In this week’s Creator Conversation, author, Noah Milligan, discusses Five Hundred Poor. The book tells ten stories of those five hundred poor, the jaded, the disillusioned, and the disenfranchised. In this Q&A session, Noah shares what readers can expect, the story for the collection, where to go for inspiration, and more.
What can readers expect when they pick up a copy of Five Hundred Poor?
The title Five Hundred Poor is inspired by Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, so when people pick up the book I think they anticipate stories about the financially poor overcoming odds to find happiness or monetary success or something, but that’s not really the case. These are grim and dark stories about people who find themselves in desperate situations, and as such, oftentimes react desperately. A lot of what happens in these stories will make people uncomfortable, but I think that’s important. Although we’re the wealthiest country on earth, we have a tendency to ignore a lot of our problems because they don’t immediately affect us. Histories are revised, misinformation is spread, and we blame the victims without confronting the fact that we have collectively built and maintained institutions that marginalize certain sections of our population. This is something we should all strive to do better, and the first step I think in being able to do that is awareness.
How do you describe yourself and what you do?
Well, my day job is a commercial loan officer for a small, community bank here in Oklahoma City, so when people ask me what I do, I usually tell them I’m a banker. Inevitably, when people find out I also write, their first question is, “what kind of stuff do you write?” Typically, they’re wondering if I write fantasy, science fiction, horror, romance or whatever, but I don’t really have an answer like that. Most of my stuff is pretty dark with both realistic and surrealistic elements. I draw a lot of inspiration from Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Margaret Atwood, and many, many others along that vein. Some of it I suppose you could call dystopian. More than anything, though, I’m interested in people. How they deal with their problems. How they view themselves and their place in the world. So, in a way, I sort of view myself as a sort of amateur sociologist.
What got you interested in writing stories?
“I always had a book in my hand. Being a writer feels like it has just been a natural extension of my love for reading.”I’ve always been an avid reader, which I got from my mother. Growing up, some of my earliest memories are in bookstores with her. As a child, I read the Goosebumps series, the Boxcar Children, The Giver, Hatchett, and on and on and on. I always had a book in my hand. Being a writer feels like it has just been a natural extension of my love for reading. I really didn’t start writing seriously, though, until college. I had some great professors like Constance Squires, Rilla Askew, and Steve Garrison that really encouraged me to pursue writing professionally, and I owe a lot to them.
What was the greatest challenge you overcame in writing Five Hundred Poor?
Probably time. Just carving out an hour a day to be able to sit at the keyboard and start clacking away. I work full time. I’ve got two young children. So my goal is just to write five hundred words per day if I’m working on something new or edit four pages if I’m revising. If I get that accomplished at least five days per week, then I’m happy with my output.
What inspired the book?
The collection is comprised of ten stories, eight of which have been previously published, so the book itself has been a long time coming. The story “Amid the Flood of Mortal Ills” was the first story published in this collection back in 2011, I believe, so I really didn’t write these stories with a cohesive theme in mind or anything like that. It just sort of serendipitously worked out that way. The main subjects tackled are problems that Oklahoma faces on a daily basis. There was an editorial in the Oklahoman a little while back that detailed some of our rankings in the nation, and the picture it painted wasn’t very flattering. We’ve got some of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and we’re number one in incarcerating women. We have terrible mental health outcomes. We have some of the highest rates of violence, gun violence especially. Teen pregnancies. Substance abuse. Education. Just category after category, Oklahoma is ranked one of the worst in the nation. Don’t get me wrong, I love Oklahoma. Have spent my whole life here. I’m going to raise my children here, but there are so many things that we could do better. These struggles are really what inspired this book, and has informed a lot of my writing throughout my career.
What are some of the biggest takeaways you wish readers would learn from the book?
I suppose the biggest takeaway I wish readers would learn from the book stems from my answer to the previous question. Oklahoma is a great state full of great people, but we’ve got a lot of work to do as well. I hope maybe after reading my book it will invoke a little anger, inspire more people to get engaged. Call their congressmen and women. Donate their time and money to worthy causes. Heck, even just get out and vote.
I hope maybe after reading my book it will invoke a little anger, inspire more people to get engaged.
Where are some great places to go in Oklahoma for inspiration?
I get inspiration from just about everywhere. The grocery store. My daughter’s t-ball game. The mall. If you pay enough attention, you can find interesting stories just about anywhere you look. Oklahoma is just such a vibrant, complex place full of vibrant, complex people. And the landscape here is just gorgeous. I read somewhere that Oklahoma has the most diverse topography and ecoregions in the US, and I believe it. I love the tallgrass prairie and the rolling hills of green country. The beautiful lakes. The Wichita and Ouachita Mountains. The Ozark highlands and forest. We’ve even got caves and swamps, if you know where to look. And the history and mythology that is attached to it, from the Spook Light to Geronimo’s grave to Woody Guthrie – Oklahoma is simply awe-inspiring. There’s really no other place like it in the world.
Anything else you want to say or let people know?
We have some wonderful independent bookstores here in Oklahoma I hope people go out and support. Here in Oklahoma City area there is Literati Press, Commonplace Books, Full Circle, and Best of Books. Around Tulsa there is Magic City Books and Another Chapter Bookstore. Down in Ardmore is a wonderful store called Stranger Than Fiction Books Plus. These bookstores are integral parts of the community, and they deserve our continued support.
Also, there are some great local writers, too. I know I’m going to miss a few, but if you need to fill out your reading list, here are my picks: Brandon Hobson’s Where the Dead Sit Talking, Constance Squire’s Live from Medicine Park, Rilla Askew’s Kind of Kin, and Jeanetta Calhoun Mish’s Oklahomeland.