by Victor Hernandez
Jim Miller truly is an example of the engaged citizen. A native San Diegan, Miller is the cofounder of the San Diego Writers Collective and San Diego City Works Press. He is also the Vice-President of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 1931. An author and editor, Miller has published two novels, as well as fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in various literary journals. He most recently served as co-editor of Sunshine Noir II: Writing from San Diego and Tijuana. Miller currently teaches American Literature and Labor Studies at San Diego City College. You can read his weekly column “Under the Perfect Sun” in the San Diego Free Press. Mr. Miller was gracious enough to answer some questions for PRESSBOX, where we feel that his ethos is representative of our own.
In addition to being a writer, editor and instructor, you write a weekly column for the San Diego Free Press, how do you balance these responsibilities?
In addition to being a writer, editor, and professor at City College I am also the political action vice president for my union, the American Federation of Teachers, Local 1931, so balance is indeed a challenge but I find that being deeply engaged in the world is more of a benefit than a hindrance. For instance, much of my work, particularly for the SD Free Press is political and being part of the local activist community provides me with material and insight on a daily basis. I don’t need to go out and investigate things, I’m already in the thick of it. At City, I teach literature, humanities, writing, and politics so that part of my work keeps my head in the game as well. Talking with my students is always part of my process and I’m always learning. The whole world is at City College.
And over the years, I have come to appreciate the discipline of a column on a deadline. The time constraint clarifies and sharpens your craft as there is often not much time to ruminate. You get used to throwing yourself “in media res” and trusting your instincts. You learn to be more immediately present right away.
For larger projects, the nice thing about working in academia is that we do get breaks in the winter and summer so that’s when you have time to slow down a bit and really dig in, whether that means doing research or simply giving yourself the kind of space you need for the frequently lateral movement of the imagination to happen. I find that while there is plenty of intersection between fiction, non fiction, and poetry, getting to that place where good imaginative work gets done requires more time and a different context than writing non-fiction requires. You’ve got to lose yourself to find yourself despite the fact that so much about our society works against this. So it’s a different kind of discipline–still deeply engaged but more like Zen, getting unstuck and opening.
San Diego City Works Press just celebrated its 10th anniversary, an important milestone for an independent press. Has maintaning the press been difficult? Did you face any major challenges?
Yes, City Works Press has been around for 10 years now and, of course, it’s always difficult. I remember when we first started the San Diego Writers’ Collective and City Works Press my friend Steve Kowit said, “Don’t do it! It will make you miserable!” Then he laughed, gave us some good advice and was supportive all the way through until he unexpectedly died quite recently. We dedicated Sunshine/Noir II to him. We loved Steve and his selfless commitment to the local writing community was an inspiration to us.
Still it’s tough. The major obstacles are the obvious ones–finances, working around other jobs, getting folks to pay attention to your books and buy enough of them for the press to survive. In general, our 100 percent non-profit, all-volunteer, collective model has really helped. All the money we make on the first book goes toward publishing the second book and so on. Thus it’s a labor of love for our authors and editors. It’s about the thing itself, not making money. And–go figure–our potlatch publishing model has persevered and kept us alive and kicking longer than lots of other presses than went the traditional commercial route.
San Diego City Press’ most recent publication, Sunshine/Noir II, which you co-edited, includes many established writers and poets but also includes many emerging writers. Why was it important to include these newer writers?
We thought it was important to include emerging voices because many of those people are telling important stories about who we are in new and fresh ways. It was also important for us to include pieces by people who aren’t necessarily “literary” types but who have a story to tell about their corner of the city or the way they experience life in San Diego.
In your opinion is San Diego beginning to develop a unique literary and artistic identity or is this still a work in progress? Are there any particular writers or artists whose work you think embodies this identity?
In the introduction to Sunshine/Noir II, after outlining our city’s literary history populated by the likes of Oakley Hall and Jim Thompson, I write that, “San Diego is still a city in need of a literary voice, a cultural identity that goes beyond the Zoo, Sea World, Legoland, and the beach.” That doesn’t mean that nobody is doing good work but that San Diego resists being represented in a way that defies its marketing. Thus literary and/or other cultural work that goes beyond our cherished tourist stereotypes is still marginalized despite our growing size and diversity: “we insist upon the sunshine while ignoring the noir, like a politician sticking to his talking points.” Some of the old noir novels I cite tried to go beyond this, and there are great works in our anthology that map our marginal spaces, and in my own humble efforts I too have tried to write beneath the postcard. But it is like engaging in a kind of cultural rebellion of sorts. Cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are comfortable enough with themselves to acknowledge their dark spaces and hence have richer and fuller cultural identities. Ours is still struggling to be born. There are border stories, stories about the “wrong side” of I-5, the underside of the tourist economy, and our imperiled natural landscape waiting to be told. That said, there is not a lot of cultural space available for those tales. This makes San Diego a hard but also an interesting place to be a writer.
Your novels Drift and Flash take place in San Diego, incorporating an extensive amount of the city’s history, what is it about this historical element that appeals to you?
In Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See I wrote that “if history is not dead in San Diego, it is certainly on life support.” Consequently, the voices of the past are faint here, but by resurrecting them and putting them in conversation with the theme park present, we can start to reinvent a richer sense of place and identity. In both Drift and Flash, the narrators are alienated figures in a city that fashions itself beyond alienation so they are drawn to the ghosts of the forbidden past as an antidote to its affectless present. Thus whether it’s the voices of dead Wobblies tortured during the Free Speech Fight in 1912, the residue of ancient grit beneath the Disneyfied streets of the Gaslamp, the traces of lost fishing boats and canneries along the harbor, or the hints about the invisible struggles of the city’s marginalized communities, the narrators of Drift and Flash are compelled by these ghosts because they haunt San Diego’s sunny stage and connect them with something more authentic than the seamless gloss of the hyper-commodified cityscape they occupy.
We only know who we are by knowing where we have been and in San Diego most of us are lost and don’t even know where to start looking for home. In my novels I try to uncover a story of San Diego that invites the reader to reconsider where we have been and who we are, to find home anew.
What kinds of creative projects are you currently working on? Can we expect another novel from you anytime soon? Perhaps a book of poetry?
Right now, I am working on something about life in San Diego, Ocean Beach in particular, in the sixth extinction–the beach party at the end of the world.