J.M. Miro lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. His book, Ordinary Monsters, was published by McClelland & Stewart in 2022. He is a novelist and poet.
Ordinary Monsters is a historical fantasy that introduces readers to the dark world of the Talents, who are children with mysterious powers. The novel is set in England in 1882 and two of these particularly gifted Talents are being hunted by a deadly man made of smoke and their lives, and the world, hang in the balance as the adults around them, including tough detective Alice Quicke, try to stop — or continue — what has been set in motion. The novel is a richly layered fantasy filled with characters who have complex backstories and motivations. There’s never a dull moment in this tale set in a familiar but strange Victorian England.
J.M. Miro is interviewed by Alli Vail
Alli Vail: Was there a moment, or a spark, that spawned Ordinary Monsters, or did the idea come to you over time?
J.M. Miro: Novels have so many beginnings, don’t they? I find this such an interesting question. Ordinary Monsters might have begun when I was driving my children home from gymnastics one day several years ago, and a sentence came to me: “Children with powers in Victorian England.” Or it might have really begun the moment I got home, and mentioned the idea to my wife, who stopped what she was doing to tell me to write that book. And yet, before that, when I was writing a previous novel, the character of Alice Quicke appeared briefly but was left on the cutting room floor. Maybe it began there? Or maybe even earlier, in the years after our children were born, while reading to them at bedtime the kinds of imaginative stories that most children’s literature grows out of? Or I could go back all the way to my own childhood, to the fantasy novels of the late 1980s, and the boy who was devouring them and dreaming of one day writing books like that himself. In some ways, Ordinary Monsters has been in me all my life.
AV: At 660 pages, this is by far the thickest book I’ve read this year, but what I was most in awe of is how quick the pacing was — the story never dragged. Do you have a tactic or technique you use to keep the story moving so rapidly through such a large page count?
JMM: Hmm. It’s an excellent question, but a difficult one to answer. There are so many techniques to keep a novel moving across length — sometimes in the story itself, the ways suspense and peril are managed, sometimes in the sentences, sometimes in the characters and how intimately they are drawn. Usually several techniques are at work at the same time. But a writer doesn’t know the same book that a reader knows; a writer’s sense of the pacing is always different. I’m so pleased the story never dragged for you, despite the page count!
AV: Another thing I noticed was that you change points of view quite frequently. We hear directly from so many of the characters — from the talents Charlie and Marlowe, to the detective Alice Quicke, to the villain Jacob and even his warped henchman Walter — what was it like living inside all these heads and writing parts of the story from their perspectives?
JMM: Oh, it was strange! And fun. This was one of those technical challenges that keeps the writing interesting. But it also meant I could go deeper into the ways each character views themselves, and play a little with dramatic irony and shifting ideas of good and evil. I did know that I wanted to write a novel that gave agency to those who, historically, have had very little — orphans, women, visible minorities, to name just a few. The Victorian world was a brutal one. But it was also extraordinarily diverse, and rich; we so often imagine only a narrow, limited version of it. I wanted to pry that apart, peer into the cracks. In many ways, Ordinary Monsters is a novel about difference, and aloneness. Entering into the perspectives of all these different, lonely characters helped to make clear, I think, how similar they all were too, how much they had in common, and how they weren’t as alone as they feared.
AV: I was very curious about the research you may have needed to put into this book. You’ve layered an incredibly rich fantasy world over Victorian England and it has such a distinctive feel because of that. What sort of research or exploration did you have to do to create something that felt authentic but also imaginative?
JMM: I sat down to write this novel at the beginning of the lockdown, in part because I needed to write something consoling, something that would absorb some of the uncertainty and fear of those days. Because of that, and because I wanted to keep the momentum up as I went, I worked in settings and locations and eras that I already knew well, that I had lived in or travelled through or previously visited in my other novels. The fantasy aspect — the talents, their powers, the world of the dead — required a different kind of research, as much metaphorical as historical. I would do all this in the evenings, and spend the days writing scenes and characters.
AV: Your characters are all rich and complex and none of them felt under-served, which is quite a feat with such a large host of characters. I particularly was drawn to Alice Quicke and her pragmatic approach, and also another young talent named Komako. Do you have a character you’re particularly sympathetic towards or drawn to and why might that be?
JMM: Ribs is a particular favourite, absolutely. Any time she walked onto a page she just kicked over whatever it was I wanted to do in the scene, and made it her own. It was sort of horrifying and wonderful to experience. But the truth is, I’m rather fond of all of them. Even Jacob.
AV: In reading this book, I got the sense that you understood the genre well and were able to draw on a large body of knowledge and understanding of it to create Ordinary Monsters. You’ve spoken about this in other interviews, but I was hoping you could share with us some of your influences, or books, or ideas that helped inspire this novel and your writing?
JMM: Oh, I’ve always read SFF. But influence is such a difficult subject to chart. I’m a little of the mind that everything we see and know and can imagine leaves its imprint on us. I do know Ursula K Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea changed my interior landscape, when I was twelve years old. That was the book that made me want to become a writer. I still find it profound and rich and bottomless, like the very best literature, and reread it every few years. I grew up reading the blockbuster fantasy writers of my era, Tolkien of course, but also Terry Brooks, Tad Williams, Robert Jordan, Mercedes Lackey, Anne McCaffrey, etc. In my late twenties I came back to the genre to find an entirely new group of writers had emerged, such as Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Naomi Novik, Sofia Samatar, Marie Brennan. The most important of these, for me, without question, has been Guy Gavriel Kay, whose novels are as elegant and moving as anything I’ve ever read. I’d suggest all of these authors are spiritual influences, kindred writers. And yet I don’t believe any were direct influences on Ordinary Monsters. I remind myself that sometimes it’s difficult to know where a story comes from, how its pieces come together. And I guess that’s okay, too.