Flying high

Interview: Jonathan Miles’s airport novel
By CLEA SIMON  |  June 2, 2008

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There’s nothing new about the complaint as literature, says author Jonathan Miles. Describing his fiercely funny debut novel, Dear American Airlines (Houghton Mifflin), the author cites the Book of Job as a predecessor. But in this short novel, Miles, who also writes the New York Times’ “Shaken and Stirred” cocktail column, touches on a particular contemporary problem as his protagonist, poet-turned-translator Bennie Ford, finds himself stranded at O’Hare Airport.

You write about alcohol, and your protagonist is a recovering alcoholic. Is there anything autobiographical about Bennie?
No, except I would say that the two things do seem a little irreconcilable. Alcohol fascinates me on so many levels. How can something that can enhance life so beautifully also destroy it so completely? That’s why I’m fascinated by bars. This is where you find people at their happiest and their saddest, really in extremis. As a writer, you’re trying to find people at either end of the spectrum. Fortunately, for me it enhances life.

Your book must already have been in production when American Airlines cancelled 3000 flights in April. But did you choose American for a reason?
Yes, they in fact were responsible for the situation that was the seed of the novel. What happened to Bennie happened to me. I was flying from Memphis to New York, we were supposed to have a 45-minute layover in Chicago. We landed in Peoria and were bused to O’Hare, and I spent the night under a table at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant, composing this enraged letter. It’s that terrible feeling when you’re stranded eight hours because of weather and you walk out and it’s a perfect day. They’re always blaming it on some funnel disturbance over Denver.

But also, of all the airline names, that was certainly the most evocative. Also, they seemed to be the most likely to not go out of business during the writing of this novel.

In addition to being in transit, isn’t Bennie very much a character in transition?
I’m not going to lie and say that I thought too much about the metaphorical idea of that in the writing. It certainly plays into this idea of movement, and how we move through life. You can say that Bennie has made these transitions, these flights from one thing to another. But it’s only when he’s stranded, forced to be immobile, that he’s forced to take a reckoning of all these movements. It’s the idea of shedding these layers to get to the core of himself.

Is that particularly American?
The ultimate American story line is reinvention. Gatsby, Faulkner . . . whether that’s exclusive to us, I can’t say, but it figures prominently in our metaphorical landscape.

What’s the connection to the book of Job?
I see the Book of Job as being the first consumer complaint letter, this idea of howling to the sky about what the fates have done to you. If a godless man is completely thwarted and needs to blame some sort of monolithic, megalithic entity for what’s happened to him in life, where does he turn to? The idea of being stranded in an airport is so emblematic of being in the pincers of these corporations that are so uncaring. It’s the rage of being on hold for 30 minutes when you’re trying to buy something.

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