Sunday, July 17, 2016

Interview with Stan Miller, author of Prelude to the Massacre

In Prelude to the Massacre, Lee Williams is an angry ex-con released in the midst of the Great Recession. His cousin Jeff is a deranged and disfigured Iraq War veteran, militia member, and Neo-Nazi prophet. When these two meet in a funhouse vision of Tea Party Arizona, the results are explosive. Stan Miller's vicious debut novel is All Due Respect's most intense book yet.

This interview was conducted by Mike Monson, ADR co-publisher.

ADR: When did you first have the impulse to write fiction? 

Stan Miller: One of my earliest memories is of wanting to be a novelist. I'm not sure where the idea came from. Seems it was always there.

ADR: What are steps you took from that impulse to the point you are now -- about to have a very skillfully written and completely original novel about to be published? How did you develop those skills? 

SM: Up until I got back from Iraq when I was twenty-three I didn't write. I planned to write. I read a lot, learning what art/literature could be from the writers I considered to be the greats. And not only the greats but the good, the bad and the mediocre too.

When I got back from Iraq I moved into my mom's basement and wrote. It was pre-meditated. The entire time I was in Iraq I had planned for such a time when I would sit down and pound out my great war novel.

I spent the first six months I was home from Iraq living in the basement and writing. I had irregular hours because I was on unemployment and didn't have to work, plus I had some cash saved up from my last seven month tour in Iraq. I'd wake up at noon on a given day, take a walk for a few hours, maybe drive and see some friends, but in any case before night fell I'd be back in the basement writing. I'd write for four or five or six hours. Then I'd go out to the bar, or a friend's house, then drive or walk back home, depending where I was, and get back to writing.

I hung out a lot with some kids who went to a liberal arts school down the road from my hometown, who seemed incredibly sophisticated to me. They were cultured, whereas I was not. I was more well-traveled than most of them, and had the war experience, so there was a two-way transmission between us there. I would borrow all their books and read them voraciously. Mostly to fill in gaps in my own reading, and to pick up on theory and things like that. This was back in '05, before the literary world really got onto the Internet the way it is now, so in order to learn where the culture was you still had to go somewhere physical in person and ask around for it.

Seems quaint now.

After six months I drank and otherwise spent my way through the money I'd saved up in Iraq. Also my unemployment ran out. I'd already been accepted to Bard College for the next year, but it was January and the prospect of working until school started seemed distasteful to me. So instead I got together about two thousand bucks really quick by selling off all my stuff and cashing out some savings bonds I'd bought up while in the military. I got in contact with an ex who was Sicilian and lived over there. She found me this really cheap room in her city, a very non-touristy city right on the Mediterranean. I flew over and stayed there for three months.

I estimate that I wrote over a million words or so that first year. I started and then scrapped a few novels and did a lot of short stories. So I taught myself, basically. It was really during that year between Iraq and college that I developed the style that I've stayed with. I don't believe that I could write any other way at this point.

ADR: Tell us the basic story of your life to this point.  Birthplace? Upbringing? Jobs? College? Military service? 

SM: I grew up in a culturally backwards, isolated, racist and bigoted redneck town in Rust Belt Pennsylvania. I was born just as all the steel mills were closing down, and all the men had lost their jobs, and everyone was bitter and angry. There was a lot of sympathy with the militia movements at the time, and the KKK was a big deal in my hometown. They'd have these rallies every year where they'd dress up in their white sheets and stand at the main stop light in town and hand out literature. People would wave at them and honk their horns. Nobody confronted them. These are your classic former-Union workers turned Far Right.

Anyways, my upbringing was a mixture of Evangelical Christian oppression and biker-gang-wildness and paranoia. People believed in the Devil and in black magic and witchcraft. The New World Order. Racist jokes traded at Thanksgiving Dinner.

Despite this I did have some family members who were more open-minded, even educated. I was really fortunate to have these people in my life, to give me some kind of perspective. It did not escape me that these relatives had all left town right after graduating high school.

I picked up pretty quickly that all the racists were losers who I didn't want to be like. And by the time I was eighteen all I wanted to do was leave Pennsylvania and never go back. It's like Andy Warhol said: A small town is only good for leaving.

I joined the Marine Corps two weeks after graduation.

Clinton was President when I joined up, so my idea was that I'd spend five years floating around the Mediterranean. Then 9/11 happened, and within three months I was in Afghanistan, where it was zero degrees on Christmas Eve. Then, a year later I was in the invasion of Iraq. Then a year later I went back for a second tour in Iraq during the occupation. In a nutshell I watched the country fall apart while the President lied about it. I worked as an intelligence analyst, the exact same job that PFC Manning had (she actually published a few hundred reports that I personally typed up), so I had a front row seat. [Note PFC Manning was in Army Intelligence while in Iraq and leaked classified information to WikiLeaks and was subsequently sentenced to 35 years in prison.]

Boy, what a time. We were preparing power point briefs that were being emailed to the White House about how fucked up the country was, then looking up at the flat screen TV on the wall where Bush would be talking about some other Iraq that I'd never been to. This was all in the context of the 2004 presidential election. Me and most of my other buddies, I guess you could call us "old millennials" now, were completely disgusted and pretty recalcitrant. And we openly talked shit on Bush. I was warned one time that I could face charges for sedition if I kept shit-talking the way I was. This was probably an empty threat but it served to piss me off even more.

This was while living in a ruined, bombed out palace in Ramadi that was occasionally under fire from insurgent rockets and mortars, right around the time of the second battle of Fallujah. What also pissed us all off (myself and the other junior intel guys) was that the media weren't reporting the reality of the war on the ground at the time. Iraq was totally out of control by early 2004 but if you listened to Bush or the media you wouldn't know it. To a degree that was because it was simply too dangerous for reporters to go off base at that time. An obvious Westerner couldn't have walked off our base for five minutes without the insurgency immediately knowing where he was and kidnapping them. That's how little control we had in Iraq during the lead-up to the US elections. And it got worse, of course. A lot worse.

But by that point though I was out, clutching my honorable discharge.

After the war, and after my "gap year" detailed above (haha), I went to Bard College. I chose Bard 
because I have a second cousin who's an English professor at a state college down South who I ran into at a wedding right after I got back from the war. I asked him the best school for creative writing was and he told me one of them was Bard. So I applied and got in. I was very cool on the idea of creative writing, because I was aware of how much money it would cost with no guarantee of a return (and also I figured I'd taught myself), and when I showed up at the campus the week before classes started I decided to go for Spanish Literature instead, figuring that I'd at least learn a language that way.

Anyways, Bard. Small genteel New England Liberal Arts School. $50,000 a year. $50,000 a year! I went for half that sum because I was an "adult learner." The qualification for that was being over twenty-four years old and living off campus. At the time the GI Bill wasn't a free ride so I had to take out a bunch of student loans. It ended up being quite expensive. The staff was legit though. Chinua Achebe was a professor there and you'd see him going around beneath the trees in his wheel chair.  They had an organic garden, the first I had ever seen, and a pair of adult-sized swing-sets. These were located between some gigantic Great Gatsby-style mansions that looked off a hillside onto the Hudson River. The professors took everything the undergrads said very, very seriously, because many of the students had parents who were very, very rich. That said, I learned an incredible amount there not only about books, Spanish lit and culture, but about America itself. I had never before been around real rich people, up close. I saw that they really were different from me, just like F. Scott Fitzgerald said they were.

After a year I decided that I didn't want to go $100,000+ into debt for a BA. I transferred to Temple University, which is a big public school in North Philadelphia.

Temple and Philadelphia are much more real. Philly is, culturally and demographically, one of the Blackest cities in America, and I loved it. I still love it.

Anyways, I graduated, got a really shitty job with the government, and eventually quit and moved out West at the nadir of the Great Recession.

ADR: What writers or books have influenced you the most? 

SM: So many but James Joyce's Ulysses will always be the most important book I've ever read.  I read it when I was sixteen and it set in my mind what a work of literature could be, what a writer should aspire towards, as well as the way a life lived for art might look like.

After Joyce it's a toss-up. Mishima is up there. Marguerite Duras was extremely influential on my writing style (people might find this strange). William S. Burroughs is another, not only The Naked Lunch but his three cut-up novels as well, especially Bryon Gysin's essay at the end of The Ticket that Exploded. From these two guys I got the idea that the purpose of the artist is to create new images to replace older ones. People will forget words but they won't forget an image.

Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky is another big influence.

Nietzsche.

Most of all Hannah Arendt. Prelude to the Massacre is basically a conversation I had in Phoenix with The Origins of Totalitarianism. I would recommend anyone upset with my book read all three volumes of her book... then they'll be really upset.  

Crime/noir-wise I like Raymond Chandler, especially The Big Sleep. I've read almost every word he's written. And James M. Cain. The Postman Always Rings Twice is one of the great American novels. And Dashiell Hammett. The Maltese Falcon in particular. 
  
ADR: Could you have written Prelude to the Massacre if you hadn't served as a soldier in war? 

SM: No. But neither could I have if I hadn't lived on Circle K hotdogs and gas station wine, crushed up and railed Opana in the toilet stalls of moving Greyhound buses in the middle of the desert between and Blythe and Quartzite, lived with the homeless and with illegal immigrants in flop houses of doom...all that fun Great Recession/Obama Phone/Modern Day Ghost Town bullshit I've done since moving out West.

ADR: How much is Prelude based on yourself or other real people? 

SM: With the exception of the murders it's mostly inspired by real people and events. It's also totally fictional, of course.

Jeff is based partly on Chris Kyle, the "American Sniper" guy. I'd just moved to Arizona, Tea Party Central, when he came on the radar. And just like that he was dead. But I was really freaked out by him, especially at this idea I had that he'd get into politics one day. Here was a guy who killed over two hundred people yet managed to learn not a single thing about human life.

Jeff is also partially based on JT Ready, who was a piece of shit Wotanist Tea party figure in Arizona. He's most famous for appearing with his border crossing patrol crew at the Occupy rallies dressed up in their militia uniforms. He ran for a few local elections and eventually ended up killing an entire family before blowing his own brains out on the lawn of some HOA house in Mesa, Arizona.

The warcrimes Jeff took part in are based on the Maywand District killings in Afghanistan.

The part about the Neo-Nazi Marine squad is taken from old Camp Lejeune lore.

Mount Asgard does not really exist.

Wotanism does.

Lee is a composite of many serial killers.

I've hidden a lot of Easter eggs in the novel concerning them.

ADR: Prelude to the Massacre is very disturbing in a lot of ways. Now, I'm semi-well known for including graphic sex and violence and all kinds of bad behavior in my books, and even I was shocked the entire time I was reading the book. Was it hard to go to all those places with your characters and the plot? If not, why not? 

SM: The violence in the book is extremely disturbing, I can't deny it. I hadn't read it for a year until I had to do revisions recently and I was shocked at some of it myself. But also I think parts of it are pretty funny too, and the second half definitely veers towards the absurd. There is a sort of trench/gallows humor in it I think. There had to be, or I wouldn't have been able to write it.

That said, I don't think any of the violence is gratuitous or exploitative. If it was purely exploitative then it really would be inexcusable. It would almost be snuff-porn. But I needed it to be extremely real if I was going to use it to explore the other issues I set out to look at, especially the racism aspect. But without the violence I couldn't have pursued that, because it's through the extreme violence that I could get access to the subconscious parts of the main characters, including the parts of themselves they refuse to acknowledge. Also, it was through the violence that I could push the boundary between representation and experience in the reader.

Beyond that even, the book was written based very closely on Hannah Arendt's theories about power in a totalitarian state. In part I think the violence is so disturbing because the victims are often completely powerless, not to mention innocent. But this is totally critical to the point of the book. Lee is a thrill killing piece of shit. But to Jeff the killings have an entirely different level of meaning. To him they are like mathematical proofs for this theory of how the universe works. And he completely, absolutely believes in them with all of his being- he's given up his own personalty and soul and willfully become a robot. The Nazis and the Communists looked at their murders in precisely the same way. Jeff repeatedly tries to woo Lee, who represents the merely criminal, over to his way of seeing things, that is, to his ideological viewpoint. The idea is that if enough Lees are converted over to Jeffs then what do you get? The next invasion of Poland.

ADR: Prelude in a lot of ways feels like a warning -- a warning that racist, nationalist and bigoted forces in the U.S. are simmering just below the surface. So, it's all fiction, right? Could the events in your book really happen here? 

SM: Trump? Jeff would actually go on about how Trump is not what he's waiting for, although he is certainly a harbinger. But seriously, it was fiction based on my own fears and anxiety when I started writing it four years ago. Now every few days we seem to hit a new low of the human spirit, and I feel like it's becoming more and more relevant.  The militarization of the police is one of the big ones, and we don't know how that will resolve itself yet.  I live in fear of political movements like the one Jeff hopes to see. And not just from the Right. There could absolutely exist a Left-wing version of Jeff. ISIS is filled with guys like Jeff. He is the mass-shooter mentality politicized. His final words, his vision at the very end of the book, that is the nightmare I'm trying to evoke. So I hope that people read the book and are disturbed. They should be. I think we're living in very dangerous times.


Stan Miller was born in 1981 in rural Pennsylvania. He grew up shooting guns, hunting and reading James Joyce. Two weeks after graduating high school he shipped off to Marine Corps boot camp to escape the terrible boredom of a Rust Belt existence. This ill-advised move saw him sent to Afghanistan once and Iraq twice. Besides the Middle East he has lived in North Carolina, Sicily, Spain, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Phoenix and Hollywood. He now lives in California's Central Valley. He is a dropout of Bard College and a graduate of Temple University. He avoids meat and likes animals more than people. Prelude to the Massacre is his first novel. 

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