January 03, 2017

Derek B. Miller

His offbeat war story and fiction as the ‘ultimate act of testimony’

Featuring the most memorable odd couple pairing since Felix and Oscar and threaded with dark humor, Derek B. Miller’s second novel, The Girl in Green, is anything but your typical war novel. We asked Miller—whose 2013 debut, Norwegian by Night, won the Macavity Award for Best First Mystery—a few questions about this smart novel that puts a human face on conflict.

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Featuring the most memorable odd couple pairing since Felix and Oscar and threaded with dark humor, Derek B. Miller’s second novel, The Girl in Green, is anything but your typical war story. We asked Miller—whose 2013 debut, Norwegian by Night, won the Macavity Award for Best First Mystery—a few questions about this smart novel that puts a human face on conflict.

One of the things that may surprise readers is that The Girl in Green is very funny. What was your thought process when it came to inserting humor into the novel?
I think calling it a “thought process” is rather generous. It’s more like a form of Jewish Tourettes, which I think of as a condition of being unable not to loudly draw attention to the absurd. Kafka obviously had it. Proust had it but it ate him alive. Joseph Heller had it. Jon Stewart, bless him, definitely has it. You don’t have to be Jewish, by any means, but I think it started with us as the first mutants. Specifically, I imagine Abraham as Patient Zero; standing there, hearing about God’s plan to raze Sodom and Gomorrah and saying, “Wait a second, you’re gonna do what?” That’s where it began. The first double-take. I’m on the spectrum.

Quick story: I was in Yemen shortly after the USS Cole was attacked and before September 11. I think it was in July or so, before I went to Italy and needed a vacation. I was doing a research project trying to get a sense of the number of small arms in the country. So I’m south of Sanaa with some tribesmen and we’re shooting cigarettes out of trees with AK-47s talking shit about politics. At one point I decide to smoke one instead. A nice kid—maybe 16—takes a book of matches from under his robe and lights my cigarette. “Thanks.” Says I should keep the book. “Thanks again.” I’m looking at it. What’s on the cover? Osama bin Laden.

So: I’m a Jewish American researching small arms issues, alone in Yemen, surrounded by tribesmen with assault rifles, holding a pack of Osama matches while smoking a Camel with a loaded AK on my back. I think a certain kind of person—a person like me—can’t fail but to see that as hilarious. And I was the only one there who got the joke, which made it even funnier. People talk about finding God during moments of terror. I find God during moments of comedy. I look up at the sky and think, “You’re seeing this, right? It’s not only me?” That’s when I need God. Terror I can handle alone.

“People talk about finding God during moments of terror. I find God during moments of comedy.”

You have a Ph.D. in International Relations and wrote your dissertation on the Iraqi War. What made you want to revisit this topic in The Girl in Green? What about approaching the war from a fictional standpoint appealed to you?
In late August 2001, I decided to take some time off to finish my doctorate. I had been working at a think tank on matters of small arms and light weapons issues. I didn’t know where to go other than “south,” and as it happened an Italian colleague of mine had a friend with a small apartment overlooking the Mediterranean on the island of Elba. The price was right. “Perfect,” I said. I drove down in my 1986 Opel Ascona with a pile of books, a laptop and a Yamaha guitar and stayed for over two months in a flat with no internet access.

A few weeks after I arrived, September 11 happened. So there I was, alone (except for a cat I adopted and named Roman), writing an emotionally intense dissertation on a forgotten massacre and civil war in Iraq while watching the events of the terrorist attacks unfold. All this was taking place on the island where Napoleon had been exiled. So it got into my head, and I felt exiled too, even though I chose it. I felt far from home and wanted to be in America. All this opened a space for me that somehow needed to be filled.

The dissertation didn’t accomplish that. While the journey was emotional, the product was intellectual. I built a theory of media pressure on foreign policy—what it is, how it works, how to identify it, how to measure it—which I soon finished and published with Palgrave. But the more human experience of that war and the humanitarian crisis that it produced stayed with me and felt unresolved. I knew I needed to return to the material.

So why fiction? Because nonfiction work requires a particular approach to rhetoric and argumentation that fiction does not. The benefit of nonfiction, when done well, is a reasoned case that creates a compelling argument. But fiction doesn’t always have an argument to make. Fiction can simply emote. It can pull you into a state of being and allow you to dwell there, and by virtue of that in-dwelling, come to new understandings—sometimes different from, or even beyond the author’s own.

Done well, fiction is limitless in potential, essential for the human condition, and the ultimate act of testimony. That’s where I wanted to be, and what I needed to fill that space. And with The Girl in Green, it did.

The novel jumps between two different wars in Iraq; one thing that Hobbes and Benton struggle with is the ways in which, for all that things have changed, things have also stayed very much the same. In your mind, what is the biggest way that war (in the Middle East or elsewhere) is different today than it was back in the 1990s? Or is it different?
The greatest change in warfare since the early 1990s is the advent of new global communications and the broadening of globalization as a process. That means we’re more connected to one another than ever before—through internet, phones, air travel, entertainment, policies, markets, trade, you name it—and can also witness and represent distant phenomena in new ways.

The working title for The Girl in Green was Welcome to Checkpoint Zulu. That is where the book begins—deep in the heart of Iraq in 1991—where U.S. soldiers had to witness, first hand, the slaughter of civilians but were unable to engage and prevent it because of laws and orders and policy. But no one else witnessed it. Today, with the battles in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan; with the terrorist attacks in Boston, Paris, Brussels, Madrid, London, Istanbul and Baghdad to name only a few; we see videos and experience social media and read blogs by people who are there. It is immediate. It is intimate. It is unfiltered or can be. Today, we are all at Checkpoint Zulu if we have the courage to face that fact. The question is how we will engage with what we can now experience.

Both Hobbes and Benton feel guilt over what happened to the original girl in green, and that guilt affects their lives in different ways. Can you talk a bit about how guilt and the chance for redemption play out in the novel?
Well . . . guilt and trauma aren’t the same. Guilt is when you could have done something different and you didn’t. Trauma is when something happens that affects you, whether or not you played a part. They can be connected, but they don’t have to be. Both men were clearly traumatized by events in 1991. But as for guilt—I’ll leave that to the reader to decide.

As for redemption, these men are different. One was a kid of 22. The other a man of about 40. One is American and, while very smart, is formally uneducated, and the other is an elite reporter with a wife and kid. So the way they experienced and responded to the experiences shaped them and affected them very differently. This is part of the drama of what I wanted to explore. And Arwood’s response was very different from Benton’s. But ultimately, Arwood dragged Benton into his own approach and that’s where the chaos began, but also the joy of reading begins.

We spend the bulk of The Girl in Green with Hobbes and Benton, but we also get to peek into the lives of various other characters who make up the ecosystem in the war, from soldiers to relief workers to locals to family back home. Who was your favorite character to write? Who was the most challenging? The most rewarding?
The most challenging was the “second” girl in green. I had to be careful of how I represented her, and how I moved her from object to actor near the end of the book. I’m proud of the result, but she was on my mind a lot. I love Tigger’s wordy optimism, Herb’s earthy humanity and moral grounding, Marta’s intellect and leadership, and even Spaz’s cynical Russian worldview. A minor character who touched me, though, was Sharo the motorcycle medic. I think he only gets a page or two. But he’s alive for me.

As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between the U.S. and Iraq, if you could pick one thing that could be better understood or known by the American public about that country, what would it be?
There is an understanding that we need to reach, which is very different from a fact we need to learn or appreciate. And that understanding does not come easily or quickly which is why I am very worried about a President Trump who has absolutely no understanding of the region or, it seems, interest or patience to listen to those who do. One’s instincts on buying low and selling high are useless in a place like this. What’s happening is that Iraq is faced with trying to take something imposed on it—its borders, its name, its national identity—and turn it into a legitimate, stable and worthwhile community called a state which itself is a uniquely Western invention that we’re still struggling to sustain (think of the U.K.’s fragility, Quebec’s occasional aspirations, Catalonia’s discontent, Belgium’s uneasy balance, etc.). The Iraqis don’t know how to do that and neither do we. We in America had civil war about ideas of governance that cost at least 700,000 lives. Western Civilization itself very recently had a civil war among three philosophies—Liberal Democracy, Communism and Naziism. The good guys won, but at tremendous cost and just barely, and it left behind Communism under Stalin which was hardly much better than what we defeated. So we now need to approach the problem of a fractured and divided Middle East by taking a geo-strategic approach that is informed by the role of ideas in history, rather than assume that small, economic, technocratic or military solutions will fix anything.

Also, if our strategy isn’t inter-generational by design and duration we’ll never reach our goals. Americans think in short time horizons. Most of the rest of the world does not. I would add that we are up to the challenge if we can rise to it and the new administration can humble itself to the task. For the record, though, I’m very pessimistic.

"I am very worried about a President Trump who has absolutely no understanding of the region or, it seems, interest or patience to listen to those who do. One’s instincts on buying low and selling high are useless in a place like this." 

You wrote in Norwegian at Night that a key difference between Europe and the United States is that Europe is tribal—the most important thing about a person is where they are from, which makes a society more closed off to outsiders. By contrast, America is an idea, and everyone can share an idea. Do you feel this same comparison could be made between the U.S. and the Middle East, and why or why not?
As best I can figure it, there are only two countries in the world that have arisen out of ideas rather tribal affiliation and those countries are the United States and the Soviet Union. A case could be made for the Roman Empire and also for Greece after the Kleisthenes, but that’s a deeper argument. Sticking to the present: The Soviets had a notion of the New Soviet Man that was supposed to be supra-nationalist and open to all the peoples of the world. Sure, it became an evil empire, but it was a uniting idea all the same and had an aspirational goal of social justice. Bummer about the implementation plan.

That leaves the Americans. We are indeed exceptional that way, which is not to say better unless we harness our potential and fulfill our unique promise of being a multiracial, pluralist and liberal society. Things are not looking good. And only time will tell. But we have a funny way of moving in waves and generally getting closer to the beach.

What’s important for us all to remember, in these troubled times, is that the European states (and the Americans and Canadians, Aussies and Kiwis) fought for their distinctiveness and independence during WWI, WWII and against Soviet aggression (think Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic states, etc.). They wanted their languages and arts and heroes and freedoms. We are all now conflicted on immigration and plurality because we do not want to lose the distinctiveness we fought for with such intensity and at such risk and yet, as sons and daughters of the Enlightenment, we want to advance a universal message of inclusiveness and liberty and justice. This will be a central tension for Western society during the 21st century—how to negotiate the particular with the universal.

"We are conflicted on immigration and plurality because we do not want to lose the distinctiveness we fought for and yet, as sons and daughters of the Enlightenment, we want to advance a universal message of inclusiveness and liberty and justice. This will be a central tension for Western society during the 21st century—how to negotiate the particular with the universal."

The Middle East, however, has to figure out other things. How to reconcile tribalism (which is pre-Islamic but carries on) with Islam, which explicitly tried to temper that tribalism; the battles within Islam for doctrinal superiority; the efforts within Islam to reach their own version of tolerance, which means more than accommodating non-Muslims within their imperium (which Islam has historically done very well, and often far better than Christendom) but rather to learn what we learned after centuries of infighting between Catholics and Protestants, namely that sins against God do not justify sins against Man. Finally, they need some reconciliation—if any—between Islamic governance and the Western state system by committing to the development of an independent political philosophy that is inspired by, and in negotiation with, Islam, but is not beholden to it. Whether that can come about remains to be seen. All I can say is . . . watch this space!

This book highlights the downside of the 24-hour news cycle: By prioritizing immediacy, we often sacrifice accuracy and thorough reporting. Do you have any thoughts on how, in the age of social media, people can remain connected and informed in a responsible way?
I think the recent Presidential election just proved that being connected and informed are utterly unrelated practices. My bigger concern, at the moment, is how the media can be responsible. Because our media sucks.

There is a crisis in journalism today. We know it, they know it. They’re having conferences about it all the time (the true indicator of whether something is happening in a field). The only way for journalism to survive, in my view, is for the good ones to learn how to monetize their authority. I watched “The Newsroom” by Aaron Sorkin. I love Sorkin, but a lot of the show was resting on the question of, “why should we listen to you?” and the Will McAvoy character’s answer of (something like) “we’re professionals, just check our resumes” was very unsatisfying. Sorkin missed it. The correct answer is less sexy and macho but more real and lasting. The trust emerges as a product of the institutional mechanisms that have been built over decades to observe, gather, analyze and disseminate knowledge in the form of “news”—which is a genre of communication. It isn’t “I am the news,” echoing Judge Dredd (to be said with Stallon’s accent, obviously). It’s “we produce the news” because we as community of professionals have created an authoritative institution that works as a unique team.

I’m talking about the the grown-up stuff of protocols, guidelines, training, tools, procedures, archives, networks and methods—at a minimum—that make an institution what it is. Because the value of the news lies in the basis of their claims to validity. We have a major crisis of trust right now, and journalism is at the center of it because we can’t trust the government anymore either—if we ever could. Democracy will suffer a massive blow unless journalism figures this out. Being connected these days is effortless. But being responsibly informed? Almost impossible.

"Being connected these days is effortless. But being responsibly informed? Almost impossible."

Although you were born and raised in the United States, you have spent much time in Europe and are raising a family in Norway. Have you noticed a difference in how war is reported in Europe as compared to the United States? 
I’ve been in Europe for 20 years, and I’m full-time in Norway now. I could talk about war reporting forever, but I guess the most important difference is that Americans still take a triumphal tone in reporting; a sort of ass-kicking attitudes that really puts off the Europeans. That part I see easily enough. I attribute that distaste to their collective belief that it was exactly that sort of nationalist fervor and grandstanding that led to 60 million war dead during WWII. So it’s to be met with suspicion, not applause. But I would also say that Europeans are too quick to turn away from the problems and wars whereas Americans—across the political spectrum—are more engaged and attentive. I think it’s because we have over 2 million veterans of these wars and they are intimate and close to our national experience.

What are you working on next?
I’m about to submit book three, which I don’t want to announce yet, but I will say that it is connected to, in some way, Norwegian by Night. No, Sheldon is not in it. But there’s a thread. I’m also working on a science fiction feature screenplay. It needs a lot of work but I really like it and I’m a huge fan of the genre. I’m not sure if it will be a novel or not. And I’m also kicking the tires of book four. I have a manuscript, set on the coast of New England, but I’m not sure how I feel about it yet. I’m full-steam ahead though. I am a very happy writer these days, if an unhappy American.

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of The Girl in Green.

Get the Book

The Girl in Green

The Girl in Green

By Derek B. Miller
HMH
ISBN 9780544706255

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