Monday, December 9, 2013

The Author Who Went Freegan in NYC for Research

The following article was written by Nathan Rostron for about an author who went all the way with research for his latest novel. Funpunkyg has not yet read the book, but would be happy to read it if it came across her path. :) The article is lively and thought-provoking, so enjoy!

"Dear American Airlines" author Jonathan Miles' new novel, "Want Not," began with garbage: "Having three children," Miles told Bookish, "I made great mountains of trash, and trash had become a significant portion of my life." Miles took his obsession further than most writers would. He studied not only the people who make trash and who dispose of it, but also those who (gulp) eat it: "I [spent] a little time with the 'freegan' community in New York, who eat out of trash as a philosophical statement." Miles spoke with us about what drives freegans to live off the grid and go "dumpster diving," and what it was like to follow their path while researching "Want Not."
Bookish: What are you most excited for about "Want Not"?
Jonathan Miles: I'm most excited to be finished with it. Writing this thing was like climbing a big mountain of razor blades naked. So the fact that it's a finished beast is an incredible pleasure. It's such a different creature than "Dear American Airlines," so I don't know what to expect.
Bookish: Do you have scars from that mountain of razor blades?
JM: Oh, yes. There is this idea that writing is supposed to be enjoyable--and it can be. For me, it's not terribly enjoyable most of the time. Maybe one out of 30 days you hit that little zone, that little space where things converge and you can sit for 12 hours and feel that no time has passed. So rare and beautiful, and [it's] enough to keep you going. That's enough to make it addictive. As for scars, I don't think [I have] any more than anybody else has.
Bookish: "Dear American Airlines" was written as an angry passenger's screed. Was there a big idea behind "Want Not"?
JM: The book has as its idea: trash. Having three children, I made great mountains of trash, and trash had become a significant portion of my life. I began thinking about ecological ramifications and [about how] I'm putting my trash next to other people's trash. I'm reading these little dossiers about these people through what they dispose of, and I'm thinking: This stuff tells stories. I can create whole characters just out of discards.
I was puzzled by trash as well. Taking the New Jersey transit train, you go through those little valleys, and the trackside is just strewn with all sorts of random trash--couches, bicycles and all that stuff. I don't understand it. I don't understand where it comes from, what the story is and how that couch ended up being thrown onto the trackside. So, I started spinning these stories in my head about where this stuff came from.
Bookish: Did you physically go through other people's garbage?
JM: Yes. It's fun. I highly recommend it.
Bookish: What are some of the things you discovered?
JM: All sorts of things I could've used for identity theft, and may have, but I can't confess. Some of the most interesting stuff I did was to spend a little time with the "freegan" community in New York, who eat out of [others'] trash as a philosophical statement. That took a little bit of courage the first time--eating out of a black trash bag.
Bookish: You did?
JM: Oh yeah. Bagels, mostly. There was one guy who would wait outside delis--the big delis where they have like 200 different dishes in those steam pans from all over the world--and at the end of the shift, they tend to just dump them all into one bag, which is horrid. But he would eat out of that, his reasoning being that it all ends up together in your stomach anyway. That's a tougher muscle than I have.
Bookish: Did the freegans you met have philosophical or economic reasons for eating rubbish?
JM: Both, and they were intertwined. The philosophical idea that really grabbed me about this was the idea of going off the grid--just disappearing--and how difficult that's become in our day and age. Just a generation ago, you could [disappear] in Alaska. Now, there is no place off the grid. There is no frontier left in the world. You can't disappear. So, what do you do to go off the grid? The only thing you can do to make yourself untraceable, to remove yourself from society, is to stop spending money. That's where you're tracked. To opt out of capitalism is really the only way to be off the grid in this day and age. [Freegans] are as off the grid as you can be.
That's what really fascinated me about these two characters as they developed, Talmadge and Micah, in the novel--Micah's father tried to go off the grid in the old-fashioned way, building a cabin Appalachia. That didn't work out very well. Now, she's trying to go off the grid in a different way, which is to completely drop out of the economy.
Bookish: By dropping out of the economy, you're also dropping out of citizenship, right? If you're not voting, you don't own property, you don't get governmental services like health care….
JM: Theoretically, yes. This is one of the problems of going off the grid, and why many people come back to the grid: That kind of absolutism is very difficult to make endurable, to make sustainable. The grid has its claws.
Bookish: Did you meet people who had succeeded in doing this? Did they feel freer to you, or did they feel more constrained?
JM: Both. Some did feel freer. Some really seemed to have a kind of philosophically idyllic existence, in that they didn't need employment. To go back to the question about economics, they could scavenge out of dumpsters, in front of grocery stores, squat and have a kind of untethered existence. Others seemed to be driven by an ideology, however noble. Any ideology tends to be a psychic job--it tends to be psychological work. So, they didn't seem too free, to answer your question.
Bookish: Did you invite your family to join you in any of these experiments?
JM: I asked my wife, but that was instantly shot down: no interest. But my kids were fascinated by it.
Jonathan Miles is a true chronicler of the modern human condition in a smart, accessible and utterly original way. His first book, "Dear American Airlines," was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Best Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. A former columnist for the New York Times, he serves as a contributing editor to a number of publications including Field & Stream and Details, and writes regularly for the New York Times Book Review.