Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Author Interview - Terin Tashi Miller

AUTHOR INTERVIEW - Terin Tashi Miller

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Terin Tashi Miller at The New Book Festival awards banquet last year at the famed Alonquin Hotel. He is the author of the book, "From Where the Rivers Come" which was a finalist in the 2010 Paris Book Festival, 2009 New York Book Festival, London Book Festival, and New England Book Festival. His enthusiasm for his work and for life in general is a great inspiration to writers everywhere. I think you'll enjoy learning more about Terin; his process & perspective on writing.

Your book, From Where The Rivers Come, is set in Benares, India and really brings a tangible feel to daily life there. What was your inspiration for writing a book set in India?
From Where The Rivers Come
Well, first of all, I’d lived there—in India—on-and-off during my “formative” years, starting when I was about 3 ½ and living in the hill districts and traveling with my parents, going to middle school in New Delhi after a few years back in the U.S., and winding up with a reporting trip I took as a journalist. I’d also spent a year in Benares—now officially Varanasi—as a language student at Benares Hindu University connected with the University of Wisconsin and, partly because my parents had never lived there, sort of adopted it as my city, the place in India I knew best because I’d lived there as a young, reasonably poor college student. It also struck me as where everything—life, death—in India either wound up eventually, or began (such as the Hindu and Buddhist religions).

I had a friend once leaving for the first time for Asia, to start covering Thailand. I told him to take great notes on his impressions of everything, from how he does his laundry to his daily routine, as he would never see the place as fresh as when he first arrived.

So, the short answer: the book, the setting, it was all in my head already. All I had to do was go back into my memories , like dreaming, and walk the streets…

What is your process for developing characters for your novels?
This is an excellent question. I have read many debates on it. I like to base my characters on people I either know, have met, or composites of both—it could even be someone who just attracted my eye on a bus or on the street. But I do firmly believe, as some well-known writers have said, you should not only know your characters before you write about them, you should know who their parents were as well.

The “good” characters as well as the “bad” characters probably see themselves if they read my novels. But I try to write them in such a way none of the people on whom they might “loosely” be based could or would ever want to challenge their characterization, lest they embarrass themselves.

Best thing about writing fiction: I lie. Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot. But only I—and maybe a few who are objective observers of themselves—will ever know for sure how much or in what instance.

In a workshop I attended with Agent & Author Donald Maass, he said that a book’s setting should be treated like another character in the story. What are your thoughts on that?
Absolutely. First, I’d never presume to argue with Donald Maass, about anything—and especially about writing—at least, not until I have my own agent again. But seriously, Tolstoi, Turgenev, Prevost, Balzac, Galdos, all of them, they recognized that people don’t merely exist. They exist somewhere. And where they exist as much as how they exist helps shape, and in some cases define, their character.

My favorite depiction of India is a large watercolor I acquired from my parents’ home. It’s kind of greenish on bright white, and it’s a half-naked farmer, a “kisan-log,” turbaned, walking somewhat hunched over behind an ox pulling I think it was a plow (don’t have it out yet). The whiteness of the background is that of a bright, hot sun. It’s another reason I like to quote Ecclesiastes so much. That’s India, to me, in a nutshell. People come, people go. But the land abides forever.

You were a finalist in several recent book festivals. How have those accolades affected you as a writer?
They’ve inflated my already arguably air-filled ego, and occasionally help me to cage drinks. Seriously, it’s always nice to hear someone, somewhere, considers what you wrote worthy of praise. Or recognition. Or admission to a drink fest. How has it affected you? (The praise is uplifting for sure, but also getting to meet other writers that share in the same passion for books and stories - that is wonderful too.)

Do you have any specific writing habits that you follow?
I get up every morning at 5 a.m., make sure the baby’s fed, the cat’s fed, then work with a small, sharpened number 2 ticonderoga brand pencil in a teeny, tiny moleskin notebook….

Ha! Had you fooled! I know. I’m supposed to have a routine, to develop writing as a habit. Honestly, I have too many other routines—get up, get showered, shave, rush through breakfast to catch the train to work. Concentrate carefully on my work for 7 hours, rush to cach the train home. Then, depending on the day, my son has baseball, and or homework. And then there’s the television. Who wants to work at home?

My latest “habit” is to pull out an old-school “composition” notebook on the train to work, and drift mentally back into my story and start essentially taking notes on it with a fountain pen. Seriously. I first wrote with a fountain pen in India, at a time before they actually had ball-point pens. It wasn’t that long ago. But any technology India lacked was kept back from them, so don’t’ blame the country. I love fountain pens. The words literally flow from my brain to my fingers out in ink onto the page. No sharpening involved. I only have to refill them once in a while.

And composition notebooks are a handy size. I started at the advice of an old and dear friend, the mystery and Western writer Loren Estleman, with a “Big Chief” writing tablet and a pencil. I believe that’s how he still writes. I know he still types his manuscripts on a manual…

To me, the important thing is to get the idea onto paper. Any paper, and any way you can. I almost literally wrote a short story, “Like Murano Glass,” on a paper knapkin right there and then at Harry’s American Bar in Venice. It has the best, crispest (why not? It’s accurate) dry gin Martini I ever tasted in my life. My long-suffering wife wasn’t the least surprised after I took my first sip from the small juice-style glass that had been kept in a cooler behind the bar top almost as if it had been waiting for me that I had to start taking notes on a napkin.

I’m a habitual notetaker. There. That’s a habit I can suggest to be proud of.

If you woke up one day and learned you could no longer write, what would you do instead?
Hmmm. Can’t be flippant or people would take me seriously. Why couldn’t I write? Something wrong with my brain, or another physical part of my body? As long as the old gray-matter sparks, I figure I can probably write. It might not be any good, but I could dictate or even use “voice recognition” software if I had to. You don’t need hands, or fingers, or much more than a brain, really, to write, I don’t think. But if the old grey-matter just sits there like a dead battery….

I’m a pretty good motorcycle mechanic. And I’ve been everything from a dishwasher to a bartender. And I love to read….oh, and nap. I’m a great napper. I’m sure I’d find something to do.

How has your work as a reporter influenced what and how you write?
Immeasurably. I went into journalism—print journalism, not broadcast—because I came to realize a majority of my favorite writers, dating back to Mark Twain and Emile Zola, even Dante, were journalists. I got into journalism, as I explained to one of my favorite professors, to learn how to write. And to get into a field that could provide me the experiences from which to write. I owe eternal gratitude to every newspaper, every wire service, every person who ever hired me to write. And especially to Gene Kramer, former New Delhi bureau chief of The Associated Press. He knows why.

How aware are your kids of what you do? How do juggle responsibilities of being a father, husband, and writer?
My son is getting to the age now where he’s doing writing and reading in school and for homework. I recently helped him on an assignment by just telling him the best way I know how to start anything on a page. Start with the first simple, true, declarative sentence about something you know. It never fails. That’s precisely how I started “From Where The Rivers Come.”

What was the last book you read, and what are you reading now?
Hmmm. I’m currently reading a collection of the columns of Cecil Adams, the second compilation, “More Straight Dope.” And thoroughly loving it. Last book I read (as opposed to reread, which I do sometimes): Epiphinea, an interesting thriller about a physicist during the early Cold War in New Mexico.

What’s next for Terin Tashi Miller?
More of the same, hopefully. I’d like to write about three or four more novels, at least one set in Spain, and a non-fiction book on something I did in India. And short stories. I know a few of them I’d like to write.

My second novel, “Down The Low Road,” was a semifinalist in the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.

And travel. I like living in different places more than visiting. But there’s a number of places I’ve never visited I think I’d like.

About Terin Tashi Miller:
Terin spent many of his formative years in India, the child of anthropologist parents. Since then, has lived and worked in a variety of countries in Europe and Asia.

His writing has appeared in guide books, international magazines including Time and Geografica Revista, and newspapers including The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News and The Los Angeles Times.

He began his writing career as a part-time reporter for Time magazine, then worked for The Associated Press in India and North Dakota and AP-Dow Jones News Services in Spain and New York, and as a reporter for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Amarillo Daily News and the Hilton Head Island Packet. Born in St. Louis, Mo., and raised in Madison, Wis. and several provinces in India, he currently lives in New Jersey.

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