HOLLYWOOD—In his first full-length interview about his serial novel, “Night School,” humorist Grady Miller ranges over the miracle of writing a novel in the midst of 18-hour workdays and ponders the peaks and valleys of the scribe’s way. Click your way to one of the 108 installments at www.canyon-news.com in the Life & Style section under “Miller Time.”
PM: What was your method? Where did you write?
GM: Instead of writing a little every day, I grabbed three days a week, Thursday to Sunday. I call “Night School,” my 3 a.m. novel because many days that was the time I’d wake up. All my other activities, teaching, moonlights as a translator, and managing a laundromat, put writing in this corner—not to mention my daughter sleeping in the workroom. It’s not easy to write when she’s awake. I was touched recently when she said, “Daddy, I miss when you’d come in and write.” After completing the week’s installment, I left the novel in the most complete oblivion and came back to it fresh in three more days—with the blankest slate. The subconscious always gave me a thread to pick up.
PM: How much time do you write on a typical day?
GM: With each day the time increases. Twenty minutes is good the first day to get a jump on the chapter and know where I’m headed. Two hours is better because I can draft the whole chapter. Of course the revising—that’s when the hours really fly, and it’s the part I most enjoy. I write a draft by hand. There‘s something about the flow; I relax more with a piece of paper and the sound of a pen scratching across the paper. The narrative sticks together better and, get this, it’s faster for me to write by hand. Sometimes I think my hand is much smarter than my brain.
Write to left: LA crime star Richard Lange, editor Nola Butler, T.C. Boyle, and Grady Miller
PM: Talk about the mood of “Night School.”
GM: I meant it to be light and humorous, but there was a big surprise on the way. One of the major characters died. . . I see a question in your eyes, Patricio. . . No, humor is not incompatible with “negative perception.” Often the biggest laughs come from the darkest places.
PM: Why did you kill your character?
GM: I was stunned that the subconscious had laid this trap for me. I didn’t know this character was going to die, and yet the events were inexorable; the empty bottle of sleeping pills was already in place and the change in mood and shift of dramatic gears was overwhelming. The morning I woke up and knew this character was going to die, I went around in a daze. Death also streamlined the narrative; to have insisted on my original plan of having the character revive would have been awkward. So in the end, the novel’s tone is bitter-sweet—it’s a bitter-sweet work.
PM: So you started with an idea, not a person?
GM: I started with a person, not an idea. Jason, an unsuccessful actor brought in to teach at the adult school by his acting buddy, Jerry, who’s says it’s an easy gig. Jason can do it and continue to audition, no sweat. Or so Jerry thinks. Jason loathes teaching, but he finds an audience in his students. In a way he’s acting more than ever. And there’s the idea of redemption through theater, when the students put on a musical. “Night School Musical,” ha ha ha. . . . Interestingly, several things happened in the novel way before that happened in real life. Student theater was in the plot from the beginning—it was the fiction that made the theme palatable to me—and a year later the real students started an English Learners theater group. Another example: Jules Kaminsky, the washed-up movie director who never rebounded from his expatriate phase, is going to leap off a freeway overpass. Now, I didn’t know of any director who had suicided. It’s a survivor profession. Then a few months later Tony Scott leaps off a bridge in San Pedro. . .
PM: Were you inspired by real-life people?
GM: Yes. Jules Kaminsky has a lot of Paul Mazursky, whose films I love. And Abby Fenwick was inspired by a real teacher. Last week, before our interview, I found a note from her on an old Christmas card to me, “You have the best attitude of anyone I’ve ever known,” I cherish that note. But, god, I feel ashamed. What I’ve written about her may tarnish the image she has of me. In the book a reporter posing as an adult school student exposes her testing fraud. Of course the fraud part is totally made up. Come to think of it, my characters are inspired by nice, real people on the outside, and where something nasty is involved I’ve usually injected them with one of my own flaws.
To be continued
Grady Miller may be reached at Grady.Miller@canyon-news.com