Riding into a different world – Jennifer Miller
By Jennifer Miller
When I rode across the country on the back of a motorcycle with 25 Vietnam vets, I had no idea that the experience would one day inspire my second novel, The Heart You Carry Home, which is about a young woman traveling from Tennessee to Utah with her Vietnam vet dad.♥
I went on that bike trip ten years ago as a young reporter. I was 25. I had never been on a motorcycle. I didn’t even own a leather jacket. But I’d always been curious about (and totally intimidated by) these biker vets with their beards and bandanas and tattoos. So when I asked to interview them in DC on Memorial Day, and they invited me to ride with them across the United States, I somehow gathered up the courage and agreed to go.
I spent two weeks on the road with them. The result was a fairly short newspaper story for The New York Times. That short scattering of words was nothing compared to the hundreds of hours of interviews I’d recorded and the many extraordinary, frightening and challenging experiences I’d had along the way. But what to do with all of that information? I tried pitching longer magazine stories but I couldn’t sell them. I put together a non-fiction book proposal about the trip, but editors were skeptical about a young woman writing about middle-aged war vets. (As a reporter, that was extremely frustrating. I was almost certain that if I’d been a young man, the response would have been quite different.)
But eventually, I resigned myself to the fact that my work with the vets was finished. I put away all of my materials and started writing The Year of the Gadfly, my debut novel. It wasn’t until Gadfly was finished and I was struggling to come up with a new project, that I came back to the biker-vets. Why not turn all of my reporting into a work of fiction? I’d been lucky enough to have access to a biker culture that few people ever get to see. I’d done enough reporting that I felt confidence in my ability to describe their world and develop a cast of fictional characters with authority and nuance. It the kind of story that I never would have been able to tell – wouldn’t have known could be a story – had I not taken that reporting trip almost a decade before. The result is a novel that feels truthful and real, though it describes a world far apart from the one I live in now.
People say write what you know. This is sound advice. But just because you don’t currently know something, doesn’t mean that you can’t learn it. If you want to write about ex-Marine Vietnam veteran motorcyclists, go out and find them. Ride with them. Talk to them. Explore their world until you have enough first-hand experience with it to speak from experience. In other words, if you’re eager to write fiction about something far outside your own experience, then delve into it. Interview people, observe, ask questions. Live as close to it as you can until some of that foreignness feels familiar. Then sit down and write what you know.
Jennifer Miller is the author of three books: The Heart You Carry Home, The Year of the Gadfly and Inheriting the Holy Land. She teaches writing at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son. Jennifer is offering book clubs Skype chats to discuss The Heart You Carry Home and those that sign up will also receive original book-themed goodies, find out more at: www.byjennifermiller.com