Gatekeepers be Damned: An Interview with Anesa Miller

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When a series of misfortunes scatters the Winslow children to different homes, nine-year-old Miriam finds herself in foster care. A college-educated couple, Rick and Deanne Fletcher, are happy to welcome her. But Miriam has never worn new clothes, was not permitted to cut her hair, and believes that children must repent their sins with dramatic displays of remorse, or harm will come to their loved ones. Now she must adapt to a secular lifestyle while struggling not to lose her connection to the past.

Steeped in small-town ethos, Our Orbit captures the tension between postmodern times and tradition in the Appalachian corner of bellwether Ohio.  Click here for an audio excerpt. 

     The book sounds great, right?  Well, you can’t read it, at least not yet.  Anesa Miller, a literary name if I’ve ever heard one, describes herself as a nature lover and deep thinker.  She’s also a poet, fiction writer, essayist, scholar, wife and mother, and has earned an MFA in creative writing as well as a Ph.D. in Russian language and Literature.  I have a feeling she could kick butt on Jeopardy too, but what she really wants is to add “published novelist” to her already impressive list of accolades.  In 2013, Anesa self-published a collection of essays titled, To Boldly Go: Essays for the Turning Years.  She’s also authored a book of poetry called.  A Road Beyond Loss.  Here’s a sample.   

The Ladder of Words

Anesa MillerWhen the world came down upon me

and the sky closed like a door,

sounds filled my ears from far away.

I lay down on the floor. 

 

And no one near could find me,

and nothing near was mine.

I sank into the floorboards

from the voices soft and kind.

 

It seemed like days, eternity,

that I could not be reached,

A Road Beyond LossFrom sight and sound withdrawn

like a whale beached out of water

and thrashing like a fish.

 

Until one thought got through to me,

one imagine filled my mind:

a pencil and a paper, lying

close to hand, nearby.

 

Somehow I took them up and traced

one word and then the next,

until they linked together

in a chain that first perplexed

the darkness in my eyes

 

then, rowing on my paper barque,

I soon was far away

and saw the water trail I’d left

rise up into a chain

 

–a ladder reaching high above

to light and sound and friends.

And that’s how I climbed out

of the grief that has no end.

 

     I won’t do Anesa the disservice of trying to comment on her poem.  I’m really, really not qualified.  In fact, years ago, it took Iron Maiden’s heavy metal interpretation of Rime of the Ancient Mariner for me to finally accept poetry as a legitimate medium.  My sincerest apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  This is what Anesa says about her own work: “Two motives drive my writing: self-expression and communication. I find the need for self-expression strongest when negative emotions overwhelm the mind, as in a state of grief. But the person who speaks, or who writes, can use language to reassert selfhood by expressing the inner pain. And since language is a shared medium, the possibility of connecting with others is inherent in most forms of verbal expression. Understanding, concern, and sharing the burden are only words away. I tried to convey those truths in this poem.”

     In the past few years, Anesa Miller has had to work through plenty of the “negative emotions” of which she speaks.  She’s written a novel called Our Orbit, and has been struggling to break into the literary fiction genre, an uncommonly tough nut to crack.  It’s been made even tougher by the simple albeit infuriating fact that no publisher will even look at her book.  Why?  Well, it hasn’t been for lack of trying.  I first connected with Anesa on Twitter @anesam98, and I was honored when she agreed to talk to me about her experiences.         

Q:  Which authors or literary genres do you feel most influenced your own writing? 

A:  Before dedicating myself to writing fiction, I took a long detour through academic terrain. No surprise, I love Dostoevsky and Turgenev, Pushkin and Tsvetaeva. Once I’d worked my way through that daunting reading list, I broadened my perspective with western European and American classics. Among my favorites are Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edith Wharton, and Theodore Dreiser. For me, there is always something to learn in looking back through time, discovering what elements of life writers found significant and worth recording. 

I now read primarily contemporary American and British (or Commonwealth) fiction of the literary variety. Like many other people, I’ve been pondering how to define literary fiction. I see Wikipedia suggests it should be “complex, multilayered…[and] wrestle with universal dilemmas.” I would focus on the last of those aspects: literary fiction usually presents ideas, perhaps social issues, that provoke thought and debate. Hopefully, these are portrayed through the integrity of plot and character, rather than in a didactic, ideological manner.

Among my favorite current authors are Kazuo Ichigura, Annie Proulx, Louise Erdrich, and Kent Haruf. Obviously, I am nowhere near their stature, but this is the ballpark where I practice my skills.

 

Q: What steps have you taken to try to find an agent and publisher?

A: I’ve researched agents’ interests, via such sites as Poets & Writers and Writer’s Digest. I have purchased or otherwise acquired numerous books by authors repped by the agents I’m interested in. Why would I bother? Well, I prefer not to lie or invent when I claim that my work is similar to your client, so-and-so. And I meticulously follow the specs on the agency website when it comes to “How to submit. I’ve had my query letter professionally critiqued several times.

Finally, if only to leave no stone unturned, I went to a writer’s conference attended by agents on the lookout for new talent. I even took part in the “speed dating” event. That’s where I was struck by the rigidity with which several agents (reputed to be quite interested in literary fiction) insisted that my novel must be cut to 90K words. My pitch was great, my main character very promising, but at 125K it was simply too long. Mind you, this was their verdict without reading a sample, not a single page.

 

Q:  What was your reaction to being rejected on that basis?   

A:  Maybe it sounds self-evident, but for me this was an eye-opener. As gatekeepers, these agents were telling me to cut my story by about one third on NO AESTHETIC BASIS WHATEVER.  I was perplexed because literary readers pride themselves on working through Tolstoy and Proust. Even without history on my side, I could think of plenty of contemporary 1st books that run longer than 90K words.  So I finally asked one of the agents what was the reason for this. He said it’s a marketing formula. Without a track record, a publisher could only be expected to invest so many pages in me.  That’s when I began to think seriously about self-publishing.

 

Q: Do you feel like you’ve learned or grown from the experience?

A:  As for literary agents, I have made considerable efforts “applying” to them for each of my 3 novels. I’m afraid my “learning and growing” is no different than what I’ve learned of the writing process: You must care deeply about your work in order to persist in making it the best possible, but you must detach yourself from any outcome, praise, or achievement that may or may not result. It’s a zen-like attitude, which I know is best and aspire to, but have never really mastered.

 

Q:  For reasons not that different from your own, I recently cut a little over 20% (40K words) from my A Shot at Redemption manuscript.   Do you think you could cut Our Orbit to 90K words and still have it be the story you want to tell?

A:  I devised a method to determine, at least in my own mind, whether Our Orbit was too long by valid aesthetic standards: I recruited a dozen sophisticated readers to give me their opinions. I got some encouraging feedback and several ideas on how I could shorten the book if I chose to do so—although none of these ideas, nor even all combined, would have eliminated the 35K words required by the agents I’d talked to.  I did one more round of revisions and brought the total down to about 115K. Then I made the determination that to cut any further would compromise my vision for the sake of someone else’s profit structure. I am unwilling to do that, so there seemed no alternative but to self-publish. 

 

Q:  It sounds like you’ve already made the decision to self-publish so why haven’t you done so?

A:  A friend advised me that literary fiction is still likely to sell better via traditional publishing. I think you would agree that the great success stories in SP nearly all involve romance and/or vampires (God love them—legitimate forms of contemporary fiction!). Literary readers may be willing to work through the lengthy tomes of classics, but when it comes to selecting a contemporary book, they are still more swayed than other fan groups by a prestigious imprint.   So despite having given up several times in the past, I grudgingly decided to query a few agents one more time. I’ll probably defer self-publication another 4 to 6 weeks to let the search play out. (Of course, finding an agent is only the beginning. Oh joy, oh rapture…!)

     Visit Anesa Miller at http://www.anesamiller.com

 

     If you like what you’ve read, please subscribe to this blog or my Turn the Page book reviews  blog.  Please visit  michaelsova.com.  You can also find me on Facebook, and on Twitter @Micsova

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