Interview with MFA in Creative Writing Graduate Chris Millis
We caught up with Chris at home, where he is putting the finishing touches on a new novel and taking care of new twin sons.
GC: You are already a published novelist, so why come to Goddard?
CM: I arrived at Goddard in the asphyxiation of a two-year writer's block that followed the release of Small Apartments. Miserable time. I experienced that horrific vertigo that follows the achievement of a big creative goal. I went to Goddard for more than just resuscitating my writing career, I went there to kick-start my life.
I found Goddard to be a warm community of fellow travelers. We creative people need to support one another. You can create in a vacuum, but if you are serious about making a life as a writer, you need support and assistance from many sources. Writing programs teach you craft, they offer a support system of vulnerable, honest, creative people and they offer exposure to a network of working professionals and those who have the potential and drive to grow a successful career as a writer, an editor, a publisher. Writing has two phases: creation and selling. Goddard College provided an outstanding faculty that has helped me in both those phases. Couple that with the friendships I formed with other writers out there in the world doing their thing and I can't recommend my experience there any higher. I love Vermont, the energy people bring for wanting to discover how far they can go.
I accomplished my main goal in attending Goddard which was to complete a second novel. I was in a deep funk. I couldn't write. But through the mentorship of my advisors, Richard Panek and Neil Landau (both of whom have become friends), I finished my second novel. This was a tremendous accomplishment for me with so many tentacles of implication. And now I have an outstanding literary agent in NYC who really digs it and we're going to get it published. Don DeLillo said in an interview that “the first book was a gift and you don't know how you wrote it. The second book you really teach yourself to write. By the time you've finished it, you know you can write books. After book two, it's like you've finally become a professional writer."
GC: How does it feel to have your written fiction be turned into a movie?
CM: It is often a torturously S-L-O-W process fraught with many perils. But I will go out on a limb and say that I feel good about this winter. We have a star, a director, and most important -- financing.
I adapted the screenplay, so I have been more involved in the rewrite process than probably most authors who simply option their material and let the producers hand it off to a screenwriter. I think, if pressured, I would have to admit I am more of a natural screenwriter anyway. My prose is very cinematic and my storytelling is extremely structured, so screenwriting (and television writing, as well) has come quite naturally. As I said once during a reading at Goddard, I have found writing to be my one, innate skill. So, if I can't make a go at writing professionally, I will have officially become useless to humanity. At that point, I might as well go into national politics.
I have a little story about how I sold my version of the script to the producers. Before they had even approached me to option the novel, I had written a draft of the screenplay adaptation. It had paper and ink and three holes with shiny new brass brads slipped through them, but other than that, it wasn't much of a screenplay. Then I enrolled in Goddard literally the week after the book option was signed. Incredibly (serendipitously?) one of my first workshops was a book-to-film adaptation seminar taught by Neil Landau (who would later become my advisor for my entire second year). After Neil's class, I realized how shitty my draft was and I couldn't wait to get home, tear it apart and put it back together again. My friend has a house in Lake Placid that he lets me use to write. After that first residency in Vermont, I went up there for a week to rewrite the screenplay. I brought Neil's notes and a copy of the Sideways screenplay, for format (a good choice, as it turned out, because it won the Oscar for best adaptation a month later). After a week, I closed my eyes and mailed off the revised script to the producers. A few days later I got a call...
Producer: You wearing a hat?
Me: What? No. Why?
Producer: I was going to say hold on to your hat, we're going to use your screenplay.
Later, when we met up in NYC, he said "I was reading the first act and I thought this is pretty good, but he'll definitely lose it in the second act. Then the second act was pretty good but I was certain you'd lose it in the climax. But, fuck man, I was impressed. It was pretty good." For anyone who has never dealt with Hollywood, that's high praise.
Some of that is my born-talent, but much can also be attributed to my wake-up call at Goddard -- I learned what is required to become a professional writer. Just that first residency was enough to instill in me the desire to learn my craft; to be willing (no, eager) to re-structure, rethink and rewrite in order to elevate the quality of my work to a professional standard. Like coach John Wooden (UCLA basketball) said, "If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?"
GC: How close to home is the setting and narrative of Small Apartments? How is your own search for happiness coming?
CM: It is set in the neighborhoods I lived in off-campus on the west side of Buffalo while I was an undergrad at Buffalo State College. I changed some of the house numbers and put convenience stores in certain places to make them, well, more convenient to the plot. But Buffalo is very much a character in the story. People say you can have a love or hate relationship with a place; I think you can have a love AND hate relationship with the City of Buffalo. "The City of Good Neighbors." "The Queen City." Those are Buffalo's actual slogans -- both ridiculously metaphorical to Small Apartments. None of the characters are based on real people, and all of the characters are based on real people. Any writer knows what I'm talking about.
My search for happiness is going good, thank you for asking. To quote Steven Wright, "I plan on living forever. So far, so good." In case you haven't noticed yet, I like to bandy quotes. It's a quirk I attributed to a character in my new novel God & California. As the character states, he doesn't even work to memorize them, they just stick to his brain "like wet toilet paper."
GC: You’ve worked on a syndicated comic feature, Close To Home, with John McPherson since 1995. How did creating cartoons lead into your work as a novelist?
CM: Humor -- cartoons in particular -- force you to focus on what is essential to telling the story. You must get your point across in an instantaneous flash. You want people already laughing at the image before they even sweep their eyes down to read the caption. At the very least, words should compliment picture, at its best, words should elevate the visual gag to another, higher level of humor. Redundancy is death in visual humor. I read once that a person spends an average of three seconds viewing an image, such as a gag cartoon. So clearly, out of pure survival, it is an excellent way to cut your teeth on learning to generate great story "hooks" -- which is such a big part of the process of being a professional writer. And it's a visual medium. This carries over into my writing in the form of scenes being visually drawn in my mind's eye. Characters are always blurry to me -- they're physical appearance, I mean -- but the setting is always in crisp focus.
Another thing I am just realizing about why cartooning has been so influential in my writing is the element of surprise. Gag cartoons are basically mini-stories with surprise endings. Miniature O. Henry stories. A gag cartoon is an unexpected caption affixed to a familiar image. Or, better, something deviously unexpected within the image itself, no caption necessary. That is always our goal with the comic. Charles Addams was the master of this. I constantly try to surprise myself in my writing. I try to throw myself for a loop in every beat, scene and act of a story. I am easily bored, so this is a good method of working for me. Take the last sentence, for instance. I was really excited at the beginning, but right around the word "method" I lost interest.
GC: How did your time at Goddard affect your work?
CM: I have nothing but positive things to say about my time at Goddard College. I think there is a lot of unwarranted criticism of graduate writing programs in America. This should come as no surprise to educated people because the vast majority of Americans cannot fathom why anyone would devote their time, sweat and treasure to their expertise in the craft of writing. Writing!? These days, getting caught reading literary fiction is tantamount to walking into a strange kitchen and having Chris Hansen from Dateline NBC step out from behind a curtain and say, "Have a seat. Just have a seat right there."
Most people simply don't recognize the immeasurable influence the crafting of words has over their daily lives, their livelihoods, indeed, their ultimate safety. I don't want to get political, but c'mon. Our Commander in Chief can't even string together three coherent sentences. He would rather be caught clearing brush wearing a pickle sling than with something so scandalous as a copy of Remembrance of Things Past in his hands. To outwardly appear as a curious intellectual, a lover of language, is like wearing frilly panties on your head. That is not a national atmosphere conducive to the celebration of the literate. But even professional writers criticize writing programs. Chalk that up to the fierce competitive nature of publishing and all the envy and brooding bitterness that is part and parcel of devoting your life to the printed word. Apparently, for too many people, graduate writing programs boil down to the age-old question: Can writing be taught?
My response is: Who cares? Honestly, who really gives a shit? These are people in pursuit of a deeper understanding of the human condition. These are serious people choosing to devote their time and money to the appreciation and creation and --hopefully-- advancement of the art of good storytelling in a world of high-tech, slicked-up bullshit machines. Who gives a shit if, in the end, they become a professional-level writer or not? It's the pursuit of a literary life that matters most. I say cheer on everybody who wants to return to their education, who wants to write and read books as part of their development as an interesting, indispensable human being. I say the underlying sentiment of the question, "Can writing be taught?" is snarky at best and insidious at its worst. The point is: they are trying to learn, and isn't that infinitely better than the alternative?
GC: You’ve worked as a children’s book author, illustrator, journalist, cartoonist, screen writer, and novelist. What else?
CM: I just started playing guitar. I’ve been playing about a month, and wrote my first song a couple of weeks ago, while I was supposed to be working on my film project. And, I just wrote my first play. I’ve written everything but a short story. Why a play? The conversation was in my head and wouldn’t leave me alone till I got it out. I wrote it down and 26 pages later had a one-act play. My buddy Scott Sheldon, a terrific actor in Los Angeles, is involved in a new theatre company and they’re going to do a reading of it. I’m still figuring it out.