I was delighted to chat with Sam J. Miller today. His latest book, The blade enters, is a terrifying and heartbreaking story about gentrification and how ghosts from our past haunt our present, sometimes threatening to destroy our future. It will leave you breathless and full of bittersweet hope. Today I had the chance to chat with Sam about writing, dark stories, and how his worlds all connect.
Hi Sam! Tell us a bit about yourself. When did you start writing?
It’s great, thank you very much! I started writing when I was in second grade, when I was deeply unpopular and bad at sports. I made friends by telling people that I had seen horror movies that I had not seen. They hadn’t seen them either, but I read the backs of the boxes to make up these crazy, wacky stories based on what I was reading. So basically I started to write lying to make people like me.
When I was 12, I started to publish articles in magazines. My mother was a writer and showed me how. I finished my first novel at 17, even though it never came to fruition.
Since I started writing as a career, I have tried to be a full time writer on several occasions, but I just am not that kind of writer. I quit my last job a little over a year ago and thought I would take advantage of it and agree to have all that extra time. It didn’t work that way. At all. It just wasn’t good for my process. So now I have a freelance writing project. It gives me a good balance between the time constraints on my writing and it’s fun, which also helps my writing.
What does your writing process or your writing day look like? Is the same for your YA novels and your adult novels?
Once I understand the idea of the story, I plan the key elements. From there, I always intend to write an outline, but usually I start writing exploratory chapters, where I try to get to the essence of the characters instead. These usually become the heart of the novel and I develop from there.
I am fortunate to be a fairly quick writer. I can usually write in six months, but it varies, and of course the publication schedules are beyond the writer’s control.
I would say I write YA novels faster, but take longer to edit. There are a lot of pacing considerations that take time to tweak in YA, as they tend to be faster and more detailed. My adult novels take longer to write, but the editing goes faster, so everything is a balance.
If you had to sum up The Blade Between in five words, what would they be?
Super gay gentrification ghost story.
So far, your books have all had connections woven into their plots. Are there any Easter eggs that fans of your other books can expect to find in this book?
Yes. All my books take place in an interconnected universe. So things that happen in one book can be referenced in others. Tom Minniq is a villain of my short story Angel, Monster, Man. The Wild Pig Rampage Dom told Ronan about was the highlight of my debut, The Art of Starving. I like to generously steal my own graves. It makes writing fun for me and hopefully it makes it fun for readers as well.
This book, and your other books, are filled with difficult themes and really bring out the darker side of human nature. How difficult is it sometimes to cope with these terrible aspects of humanity and how do you protect your sanity while writing, especially in the more personal aspects of this novel?
I think I’m good enough at building fictional frames and masks, where I can write about more personal things that don’t feel personal to me. It has certainly happened that I have delved into the dark aspects of human nature to explore their essence and find what is true, to find out that it is. too much horrible or too much dark. So in those cases I had to put the project aside. I will generally explore these dark subjects with the intention of finding light in the dark.
I’m a community activist and organizer, so I’m trying to figure out how to provide answers to these difficult topics, because I believe there are answers, or a sense of justice, or potential solutions.
One of the most powerful aspects of writing fiction is being able to create things that aren’t there in the real world. Justice is important to me because for the most part it does not exist in the real world. It’s an idea we have, but in its own way, it’s largely a fiction. In issues of mass oppression like slavery, the prison-industrial complex, the Holocaust – in rare cases the culprits can be punished, but this does not bring back the dead or erase the pain of the living . That’s why I try so hard to bring it to life in my books. I can do the characters justice in a way that feels real.
In the case of The Blade Between, the dark side of gentrification is complicated and messy. There is no simple answer. He’s not killing that group of people here, or that group over there. It’s an issue that requires work and open dialogues, but I believe that with work, these conversations can take place. The characters get justice, but that’s not an easy or straightforward answer. And I hope it got into the book.
What do you hope readers take away from this book?
I hope readers will leave feeling like they are reading a fun, engaging, scary and complicated love story. That they questioned the idea of what the house is and how it changes. And that they saw the intersection of privilege and power. Perhaps more importantly, that they feel empowered knowing that they can always do something about the injustice they face in the world.
If you had to create your perfect writing team with five writers, living or dead, who would they be and why?
I will go with the dead here, because there is always the possibility of meeting and speaking with authors who are still alive. Although many will not answer my phone calls lol.
Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, Ray Bradbury and Jean Genet. They are all writers who have influenced me and who talk about a certain type of engagement with the world. And they are committed to writing about the horrors and truth of the world in a straightforward and compelling manner.
Virginia Woolf because she captures interiority like no one else. James Baldwin because he could communicate how history and oppression live in us. Octavia Butler because she told tough, brilliant and engaging provocative stories. Ray Bradbury because he writes with an enthusiasm and euphoria that appeals to me. Jean Genet because his writing is dirty, sexy and radically protesting.
What are you reading? To listen? Watching?
Right now, I’m listening to some stuff. Lots of low-fi hip-hop and instrumental beats. Wordless music helps me stay in my apartment and drown out noise from my neighbors and the city so I can concentrate. I am also obsessed with the Master of my imagination of Santigold. It’s one of my all-time favorites.
I just finished watching The Haunting Of Bly Manor and loved it, as well as finished Big Little Lies, which I loved too. And just started The Undoing.
One author I hadn’t heard of before the pandemic was Poppy Z. Bright. I just finished Drawing Blood and I think it’s a wonderful horror novel.
Which book would you recommend for writers? To the readers ?
For writers, I would recommend Zen in the art of writing by Ray Bradbury, The writing life by Annie Dillard, and On writing by Stephen King.
For readers, I recommend The wizard of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson, and since I’ve also been into graphic novels lately, I would recommend Tillie Walden’s Are you listening.
I am at the very start of a new project. It’ll likely be a story halfway between now and Blackfish City. It’ll probably be science fiction, because I love how science fiction can make us feel less doomed about our planet’s inevitable demise, for example. We can think about potential solutions, some of which may not be possible now, and I think that gives us hope for the future instead of dread. But I’m also slowing down a bit. I’ve written four novels in four years, and it’s a pretty brutal publishing pace. So I take my time.