you, write what you’ll enjoy writing about. The only thing I would add is to write it well.

What’s in the chute next?

Besides trying to convince people to buy these three new books I find myself with, I have completed a short work of fiction—not quite a novel, but more than a novella—that I have to figure out what to do with. It’s a trail drive story, but really it’s a series of tall tales told by one of the cowboys evenings around the campfire. Not at all typical of what gets published nowadays, it hearkens back to stories like Pecos Bill and the Breckenridge Elkins tales, except my character is not superhuman in any way, just an ordinary cowboy who finds himself involved in extraordinary events.

I also have a more traditional Western novel in the works, probably about one-third finished, that I set aside some time ago to work on other things, and I want to get back to that. And I have completed most of the research and started writing a nonfiction book about various important but relatively obscure events in the history of the Old West. So that, too, wants to be finished. Of course there are always poems to write, and I want to get a few more short stories in the pile. A few anthologies that have come along of late have depleted my supply and I always want to have a few stories ready.

For more information on Rod's books, visit his website at www.writerRodMiller.com

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wyoming: A Great Place to Brainstorm

We recently made a trip across Wyoming to visit family. I must say, crossing this state is always interesting. If you've ever taken the trip you might think I've lost my mind. You might think there is nothing out there in all that expanse but sagebrush and rocks. But look again. There are miles and miles of very tall snow fence, herds of antelope and cattle (usually black Angus), and the occasional semi-truck tipped over by the wind. (The tag "Windy Wyoming" wasn't pulled out of a cowboy hat.) Oh, and this time of year, there's always the excitement of getting caught in a spring snowstorm.

But, wait, there's more to this state than meets the eye. For us writers, it's a darn good place to hatch book ideas and solve plotting problems. Even while dodging semi-trucks (which are always driving over the speed limit), a writer can start feeling the creative juices flowing. And, with my husband trapped in the car with no place to go, I can bounce ideas off his head. I can tell him my story line and the problem I'm having and he will always come up with something that helps get the kinks out, even if I don't end up using his idea. I've solved more than one instance of writer's block while on I-80.

So, all in all, I don't mind driving across Wyoming (if it isn't snowing). It's a darn good place to clear your mind and do some heavy-duty brainstorming for your next book.