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

Cry constipation...courtesy of Ellen Miller

I keep waiting for the moment when I'll feel capable of crafting some insightful, eloquent account of this thing, but in the meantime I just keep tossing up a few paragraphs at a time.

Yesterday morning I left my house at about 4:30 am and headed to the airport for a flight to NYC. Earlier in the week I'd been completely felled by a fever for two days, and last weekend I was bit by a dog (after I stuck my hand in its mouth), and then at the end of the week Sula was having anxiety over the construction next door, so I began to think I couldn't do it. But I woke up at about 3am and knew it was time to go, and that I had to, and that I wanted to.

On the train from JFK, I looked at the map and realized we were passing Canarsie, where Ellen Miller grew up. Then, when I got to Manhattan, I met a few friends for brunch at a place where, as I had predicted, they served miniature servings of food. I had the tiniest little eggs benedict I'd ever seen. Then I walked back from Union Square to my old neighborhood in the East Village, where Ellen had lived just a few blocks away. I stopped in and visited a friend's new pit bull, then headed to the dog park, and at some point realized that it was the first time in years that I had been in New York and the sun was out. It was a beautiful day.

T Cooper and I headed over to the memorial to help out ahead of time. Hannah Tinti had arranged for a beautiful spot in the Lillian Vernon Writers House. There were a lot of people there: Dani Shapiro, whose first workshop as a teacher was where I met Ellen; Ben Schrank, Rebecca Donner, Johnny Temple, and others who were familiar from my old days in the old school literary world of New York. But there were also people who I knew exclusively through Ellen: her old boyfriend Frank, who few up from Key West; her friends who lived across from me on 7th Street; her old friend Stephanie Foster, whose last name I could never recall; etc. T opened the memorial by reading from the first three paragraphs of Like Being Killed; Johnny read a series of terrible puns about how much Ellen like puns; someone else read from a very Ellen email exchange; I read from the plumber section of the novel, and from the end. People laughed and cried and hugged each other. And then I got into a cab, few home, and collapsed in bed with my dogs at 10:30pm. Today I'm still in bed, in a jittery stupor, like when you have an accident, but it doesn't hit you until after you walk away from it.

"Cry constipation" was one of the terms someone mentioned Ellen inventing, for when you want to cry, need to cry, can even feel the pressure of a good cry pressing against the back of your eyes, but nothing comes. That's where I am now.