Q&A with Author Donald Miller
By Josh Loveless
November 20, 2009
Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the two-part interview with Don Miller that appears on the new RELEVANT Podcast. Click here to hear part one of the interview on this week's episode, or click here to subscribe at iTunes. Click here to answer the podcast question of the week and win a signed copy of Miller's new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.
Q: You seem to play the role of the lovable loser in the Christian world, but now you are one of its most influential voices. Do you finally feel like the cool kid?
A: Oh no, I feel that, just a couple days ago I did a thing in Houston, which is where I grew up, and all my high school friends, about 6 of us, went out after the show and hung out. There were awesome memories of growing up but I was definitely the fat kid who didn’t have a lot of friends. Everybody kind of liked me but I was always on the outside. That became my identity and it takes a long time when you have that kind of childhood, no matter how successful you are or how popular, to no longer identify as that guy, because it’s a foundational point of life. But I don’t think when I sit down and try to write I position myself as the lovable loser; I’m just being honest. And I can’t say in my book I’ve won some sort of award or I have this much money; everybody will just hate me. What are your choices?
Q: In your books, you always appear to be troubled until the end in some way. How much of that is your style, and how much is that the reality of what your life is like when you write the book from start to finish?
A: Well, I write books after I have dealt with an issue. So I wrote a book about growing up without a Dad, but after I had processed it and gone through some counseling, so I am telling it from a position of strength but going back into those moments of weakness, those scary moments. But there’s also a narrative structure when you are writing that helps a human brain engage a story, so you obey those principles as a way of serving the audience. It is not that you’re being inauthentic as much as it is putting together a good paragraph. I think it is part narrative structure and part that’s the way our lives work, that we are becoming better people, growing up and becoming more mature. It seems to work. I don’t know if I am going to write another memoir … well I don’t know if I have written a memoir but in a memoir-voice, but I don’t know if I am going to do that for a while. That’s something I have covered [laughs].
Q: After the success of Blue Like Jazz, did you just create new ambitions for this season of life, or did something else drive you for this project?
A: There was a season where, after Blue Like Jazz took off, I had gotten the thing that I had wanted for a long time. What I realized when I got it, it didn’t deliver what I thought it would deliver. I thought it would make everything great and I would be able to talk to animals, and none of that really happened. I sit down and I keep writing and I think why I am doing this? It is not the act 3 climax of life, so why am I doing it? I didn’t really have an answer to that question, so that is why I haven’t released a major book in 3 or 4 years. I had these screenwriters come to town and say we want to make a movie out of Blue Like Jazz and I thought, “Well, it will pay the bills and keep me from having to write another book,” because the publisher was yelling at me to write another book. So I wrote the screenplay and I learned all these principles, these elements of story that make up a good story that make up a good life. So I thought what if I tried to live an interesting story and see if it fixes whatever it is that’s happening to me, this sense of futility. And it did. The principles of story are a character that wants something and has to overcome something to get it. So I was a character who wants something so I started the mentoring project and I found my Dad after not having seen him for 30 years and I rode a bike across America; I just did things because, not writing a book the whole time and running out of money, I just needed to jump start life. It worked. So A Million Miles in a Thousand Years [check out our review here] is about that experience, about having to rewrite your life in actual flesh and blood, not with a pen.
Q: Do you now ask, “What would Donald Miller, the movie character do?”
A: It’s not like that; once you understand how narrative works, you no longer think of story as a source of entertainment, as a novel or something, you literally think of it as real life. Life is a story. You and I are telling stories; they may suck, but we are telling stories. And we tell stories about the things that we want. So you go through your bank account, and those are things you have told stories about. You told a story about getting a car, getting a house, getting a vacuum cleaner and if you were to watch a movie about a guy getting a car, house, vacuum cleaner, it’s probably going to be a boring movie. I realized I was just telling stupid stories and I needed to tell better stories. When it comes to conflict especially, I think of narrative. If you have a beautiful story, it has to have conflict. If you don’t have conflict, it can’t be a good story. So the character has to experience emotions that he does not want to experience in order for the story to be beautiful. And we’ve lost touch with that. We are a conflict avoiding culture. One of the things I love about our source text as Christians, the Bible is that it teaches us not to avoid conflict. And it teaches us that before the fall of man, in Paradise, there was conflict. God wants conflict to be a part of your life. Most churches don’t teach that.