Shimmer #20 Interview: Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller
Sam J. Miller, with Wood

Tell us a little about how “Allosaurus Burgers” came to be.
I wanted to write a story about the moment where a child realizes their parent is human, and fallible. It’s such a heartbreaking and universal step, when you stop believing that your parents can answer every question and always keep you safe.

Also, I love dinosaurs. A lot. And dinosaurs make every dramatic fact about the human condition more dramatic.

Your family ran a butchershop for a while. Do you have any interesting stories from growing up in that environment?
Well, the town butcher knows ALL the gossip, and cutting meat alongside my father was where I first learned that everyone has a fascinating story to tell. Which happens to be one of the most important rules of writing fiction. The man who lived in the swamp and only ever bought hot sauce, which he put on the worms that were his main food. The dowager movie star hiding from the world. The immigrant couple who made their living picking up bottles and cans. The butch dyke who worked for my dad and taught me how to sell food stamps when I was twelve years old. My dad treated them all with the same respect, AND he told me all the juicy gossip. I mean, back story.

My good friend Tim Fite also worked as a butcher when he was a teenager, and he said something that really rang true for me – there’s something very important about masculinity that a young man can learn by being covered in blood all day every day. There’s something very primal and horrific about working with meat. We’re all made out of it, after all. Like me, he became a vegetarian shortly after, and like me he still is.

How did you first get involved with social justice and resources for the homeless?

I was a teenaged communist, and coming of age as a gay man made me pretty attuned to the horrors of patriarchy. I’ve always been an activist or at least a shit-talker about issues like war, corporate power, workers’ rights, animal liberation. But it’s funny – I was never particularly drawn to housing as an issue. And then I was working as a community organizer around immigrant rights work, and I kept hearing great stuff about this organization Picture the Homeless. And I was lucky enough to take a night course in community organizing with folks from the organization, and learned more on my cigarette breaks talking with PTH members than I did in the class itself. So when they were hiring, I jumped at the chance.

You work at an organization that was started by two homeless men. Can you talk about your work there, and maybe where you’d like to see yourself making the most impact?

My work at Picture the Homeless focuses on bringing people without homes together to fight back against the problems that impact them. We don’t think homeless people need advocates – they’re the experts on homelessness, and they have the anger to fight back and win. We provide the space and resources and support to create change around the many bad policies they have to deal with. A big part of our work focuses on challenging stereotypes and misconceptions about homelessness. People want to frame the issue as one of substance abuse and mental illness, but plenty of wealthy people have substance abuse and mental illness issues! Homelessness is about poverty, and gender, and the lack of decent-paying jobs, and institutional racism, and a whole host of other systemic issues. Homeless people are already living in a dystopia. It’s like the William Gibson quote about the future already being here, but not evenly distributed. I’m very fortunate to have this perspective of working so close to the issue for so long. It can be really emotionally draining at times, as is true of any situation where you’re exposed to massive, cruel, wanton, unnecessary injustice, but we have also won a lot of really huge concrete victories that are helping to turn the tide.

Do you have a favorite interview question? Have you ever been asked it? How would you answer it?
OOOOOOoooooooooooooooooooooh OK I’m not saying that I used to fantasize about being interviewed by Rolling Stone when I was a teenager ALL THE TIME. But I totally did. And one of the questions I wanted to be asked was what fictional character I would most want to be. So go ahead. Ask me that question.

What fictional character would you most want to be?  
All the villains. Lady Macbeth. Maleficent. Neuromancer. Mrs. Coulter, from His Dark Materials. Grendel. Prince Zuko, from Avatar: the Last Airbender. President Laura Roslin and Mrs. Dalloway. They’re not villains, but that’s okay. Some of my best friends are not villains.

How does it feel to win a motherfucking Shirley Jackson Award?

Pretty fricking awesome. And not just because Shirley Jackson is pretty fricking awesome. And not just because so many of my hero(in)es have won it – Karen Joy Fowler, Jeffrey Ford, Kelly Link, Peter Watts, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Lucius Shepard, Laird Barron, Ellen Datlow…

It’s also awesome because my story “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides” (Nightmare Magazine, December 2013) was super gay, and I know I’m not the only queer writer who sometimes feels nervous about writing shit that’s super gay, because what if straight people don’t connect with it emotionally because of the gayness? (homophobes aside; I’m not worried about what they think, they can suck a rock for all I care). So to do something that engages queerness so directly, in a way that felt kinda scary for me when it was finished and on the page, and have it get such a positive response from so many people, and then win a motherfucking Shirley Jackson Award, made me feel really good about my ability to find an audience for the particular fascinations and fucked-up places I want to explore in my fiction. ALSO I GOT A ROCK! All the nominees got a little rock that says “Shirley Jackson Awards 2013,” suitable for stoning someone.

ALSO – BECAUSE I AM AN ASSHOLE BROTHER – I FORGOT TO THANK MY LITTLE SISTER SARAH WHEN I ACCEPTED MY AWARD. Sarah, I love you a billion, and your love for me and my work has made a huge difference at a bunch of crucial moments when I was feeling pretty bad about things. SO THANK YOU!

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