Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Michelle Miller

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Ten Questions with Michelle Miller

Michelle Miller earned her Master of Education from the University of Western Ontario and is currently a graduate student at the University of British Columbia where she is working on a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. She has been a member of the Miss G__ Project since 2004. The launch for her book, Branding Miss G__ (Sumach Press), is on Thursday, June 5 at Free Times Café. Visit our events page for details.

OB:

Tell us about your book, Branding Miss G__: Third Wave Feminists and the Media.

MM:

Branding Miss G__ is a in depth examination of the relationship between third wave feminists and the media, focusing on the Miss G__ Project, an Ontario feminist lobbying organization which is working to get a women's studies course into the high school curriculum. A main focus of the book is working with "image," in terms of how young feminists present themselves and how these presentations are packaged by the media and taken up by the public, but there's lots more good stuff in there as well about feminist strategy and some of the challenges that women - and especially young women - face when it comes to the media who loves to sex them up, pit them against each other, and hates to take them seriously.

OB:

How did you get involved in the Miss G__ Project?

MM:

I learned about the Miss G__ Project just after graduating from my Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) at UWO in London Ontario. The group had been working with Dr. Rebecca Coulter, who was my professor and mentor. She helped them arrange to do a presentation at the Faculty of Ed and suggested that I come to it, since I had been studying social justice education and critical pedagogy, and the ways that teachers can combat oppression (gender, class, race, ability, sexuality and otherwise) in the classroom. So I went, and realized that I'd seen the Miss G__ girls around town all the time, and they seemed cool, so I sort of came on board at that time, in summer of 2005. But really I didn't start participating with the group in any serious way until March of 2006 when I went to the New Girls' Club Luncheon in Queen's Park. Not that I wasn't interested in them, but I had a pretty full plate with work and my Master of Education (M.Ed), which I started right after finishing up by B.Ed, and life ended up getting in the way for me a lot, which really happens when you're working class and have to worry about money all the time.

OB:

How did you research your book?

MM:

This book was both a dream and a nightmare to research. It started off as the thesis for my M.Ed, so I read hundreds of books and articles about third wave feminists, feminists and the media, image and postmodernism, and everything I read pointed me to more things I wanted to read, and it felt really never ending on a reading level. But while I was reading all this great stuff, none of it was exactly what I needed. There weren't that many books about third wave feminists specifically in Canada, and very little information about the role of image in feminist lobbying. So I was piecing together all this literature that almost applied... The reading was a process. But it was great too. I have all these fabulous memories of my days off, and I'd be lying around on the leather couches at Huron College at UWO, with Sheetal and Laurel and Sarah (members of the Miss G__ Project), and we'd all be reading different feminist literature and every ten seconds someone would say, "hey listen to this, you have got to read this next" and so on, and it felt very beautiful.

Then of course I did interviews with Sheetal Rawal, Dilani Mohan, Sarah Ghabrial and Lara Shdorkoff, who were Miss G__'s steering committee. The interviews were also great because although it was really serious, and I had definite questions about some of the group's approaches, we managed to be really relaxed and I felt like our conversations were really open. Plus two of our interviews we did at this amazing cottage that someone from Miss G__ owned, and people were in their gold bikinis, and there was a lot of laughing, even as we talked about serious issues. And I think that we all got really used to talking about the things I was writing about all the time, since they were the issues that were on everyone's mind-- how can we be more successful, are we being taken seriously, who's in charge of our image, things like that.

The nightmare part was really doing this research in real time. The most recent event I talk about in the book is the Valentines Day 2008 "No More Miss Nice G" campaign, which literally happened only weeks before the final edits of the book were due. The reality of the Project kept changing in ways that I worried whether my critique was still valid, and when some of the issues I had discussed were addressed I'd always want to go back and add an asterisk to my chapter. Even today I was thinking back to a comment I'd made where I said that the group should do more networking with women in need, rather than just powerful people who can help them achieve their political goals, but then Miss G__ is spending a ton of time doing work with the YWCA in Toronto to give workshops to girls who really do need them, and I think that is amazing. In the end I think it's okay because the book isn't meant to be some exhaustive "whistle blow" on the Project, it's a discussion of how feminist initiatives position and can reposition themselves to have more success, and I hope that's really clear. People are always asking me if I'm worried that Miss G__ members are going to be mad at me for saying negative things about them, but I don't think anyone at that organization are going to see my critiques as negative. I think we all share an understanding that it's constant dialoguing about feminist practices that helps to keep the movement strong.

OB:

What was your first publication?

MM:

When I was in high school I won the Young People's Press short story contest for a satire I wrote after Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" about sending all young people to live in Saskatchewan so they'd stop stealing from Grand & Toy or something like that. It was a big deal for me, I got my piece published in the Toronto Star and I got to read at Word on the Street. I felt like a rock star, but looking back, I was a pretty big nerd.

OB:

If you had to choose three books as a "Welcome to Canada" gift, what would those books be?

MM:

That's murderously hard. I adore, and I mean it, adore Canadian literature. Almost all of my favourite books of all time are by Canadian writers. So really, I'd probably not be able to settle on three, I'd have to get a friend to go in on it with me and give like six. And I'd buy them at the best bookstore, which is Manticore Books in Orillia, where you can rack up points for dollars off books, so we'd maybe earn a seventh as a bonus. But the first ones I'd pick would be Margaret Atwood's Good Bones, because it couldn't be funnier, and Atwood is my all time favourite writer hands down. Then Margaret Lawrence's The Diviners, which is my all time favourite book (and one of my mom's favourites as well). For third I'd give that great Leonard Cohen collection that has a little bit of everything, and I'd dog ear "Beneath my Hands," which is my favourite poem. I know I've really gone for the canon but those are just some of the loveliest books in the world.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

MM:

My ideal writing environment is an all-night coffee shop with good americanos. It's 2:46 a.m. (which is what time it is right now) and I don't have to work the next day and have nothing pressing to do and can sleep in, no pressure, so I can write all night long. That is a dream. And I borrowed my partner's delicious audiophile headphones (the ones I'm too careless to own myself) and I've got a sweet mix on my ipod, one that was made for me by someone I love. And no creeps are planning to harass me and my pen is not going to run out and I have ten ideas. Sounds good, doesn't it? That has never happened yet, but I have a dream, and that's it.

OB:

What are you reading right now?

MM:

I always have a couple of books on the go, and magazines, because I'm busy and reading makes me feel like I have all the time in the world. Right now I've got The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers on my bedside table, and I just bought a copy of Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo, which I heard him read from at his launch in Vancouver recently and it was really chilling and beautiful so I'm, itchy to get started, and I just got the new Bust magazine in the mail yesterday so I've been reading that on the bus. Also, I'm the current fiction editor for PRISM international, a wicked literary journal run out of UBC, so I'm reading a lot of submissions from writers from all over the world, which is a really exciting and humbling experience.

OB:

Describe the most memorable response you've received from a reader.

MM:

Probably the most memorable response I've ever had is when I wrote something about this person I know (this is going to be so cryptic and horrible) and sent it to him, and then he rewrote the experience from his point of view so that I had a kind of companion piece to it. And we disagreed on some key points from the story, which was neat because it was totally based on true events. And we each thought our own piece was better, which is maybe inevitable when you're talking about two writers.

Also memorable for me was when I wrote this really autobiographical piece about music and my family, and my brother, who is a gifted songwriter emailed me saying "I think that is the best explanation of our family so far and I'm happy and scared for you." That was pretty wild.

OB:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

MM:

Steven Galloway (who I mentioned about his newest book) is one of my professors at UBC, where I'm doing a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. And he always suggests that we make some kind of deadline. He says we should get up every morning and write until we hit that deadline-- say 1000 words or five pages or whatever-- and no rewriting either, just straight brain to keyboard, letting the story unfold. And it's good advice, but I don't know if I could ever do it. I like to get up, have a coffee, go to the gym, write a little here and there, go to work, write on the bus on the way home... which is maybe why I've written only one book and he's written three. I think that's good advice.

Also, I forgot to mention but I'm reading Susan Shapiro's book Only as Good as Your Word and she mentions how someone told her that "plumbers never get plumber's block." I think that's good advice. And of course, Woody Guthrie said "Take it easy, but take it." That's more life advice than writing advice, but I often have that framed on my desk, because I think it's pretty enlightened.

OB:

What is your next project?

MM:

I'm working on two books right now, the first being another nonfiction book about women's social history in Canada, I don't know if I'm too early into it to really get into the details, but it's fair to say that it's about sex (to leave you wanting more). The other is a novel (I hope) about female con artists set in Ottawa, which is so fun to write and easy to backburner (unfortunately). My summer goal is to find time to really focus on that. And then I have a few short stories on the go and revisions and more revisions... I'm a notorious multi-tasker. But that's how I like it.

Branding Miss G___ Visit the Sumach Press website to read more about Branding Miss G___: Third Wave Feminists and the Media by Michelle Miller.

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