In public, Clive T. Miller '59 is apt to be rather offhand about his first novel, This Passing Night, which has just been published. At a reading he gave at Lowell House last week, he described the book as "two separate story lines, one that follows a group of students that have graduated from Harvard, and one that follows a teen-age gang in Brooklyn. The Harvard line takes place in Cambridge and Europe and has all the romantic stuff; the gang line has all the rapes and dirty stuff. Each chapter in the book is a sort of separate short story, and the narrative jumps back and forth from the Harvard line to the gang line, so that it's counterpointed--whatever that means."
In private, Miller is serious about himself, and his book. "Although it's a satire, I want my book taken seriously," he says. "If you prefer, you can take it as an 'entertainment'--in the sense Graham Greene uses the word--as long as you take your entertainments seriously."
Miller has been bothered by his reviewers, who have either taken the book too seriously, he feels, or not seriously enough. "Some guy from the Detroit Free Press spent the whole time damning the jacket design, and yelling at me for having my age on the flyleaf. The only quote he took from the book was, 'Clive T. Miller was born in Brooklyn in 1938.... That annoyed me. But a reviewer in Pensacola, Florida, took the thing completely seriously. The review said 'this is a hard-hitting, two-fisted novel; there's a rape, there's a rumble, and intimate letters from a young girl left alone all summer in New York.'
"Then the review said that this was the best book on New York youth since A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." Miller shrugged helplessly. "Maybe it will get some books sold in Pensacola."
The book has not been selling well. "In fact, it's not selling at all. I'm surprised anyone buys it if they don't know me," Miller says. "Nobody knows about either me or the book. I got a nice letter from Albert Guerard the other day, saying he was upset about the way This Passing Night was being neglected, and saying not to worry, that The Immoralist didn't sell 300 copies in five years."
Miller is very fond of Guerard. "I never saw a man who could inspire a writer to write, and inspire a certain love, too. He is an extraordinary teacher." As an undergraduate at Harvard, Miller took writing courses from Guerard, Archibald MacLeish, and Monroe Engel. He was part of a group of active writers in Cambridge at that time, which included Dale Harris, Sally Bingham, Jonathan Kozol and Arthur Kopit. They were all in the same courses together, he recalls, and stimulated each other to do better and better work.
Although a number of writers from E. M. Forster to Alberto Moravia have doubted the value of writing courses, Miller is all for them. "A course makes you aware of problems in the craft of writing, and it shortens the period of apprenticeship that all writers must go through. Also, because it is a graded course, it provides an incentive to write. And it gives you contacts. Certainly it was because of Guerard that my novel got published."
Even with Guerard behind him, Miller had trouble finding someone to publish This Passing Night. Several publishing houses read his manuscript and offered to print the gang line separately. Miller refused. A number of publishers failed to see the satire, as have the reviewers. Silverman of Dial concluded that the book was "not so much a satire on Hemingway and Fitzgerald as a joke on writing itself." Miller took the criticism calmly. "Well, he didn't see the satire. There's nothing I can do," he said. Eventually the manuscript received a favorable reception at Harpers', who published the book in October.
Since his graduation from Harvard, Miller has been in the army, worked in New York, and traveled around the world. During all this time he carried on negotiations with publishing houses. Now through his agent Annie Laurie Williams, Miller is hoping to sell the movie rights to the story.
He says he would happily sell the rights to anyone for $10,000 if he thought they would do a good job, or for $100,000 for a movie that would star Tab Hunter, Rock Hudson, and David Niven. "You know, they once made a movie of 'Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut' that Salinger didn't like, and so he won't sell movie rights to his stuff any more. I don't understand that. Everybody knows American movies are not an art form. Movies have their own values, but they are not the values by which you measure literature. I love Hollywood movies. They create their own vision of things: theirs is a world of happy endings and great entertainment."
People often ask if the book is autobiographical; Miller denies it. "Annie Laurie couldn't believe it wasn't autobiographical," he recalls. "She asked me, 'Wasn't you ever a member of a gang?', and I told her no. And then she kept asking me things, you know, chapter by chapter. I kept saying no, and she got more and more upset. Finally, just to make her happy, I told her that the Doreen Ellsworth story was autobiographical. So she says, 'I knew that was autobiographical--did you ever love a girl the way Richard Pierson loved Doreen Ellsworth?' And, you know, then she started in. What can you do? Some people just want to believe things very badly."