A versatile writer, Rod Miller is author of two books of poetry, Things a Cowboy Sees and Other Poems and Newe Dreams; two novels, The Assassination of Governor Boggs and Gallows for a Gunman, and two nonfiction books, Massacre at Bear River: First, Worst, Forgotten and John Muir: Magnificent Tramp. He has also written many essays, magazine articles, book reviews, and anthologized short stories, and his poems have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies.
Born and raised in a small town in Utah among horses and cattle, and a veteran of the rodeo arena, he comes by his love of the West and its history, culture, and people honestly. He is a member of Western Writers of America. Visit his web site at www.writerRodMiller.com
Thanks, Larry, for this opportunity. Being a cowboy poet, it seems especially appropriate to be here this week, as it is National Cowboy Poetry Week. The event has been recognized by the U.S. Senate and declared by the governors of more than twenty states. The Center for Western and Cowboy Poetry developed the celebration. That non-profit organization also runs
CowboyPoetry.com, the world’s largest cowboy poetry web site, and is involved in other initiatives that support the cowboy and Western folk and literary arts. CowboyPoetry.com has been a big supporter of mine and gone beyond the call of duty in promoting my poetry as well as other writing endeavors.
Tell us about your new book?
Just now, by happenstance, I have—or soon will have—three new books.
First out of the box is a collection of poems about cowboys and the West, THINGS A COWBOY SEES AND OTHER POEMS. It includes about fifty poems, along with an introductory essay about cowboy poetry. The poetry ranges from traditional style rhymed and metered verse, to more unusual metrical styles, to rhymed and unrhymed free verse, and even haiku. Many of the poems come from my experiences growing up in the cowboy world and my years competing in the rodeo arena. Others are based in history, and some are just for fun. A goodly portion of the poems are lighthearted, some reflective, some downright depressing, I suppose. Port Yonder Press, a relatively new, small—but growing—independent publisher in Iowa, brought out the book and it is just now making its way to reviewers and readers.
Next comes NEWE DREAMS. While the other is a book of cowboy poetry, this is a book of Indian poetry. A handmade chapbook from Colorado art publisher Laughing Mouse Press, NEWE DREAMS features a beautiful cover silk-screened by hand, and a binding hand-sewn with linen thread. It’s a limited edition of just 100 copies. The poetry is a bit dreamy, speaking literally. Each poem is an account of an imagined dream by a Shoshoni Indian prior to a pivotal change in their history and culture, all related, of course, to white encroachment. The things they see in the dreams are often unfamiliar and not always understood. The idea came from an actual dream by a tribal elder, a warning about the pending massacre at Bear River (the history and aftermath of which I wrote about in my 2008 nonfiction book, MASSACRE AT BEAR RIVER: FIRST, WORST, FORGOTTEN).
Hot on the heels of that one, in May, is a historical novel, THE ASSASSINATION OF GOVERNOR BOGGS. It’s set in 1867, twenty-five years after someone shot Lilburn Boggs, ex-governor of Missouri, in the head. He was expected to die and reported killed, but survived and lived another eighteen years. A few years later, after the Civil War, family members wanted to know, once and for all, who shot the Governor, if only for peace of mind. No one was ever convicted of the crime, and Boggs never pursued the accused killer out of fear that he would return and finish the job. A fictional Pinkerton agent, Calvin Pogue, takes the case and the investigation takes him from California to Illinois to Missouri to Utah Territory. The chief suspect, then and now, was Mormon gunslinger Porter Rockwell. One of the most feared men on the Western frontier for decades, Rockwell was known to have killed many men, and rumored to have killed many more. His first-person narrative, from interview notes taken down by Pogue, is interspersed with the chronicle of the agent’s investigation, along with letters and actual newspaper accounts and legal documents. Pogue meets and interviews many people with knowledge of the case, including some of the Old West’s most influential characters.
How is this novel different than your previous book?
I suppose the biggest difference is that my 2005 novel, GALLOWS FOR A GUNMAN, is entirely made up—the people and places exist only in my (and, I hope, the reader’s) imagination. THE ASSASSINATION OF GOVERNOR BOGGS, while a work of fiction, is based on actual historical events and many of the characters are—or were—real people. As the fictional detective conducts the investigation, I only included actual, or reported, incidents and information as recorded at the time. Occasionally, when a character from history had died before the time of the investigation, I invented someone who could have been there at the time—a deputy sheriff, a court clerk, a policeman, a law firm, or the like—to report on what is in the record as having occurred.
The two novels are similar, I guess, in that neither of them follows a traditional chronological structure. In GALLOWS FOR A GUNMAN, the story of the main character’s life unfolds in bits and pieces, as told by twelve characters, each in a self-contained chapter. THE ASSASSINATION OF GOVERNOR BOGGS jumps back and forth in time, with the past revealed by the detective’s discoveries, which do not always occur in the same order as events did originally. And, as I mentioned before, the novel includes the text of actual newspaper stories and legal documents from the day, as well as made-up letters to tell parts of the story.
Do you feel like you have to defend yourself for writing genre fiction? Or genre poetry?
No. I don’t feel I have to defend anything I write, no matter the genre. What might need explaining, if not defending, is why I don’t stick to one genre. To date I have written six books, from six publishers, each a different kind of writing for a different audience: Western fiction, historical fiction, history, biography, cowboy poetry, and poetry. That’s certainly no way to build a following, or a career. But, I write about something that seems intriguing, and write about it in whatever genre seems appropriate to the subject and offers an interesting (to me, and, I hope, readers) way to tell the story.
Why do you write westerns? Western Poetry?
The West is what interests me. I was born in the West and have lived all my life in the West, and do not intend to live anywhere else. For as long as I can remember I have had a deep interest in Western history, Western culture, Western people, Western places, and everything associated with the West. The real West, by the way, not the B-movie or television version. While I have a passing interest in other people and places, that interest is not big enough to compete with my curiosity about the American West. Most of my reading, fiction and nonfiction, relates to the West, as does all my writing. Unfortunately, I haven’t scratched the surface yet and will not have time on earth to do so. That being the case, I’ll stick to the West as the setting for whatever I write.
What are the difficulties and pleasures of writing?
The difficulty is finding enough quiet time to do it. The pleasures are seeing how it turns out.
It’s difficult to go through the submissions process. I don’t mind being rejected but despise being ignored, which, unfortunately, is the case more often than not. If—when—you survive that, it’s a pleasure to see a book come to life and show up on a shelf in a bookstore, a library, or someone’s home somewhere.
When did you know you were a writer?
By the time I was in junior high school I figured out I could use words to advantage. Tests with essay questions were my preference, as I could spin a little knowledge of the subject into a credible, and creditable, answer. It was easier for me than actually knowing anything. Perhaps, from that beginning, I always viewed words as a tool, and writing as a way to accomplish a purpose. I wrote for the junior high school newspaper, such as it was, then the high school newspaper. And, in FFA in high school, I served as chapter Reporter. I wrote some for the college newspaper, as well.
In college, I majored in journalism and minored in agriculture, intending a career writing for farm and ranch magazines. But I veered off into broadcast production, which led to writing television commercials, which led to work as an advertising agency copywriter. And that’s what I’ve been at ever since, for more than three decades. Along the way I wrote a few trade magazine pieces, a column for an advertising newsletter, and a few other odds and ends, but almost exclusively advertising.
It was later in life, during the mid-1990s, before I ever thought to write anything else; to write for fun, so to speak, rather than for business. It started out of curiosity, simply wondering if I could do it. I started with cowboy poetry as I had been a reader and listener of it for years. Once I discovered I could create some semblance of poetry, the same curiosity led to me try short stories, and, later, a novel.
The same curiosity prompted my efforts at nonfiction. But, that seemed easier for me as it was more “writing for a purpose,” closer to my work in advertising and training in journalism. But now I had more confidence that I could maybe keep writing on a subject long enough to do a book.
Being trained in advertising to confine everything I wrote to a single-page ad, or thirty- or sixty-second commercial, it is actually a challenge for me to write “long.” Both my novels and both my nonfiction books are shorter than average, and it was something of a struggle to get them as long as they are. My poems tend to be short, too.
What’s a work day like for you?
It’s a nine-to-five (actually, eight-to-four) existence at the ad agency I’ve been with for some eighteen years. But that’s of no interest here.
I usually haul my carcass out from under the covers early enough to give myself at least an hour of quiet time in the morning to write or do other work related to writing, such as promotion and publicity, submissions, and research. And I work in the evenings, as well, if the situation with grandkids allows. I can block out a lot of distraction when I have to.
Every day I do some work related to writing, but do not maintain any set schedule of hours or words or pages. If I don’t feel like writing, I do other things—research, promotion. But if don’t write, it’s because I don’t want to, not because I “can’t.” I have, in business, always had to deal with deadlines, so when something needs to be written, it gets written. “Writer’s block” means nothing to me; I’m not even sure there is such a thing.
What’s a day off like for you?
A day off my day job means more time to write and do related work, and I usually do. But, sometimes, I don’t do anything but enjoy being lazy. And, when I can’t get out of it, I do household and yard stuff that I’m not good at and don’t enjoy.
We also make lots of weekend trips around the area, going to cowboy and Western festivals and family gatherings and events and such. Whenever we travel, for whatever purpose, I make it a point to visit a bookstore or museum or historic site because I enjoy that stuff, and it makes the trip deductible at tax time.
If you could be anything other than writer, what would it be?
I’d probably stick to advertising. While that’s writing, too, it’s altogether different. It’s been a good job all these years; enjoyable work, good people, interesting projects, and it doesn’t involve heavy lifting.
For several years I taught an advertising class at a local college and really enjoyed that. I could enjoy teaching at that level, if all it was was teaching. Of course you need an advanced degree to do that in most cases, and I doubt I could stand going back to school long enough to get one. I enjoy learning, and do it all the time, but school, well, that’s something else. Especially at my age.
Any advice for new writers, especially those considering self-publishing instead of taking the traditional route to publishing?
Self-publishing has become so easy that pretty much anyone can get a book out. As with anything in the world, lowering the barriers to entry likewise lowers the level of quality. For book buyers (and book sellers), self-published books are like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get. You may get a well-written, carefully edited, gripping story. But, more often than not, you’ll get the opposite. Even if it’s a good story, it may be lacking in plot or structure, punctuation and grammar, spelling and continuity, or something else that could (and usually would) be corrected through the traditional publishing process. There’s no quality guarantee, of course, with traditionally published books, but I have to believe the odds are more in the reader’s favor.
Then there’s the fact that traditional publishers are much more likely to get your book on shelves in bookstores and libraries, and get better placement and promotion online. Legitimate, traditional publishing offers all kinds of advantages that self-publishing does not in terms of editorial, marketing, distribution, promotion, and publicity.
That said, in some cases self-publishing is the way to go. If you’re in a specialized or niche market, and are regularly getting in front of large numbers of prospective customers, self-publishing can be very successful and much more profitable. Don Aslett, for example, sells grundles of self-published books on house cleaning, owing to his long-established reputation in that field, his mail-order and retail businesses selling cleaning supplies, and his busy schedule of personal and media appearances. Cowboy poet and writer Baxter Black is a sought-after entertainer and speaker, writes for magazines and appears on radio, and, in the process, sells more poetry books, all self-published, than any traditional publisher could hope to match.
But, for most writers, self-publishing will get you nowhere. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones who gets struck by lightning, all the blogging and social media and web sites on earth will not amount to more than (or as many as) a few hundred “followers.” And followers aren’t necessarily buyers. Nowadays, not many writers who publish traditionally make much money at it. But the number of self-published writers who make any significant money at it is likely much lower. Someone once told me that the cardinal rule of writing professionally is that publishers pay writers, writers don’t pay “publishers.”
How do you define success?
Remembering to inhale and exhale in the proper order. That, and staying engaged in something interesting and involving. Since I don’t have to make a living (thank goodness) from writing, I see the enjoyment that comes from it as success of a sort. But, really, it’s getting published—whether poetry, articles in magazines, short stories in anthologies, or books—that means you’ve achieved success as a writer.
An analogy I sometimes use is plumbing. You can graduate from a school for plumbers, buy all the plumbing tools, practice plumbing in your basement, attend plumbing workshops, invite friends to look at your pipes, even join a discussion group to talk about plumbing. But, until someone actually pays you money to fix their pipes, you are not a plumber. Getting published, and getting paid, means you’ve achieved success as a writer.
What’s next for you?
There’s a short novel I completed recently that I have to figure out how, when, and where to shop to publishers. Then I have a book of popular history in progress I have to get back to. And, there are the three newly released books I need to promote, each to a different audience. There’s the Western Writers of America convention in North Dakota in June. I’ll be presenting at the Grand Encampment Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Wyoming in July, and judging the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo in Kanab, Utah, in August. Later, I’ll be speaking at the Idaho Writers League annual convention in September, and at the Writers of the Purple Sage Writing Workshop in October, again in Kanab. And, I will likely be involved again with WWA’s presence at the Heber City Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair in Utah in November. So, there’s no shortage of things I need to be doing or preparing for.