A Life of Books with Nathaniel Ian Miller, author of The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven

Nathaniel Ian Miller is the author of The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven, which tells the tales of Sven as he heads to the Arctic Circle to experience adventure. The book is delicate and introspective. It highlights human perseverance at its best. Miller himself raises beef in Vermont when he is not writing.

Debutiful asked Nathaniel Ian Miller to answer the semi-recurring “A Life of Books” questionnaire so readers can get to know him better.

Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?

I was obsessed with The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer—particularly with the blunderbuss carried by one of the robbers (a ridiculous weapon, but compelling to children). There is something so gleefully anarchic about that story, and really everything by Ungerer. No reason or apology is given for the bandits having pursued this line of employment, but they have tender hearts, and are soon revered by all for their charitable actions. I think I’ve always been most moved by stories in which the moral compass is flexible, or the moral fiber is brittle. I am allergic to lessons, parables, and fables. Basically I never could stand being told what to do. Ungerer’s message, if he had one, seemed to be: Do whatever you want, and life will be more interesting. He could’ve written sermons for the Church of Satan.

Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?

Yes, of course! My son, 8, has read all of Ungerer’s books (the ones for children) countless times. I try to indoctrinate through exposure. If a book has a nauseating moral, we toss it. But lately he just devours series after series of middle grade fantasy. Anything with talking animals, magic, etc. I can’t keep up. He’s probably read more books in the last 3 years than I’ve read in my life. I also just read him The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven. We had to pause for a few tricky questions and delicate discussions, and maybe it wasn’t my smartest parenting move, and maybe I will never ascend to the firmament along with Kathryn Lasky and Tui T. Sutherland, but I got his stamp of approval. He had a very different idea of which sections were funny.

Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?

Other than what was absolutely required, I didn’t read Dickens, and I didn’t get the appeal. I found him self-indulgent and irritating. In many ways I still do. I even harbor the presumptuous, heretical fantasy of editing his work. But I read him now (or even better, listen to him, when I’m stuck in the tractor all day) with much appreciation, joy, amusement and, yes, frustration—love isn’t the right word. If he could write just one strong, three-dimensional female character…

What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?

All the Kerouac. Or I should say, the whole Beat canon. Back in the day, I even made a pilgrimage to City Lights and bought a rare signed edition of On Bread & Poetry, a dense, deeply boring panel discussion with Gary Snyder, Lew Welch and Philip Whalen. I was beside myself with joy. I have since divested much of the old hoard, and these days I only retain about a ¼ shelf’s worth of the Beats, more out of nostalgia than anything else. My love for them has faded hard. 

Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?

Definitely, though not the direction so much as the tone. Over the years I’ve soaked up multiple rounds of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, and much of that glorious brew seeped into my book. Also the elliptical, razor-sharp historical fiction of Dame Beryl Bainbridge—everyone should read The Birthday Boys—and, as a kind of literary godfather to Sven & Co., The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson. 

What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?

Lonesome Dove. Everytime. You could study it for decades like the Talmud and still never figure out how McMurtry breathes life into a character with just one sentence, or how he writes violence as punctuation. Because it’s a magic trick.

What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book tour?

I recently finished the first two books in Roy Jacobsen’s Ingrid Barrøy trilogy, and am on the fence as to whether I have what it takes to read the third, though the quality is undeniable and it feels like I’m still there on that benighted island. Currently I’m juggling Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany and The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline. On deck I might revisit Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.
Climate, motorcycles, uprising. It sounds like a pitch for Yucatan, Steve McQueen’s unfinished vanity project.

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