For Adrienne Miller, Ohio is a state of mind
By Aileen Torres
Adrienne Miller, the former literary editor of Esquire, knew she would one day leave that position. As a writer herself, she treated it as a day job, working late nights to complete her own first novel over a period of five years. The result is The Coast of Akron (Picador, $14), a character-driven novel populated by striving Midwesterners, as Miller, who lives in the West Village, puts it.
Akron isnt as glamorous as, say, Portugal, which was the original setting of the book, but it fits as the place to be for Jenny and her husband Lowell, who rises to artistic fame by pretending to be the originator of Jennys paintings; their unhappily mediocre daughter, Merit; and Fergus, a long-time family friend who gives them financial support because of his emotional neediness. The lives of these characters are disastrous, especially as they intersect with a certain Lowell Haven, a man blessed with ethereal good looks who is hungry for attention. Miller spoke with The Villagers Aileen Torres about her debut novel, which came out in paperback last month.
What was your job at Esquire like?
I did it for eight years. Its a really long time for a job like that. Each magazine, given its sensibility, has its own house-style short story. We at Esquire tended to get a lot of misogynist stuff. Sort of gritilly realistic, Hemingway-esque type fiction.
Did you enjoy the work?
I did. It was an amazing experience to work with the caliber of writers with whom I worked. Had I been a book editor, I wouldnt have gotten to work with Don DeLillo, for instance. That was really great. And as a writer, working with really amazing writers made me really want to achieve something at a very high leveland to really write. Not to write the gritilly realistic short fiction I had been spending my life reading, but to hopefully write something that was matching the couple amazing short stories I would read during the course of a year. Some of my favorite stories were by Richard Russo, Joanna Scott, Nicole Krauss, Heidi Julavits. I definitely found the job meaningful, but like every job, it just becomes a job, and I always wanted to write. It was just a question of time.
You grew up in a suburb of Akron, Ohio. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to write about Akron?
No, and thats one of the reasons why this book took me so long to write because I had the characters and I had a setting, and I knew a lot of the setting took place in this flamboyant, ridiculous, over-the-top mansion. But for the first several years of writing this book, it took place in Portugal. Ive never been [there], but I had all these foggy romantic notions about the place. But I moved all [the characters], put them on a plane, and they went on a field trip to Akron. And thats when they kind of cohered to me as characters, and I understood them as striving Midwesterners attempting to be something that none of them actually were.
What do you think of Jenny? Shes a pathetic character, but she had so much promise. She was the one with talent.
I see the book as sort of feminist. One of its points is that if you are a male-identified woman, it will mean nothing but trouble for you. Had she not met Lowell, had she not allowed her identity to be sucked dry, would she have achieved his level of prominence and fame? I dont know. But she would have had a much more useful and happy life. But to allow herself to be used like that
. I hope she comes across as complex as I see her. I know that as a reader its probably really frustrating to witness these characters intensely self-destructive acts. But to me, its life. It seems to me that in peoples lives, their only real enemy is themselves. I think thats really true in this book.
And your next novel, whats it about?
Its not that dissimilar. Its set mostly in New York, and it also involves a Midwestern family. I must identify with the place a lot more subconsciously than I consciously do. It involves TV newssomething that drives me crazy. Its a much more overtly political book.
How long have you lived in New York?
Since Ive graduated from college, which was 94. I live on 7th Avenue and 11th Street. Ive been in this neighborhood for two years. I love it! Its just the most beautiful block. I expect to finish this next book in New York, and I expect to finish the book after that probably in the same apartment five years from now