Charles Tan Interviews Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller’s short story “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides” is a 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards nominee.

Charles Tan: What’s the appeal of the short story format for you?

Sam J. Miller: Reading really great short stories excites me because they’re worlds in miniature, tiny self-sufficient ecosystems with their own laws of physics and nature and emotion. I love getting lost in a big fat novel full of weird worldbuilding and crazy magic systems, but I also love the way that reading a brilliant short story can take you on a swift, haunting tour of a little universe packed with people (human and otherwise) who make you feel real emotions. That’s also what excites me about them as a writer – the chance to create something wacky and powerful that can hopefully give someone else the same emotional sucker-punch feeling that great stories give me.

Charles Tan: What made you decide to format your story as a bullet list?

Sam J. Miller: Formal conceits for me work best when they fulfill a primal narrative function, like in Ken Liu’s “The Man Who Ended History” where the screenplay format offers us a multiplicity of perspectives on events to highlight the fact that even history’s starkest and most objectively-horrific facts are shaped by where we stand when we observe them. So when this story began to take shape and I realized it was fundamentally about a person who can’t own up to his privilege and how it rendered him unable to truly understand his relationship with someone who doesn’t share that privilege, I realized that the list format would give me an interesting way to underscore his massive blind spot. We all have a long list of excuses for when we do bad things – like Tom Ripley says, “whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it, in your head? You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person.” Listing reasons is Jared trying to make excuses for his actions. The real reason for the Slate Quarry Suicides isn’t one of the 57 that Jared lists.

Charles Tan: When did you know Jared would be the protagonist of your story?

Sam J. Miller: Jared is only a few steps removed from my own high school self; I was dealing with tons of bullying and had a couple dozen bloody revenge fantasies a day, but luckily I lacked the horrific superhuman abilities to make them come true. Also, I had no guns. My mom says I’m lucky I had already graduated from high school when Columbine happened, because I would have copy-catted that shit in a second. But what fascinates me about revenge narratives is that the protagonist always ends up becoming the villain – their mission makes them indistinguishable from the monster they pursue. I’m able now to see the many ways in which I’m privileged, but back then I could only see the ways in which I was oppressed. So for me, Jared was an interesting way to look at the way people who have been the victims often end up hurting others, including the people they care about.

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