When author Ben Miller was nine years old he became fascinated with a new invention made by a classmate’s father: a mail-order ice rink. In The Reinvention of Ice, Miller writes about living vicariously through the rink as an escape from the fragmentation of his home life in Davenport, Iowa. Miller first published the story in the UNCW-based literary journal Ecotone. Miller spoke to WHQR’s Sara Wood about how this story became the impetus for his memoir, River Bend Chronicle, recently published by UNCW’s imprint Lookout Books.
Sara Wood: This ice rink is a catalyst for all these other things, so I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about what’s happening in the story, what it was like to write it, and how it became a part of Ecotone?
Ben Miller: The reason this meant so much to me, this classmate of mine and his father, who was sort of a hapless inventor who had invented this mail-order ice rink that he wanted to sell to America, I was at nine years old, I was really going downhill fast. Instead of going out and playing with the other kids I would lean over my desk and draw flames and stick figures burning and gorges of devoured figures. And it was sort of a response to the chaos at home. And Brad sat next to me, you know he was the one who was willing to sit next to me. And one day he brought an issue of, it was like Sports Afield or Outdoor Life, a magazine like that And his father had placed a little classified ad in the back of this in this journal for a mail-order ice rink. And I was just so impressed. I mean, just the idea of you know, an ice rink that could go through the U.S. mail it lit my imagination up in such a beautiful way. And it seemed like sort of a way out, at least a way for my spirit. And I just thought it was the coolest dream, someone who had a funny dream like that and actually made it happen or made it come true.
So finally when I got this story hammered down after, no lie, after eight years and so many drafts, I sent it to Ecotone, and it was accepted. And the way Lookout Books works, the imprint of UNCW, is that they draw their authors from Ecotone authors, so if they have a good experience working with someone or they see promise in one or two of their pieces that appear in there, they will ask to send a manuscript, so that’s what I did.
Sara Wood: So you’ve published several essays and pieces of prose in several literary journals. And this is your debut memoir, right, so this is the first book-length project?
Ben Miller: Right. And while the pieces were getting published in great journals, no one was brave enough to take on anything that was this different and unusual. But Lookout did.
Sara Wood: What was the hardest part of writing this book, or putting this book together for you?
The last layers were obviously the layers that were the hardest to do. And I think there was darkness in our family and I think that having the support of the publisher and the editors at Lookout, allowed me to sort of get right down with some of the most difficult elements of the book. And I don’t want to get in the way of the book here, but basically, you know, the most personal elements of the story are feeling so alone when you’re a child and feeling that your parents just aren’t there or they’re not who they should be.
No child, even people who’ve been through experiences like that they just don’t want to, even when you’re adult and have gotten a hold of it, you still, part of you doesn’t want to think that or believe that. But it’s a necessary element to understand the chaos of the family and how I attached to neighbors, and how I attached to people who were sort of paragons of order.
The book really represents only 25 percent of the writing that I did about Davenport over 10 years. So, wrestling it down, finding that right mix tape of everything took a really prolonged and marathon effort over the last year and a half. But we did it. We were able to get this first cut of all this stuff. The right balance of family and social material, and about the way that art can enter a life and make it something that otherwise it couldn’t be.
Sara Wood: Well Ben, I really, really appreciate you taking the time to do this. It’s been so nice to talk to you about this book.
Ben Miller: It’s been wonderful, Sara. I’m so glad when anyone pays attention to anything I worked so hard on and put so much work into.
Ben Miller is the author of River Bend Chronicle, published by Lookout Books. He’ll read Sunday, April 14 at 7 PM at UNCW in the Kenan Hall Courtyard. For more information about his reading and memoir, visit Lookout Books' website.
Listen to Miller read an excerpt from the prologue of his memoir: