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Roger Miller’s Fictional Life

Nov. 18, 2010
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Roger Miller worked for several years as a copy editor at the old Milwaukee Journal and was posted for three more at the business desk (“the wilderness,” he calls it) before finally receiving the job of his life as book editor. Since being squeezed out of the paper during the ill-managed Journal-Sentinel merger, Miller has been a monthly book critic for the Shepherd Express and has written two novels of his own.

Did you write fiction earlier in life?

People always said, “Roger, you like books. You ought to write one.” But no, I’d rather read them. But I thought if I’d ever write a book, it would be about Jimmy Williams. He was my wife Nancy’s older cousin—a POW in North Korea who died there in 1951.

His life was the basis for your first novel,
Invisible Hero?

Right. I never met him, but I was moved by his life story. He was this kid from rural Pennsylvania who moved to Albany along with his family to get a job in the late 1940s. He was working in a steel mill and along comes the Korean War. He was drafted. He was 22. In May of ’51 he was captured and sent to a Chinese POW camp on the Yalu River.

And you published the book yourself?

I couldn’t get to the gatekeepers, so I published Invisible Hero and my new novel, Dragon in Amber, myself. I tried like hell to get a publisher for Invisible Hero, but the big ones take nothing over the transom and I couldn’t find an agent. Nancy said I should publish it anyway. It sounded like desperation, but my old Journal colleague Paul Salsini self-published his first book and had some success with it.

Any success with your books?

I lost a little money on both and I pretty much knew I would. If you don’t have a distribution network to get into bookstores, you are third class. Newspapers will not review self-published books, and for good reason: There is so much junk out. If publishers aren’t looking for authors to be nurtured, then the authors will do what I did—but who will pay attention? Publishing houses don’t have the staff they once had. They don’t develop talent over the long run. The mid-list authors have disappeared.

Tell me about
Dragon in Amber.

I wanted to make up a country and put it in the historical time of the 1950s and have some fun with it. In spirit it’s like Christopher Buckley—a satire, very light, but it has comments about international and domestic politics. I just wanted to do it and have some fun. It’s a romantic comedy whose central character is a schoolteacher from Iowa who married the grand duke of a little country.

What’s next for you?

I’d like to write a memoir, not only about growing up in the ’50s but about the ’50s, a decade that has never been completely understood. I think it was more culturally vibrant than most people believe. I’m retired and I have to do something. Some people golf. I try to write books.


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