Talking with Ti
with Ti Mikkel
Q&A with John Jos. Miller
TI: Hello John! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk. I like to start with everyone’s WILD CARDS beginnings, and for you it all began when you chose to attend the University of New Mexico over the University of Chicago in pursuit of a PhD in archeology. In Albuquerque you and your wife Gail began hanging out with other writers and eventually were sucked into this thing called role-playing by Vic Milan, is that right?
JOHN:Yes, that’s exactly right. Gail has a Masters’ Degree in Library Science from Syracuse University, but at that time she was working at Waldenbooks in the mall—I believe she was managing it by then—, and Vic knew a woman who was also working there, so he would drop by from time to time and after a bit he invited us to join in some role playing games he was running, something neither of us had done before, but took to very quickly.
TI: You created one of my favorite characters—Daniel Brennan aka Yeoman. For those who don’t know, Yeoman is a nat but is often considered an Ace due to his skills as a master archer. His sole purpose in life is to revenge himself upon a man named Kien for the murder of his Vietnamese wife and unborn child during the Vietnam war. It’s terribly tragic yet terribly romantic. Your experience with a bow and arrow inspired him, to a degree, so what can you tell us about archery? When people write about loosing an arrow, what do they get wrong?
JOHN: I did a fair amount of recreational archery when I was young through my teen years, and eventually taught it one summer when I was a camp counselor. By teaching it, I mean I basically made sure the kids were shooting at the targets and not at each other. I have never read much about archery, except in comic books, (although for research for wild card I did lean heavily on ZEN AND THE ART OF ARCHERY) but in the comics they basically got it all wrong. Boxing glove arrows. Right. So partially I wrote Yeoman in reaction to all that nonsense.
TI: Chrysalis (another of your creations) and Yeoman had a romantic relationship that didn’t work out. But eventually he married Jennifer Maloy aka Wraith (another of your creations), had two children, and lived happily ever after. Thank you for that. I love a love story, and I’m so happy Brennan eventually buried his ghosts and found peace.
JOHN: Thanks. He had a story I wanted to tell and that was part of it. When I wrote DEATH DRAWS FIVE (you know, the lost wild card novel) I made sure to add that part. Interestingly — or not—that whole sequence set on and around Snake Hill is where I grew up and is entirely accurate to the last detail (except for the snake handling cult; I added that). The summer camp (not the one I was a counselor for, that was later and in another part of New York) actually existed, but it was for under-privileged kids from NYC, not jokers.
TI: You’re also the man behind another badass—Billy Ray aka Carnifex. He’s a government employed ace with enhanced strength, rapid healing powers, and epic one-liners: “I’ll chimney up your throat, punch through the roof of your mouth, and eat your fucking brain!”In my head he’s a cross between Bruce Willis and the Hound. I digress. What or who inspired him?
JOHN: That line was actually Vic’s, and it’s a great one. He’s actually a transfer from the RPG that inspired the books, but he was by no means as developed as a character in the RPG. When I first transferred him to the wc setting, I was unsure of what I wanted to do with him. I thought I could take him either way, potentially, villain or hero, but as I wrote more and more of him he kind of grew on me. I liked using the powers I gave him and I liked his sarcastic smart-assed voice, so I just kept on with it.
TI: You removed Fidel Castro from the political realm and gave him a career in baseball in DEUCES DOWN. It’s too bad the virus didn’t drop in the early 1900s and turn Adolf Hitler into a painter.
JOHN:There’s a small bit of truth to the Castro story. I think the optimal wild card result for Hitler would have been a Black Queen.
TI: Indeed. In addition to WILD CARDS, you’ve published nine solo novels, nearly 30 short stories, and eight comic book scripts. How does your experience writing by yourself differ from the process of writing with a group?
JOHN:My phone bills are cheaper. Wait. No one really has long distance phone bills now. More like, I spend a lot less time writing e-mails.
TI: You grew up about sixty miles north of New York City in an in unincorporated township on a secondary county road that was named Onion Avenue. You worked in the onion fields as a kid, right? What was that like?
JOHN: Hot, sweaty, and unpleasant. At least the onion fields part. Also boring. Mind-numbingly boring. No such thing as i-pods back then. On a good day you could earn $3 for your eight or nine hours. On the other hand, I was bench pressing about two-fifty by the time I was in high school, so I suppose there were some benefits.
TI: From that job you graduated to the Rat Farm. I’ve been unable to track down a copy of your “Day of the Gerbil,” in A Career Guide to Your Job in Hell. Honestly I’m almost afraid to ask as I’m terrified of rodents, but…what on God’s green earth was the Rat Farm?
JOHN:You’re in luck. I was moving some books around the other day and I found a couple of copies. Send me your address. Basically it was a compound consisting of a number of structures housing thousands of rats kept in plastic sweater boxes on metal racks. They sold them to labs and also to the pet trade. Someone had to feed and water and clean up after them. I was one of those someones for two summers and the weekends during school. It was a step up from the onion fields, because the buildings were air conditioned for the rats’ comfort, and I was making $1.60 an hour. There were also gerbils, who played a crucial role in my story, which is actually about 95% true.
TI: Oh gods. Let’s move on to happy places. You’ve spent time in Great Britain on digs in Sussex and in York. Unearth anything exciting?
JOHN: Actually, yes, and it was pretty weird. The site in Sussex was a Romano-British iron-working site and it had never been built on since Roman times. They’d hired a back-hoe operator to sort of peel off the six inches or so of topsoil that had accumulated since then and we were hand trowling the area level when lo and behold I unearthed an Acheulean hand-ax of quartzite that had just been sitting there for several hundred thousand years. How it got there is anybody’s guess, but it’s probably in a museum somewhere now. In York I worked on a couple of sites within the middle of the city, but the most interesting part of that was the time I spent excavating one of the Roman sewers that ran under the modern streets which we got access to via a manhole cover that opened on a sidewalk. I also worked at the site that later became the Yorvik Viking Center, which I’ve since revisited twice in later years,
TI: How about in the cornfields of Binghampton, NY?
JOHN: I didn’t actually meet Gail there, but once we were almost caught by the project director making out in the cornfield next to the site.
TI: Ha!For those who don’t know, Gail is John’s wife. Did you extract pollen samples on your first date, or did you take her to see STAR WARS?
JOHN: STAR WARS was our second date. It was probably also our fifth, eighth, twelfth, and nineteenth date. The small town we were based in only had one movie theatre, and STAR WARS played there all summer. We saw it a lot.
TI: Let’s talk a little bit about the craft itself. You’re a self-described gardener when it comes to writing…which means no outlining (which I abhor as well). This came back to bite you when you lost about two-thirds of Death Draws Five and had to finish it from memory. I’m absolutely horrified. How do you back-up your work now?
JOHN: Yeah, that sucked. I back up every day to a thumb drive now, but I did back-ups back then on discs only somehow the worm got into my back-up as well. Computers are great, except when they’re not.
TI:What tips do you have for aspiring writers?
JOHN: Read. A lot. Write what you love. Stick with it and have a tough skin.
TI: Do you write every day? Do you prefer mornings or evenings?
JOHN: I try to write every day that Gail is at work, but I confess that it is getting harder to do so, I write late mornings and afternoons. I am not an early morning person, I write in evenings if I have to.
TI: Let’s talk a bit about your family. Did your parents encourage your writing?
JOHN: No. They had no idea.
TI: What did your mom do for a living?
JOHN: My mom went to work in an office for a small company when I started elementary school. She had separated from my Dad before I was born and we lived with her parents.
JOHN: My Dad was a carpenter.
TI: How about TV—binge watching anything interesting right now?
JOHN: I watch literally no network television. The last two recent shows I liked were CASTLE (though that went downhill the last couple of seasons) and BIG BANG THEORY (same, but not as badly). I do have Prime and recently watched and enjoyed GOOD OMENS. We watch a lot of movies, old and new (two of my very recent favorites are NOW YOU SEE ME and THE ACCOUNTANT, as well as most of the Marvel Cineverse, DC not so much.) I have a satellite dish so I can watch the Mets, who are, as usual, killing me.
TI: In doing these interviews, I’ve learned that quite a few in the Wild Cards consortium have hidden talents. What would you say yours is?
JOHN: I could hit just about any fastball, but the curve, not so much.
TI: We talked about a few of your characters earlier (Carnifex, Yeoman, Wraith, and Chrysalis), but you’ve created others (Ti Malice, Simoon, Midnight Angel, Lady Black, John Nighthawk, and Father Squid). Who has been the most challenging character to write?
JOHN: I think Midnight Angel and John Nighthawk. I hope I have done both of them justice.
TI: I’ve always thought it would be difficult to write for another author’s character, or vice-versa. How has that process worked for you?
JOHN: Not that hard. I just try to be respectful and accurate as possible with other people’s creations, though that is getting harder and harder because now there are so many characters to keep track of. I will say that the most difficult story I had to do is the one that hasn’t appeared yet, the one that will be in JOKER MOON.
TI: If you could have dinner with one of your creations, who would it be?
JOHN: Certainly not Deadhead.
TI: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, John. You’re a treasure.