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Talking With Author Sam J. Miller About 'Blackfish City: A Novel'


"Blackfish City" imagines a world that's flooded, burned and dried up at the hands of its own environmental stupidity, but used its technological genius to create a lifeboat society afloat in the Arctic Circle - Qaanaaq. It's a way of life that works but being brought apart from the inside out by corruption, crime and a disease called the breaks. One day, a woman rides an orca whale into the city, accompanied by a polar bear. "Blackfish City" is the first novel for adults by Sam J. Miller. His highly acclaimed YA novel, "The Art Of Starving," was published last year. He's been a finalist for several Nebula Awards for science fiction and joins us from New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

SAM J. MILLER: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Tell us about this place.

MILLER: The story first appeared in a short story that I wrote. And I was just sort of reflecting on a lot of the anti-immigration sentiment in the United States and the irony of the fact that many folks who leave Caribbean or South America and our other countries are doing so because things that the United States government has done has dismantled their home economies. So I wanted to imagine a future where our own mistakes have finally begun to hurt us. Rising sea levels and environmental decay has sort of flooded New York City, and so the protagonist is one of many folks who has fled from New York to a floating city in the Arctic. And so Qaanaaq sort of evolved as this natural response to thinking about how people will still find a way to come together and live together, and that it'll be really hard and really beautiful.

SIMON: The really-hard-and-really-beautiful part sometimes made me wonder if - are we talking about something that's dystopian or, in a way, utopian?

MILLER: That's a great question. And I'm not entirely sure I have an answer and probably because I actually believe that both things exist simultaneously in books and in the world around us. There are so many things in our world that are amazing and wonderful and that people a hundred years ago would be shocked and overwhelmed to find that we have the kind of technology and medical care and food abundance that we do now. And so in many ways for many people, this current moment is very utopian. But it is also deeply dystopian, and many people are living really, really hard lives that other people are sort of perfectly happy to ignore.

SIMON: The breaks is this disease that's eating into the society. I've got to get you to talk about that.

MILLER: Sure. As a gay man of a certain age who came up in the sort of period when, you know, gay identity was inseparable from thinking about the specter of HIV/AIDS and where there was this sort of, for example, drummed into my head in health class that having gay sex would lead to you contracting a fatal illness and dying immediately - thinking about HIV/AIDS as this formative element of what we now think of as LGBTQIA identity and also as this sort of, like, incredibly crucial moment where communities came together and fought back in really powerful ways, and folks sort of, like, came together and forced treatment to be developed, forced political changes, forced a sort of sea change in how we think about things. And so I wanted to imagine a disease that could do some of those same things, that could - that was a terrifying nightmare, but that also served as a way to bring folks together and enabled them to sort of access power that they didn't know they had.

SIMON: You started out to be a butcher in Hudson, N.Y.

MILLER: I did.

SIMON: Well, how do you get from that to this?

MILLER: Well, so I - you know, I was the third-generation butcher. My father was a butcher. His father was. We had a butcher shop in Hudson, and the butcher shop closed when I was 16 when Walmart came to town and put us out of business. That's when I became a vegetarian. I couldn't bear to eat meat that had come from the people who had put us out of business. And so it was this very, you know, emotionally really difficult thing for my whole family, although in retrospect, I'm quite grateful for it because had the store never gone out of business, I might still be cutting meat and miserable in small-town Hudson, N.Y., and would never have, for example, been able to come out of the closet, and move to New York City and write awesome, gnarly science fiction. I think this is a great opportunity to give my dad some real credit because he responded extremely well back in 1997 to the twin betrayals of my coming out as a gay man and as a vegetarian. He was extremely good-natured about the whole thing.

SIMON: I hope this doesn't sound puckish, but which upset him more at the time in 1997?

MILLER: You know, I think it is really a testament to his incredibleness as a father that he was amused by the whole thing more than anything else. So he found a lot more jokes in the vegetarianism than the gayness, but he was always great about all of it. You know, my father was an amazing - I mean, it was a small town. He knew everybody. He was the town butcher. Everybody knew him. And he just loved people. Everybody who came in the door, no matter whether they were rich or poor, or black or white, or immigrants or native-born, he knew them, he loved them, he valued them, he had stories about them.

The kind of love that he had for people and the way that he drew them out and got them to sort of, like, share themselves and who they were has been the greatest sort of inspiration for me as a writer to see how everybody has a story; everybody is amazing. You know, often, the story that you think you know about somebody or the one you imagine for them is really - it's significantly less interesting than the real story.

SIMON: Sam, that's beautiful.

MILLER: Thank you. Thank my dad. You can't because he's no longer with us, but I got pretty lucky in that department.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh, forgive me. Did he live long enough to know how successful you were going to become?

MILLER: Well, you know, he had cancer. He fought with cancer for seven years. And two weeks before he passed away, I got a new agent, and I was really happy, and I told him. And he was like, oh, my God, Sam, I just want to see you sell a novel before I pass away. And actually, we sold my first novel, "The Art Of Starving," 24 hours before he passed away. He did know that I was going to be all right as a writer.

SIMON: God bless. Are there always other worlds revolving around in your head?

MILLER: There are. There are. I sort of think of myself as this weird kind of border guard at a strange frontier in my mind between this world and a way more interesting one. And people are always showing up, like a woman accompanied by a killer whale, and demanding entry. And I really was too afraid of her to say no.

SIMON: Sam J. Miller. His novel - "Blackfish City." Thanks so much for being with us.

MILLER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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