How writer and researcher William Ian Miller makes it matter
In this current culture of anti-intellectualism, what are the secrets to making a career from thinking? In this interview, William Miller reveals how he’s done it … and managed to live with himself (mostly).
How do you give it mouth?
You know I wondered why you called this Give It Mouth because it sounds vaguely dirty to me, like sucking on something…and I was like oh my God ‘Give It Mouth’ what’s she doing…why did she call it that?
If it’s writing, you just you know have to sit down and do it. And some days you feel pretty good about it. And some days you feel like the village idiot.
But the days when it works are extremely satisfying, especially when you get some readers who really understand what you’re up to – and like it.
The Anatomy of Disgust actually ended up producing a modest disgust field. And so there were thirty or forty books that sprung from that one book. It’s the one thing I’ve written, except besides my book on courage, that has had an impact.
Anyway, when I started out in the academy, I had total writer’s block. I could not write. Finally I worked out that the kind of neurosis that keeps you from writing is self indulgent. It’s actually just being lazy. So I finally formulated that I’d write 500 words a day – no matter what. If I ripped them up the next day, fine. And if that didn’t start … some days I don’t ever know what I’m saying until I start to say it. Some people outline their books. They actually submit proposals, “Here’s what I’m going to say.” Well then, if you’ve said it, then that’s all I wanna read. If all you’re going to do is say that again more boringly, I don’t want to read it. I love it when you see people teaching themselves something as they write.
What does your research process look like?
I actually am never thinking more or harder than when I’m in the process of writing. When I’m reading, researching and preparing I’m like how do I keep from falling asleep … another cup of coffee. The other thing about reading what other people have written is you either think it’s good and say I’ve got nothing to say I’m finished, or you think it’s shit and you don’t believe you need to read any of it.
So I basically do enough for me to say something, then I don’t look at anything and I write my story. When I’m done with that, I’ll go back and check the other stuff and see if they are making better points or footnote in light of the other people’s ideas and so on. I get intimidated from reading other people’s work. The fact is that everything’s been said before so you don’t wanna read the great classics because you realise Nietzsche said it, Montaigne said it, Shakespeare said it…some of my medieval Icelanders said it.
You mentioned earlier one of the books you’re best known for is The Anatomy of Disgust. I wanted to ask, what disgusts you?
For me the biggest feature of disgust is that other people’s bodies are disgusting. But it’s not like my own isn’t disgusting either. The old adage that you’re own shit doesn’t smell is wrong. It’s just that you’re used to it. And you’re proud of it. I mean, you’re never proud of another person’s, except perhaps your children’s.
So then this leads to the memories for me of the horror of finding out how babies are made. The horror! The horror of finding out where we came from. It’s like a bad joke God played on us…
Okay and something else, look, if you want to talk about disgust let’s talk about Donald Trump. Look, here’s disgust – the hair, the hair. Then there’s the buying the Miss Universe pageant so he can feel up 18 year old girls and maybe score one. And then there’s the overtly sexual talk about his daughter. I mean this guy is a perv. And you would think puritanical United States would just take him and shove him right out. But no!
He’s such a clown that he can say whatever he wants and he’s said everything and so after time people love that he’s horrifying everybody. When we elected Ronald Reagan we said, it’s the movies, it’s hollywood it’s shallow America. But Reagan knew he was an actor. And then we get Reality TV – and what is contrived reality IS reality. And now Trump may be president.
You can make any sick postmodern joke you want but Trump may be a reality.
Miller’s groundbreaking book The Anatomy of Disgust (Harvard University Press, 1998)
Sexuality in general and particularly sexual reproduction, yes. It’s utterly horrifying.
I always think people who say they uncomplicatedly enjoy sex are brain dead. They’re not admitting to their anxieties about the whole thing. The idea of someone touching you, let alone sticking a tongue in your mouth, is so revolting. But that’s the attraction – it’s in violating purity laws. (Like you know, I can’t believe you’re going to write this.)
I mean people always say to me Miller how can a Jew like you be more puritanical than even a Calvinist Puritan. Dog shit, bugs, they don’t bother me…but someone touches you without permission, you know, putting half a move on you and you are not attracted to them, it’s a violation. There are certain settings where we have to admit that someone will touch us. For instance in a crowded elevator, but even then you are allowed to touch only in certain places …
I recently took up martial arts and I must admit it was very confronting to be touching and to be touched (especially considering the sweat) …
Yeah I have a sports background too and there is a lot of touching that doesn’t count. But you know there’s always the guy spitting out his spit on the field. And I remember being disgusted by the guys who would gob all over the place and it would contaminate the field.
Have you ever considered what’s on the bedspread in a motel room?
Apparently remote controls in hotel rooms are the most contaminated things you can touch…
A colleague of mine will not leave the bathroom without using a paper towel to touch the door. I mean that’s fucked up. We’re going to end up so clean nobody’s going to have an immune system left.
Having said this my pets are objects of pure love and I will even share my ice cream with them. They’re just not as disgusting as humans. Even good looking humans are disgusting. I cannot be naked in front of my pets because they look at me in horror. I’m so embarrassed in front of them. Especially as I age.
Disgust, death, ageing, hypocrisy and violence – all of these topics you deal with. They all make people anxious and these are the topics you seem drawn to in your writing. Why is that?
What’s wrong with being anxious? It means you’re alive. When I cease to be anxious … and god knows that doesn’t ever happen because I have to take anti-anxiety pills just to fall asleep at night … I lay awake thinking of how many times that day I made an ass of myself.
Aren’t you cursed with self-consciousness or are you just too “accepting” of yourself for it to matter?
Everyone has moments where they lay in bed at night and think about how they could have done things better.
Do you send emails to people apologising to people? At three in the morning …?
Every now and again but I’m happy to let myself make stupid mistakes. The most confronting thing for me is the thought of other people reading my work. Is that still the case for you?
Yeah re-reading your own work you have two views you can never come to terms with – either you love it or hate. So you vacillate between two poles of utter glory and utter sickness.
With reviews there are reviewers who love your work and understood it. There are reviewers who understood your work and don’t like it. Then there are idiots who love your work, idiots who have misunderstood your work and idiots who hate your work and hate it for all the points they’ve misunderstood. You feel like kneecapping those last ones. They fill me absolute rage.
Miller’s book Faking It (Harvard University Press, 1997)
I am actually a scholar of old Norse. They tell the story of an honour culture where you’re trying to get through tough situations with your dignity intact. You know you don’t win everything so it’s about how they live with shame.
So I got into all this stuff about how you fail and how you come back. I wrote a book largely based on my studies of Icelandic sagas called Humiliation. It’s just about social failure where you fucked up and you know you fucked up, where you’re cancelled as a human being in the eyes of everyone you care about. But then came the other side of the story, of when you know you failed someone on the other side is looking at you with disgust or contempt. So I thought I’ll write up that side because God knows I know about both sides.
I know how much revulsion I have for other people. And I also have a deep sense of my own humiliation.
Anyway, you read and read and you realise your sentiments are well within the bell curve of thoughts of other thinkers. So you can take your ideas and give them a veneer of intellectualism by quoting Montaigne and so on. But really this all came out of the Norse stuff. And I thought these books are popular and maybe I can write a couple between the Norse stuff.
I think I have nothing left to say though and my brain is dried up. I just wrote another Norse book and seriously I’m done. I got nothing. I mean I basically wrote my own epitaph in Losing It. My colleagues just laugh at me, they say you say you’re always suicidally depressed at the end of a book and then you come up with another one.
Where do your writing influences come from?
I don’t feel like I’m consciously imitating anybody. I love Orwell’s essays, I love Montaigne’s essays. I wouldn’t dare try to consciously imitate any of these writers though. If I could be half as good as those guys I’d love it.
I get email messages from a lot of people who like my prose style. And that makes me happy for a whole hour and I think – why can’t more people say that? And this is why flattery is such a dangerous thing isn’t it? Because even when it’s false – like students suck up to you all the time – we still love it we love hearing it AND they benefit from it. And you know they should be punished for it. But flattery is seductive. It’s like heroin. This is why all the moralists have known the flatterer is the worst human being on the face of the earth…
And you can’t hate them…
Yes, and they benefit from it. So I actually wrote a chapter about this in my book called Faking It. I worked through all the ways you can praise somebody, I mean, we even raise our kids through praise, don’t we?
When do you feel like you’re faking it?
When do you feel like you’re faking it?
I’m fiercely competitive and I’m always judging myself against people whose work I respect. Do they consider me one of them or not and who’s looking down on whom?
This is all the honour stuff from the sagas coming through to my work life. And there are some medieval historians who are so good … so good – the amount of knowledge they have, the number of languages they have under control , the material they have grasped – I’ve come to realise that those very same people might think I’m one of them. And I think God I’ve fooled them. I faked them out. They can’t be as clever as I thought.
But I know when somebody knows something I don’t know. You know when you start out in this academic life and someone asks you if you’ve read something and you nod and say yes yes yes, even though you haven’t. And this one time I got clearly caught out for saying I knew about something when I didn’t, so I swore I’d never do that again. And now I can claim to have read it but I can’t remember anything about it anyways! But I won’t lie. I’m terrible about keeping up with contemporary stuff so I’m quite well read until 1920 – anything beyond that I am embarrassingly under-read.
What advice would you give to people who want to make a career from thinking.
Read, read – good books read good books and the more you read the more sophisticated you’ll get about your own ideas and judging other people’s work.
And if you want to write just sit down and sit down and do it. And it’s not easy. If it’s coming too easy you’re probably just writing shit.
When it’s going well there’s a wonderful exhilaration but it’s probably false.