Today, Norm Goldman, Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com, is honored to have as our guest Tom Miller, who has been called by the San Francisco Chronicle, “one of our best non-fiction writers.”
Tom has authored The Panama Hat Trail, Trading With the Enemy, Jack Ruby’s Kitchen Sink, which won the Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book in 2001, and his most recent book, How I Learned English. In addition, Tom has edited two compilations, Travelers Tales Cuba and Writing on the Edge: A Borderlands Reader.
He is a widely sought after speaker and has appeared on NBC, NPR, CNN, and CSPAN, among other broadcast outlets. He also was a major contributor to the four-volume Encyclopedia Latina and for over thirty years Tom has been writing about Latin America and the America Southwest.
The University of Arizona Library has acquired all of Tom Miller’s archives and it has mounted a major exhibit of his papers. Since 1990 Tom has been affiliated with the University’s Latin American Area Center, and he resides in Tucson with his wife Regla Albarrán.
Good day Tom and thanks for participating in our interview.
Glad to be here sitting in my pajamas, Norm.
What do you think over the years has driven you as a writer and what keeps you going?
I like to find out what’s going on when nobody’s looking. What makes people celebrate and what humiliates them. I don’t buy the line that there’s no place left undiscovered. That’s only if you look at writing purely as a geographic pursuit. Likewise, the Creative Writing School nonsense that you should write what you know. Ridiculous. You should write what you’re curious about. If you write just what you know you’ll probably write a short piece and bore people silly. What’s on someone’s bedside table? What tree is planted in their backyard? I remain curious about people and places whose qualities can provoke my interest endlessly.
A couple of years ago I was in Lagos, Nigeria. I was accompanying my wife on her spiritual pilgrimage to the Yoruba section of the country, and for our first 24 hours in the country we were hosted by the Jesuit Mission that served Nigeria and Benin. Those 24 hours in Lagos were fascinating – a violently corrupt city, a religious compound in the middle of it, Evangelicals screaming deep into the night, stories about violence, spiritualism, and money. Well, I had an impulse to junk everything else I was working on and move there for six months to write a book. Reluctantly I didn’t for reasons of previous commitments, but I recognized that rare rush that yes, here’s a book waiting to be written.
What do you want your work to do? Amuse people? Provoke thinking?
All of the above and a lot more. The fact is, each reader has a different reaction to a piece of writing. When The Panama Hat Trail came out, reviews called it travel writing, writing about crafts, economics, South American Indians, and a lot more. Only one reviewer saw the circumstances of the book as I did – that the fellow wrote that the book was provoked by anger, anger at a centuries-old system that accepts exploitation as a way of life in which the weaver of a hat earns the least amount of its final sale and the middlemen along the way make increasingly more up to and through the final retail sale.
So yes, it was all those other elements, and some of them were pretty funny, actually, but beneath it all was a subtext of anger. If I were to reduce the answer to your question to two words, though, they’d be entertain and educate. Isn’t that enough for one book?
You have written several books over the years, which one(s) did you enjoy writing the most and why?
Who is your favorite child? You can have a favorite wine or television show, but a favorite book you’ve authored? Whichever one I’m working on. But even when I’m not in the middle of a book I can still name qualities that I’m pleased with in every book I’ve done. I can even find you some sweet lines from a restaurant guide I co-authored. As for which did I enjoy writing, that’s easy: none. I don’t like writing. I love research and I very much like rewriting. But the actual writing process – sitting in front of a monitor or typewriter and pounding out 1,000 words a day? I can’t think of a book I liked writing.
Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?
They owe nothing to their readers. Punto. If readers don’t like something you’ve written, then they put it down and move on. The only person I owe something to is my assigning editor. When I wrote my book about Cuba, Trading With the Enemy, people on all sides of the endless political debate were anxious to see if I endorsed their point of view. They thought I owed it to them. Well I fooled them all.
Many writers want to be published, but not everyone is cut out for a writer's life. What are some signs that perhaps someone is not cut out to be a writer and should try to do something else for a living?
One of the most uncomfortable moments always comes when someone says, “Hey, I have a book idea for you.” What they mean is, they have a book idea for them, not for me. My usual response is to ask, “How many spaces do you indent at the beginning of a paragraph?” If they don’t know the answer, then they shouldn’t be writers.
Occasionally I’ll ask someone why he or she wants to write a book. Often, and this still surprises me, they say they want to be on a book tour and promote a book. They think that’s cool. Well, actually it is cool, but it has to follow a year or two or three of research and writing and rewriting. If they’re looking for a get-rich-quick scheme they should rob a bank.
As a follow up, how do you approach the work of writing, i.e. what does a typical writing day look like for you, from waking to turning in at night, and how does it compare to a conventional 9 to 5 job?
I bet all the guys tell you this, Norm, but there is no typical day. When I’m writing mode through – as opposed to research mode, I’ll be at the keyboard fairly early with a cup o’coffee. My daily goal will be approximately 1,000 words a day. My best writing times are first thing in the morning, and then again from either 5 or 6 pm to 10 pm.
If I complete 5,000 words a week I’m a happy guy. Now, with all the remarkable distractions a computer presents, not to mention the steady drip of e-mail, it’s easy to get sidetracked. Myself I’m a big fan of spider solitaire, one of countless games that come front-loaded on just about every computer. Then there are the web sites you end up looking at daily, and while each one only takes up a couple of minutes, cumulatively you look back at the clock when you’re done and you wonder, where do the time go?
A New York friend found that he spent so much time on e-mail and other distractions that in order to get any work done he rented an office in midtown Manhattan and set up his computer with no internet connection (shocking but true), then when he got home every evening he systematically attacked his e-mail. Back to my schedule – the time between writing bursts is spent editing the previous day’s writing, correspondence, perhaps lunch or caffeinating with friends, the gym, a short nap; the usual.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Don’t quote a cabdriver on the way in from the airport and don’t quote the bartender the night before you leave. Avoid using quaint, charming, nestled, and locals. You want more advice? There are innumerable web sites now devoted to out of the way places, and writing about them. Check out Travelers’ Tales’ site, for example. They’re a class operation devoted to quality travel writing. More advice? Don’t talk to publicists. Carry as few items as possible that require batteries.
Either familiarize yourself with a place thoroughly by reading reading reading, or else wing it. I’m of the former school; I wouldn’t travel anywhere to write about it without thoroughly learning its history and culture, but there are those who can pull it off the other way, too. Getting published on-line opens up far more opportunities than just on paper. And yes, there are on-line travel accounts that have ended up as books. Check out Lois on the Loose, for example.
Can you explain some of your research techniques, and how you found sources for your books?
Sure. Even though I’m not a big fan ofU.S. foreign policy (or domestic either, for that matter) I’ve found that the cultural attaché at various U.S. embassies can help by pointing out specialized libraries, literary personalities, local professors, and political organizations (even opposition groups).
When I was traveling the entire U.S.-Mexico border for On the Border, librarians on both sides were extremely helpful. Likewise, beat reporters at local papers. I had a good grasp of the border as a whole but I often learned from and even relied on local reporters. A journalist in Laredo, Tex. once took me over to the red light district in Nuevo Laredo, and don’t you just think that lent itself to a chapter by itself? Of course this was in the late 1970s.
Now I’d probably hook up with a border patrolman on the U.S. side or your garden-variety smuggler on the Mexico side. Another tip – go to a bowling alley in a Third World country. They may still use pin-spotters rather than machines to reset the pins and the end of a round. Afterwards take the pin spotter out for a drink. You’ll get a great story. I found such a place in South America, a bowling alley that also served roast guinea pig. And I also went to the grand opening of the first bowling alley with automatic pin spotters in the Amazon jungle. Great fun.
I believe you have done a fair amount of traveling. If you had to choose the six most romantic venues you visited, which ones would they be and why?
Your belief is correct, I have traveled enormously. Romantic venues? Usually they don’t lend themselves to the sort of writing I do, but here goes – and these are all obvious: Paris, Barcelona, San Francisco, Manhattan (really) – I have two more? Cuenca (Ecuador), and – Baracoa (Cuba). Actually, over the years, I have written about all of those. Romance is not a quality I seek, though.
What does travel mean to you?
Getting philosophical, are we? OK, changing your world outlook, adding to your vocabulary, upending a long-held belief, hearing a musical style before it gets recorded, discovering what academics call primitive art – basically, that means art developed outside the mainstream course of instruction.
One of my favorite checitos – that’s a little icon devoted to Che Guevara – is something called a Trimagen. It’s made from slivers of balsa wood, thinner than Popsicle sticks. In a frame about six inches by six inches, the artist had blackened specific parts of about 20 or 25 of these sticks and mounted them next to each other in the frame, so if you look at it head on, you see Fidel Castro. From one side, Che Guevara. And from the other side, José Martí. The contraption is ingenious, and the artist works out of his living room in a distant suburb of Havana.
I don’t doubt for a minute than someone ahs ripped off his idea and perhaps improved upon it, but as an art form, merged with a political message, this was hard to beat. Discovering something of that caliber is definitely what travel means to me. For reasons I have never figured out, and I realized this as I was writing Jack Ruby’s Kitchen Sink, I feel entirely at home and at ease with miners. People who go underground and extract coal and copper and zinc and other minerals. Yet there is nothing in my background that indicates a whit of similarity in family, schooling, geography, nothing. Still, there it is, and these people have enriched my life. Travel means opening yourself up to this possibility.
Is there anything else you'd like to share with us and what is next for Tom Miller?
Yes. Don’t use share except when discussing the stock market or in conjunction with Sonny. It’s like issues, as in, she has issues. In any event, I have nothing profound to say about the world of writing, except that the method of getting your words to someone’s eyes and ears has changed so much in the last decade or two, and will even moreso in the coming decades, that I suggest you ignore spending so much time on the medium and concentrate on the words.
I sat in on a marketing meeting for my newest book, How I Learned English, and they were talking about arks. Or arcs. I didn’t know. I was sure it wasn’t what I thought of as arc, which was the literary trajectory of a story line. I was increasingly confused so I nudged the part-time student intern next to and whispered, “What’s an arc?” She whispered back, “Advance Reader’s Copy.” Ahhh. I was dragged into the 21st century. It’s what we used to call bound galleys. And before that, my favorite – loose galleys. They came in long rolls that would sit on your lap as you’d read them, and they had a tendency to slide onto the floor, invariably out of order, and that created a fabulous mess. As for what’s next, I have some low-level work on tap – magazine assignments and book reviews – and I’m working on a couple of book proposals.
Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
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