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Getting Next to Howard Norman

Gary Miller

Here’s a photo of my book, Museum of the Americas, on the shelf at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, right next to Howard Norman’s new novel, Next Life Might Be Kinder. That my book is in Bear Pond at all means a lot to me; it’s one of the great indie bookstores on Earth, and it’s in my adopted hometown of Montpelier. That my book sits on a shelf next to Howard Howard Norman? Well, that’s a whole other level of joy.

I first met Howard Norman in 1994, when I was an MFA student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and he was a visiting writer. His novel The Bird Artist had recently come out, and when he read from it, every nerve ending in my body lit up. The tale unspooled with a disarming simplicity. First came the words, so carefully chosen as to seem almost plain, yet so rich as to conjure an instant reality, fully formed. The emotional power sank in with devastating impact just a beat behind. I bought a copy of the book that day at Bear Pond, and have since gone through half a dozen or more, pressing them like missionary bibles on readers I trust.

Of course, there is more to Howard Norman than The Bird Artist. In the twenty-odd years since I first met him, I have eagerly consumed his work, from the wonderful story collection Kiss in the Hotel Joseph Conrad to his more recent four-part memoir I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place (of which part one alone is worth the cost of admission) and his newest novel, Next Life Might Be Kinder, which evokes the tender, lamplit moments of reverie that so heartbreakingly illuminate Norman’s prose.

All of these, of course, have shaped the course of my own writing, in ways large and small, successful and less so. But it is The Bird Artist that has shaped the course of my life. I have been with my partner Deb for eight years now, and our life together with our little family—my daughter Maddie and Deb’s son Eli—mean everything to me. Yet without The Bird Artist, none of this might have been. In its earliest days, the relationship between Deb and me grew deeper around the novel, which I read to her aloud in bed during an autumn’s worth of evenings. Since then, this ritual has been repeated at least once, possibly twice, although neither of us remembers. It seems that in our relationship, the story of a quiet, bookish Newfoundland bird artist and his love for a beautiful, headstrong young woman has always been there.

When I walk into Bear Pond on a hot summer afternoon, dip into the coolness and the buttery light, the familiar squeak of floorboards and a universe of art spread out before me, that alone would be enough. But to see my first story collection placed beside a work by Howard Norman seems more than I could ask for in this life.