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In print: John Miller’s A Sharp Intake Of Breath

A rich, vibrant palate

READ EMMA. Family, history and Emma Goldman inspire novelist John Miller. Credit: Nicola Betts

Story ideas don’t come easily or quickly to novelist John Miller. For the past four years, he’s started almost every morning at his favourite table at Starbucks on Church St, finding comfort in the background white noise, hunched over his notebook computer, meticulously writing, rewriting and polishing his second novel, A Sharp Intake Of Breath.

“I try to tell a good story, one that’s moving and at times funny and amusing,” he says. “I hope I’ve told a story that’s engaging in its themes but that’s primarily about people’s lives and their search for humanity.”

A Sharp Intake Of Breath is the story of Toshy Wolfman. Born into a liberal Jewish family in Toronto in the 1930s, Toshy’s formative years are defined by the insecurity and rejection he feels because of a cleft lip and palate.

Even though he’s blessed with a photographic memory, straight young Toshy’s funny-looking lip, breathy nasally voice and difficulty pronouncing certain words cause other kids to drive him away with taunts of “hare,” “ape” and “serpent” and adults to brand him as stupid and without potential.

Toshy wrestles with those demons, developing a case of adolescent kleptomania that eventually consigns him to the Kingston Penitentiary for the dawning years of his manhood.

Miller’s first novel, The Featherbed, evoked New York in the early years of the 20th century and tackled women’s sexuality and subjugation. With his second book, the gay author sets his sights on another form of marginalization. “The protagonist has gay people in his life and gets to see and look at them from the perspective of another kind of outsider,” says Miller. For the character Toshy, “the issues are more around feelings of attractiveness and marginalization because of stigma based on looks and perceived disability.”

Also carried over from The Featherbed is the author’s attention to historical context. His muse seems to draw him back in time as Miller imagines the experiences contemporaries of his parents and grandparents may have had. A good example of Miller’s affinity for history is the presence of Emma Goldman in both of his novels. Goldman, who died in Toronto in 1940, was an internationally known radical feminist and anarchist. She was one of the few people to speak out in defence of queer sexualities at a time when Oscar Wilde was at hard labour in Reading Gaol. Her passionate belief that “the most vital right is the right to love and be loved,” exposed her to harsh criticism, even from her allies, for defending so-called perversion.

In A Sharp Intake Of Breath, Toshy’s sister Lil tracks down Goldman and becomes a devotee. That association reverberates throughout Toshy’s long life.

“I became fascinated with Emma Goldman when I was in high school,” says Miller. “She was so far ahead of her time and so courageous in her ideas about rights for women and gay people, and sexuality in general. She was able to steadfastly hold onto her ideals, many of which are still progressive today, in spite of constant persecution from the state and police.

“A friend of my grandmother’s was a secretary for Emma Goldman in Toronto in the ’30s,” he adds. “That story was the spark that got me thinking about the character of Lil. What would it have been like as a young woman to have known Emma Goldman — who would already have been in her 60s at that time — to become a colleague and comrade of hers and be influenced by her?”

As befits Goldman’s spirited inspiration, A Sharp Intake Of Breath is by no means a dark and gloomy story about victimization, nor is it a story bogged down in gruelling political theory. There are moments of humour, heroism and suspense but not a single one of despair. Toshy never loses his tight familial connection with his sisters. He values and honours friends, family and lovers in his life and never becomes embittered.

A Sharp Intake Of Breath is a rich tale about the lives of people that easily draws in the reader.