On Research and Relationships: An Interview with Kathryn Miles

By Amanda Jaros-Champion, for The Fourth River

Kathryn Miles is a longform journalist, memoirist, and environmental writing professor. Her most recent book is Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy, published in 2014. She is the author of Adventures with Ari: A Puppy, a Leash & Our Year Outdoors, and All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship. Her nonfiction has been selected for Best American Essays, and has appeared in a wide range of publications such as Alimentum, Ecotone, Outside, The Boston Globe, Psychology Today, and The New York Times. In addition to being a mentor in Chatham University’s low-residency MFA program, she teaches in the low-residency Masters program at Green Mountain College in Vermont.

Kathryn Miles joined Chatham’s Summer Community of Writers in July 2015 as the featured creative nonfiction writer.

The Fourth River: You got your start as a reporter in high school, correct? Since then you’ve written many things and your style has no doubt changed a lot. What traits of that rookie reporter have you retained? Or is everything about your work different?

Kathryn Miles: The Peoria Journal Star, a really wonderful daily, took a chance and hired me as a cub reporter when I was 16. It was sort of a dream-come-true for me: my godparents, who were really like surrogate grandparents, met and fell in love while working there. So, in a lot of ways, it felt like a family legacy for me to follow in their footsteps, and, like them, I really grooved on the dynamism of an active newsroom. I took an incredibly circuitous route back to journalism – I majored in philosophy as an undergraduate and took a Ph.D. in English – but the roots have always remained. What I really learned from those early days was the importance of old fashioned reportage: sitting and listening, and letting your subjects be the voice of their own stories. I also learned about the crucial importance of accuracy and writing on deadline: two considerations all creative writers need to internalize, and ones I’m constantly reminded of in my work today. What’s changed, I think, is my newfound appreciation for narrative and storytelling: literary journalism was an unknown concept to me then, and it really defines my writing today. I’m much more aware of voice and the arc of a story than I ever was then.

TFR: I know you like to dig into research. Have you always loved the research aspect of nonfiction writing? What inspires you about researching topics and people?

KM: Here’s my dirty little secret: I have always liked research a whole lot more than I like writing. Part of it is the investigation and the chance to really master a subject. I love the chase and the pursuit of a story, whether it’s locating a source or finding a truth long since dead. I also really relish the opportunity to follow people in their element, whether it’s miners working 7,000 feet below the surface of the earth or coast guard pilots flying that far above it. There’s a certain Walter Mitty element to that work that I really love. It’s an incredible opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes for a while. I firmly believe that everyone has a story to tell; the best part of my job is getting to be a repository for that story.

TFR: Of your three books and countless articles, what was your favorite project to research and write? Why?

KM: Oh, wow. That’s like trying to pick your favorite Beatles song. I think the dodgy answer is that my favorite project is whichever one happens to be in front of me at the time. Right now, it’s a new book on earthquakes, and I’m completely obsessed with the subject. I’ve spent the past several months meeting with geologists doing all kinds of crazy research from Antarctica to Alaska and everywhere in between. It never ceases to amaze me how patient researchers are when confronted with a science writer who is trying to master their work. And I’m here to say that the geologists and seismologists out there really are at the front lines when it comes to keeping the rest of us safe. Most of us have no idea how important their work really is. What gets me up every morning is knowing that I have the opportunity to share that.

TFR: How does your writing process differ between a book-length work and a shorter article?

KM: Not a whole lot, actually. Whether it’s a 500-word story for the web version of a glossy magazine or a full-length book, I still want to know everything that’s been said on the subject and I still want to talk to everyone I can. And, like I said before, I’m always conscious of the importance of finding the narrative. That can be trickier with a book, and orchestrating all of the sources is harder there too. I sometimes struggle with good organizational systems when I’m knee-deep in a book manuscript: both in terms of managing the sources literally piling up in my writing studio, and figuring out where they go on the page.

TFR: What practical advice can you give aspiring writers who are just beginning to learn how to conduct research?

KM: Commit to loving it, because we can’t do our work without it. The best researchers are able to handle both primary and secondary sources with equal ease. Doing so really means you need to have a foot both in the camp of journalism and literary studies. With regards to primary sources, you’re really talking about interviews and knowing how to ask good questions. Philip Gerard’s seminal book, Creative Nonfiction, includes a chapter called “The Art of the Interview.” To my mind, that’s one of the very best resources out there. Handling secondary sources, like historical documents, can be equally as important. When I was a grad student, we were all required to read Richard D. Altick’s The Art of Literary Research, which included these esoteric research problems – questions like “which of Mark Twain’s short stories did he never perform as a monologue and why?” They kept us all up for days on end, but they really taught us how to navigate sources and play private detective. Spending time with both of these resources can only help your writing (and if you figure out the Twain question, be sure to drop me a line).

TFR: At SCW you mentioned that Susan Orlean and John McPhee are writers who inspire you, in terms of craft. What is it about their work that speaks to you?

KM: I’m hugely influenced by great literary journalists, especially the ones who tackle science with aplomb. They have an incredible ability to marry narrative and complex theory. McPhee and Orlean are both masters at creating superbly round characters, whether it’s for a New Yorker article or a full-length book. Richard Preston, another favorite of mine, has this amazing ability to distill complex issues like bioengineering into bite-size pieces we can all understand. He’s also the master of telling true stories with all the tension of a great crime thriller writer. I am forever returning to their work for inspiration, along with the great New Journalists like Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Truman Capote. They are important reminders that voice, literary device, and pacing are at least as important when telling true stories as they are when writing quality fiction.

TFR: Much of your work revolves around human interaction with nature and environment. What draws you to these themes? Why are real stories of humans in nature important to tell?

KM: I grew up Iowa, one of the most degraded landscapes in the world when it comes to the prevalence of native flora and fauna. Industrial agriculture has also made it one of the most contested places in terms of defining our relationship with the natural world. I think I intuited these issues at a pretty early age, and my experiences there instilled a strong urge to advocate on behalf landscapes and their inhabitants. We can’t do that in isolation: if you want to talk about the plight of the black rhino, you also have to talk about politics in Zimbabwe. If you want to talk about fracking, you also have to talk about the economic realities of people struggling in working class Oklahoma towns. From an environmental perspective, this is just basic systems ecology. From a writing perspective, this is also about meeting readers where they are. If they don’t see an inherent connection to their lives and their value systems, you’ve lost them. To build an audience – to effect change – we have to begin by fostering an ethic of care in our audience.

TFR: My sense about you is that you have created a solid and wide community of writers around you. Why is it so important to surround yourself with other writers? How have you/do you foster this community in your own life?

KM: Community becomes more and more important to me all of time, and that’s particularly true in my writerly life. I derive so much inspiration from reading the works of other writers, whether I know them personally or not. I’ve gotten into the habit of beginning each day by reading a new essay or article, and if it’s one I really love, I’ll make the time to send that writer a little fan mail. I’ve had some great friendships develop that way, and I think it’s important for writers to celebrate one another. In a lot of ways, our work is really about apprenticeship, and that doesn’t end with the publication of your first or second or even tenth book. We have so much to learn from one another. I also think there’s a lot to be said for commiseration. Writing can be the most wonderful career ever, but it can also be the most frustratingly bizarre – and potentially destructive. It’s reassuring to know that you’re not going at it alone. That’s part of what I really love about Chatham’s program: it emphasizes this notion of community and support and collaboration. It’s also why I always make time for formal conferences like AWP and why I go out of my way to make standing dates with writerly friends. Sometimes, all it takes is a cocktail or a cup of coffee to solve a tricky problem or soothe a case of writer’s block.

Amanda Jaros-Champion lives in Ithaca, NY with her husband and son. She studies creative nonfiction in Chatham’s low-residency MFA program. Her essays and articles have appeared in a variety of places online and in print, including Pilgrimage, Literary Mama, PANK, and Highlights for Children.