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This article is from Issue 57: May/June 2012

All That Jazz

Penny Carothers (yes, that Penny) gets real with Donald Miller about his landmark book, the new movie it inspired and the tension of turning fact into fiction.

Donald Miller looked at me from across the room. He was standing in the corner with his hands jammed into his pockets, as nervous as I’d ever seen him.

“It’s terrible, right?” he asked, softly, as if he didn’t want me to hear. I rolled my eyes and shook my head at him but kept focused on the page in front of me. He tried to get my attention again, a little louder this time: “Penny?”

“Don, I’m trying to read!”

It was 2002, and I sat with my friend and fellow Reed College student, Laura, in Miller’s den. We were curled up like cats in the overstuffed chairs, reading a manuscript Miller was about to have published. Though we’d all been close friends for the past year, until that afternoon we hadn’t known he was writing a memoir, let alone a memoir about us.

“OK, Don, I’m done,” I said, after several more pages. “Could you tell I liked it? I laughed at every other word.”
He smiled weakly and handed me a pen and a single sheet of paper.
“So, they want you to sign these papers, saying you won’t sue them or something. But we all know no one’s going to read it.”

“Not necessarily. It’s good,” I said.
“It is,” Laura echoed.

“Thanks, guys.” Miller shuffled the papers together and looked much more like himself. Then he smiled his little boy smile, the one that clues you in a joke is coming. “You know we’ll be laughing about it in 10 years. ... ‘Remember that book Don wrote? Too bad … but, you know, he’s made such a good delivery truck driver.’”

To date, Blue Like Jazz has sold more than 1.5 million copies and has spent 43 weeks on the New York Times' Best-Sellers List.

Six years later, Miller called me again. His wildly popular memoir Blue Like Jazz was on its way to becoming a movie. Along with co-writers Steve Taylor and Ben Pearson, Miller had created a semi-autobiographical story that follows a fictional character named Don Miller who escapes his Southern Baptist roots to attend one of the most socially progressive schools in the country, Reed College, where Miller and I had met and become friends. And once again, Miller told my story—or at least, he’d created a character based on my story.

“Pensive!” (Don has a lot of nicknames for me.) “We’re done with the screenplay. Can I send it over? You’re gonna love it, and you’re gonna love Penny!”

“I’m sure I will,” I said, and meant it. “So … no one’s going to see the movie either, right?”