What makes an endeavor meaningful? How can we make a difference in this world—or in the lives of those around us? How should we answer life’s toughest questions? Where do we find our identity as individuals or as a nation?
These are just a few of the questions that Micah Harris tackles in his upcoming novel Only Small Things Are Good.
Micah sent me an advance copy of his book early last fall. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a book whose title sounded like it could be a philosophical treatise. But I was immediately drawn in. Micah combines stellar wit with a probing story that unfolds in a series of flashbacks and narrative. The book paints the portrait of a young man seeking to make a difference in foreign policy while trying to understand what he believes about the world, and how to communicate that to others. It’s engaging, thought-provoking, and flecked with beauty and humor.
I had a chance to talk with Micah about Small Things and his creative process in writing the book. I think you will enjoy what he has to say.
Why and when did you start writing Only Small Things Are Good?
I started Small Things in 2013 and I had a lot of motives for doing it. One of them is a kind of writer’s challenge, looking for a way to write an inside portrait of the Pentagon that’s both true and engaging. Which is hard to do. The Pentagon is a big concrete office building with drab furniture and a lot of cubicles. But it also has some very interesting work going on inside and I wanted people to know what our lives are like in there. I want people to know something about the institutions that they own, like the U.S. Department of Defense, because they are public institutions we are responsible for them as voters. I wanted to do something both personal and civic in that way.
Did the story change as you wrote it?
Yes and no. I don’t plot my books out completely from the beginning. But I usually have a character, a place, and some direction where I see it going. In this case, I had previously written a short story that wasn’t great, but I liked the characters of Joel and Janet from that story. So, I kind of pulled them out of it and wrote another story. And then I had a voice in my head for the character Socrates, the antagonist. So, I started writing a story about Joel and Janet that was in some ways going towards Socrates and that was about as much as I had in mind from the start. One of the bigger changes was that partway through I decided that I wanted to use a format with short backstory chapters interspersed between the “main story” chapters. And then it was much later in the first draft of the book, about page 200, when I introduced the character of Sam Bob and then I realized the story had needed him for a long time and I had to rewrite the book to put him in there where he should have been from the start. So that’s a little about how it developed.
Where do you draw inspiration for your characters?
The lazy, obvious answer is that I get inspiration from people and from life. But I select from the people and from life in a heavy-handed way because it’s a certain kind of story I’m trying to tell. Some characters you get by taking a person you know and turning him upside down so that the relationship between the real-life inspiration and the fictional character is only visible to the author. Or sometimes you take a single strand out of a person’s life and make a whole character out of that strand—like Socrates.
There’s a very funny moment in the Lego movie where a Gandalf/Dumbledore character comes on the scene and the other characters get confused about which one he is. The wizened old man is an endearing stock character in certain literature. He’s not the one who has to accomplish the action. He’s the counselor to the one who has to accomplish the action and at every terrible moment you think, ah man, if Gandalf (or Dumbledore) was here now I would know what to do. I could get through this.
But what if you turn that character upside down? What if, instead of having an old man play that role, you make it a young woman? Then you have Janet who, in a certain way, is a little too wise to be quite real. (I’ve always felt that this stock character is a little too wise to be quite real.) But, still, she plays an essential role in drawing the protagonist into his full self and revealing him to the reader.
What was the hardest part about writing Small Things?
Probably the hardest part is keeping yourself in the zone for months at a time. And literally blocking out the time in life where you don’t have to be at work and you have the mental space to hold this book in your mind continuously and keep building it. You have to rearrange your life for it. And then there’s another part which is emotional—managing your own expectations and hopes. You have to be invested and excited—it takes an enormous desire to do a whole book—but you cannot be invested and excited in such a way that you will be devastated if the thing doesn’t work out. Like everything valuable, you have to pursue it, treasure it, and hold it loosely so that it will continue to play in your hand and then leave if it needs to, or if you need it to—if the time comes when you and this book are no longer good for each other.
In contrast, what was the best part of writing it?
The best parts are probably the beginning and the end. On the first draft the thing is most alive, full of possibility, and unrealized. You make book-determining decisions—voice decisions, character decisions, plot decisions—at an absolutely irresponsible rate. (I wrote this book—from conception to a completed draft—in just over two months.) And no one can tell you whether you’ve made the right decisions. In fact, the only way you can make the right decisions is to make decisions and then write with such confidence that they become the right decisions. You have to execute your mistakes with such confidence that they are no longer mistaken. Otherwise, you will paralyze yourself out of all boldness and either write a timid story or none at all.
You’re doing all this in your head and on the page and it’s a secret. The world only sees that you’re a little more crotchety and spent than usual. But you’ve sealed it all up—an abundance, an excess—in a package those people will open years later. Even now, as you walk silently among them, you’re designing an experience for them—an experience of wonder, fear, curiosity, delight, and surprise at the strange things that were taking place in the person who stood next to them, or brushed past, unknowing at the mall. It’s a wonderful feeling.
The other great reward is now at the end when, after all that work, people read the book and I see a light in their eyes—a recognition. I can see it has brought a little life to them that was not there before. Those are the best parts, for me.
Even though your book deals with serious themes and has many serious elements, there are bits of humor and wit sprinkled throughout. Was that intentional, or did it just come naturally?
I believe that, even with very serious things, people do them best when they have a sense of play and a sense of joy about them. And I wanted to do this in an appropriate way. Even on something as serious as detainee abuse or a sense that your country is dissolving—to take those questions seriously, you must have a sense of joy in your life and a sense of delight and even play as you go about trying to understand them and trying to do something good with them. I guess that’s a little of my motive for the humor in the book.
Right now, it is fashionable to undervalue the sense of delight that comes with reading a good book. There’s some sense that delight compromises the seriousness of an author or a reader. But I can think of few things worse than for joy to go out of style in public life. This joy—this delight—is an urgent thing, especially in times like ours, and not a frivolous or escapist thing.
Also, a lot of times people find something to be funny that I didn’t intend to be funny. I meant to say it in words you weren’t used to hearing so that you’d hear it again, and sometimes that just strikes people as funny.
How did you know when you were finished with the story?
For my first novel I had developed a bit of a process that I felt good about and it involved getting two or three rounds of feedback from a good professional editor, it involved getting one or two rounds of feedback from a variety of readers, and rewriting it the best I could between those rounds of feedback. It involved recording the story and listening to the recording, so that I could have a sense of the language that I don’t get from reading it off the page. And at the end of this process, I’ve exhausted what I know to do to make the best book I can. There is still a small sense that it could have been a better story if I had more talent and more resources, but I still have a sense of satisfaction that I’ve done what I know to do to make this the best book I can.
How did you come to that realization that only small things are good, as the title says?
The book tries to understand these grand abstractions that you use in national policy at “big ideas places” like the Pentagon. And it asks: how do those ideas turn into the lives people actually live? If what you do isn’t shaping a world with good places for people to have good relationships with the people in their lives—a place where they have a sense of joy or beauty in the small moments they live—then what is the point of the big abstractions?
Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to convey that specific idea in this story?
With my first novel (which I haven’t published), I wrote the entire book and then tried to pick the title for it and I still never quite picked a title I like.
So this time around, I had a title in mind from the time I created a Word document and started typing my book into it. And I’ve never been completely satisfied with this as a title either. It’s not particularly snappy. But I do like it and I’ve always had it as the title of this work. Partly because it’s fun to give away the point of the book from the first page. No one will come to the end of it and feel like I’ve sprung some bland moral on them. I’ve printed the moral of the story on the cover as a sort of joke and you can take it or leave it from the beginning.
What authors have most influenced your writing style, and how?
The most obvious ones are John Steinbeck and David Foster Wallace. Wallace has absolutely hilarious end-notes in his fiction. He makes it work in a marvelous way and that’s probably where I saw that this was something I could do, and something that can be done well in a piece of fiction. Wallace is, in some way, an answer to Hemingway. Hemingway is usually taken as the living paradigm of minimalism or efficiency in language and short sentences. Wallace is the paradigm of maximalism. He writes these long, sprawling, hilarious sentences that are nonetheless clean and readable. They aren’t flowery or excessive. There’s a great deal to learn from the way he writes.
I also think of Plato. I find him wonderful for a lot of reasons. One of them is that he is more than an abstract philosopher. He’s nearly always writing dialogues and usually portrays people arguing about things they are personally invested in, not abstract things they’ve removed themselves from. I believe that’s the way we live life. We don’t live abstract philosophies. We can only use the ideas that we know how to build into a life. We try them on and fail and then we try and succeed. I really like that way of understanding philosophy, that if an idea can’t be lived out in a life, it’s probably false. Plato is among the best about portraying philosophy in life. Of course, I was also intrigued by the way, in Plato’s Republic, he models the human soul on a massive scale by describing the structure of a just city and I was intrigued by the idea of turning that upside down and trying to model a vast country on the scale of a person or a family or a community.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
I’m not a fan of people “aspiring” to be an author. Writing is a means and I think people need a purpose before they’re able latch onto a means and do it well. If you have something and you’re convinced it is true then look around at the tools you have in life to reveal that thing. And, if writing is the best tool available, refine it and become good at it. But don’t get romantically attached to a writer’s identity before you have a purpose in life. (That probably goes for most other art forms.) Being a very skilled but purposeless writer is a sad thing.
How did you figure out that writing was the best means to communicate what you wanted to communicate?
I had spent some time living in southeast Africa, and when I came back I realized that I had no language for telling people what I had seen or what it meant or why it mattered. When I tried to talk about it, I sounded like every other angry activist. And I realized that it wasn’t good for me to be that person. It’s toxic to feel angry all the time. And it wasn’t good for the people I was talking to. Maybe they felt bad for me, or maybe they felt bad for whatever I was talking about, but it wasn’t building them up as human beings and they weren’t seeing what I wanted them to see, because my language wasn’t adequate to the subject. I didn’t have the ability to explain it to the people I was trying to talk to. So that’s when I thought, it’s time for me to find a better way to communicate. Sitting and learning to write a good novel was the best way I could find to practice the communication skill that was missing.
Micah Harris grew up on a West Texas ranch then moved to Washington, DC. Over the past 12 years he has worked in the Senate, the White House, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He holds an MA in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College and works as a consultant for the Department of Defense. Small Things is his first novel.
Learn more about Micah Harris and find a link for pre-ordering the book at Micah’s website.