R.I.P. Ellen Miller (and a public memorial service)

I’m only now learning that Ellen Miller, author of the amazing ’90s junkie novel Like Being Killed, died of a heart attack on December 23 at the age of forty-one.

When Ken Foster announced the terrible news a couple weeks ago, he quoted the book’s opening:

We crowded around the rickety kitchen table, predicting how each of us would die.

Six of us sat under a naked lighbulb that hung like an interrogation lamp from a thin wire over Margarita’s chipped wooden table. We squinted and leaned phototropically into the empty center, noses almost touching, eyelashes fluttering against the force of the light like the wings of hovering moths. We were checking the count, raising each small, discreet, translucent envelope up to the stark whiteness of the blank bulb. Everything else disappeared. The count was good. The count was the only thing in the world. It was lonely. It was scary. It was fun. It was what I did now, without Susannah.

But before I could even finish thinking the words — with Susannah or Susannah is gone — she was no longer gone. She had materialized into language, inside my head, where it mattered.

Dana introduced me to the book, which I loved, several years back, and it’s grown larger and deeper in my memory rather than diminishing with time.

Paul Zakrzewski, Miller’s friend and editor of the Lost Tribe fiction anthology in which her work appeared, sends word that Miller’s life and work will be remembered by friends and family at a memorial service scheduled for February 8, 2008. All are welcome.

Details are toward the end of Karkzewski’s brief remembrance:

Ellen grew up in the Carnarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn, in a working-class Jewish environment. Her vivid experience of this upbringing formed an important element in her second (unfinished) novel, Stop, Drop, Roll, an excerpt of which appeared in the anthology Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge (2003). She also contributed stories to the anthologies 110 Stories: New York Writes After Sept 11 and Brooklyn Noir, among others.

In addition, Ellen taught creative writing at New York University, Pratt, and the New School, where she was admired by her students and colleagues not only for her mastery of the writing craft and dedication to teaching, but for her remarkable courage and honesty both on the page and in the classroom. Notwithstanding years of chronic illness and other hardships, which she faced with superhuman strength and determination, Ellen lived a rich and creative life and deeply touched many others. In the terminology of her favorite hobby, boxing, Ellen had “a lot of heart.”

She received her BA from Wesleyan University in 1988 with Honors and Phi Beta Kappa and later earned her MFA from the New York University Creative Writing program where she was the recipient of the NYU Creative Writing Fellowship for Fiction. She was also awarded a residency at the MacDowell Colony, among others.

Drafted in a six-month creative burst and published in 1998, Ellen’s novel Like Being Killed enjoyed many critical accolades, including a brief appearance on the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller list (after a cover review). Kirkus Reviews noted that “[the narrator’s] voice is authentic in unsparingly illuminating the link between self-protection and self-destruction, revealing a tender inner life that persists despite addiction, depression, and descent into squalor. A bleak, bracing debut.” Meanwhile, her teacher and mentor Annie Dillard wrote: “Ellen Miller hurls herself, along with her readers, into a world that resonates with moral complexity, startling anecdote, humor and good humor, brutality and compassion. Her prose is uncommonly clear, compelling, unaffected, and strong. The range of her narrative concerns — from Primo Levi, Nietzsche, and dead languages to bagels and peach pies -proves that she can make anything interesting.”

She is survived by her devoted partner, Christopher Rowell, her step-father, Scott Hyde, her two brothers Steven and Michael, and her beloved god-daughter, Olivia Francesca Foster. She will be missed dearly by all.

A memorial service in honor of Ellen’s life and work will be held on Sunday, February 8th, 2009 from 4:00 to 6:00 pm at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, 58 West 10th Street (btw 5th and 6th Aves.), New York, NY. Please RSVP (due to limited space) to Stephanie Foster at smfostersays [at] yahoo [dot] com.

Like Being Killed has fallen out of print. Here’s hoping Miller’s publisher revives it, pronto, at least electronically.


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