Last week, my husband came in with a package from the porch that had the name of my blog on it, and I assumed I had either been issued a cease and desist, or someone was trying to sell me marketing shit. How did they get my address though?
I’d forgotten that, eons ago, author/freelancer Jen Miller (you may remember her from such feature stories as “When the Diagnosis is Dead Butt Syndrome” and “Wearing Her Whorepants”) had promised to send me a copy of her new book to review on the blog. And actually, I wasn’t sure she really would. Using the word fuck so much, I’d understand if her publisher didn’t want to waste a free copy on someone who might sully her good name. But to my delight, they did waste a free copy on me! So I’ll try my best not to sully.
Jen and I have been friends since way back when she was @JerseyShoreJen and I still had a “real” job. I mean, we’ve never actually met, but I think if we had, we would be real-life friends. At any rate, I feel like she gets me.
So anyway, when I opened up the package and explained to my husband who Jen was (“No, we haven’t actually met in real life, yes, I will be blogging about this…”), his next question was, “What are you going to do if the book sucks?” I was pretty confident the book wouldn’t suck (I’d already read an excerpt in the New York Times) but if it did, well, I’d just sort of…politely forget to write about it?
Luckily though, I didn’t have to do that.
The book is a memoir about running, and it begins and ends with the May 2013 New Jersey Marathon, which took place less than a month after the Boston Marathon bombing and six months after Hurricane Sandy, which was particularly devastating to the Jersey Shore.
So there’s a lot of running stuff throughout, and that right there is a formula for me liking a book. But as I told Jen in an email last week when I finished the book (in two days), I loved everything else about it too. Her struggles and relationships are things I think we can all relate to. And that, coupled with her casual tone and accessible nature, helps to create a narrative that I don’t think you have to be in love with running to identify with. And I’m not just saying that because I got the book for free. In fact, I hope I’m not doing her work injustice by describing it that way…let’s find out! I exchanged a torrent of emails with Jen yesterday morning for some Q&A. Enjoy!
Marie/Cheaper Than Therapy: For those who haven’t been keeping up with it, how has recovery been for the Jersey Shore since Hurricane Sandy?
Jen Miller: Rough, still. I just wrote a very long story for METER (which is Tracksmith’s running magazine) about how the 2013 New Jersey Marathon went on despite extensive Sandy damage – and despite the then race director making sure it went on after essentially losing the first floor of his home. A lot of houses along the course are still empty. When I talk to people who lived there during it, even if their lives look like they’re back together, things still aren’t back to normal and probably never will be.
CTT: You ran the New Jersey Marathon less than a month after the Boston Marathon bombing. What was that like and did it change your perspective or goals for the race at all?
JM: The biggest thing was that I tried to get my mom not to be at the finish line. She didn’t listen (because, well, that’s her). It made the start more nerve wracking because of security layers added to the race (bomb sniffing dogs, helicopter overhead), but I kept my race plans the same. There was a moment of silence before the marathon that year for victims of the bombing, and I ran for a bit with a woman who had run Boston when it happened. Aside from jangling race nerves, if anything it made me more determined to run that race and do well.
CTT: You’re currently training for another marathon. How’s it going? Are you using Hansons (marathon training method) again? How many miles a week are you up to? What has changed in your training this time around and what are your goals? (And don’t say just to finish and not to require medical attention!)
JM: I am trying for the 2016 New Jersey Marathon! And yes I’m doing Hansons again. I ran 53 miles last week. The program maxes out at 56. For someone who runs at my pace, that’s a lot. I’m trying to do everything I need to do to keep things in check, like get enough sleep, eat right, stay on top of nagging parts of my body, and so far so good, though I expect things to get a little hairy in April because I have some travel for the book coming up. I hope to break four hours this time. That’s a lofty goal, and one that I’ll put aside if it’s hot on race day, but who knows. I could do it.
CTT: Can you tell readers a little bit about the book’s publication process?
JM: Oh dear. I might scare people off.
I told the long version of the book that almost wasn’t in this blog post announcing the book. Looking back on it, I’m still miffed at what happened, but glad it worked out the way it did (which I never thought I’d say at the time it happened). I don’t think that, if that book happened, I would have been as engaged with it as I am with this one.
After all that…I announced the book in November 2014, and then set a May 1, 2015 deadline. That may sound fast, but I’d already written four chapters for the proposal. In January of 2015, I locked myself into a hotel room for a few days to write and edit. If you’ve never carried a printer through the lobby of a fancy hotel, I recommend it.
I turned in chapters on a rolling basis. So as the first two chapters were edited, I worked on three, then went over the edits for one and two as I worked on four – that kind of thing.
This made the May 1 deadline a much less stressful thing. By the time I turned in the final chapter, everything was pretty much buttoned up, and then I hopped in my Jeep and took a road trip vacation.
Each chapter went through about a dozen drafts (even including chapters that appeared in the proposal). I still have them in a stack in the corner of my office as a reminder of the work that into this.
After I turned the book in, most of the process to get the book as it is today was technical stuff: another edit from my editor, the legal read, copyediting, then seeing it as a galley (a preview copy) and doing one final read through at the end of 2015. And here we are.
CTT: Did the focus of the book evolve or change much during the process?
JM: I had two people not my agent or editor reading the book as I was writing it. Their big comment at the start was “you need to get to the running sooner.” So I changed the narrative structure of the book to put me running the 2013 New Jersey Marathon at the top of every chapter. It doesn’t look like the book I proposed, but no one involved in the making of this book had a problem with that because I think it works better.
I wanted the book to come out before the Boston Marathon, which is how those publication deadlines were set.
CTT: How is the cover/title chosen?
JM: That title is what I put on my two-page pitch letter that I took to agents. I expected someone to change it along the way, but they kept it (to my great surprise. I’m really bad at coming up with headlines to my articles).
I was presented with a handful of cover ideas then gave notes on each one. The one you see now is the one I liked the most (though it went through some changes along the way).
CTT: How much control did you have over the final product?
JM: A lot. My editor really let me run the show, which I thank her for. When I said I wanted to rip up the narrative structure and start again, she was a-okay with it.
CTT: Were there parts of the book that were edited out that you wish had made it in?
JM: See above – haha. They really let me steer the ship here, which I’m grateful for.
CTT: What advice would you give to writers who are hoping to get published?
JM: It’s hard. Expect that, and be prepared to be told no more times than you can imagine.
CTT: Has the response from family and friends been mostly positive?
JM: Yes! My brother live tweeted his reading of it, which was very funny. I spoke to my family before the book came out, especially about parts they’re in. Doing that kind of advance work helped. My mom read it in one sitting, then asked a few questions, and that was it. Friends who have read it already have mostly been positive – but they are my friends.
CTT: How do you respond to negative feedback? (Middle finger?)
JM: I’ve been writing in the public space long enough to be used to this. I know my writing – and this story – isn’t for everyone, and I try to let it roll off my back. I may feel different after the first negative review, though. Ha.
CTT: Have old friends or old boyfriends contacted you as a result of the book?
JM: I’ve heard most from college classmates who I haven’t talked to since graduation. That’s been fun.
CTT: Did you change the names of your old boyfriends for the book?
JM: Oh yes. Almost everyone’s names and identifying details (like appearance, job, etc.) have been changed. There’s a scene where I’m in a sports bar with some friends, and I was told to change THEIR names. Better safe than sorry.
CTT: You write about some things that are pretty personal. Was there ever the temptation to hold back or to sugarcoat events in your life?
JM: Always. Some of this stuff is really embarrassing, and I still feel some shame over what happened in parts of the book. But if I held back, it wouldn’t have been an honest book, which is what I wanted to write.
CTT: What’s next? Are you going to write any more books?
JM: I hope to! I have an idea, but I don’t like to talk about a book until I have a contract on it.
CTT: Is there a question you LOVE to be asked? Or hate?
JM: Hate: HOW TALL I AM.
Okay, that’s not really a question I’m asked but it was a very popular question asked around the interwebs when I wrote a story for the New York Times about losing 25 pounds. When I typed “Jen A. Miller” into google, one of the first ways the search completed was “height?” It’s kind of a silly question, but it also completely misses the point of that story: that I got in better shape because I felt out of shape. The number didn’t matter so much as how I felt. My height had nothing to do with that.
Love: I am always open to more questions about my dog. Because I’m that person.
CTT: How thoughtless of me not to ask about Emily! How’s she doing?
JM: Emily is doing swell. Emily, for those who don’t know (though why not given I post about her ALL THE TIME), is my 14 year old Jack Russell Terrier. I adopted her when she was four (and after her first owner beat the heck out of her. Why do people do that?) Despite her age, she’s a bouncy, active girl who, as of a few months ago, could still kill mice. I could test that again, but I blocked up the spot they were getting in, and I’d rather not see that kind of furry creature skitter across my kitchen floor again.
Running: A Love Story, will be available March 22!