Monday, February 09, 2009

James Reiss remembers Ellen Miller

In 1999, Ellen Miller and I did a West Coast tour; her novel was newly in paperback. My collection of stories was just out. In San Francisco we did a number of readings, and at one event, we hitched a ride with an old friend of mine from New Orleans (Derek McCollough). Derek brought a carload of friends along, and then we ran into my former classmate Crystal Reiss, who had just moved to the Bay Area. Crystal eventually married one of Derek's friends (who is, just to confuse things more, named Ken), and she also told her father about Ellen's work. I just received this email from him:

My daughter Crystal just told me about Ellen’s death. I’m hugely distressed by the news.

Nearly ten years ago I read Like Being Killed. I thought it was one of the best first novels I ever read. I assigned it as required reading in an undergraduate Contemporary American Fiction and Poetry course I was teaching at Miami University in Ohio. I worried about whether my mainly Midwestern students would go for the novel’s New Yorky, Lower East Sidey ambience. I no longer remember how they answered the question to my pop quiz, “Does Like Being Killed have a happy ending? Briefly explain why or why not.” But I sure recall kids from Chicago and Cleveland to Chillicothe and Cincinnati finishing all 352 of its gritty pages and telling me they preferred it over other required fiction by Ron Hansen, Siri Hustvedt, Elizabeth McCracken and George Saunders. In English 310’s popularity contest back in spring 2000 only Paul Auster’s Moon Palace grabbed second place after Like Being Killed.

I liked Ellen’s novel so much that I joined with a colleague and helped bring her to Miami University for a weeklong sprint course she taught, including a reading from Like Being Killed. She was such a hit in Oxford, Ohio that we invited her to conduct a second sprint course—unprecedented for us—and read from her novel in progress. Again, she brought down the house, and we invited her to apply for a position on our faculty; she politely declined our offer. Tempted as she was by the notion of living in our small college town, she couldn’t leave her friends or her apartment in the Big Apple. Thereafter, for a few years every November I continued to nominate her for a Pushcart Award—until we lost touch.

My Bay Area daughter Crystal, who initially turned me on to Ellen, joins me and a large number of Millerites who would like to see her second novel published electronically, unfinished as it is. May the genius of Ellen Miller—and Ilyana Meyerovich—shine forth in what I’m certain will be a brilliant second act.

Jim Reiss
www.jamesreiss.com/

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