Short author bio: Erica Miles is a poet, writer, tutor, and retired university gopher. She spends much of her time daydreaming and communing with her cat. In a previous lifetime, she was a graphic artist, actor, and dancer, until an accident left her with a movement disorder. But thankfully, she has not lost the ability to put thoughts to pen (or computer, as it were). Born in Brooklyn, New York, the setting for Dazzled by Darkness, she currently lives in New York City and is the Non-Fiction Editor & Principal Fiction Editor of The Greenwich Village Literary Review. Samples of her fiction and poetry were published in the Spring 2015 issue of TGVLR. A memoir and author interview were featured in the September 2015 issue of VOID Magazine. Her debut novel, Dazzled by Darkness, is, according to Kirkus Reviews, “a well-crafted and satisfying work about art and relationships.”
Hi Erica, can you tell us a little about your book.
It starts off as a love story, a fantasy in the mind of the female protagonist come true. Her name is Sara. She suffers from mental illness, hears voices, and one of the voices in her head comes alive for her. The voice belongs to Gavilàn—a working-class, dark-complexioned Hispanic guy—an artist who’s into all kinds of experimental enterprises. Sara is a middle-class, college educated Jewish girl, and she, too, is an artist, but her tastes are more traditional.
Throughout the novel, the hero periodically withdraws into his own world and fantasizes about talking to artists from the past. He learns from them and challenges them. He’s a fast-talking street guy. Sara never knows anything about this. As far as she’s concerned, he’s not going anywhere, but she’s attracted to him. Their relationship has a lot of ups and downs.
Don’t want a spoiler, but the artist also has another relationship—with his best friend James—just suggestive but significant—as in significant other. The culture clash/ego clash between the main male and female characters gradually intensifies to the point where they separate. So it is not a conventional romance, no happy ending, but a twist ending all the same. There is a lot of humor in the scenes between the young artist and great masters. There is also a lot of tragedy in the mixed-up romance.
The reader—of whatever ethnicity—gets a chance to peek into other cultures. The book may seem “quaint” to younger readers who are used to a more liberal society—not one in which interracial love was more or less forbidden—or, at least, considered revolutionary. It’s a true glimpse into the Hippie culture of the ‘60s and a thorough tour of European art through the eyes of a Brooklyn street guy.
Who is the main character?
There are two main characters, or actually three—a secret love triangle. Sara, the sensitive introvert who’s not very good at social relations and is thrilled to be loved and pursued by someone; Gavilàn, the male protagonist, a younger man, younger than Sara, who is interested in anything different and extraordinary, who has a dream of becoming a world-famous artist and standing among the ranks of the artists he emulates; and finally, James, Gavilàn’s best friend, and a friend to Sara, too, a gentle man of wisdom, a lover of poetry, a compassionate listener, and unfortunately, one who dies too young.
Do you relate to your character? Is your protagonist anything like you personally?
Yes, I suffered from mental illness as a young woman, too, and know what it’s like. I was also in a hospital, as Sara was. But overall, I identify with my male protagonist, Gavilàn. Though he’s a street character, his temperament is not that different from mine, and it was fun to jump into his crazy, creative mind.
What inspired you to write this book?
As with any work of fiction, part is inspired by autobiography and part inspired by imagination, the latter all the more so, because of the fantasy element.
Did you have to do research for this novel and, if so, why?
Yes, I had to do research about the artists I described in order to develop their characters and give authentic details about their backgrounds and environments. The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari was an invaluable resource. I also enjoyed The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.
But I was pretty well informed about art history to begin with. I loved reading about Picasso’s different mistresses and his macho personality. I loved the anecdote about Yvette Guilbert, a model of Toulouse Lautrec’s, and how she was a singer at the bistros, was adored by her audience. I loved reading about what she wore—long yellow gloves, long black dress—you can see her on the Art Nouveau posters. I loved descriptions of Paris in the early 20th Century.
I loved fooling around with time travel and juxtaposing Gavilàn’s slang and relaxed demeanor with the formality of the artists he interviews. But I used a lot of dialogue, as if I were writing a play, and provided drama from my own imagination.
What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
Painting decoratively with words and adding brushstrokes of philosophy.
Is there anything you specific want readers to know about this piece of work?
When you look back in the long run, you can see the bigger picture. It’s very interesting to put yourself into the head of your antagonist and feel compassion, redemption, and release. I believe in making beauty out of broken glass. Making beauty is a labor of love.
I’d also like you to know the book is illustrated with wonderful sketches throughout, some by me, a few Photoshopped by Firefeet, but most done by my dear friend Selma Eisenstadt, who unfortunately died not so long ago. At least, she lived long enough to see the initial publication. I owe her a debt of gratitude for the beauty she contributed to the novel. Firefeet was also a jewel with his Photoshop ingenuity. I think the drawings really add a lot to the book and emphasize the theme of the story.
What’s next for you? / What is your next project?
As Non-Fiction Editor & Principal Fiction Editor of The Greenwich Village Literary Review, I will soon be editing submissions for the December 2015 issue. Two of my own pieces will appear in the magazine, as well—a poem and a memoir—both selected not only for their literary merit, but also for their winter holiday themes.
While other young Americans were caught up in Civil Rights marches, the Vietnam War, protest songs, and psychedelic drugs, Sara Got was hearing voices in her head and trying to relate to them.
It was the decade when John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, and psychopaths were rampant in the nation.
Sara’s voices were quiet. No bouts of hysteria. No telling her to kill. In truth, they sounded just like telephone voices—“Hello? Who is it please?”—enunciating in Brooklynese like the loud-mouthed men and women around her; making themselves heard above the everyday sobs of electric guitars; chatting away to their friends on a mysterious party line wired to her brain. Still, they were distracting.
How could she work, for example, or lead an ordinary life? And aside from those personal considerations, what if the disturbance worked both ways?
Do the voices sense my presence, my breathing, my beating heart? Do they interrupt their ranting as I respond to them telepathically?
Sara knew they were real voices belonging to real people. But people she wouldn’t normally meet. Most likely from other neighborhoods—dangerous neighborhoods—like Sunset Park, Crown Heights, Bushwick, Bedford Stuyvesant.
One voice, in particular, commanded Sara’s attention. It spoke in Black slang, and—as any fantasy-ridden woman would expect—its late-night calls were all about you guessed it!—turning her on. Not sexually, but linguistically. Its fascinating rhythms, so loose and free, resonated with a wild streak deep within her.
I’ll call this voice “Sweet Sir Galahad,”
so he can come into my bedroom at night through the window.
How much should she tell her doctor? Better just let him know she still felt depressed, had trouble concentrating, felt lonely and isolated at times—the usual patient complaint list.
But he saw through her. “You can’t stop hallucinating,” he remarked, when she showed up that Monday. “I could send you to the hospital—but I’d rather not.”
How did he know?
“Oh, no, please don’t send me to the hospital.”
“I won’t—if you’re willing to work with me. But you need to find some structure in your life.”
“Like a real job?” Sara offered.
“Well, I didn’t exactly mean—but it’s not beyond—You think you could handle that, Sara? A little more medication might make it possible.”
As long as it doesn’t interfere with my voices.
Especially his. You can take away the rest—
but not “Sweet Sir Galahad!”
She couldn’t picture his face, but she knew he went from phone booth to phone booth, all over Brooklyn, just to reach her. Even though he was talking to somebody else.
Sara lived in Flatbush but longed to explore other parts of Brooklyn, too. So, deciding to leave her parents’ house—I’m twenty-five year’s old, for God’s sake!—with a nod from her shrink, she set out on her journey.
Being a fan of fine art, the first thing she did was circle a Help-Wanted ad in The New York Times for a secretary at the Brooklyn Museum Art School.
LOOKING AT TREES
A week later, Sara was sitting at a green aluminum desk in a tower office, surrounded by brightly colored tempera paintings, buoyed by the novelty of typing letters that asked for money.
The museum was just her kind of place—a monumental building, taking up an entire block on Eastern Parkway, and topped by an eerie-looking dome.
The gothic arched window in her office—on her supervisor Margaret’s side—offered a microscopic view of the Botanical Gardens below. Since the fall flowers were now in bloom, Sara decided she’d spend the lunch hour of her first day strolling through those gardens.
When the clock with Roman numerals on the wall showed both hands on the XII, she let out a working woman’s sigh, aglow with a sense of normality. Neither Margaret nor Lloyd had criticized any aspect of her performance so far, despite her stolen glances out the window. This job was going to be a breeze!
She boldly stood up from her desk, pulled her sweater from a peg on the wall, and announced that she was going to lunch.
How ethereal the scenery was in the fall, a well-kept secret! How thickly the foliage grew on a wisteria-covered arbor!
Some of the deciduous trees were beginning to turn orange.
Flower beds, verdant and dense with blossoms—chrysanthemums, daisies, lavender, phlox, the last of the summer roses.
What do I smell? Is it everything?
And why am I feeling so strange?
It’s like I’m—happy….
She wandered down a deserted lane of lampposts and benches, with fertile crab-apple trees on either side.
What a paradise for the small, probably migrating, birds she saw feasting on the little crab apples!
At last, she came to a spacious lawn, such as one might see before a Southern manor.
She stopped to admire a Japanese cherry tree, while tearing off pieces of her tuna sandwich to throw to the pigeons on the grass.
The silky-barked tree was bare—it was well past the cherry blossom season—but its trunk was gracefully divided into two parts, branches twisting outward.
As Sara looked through the opening from twelve feet away, she found herself staring straight into the bemused eyes of a young Black man, standing immediately on the other side, practically camouflaged.
He’s almost the same color as the trunk of the tree—a pinkish, silvery light brown. No, he’s actually a golden brown! In funky clothes and slightly skimpy Afro, he seems to be frozen in a dance motion like a reflection of twisted branches.
Sara was transfixed. A tree god! She curtseyed. I am queen of the pigeons….
A crowd of pigeons had gathered at her feet, jostling each other for the choicest pieces of bread.
She tossed her last crumbs, aiming for the stragglers at the margins.
Then, the terror burst from the sky, moving too fast for her eyes to comprehend! It swooped to the ground before her—hitting one of the pigeons—and then flying back to its original source. The rest of the flock took off.
Oh, my God! Sara stared at the unmoving youth by the tree. He appeared to be posing for her, watching her intently, waiting to see what her reaction would be to his performance.
The targeted bird lay on its side before her, its claws clenched.
“Did you see that?” she called.
No answer. No motion.
“It must have been a hawk!” Sara said.
It didn’t take its prey. Will it come back for it later? And what if hawks attack humans…?
“Do you think we should call the police?” she cried.
He had a concave chest and minimal biceps. She saw him as a reed, a sapling. He didn’t scare her—the way knottier-bodied, mature men sometimes did.
In spite of her shock at the attack she’d just witnessed, she smiled awkwardly at his strange beauty, the way he fit so naturally into the scene, and even at the joke he seemed to be playing on her.
“Can’t you talk? Or are you pretending to be a tree?”
Out of the corner of her eye, Sara saw another shadow coming toward her….
“Oh, my God!” she screamed, running directly into the path of her garden companion, desperately latching onto his arms. “It’s just like in that horror movie—‘The Birds!’”
The young man didn’t reply, seemingly content with gazing up at the bright noon sun.
Maybe he doesn’t go to the movies. Why should I assume it of people from his culture?
She took a step back.
“Thank you,” she said.
“I don’t see anybody else.”
His brown eyes shifted to the pigeon’s corpse.
“We don’t have time to bury him,” Sara murmured in sympathy. “We’ll just have to leave him lying there. Maybe the leaves will cover him.”
The young man pressed his palms together in a prayer position against his chest. Then, lifting one foot to his other thigh, he resumed his treelike stance.
She turned to go. Lunch hour was almost over. When she glanced back at the cherry tree, he was gone.
Sara spent the rest of the day with his image rooted in her mind—a youth who resembled a tree.
I didn’t imagine him, Dr. Schwarzkopf.
I touched him. He was real….
The following day at lunch break, she spotted his rough-hewn face in the museum cafeteria and attempted a friendly “Hi.” They were passing each other and had stopped about a foot apart. He stared at her intently and answered her with a casual smile. Sara felt a powerful current between them, almost mystical.
Away from the grass and sky, he now looked like a regular person. He was about six feet tall but not very muscular—a youth still developing into a man—dressed in black chinos, a white t-shirt, and black sneakers that slapped the floor as he walked.
His head seemed larger, but maybe that was due to his explosive head of hair, and the gold-rimmed glasses he’d just pushed up his nose gave him the look of an intellectual.
He was much lighter than she remembered—hardly Black at all. He also appeared more mature, somehow.
She inhaled. Fresh cologne.
Was that really the way he smelled?
She met his eyes again and felt herself flush, as if he had lifted her skirt.
He walked away, not looking like a tree at all.
Later that day, back in the office, Sara was leaning bent over, labeling crayon drawings, chewing gum, when she heard rapid footsteps on the tower stairs, ten feet from her desk, and caught a whiff of his fresh young male aroma.
He rose up, panting, onto her landing.
Laughing between deep breaths, he strode up to her—one hand pressed to his side, the other hand extended. He didn’t stop at the front of her desk, but boldly strolled over to the side of her chair.
“Name’s Gavilán. Umm, I’m a prospective art student here. Just ran up seven, umm, flights to see you.”
She swallowed her gum and sat up straight.
“Why didn’t you take the elevator?”
He waved his hand dismissively. Then he broke into a dazzling smile, turned his hand palm up, and offered it to her.
She immediately slapped it. It was the first time she’d ever tried that with anyone. With him it felt right.
“Umm, I didn’t mean slap me five.” He grabbed her hand, and they quietly held hands for a few seconds.
“I’m Sara.” Ooh, she had a frog in her throat. “Please tell me your name again. I didn’t quite catch it.”
He laughed. “Just call me ‘G.’” A final squeeze. “Is your boss around?”
Sara felt a rush. “No. Why?”
“If he was, I’d shake his hand, too.”
“It’s a her,” she said.
“My boss is a woman.”
“She look anything like you?”
G’s eyes explored her long brown hair, Indian mini dress, bare legs, and black leather sandals, taking her in as if she were an exotic flower. To Sara, the message was unmistakable: I want to be close to you, study you, be inspired by you.
“I saw you in the cafeteria this morning,” he said.
“I know. I saw you, too.” She blushed a deep pink. “What about in the Botanical Gardens?”
He looked at her quizzically.
“What were you doing behind that cherry tree?”
“The cherry tree? Like in George Washington?”
She giggled. “I hope you didn’t think I was being too forward.”
“Not at all.” He smoothed the dark fuzz on the sides of his mouth.
“It’s just that I was feeling really scared.”
Sara nodded her head. She would never forget her bizarre brush with death but remembered to give a bounce to her hair.
G seized her hand again and pulled her to her feet.
Are we about to kiss? To dance?
“Did you see the movie, ‘Carousel?’” he asked.
“Yes. But it was a long time ago.”
“I know. But you remind me of Julie.”
That ingénue who falls in love with the rough-talking Billy Bigelow? Who marries him and has his baby, after he goes off to jail?”
He swung their joined hands through the air, indicating the entire room around them and the view of the Gardens through the window. He dropped her hand, just as she was getting into the movement.
“It can be an in-timid-dating place,” he joked, “if you don’t know your way around.”
“You know that’s not why.”
“Why I was afraid.”
G gave her a flirtatious smile.
Sara really wanted to talk about the hawk. He obviously didn’t. Maybe it wasn’t a cool topic.
Talking with G is like dancing.
Better just let him lead.
“Oh, but it’s an interesting place!” she continued. “I love to wander through it all.”
“What’s your favorite part?”
Now Sara wanted to flirt.
“The cherry esplanade!”
“Uh—I’m talking about in the museum.”
“Oh. I thought you meant in the Botanical Gardens.”
“That’s a cool place too. What do you think of the Art School?”
Sara was beginning to feel confused.
Let him ignore my comments. Just let him keep looking at me like he never wants to take his eyes off of me.
“Do you like it here?” He shot a glance around the office, taking in the psychedelic posters and junior masterpieces on the walls.
“You mean at my job?”
“Or at the museum….”
Before she could answer, he picked up one of the damp clay sculptures from the glass table next to her desk and turned the figure over in his hands.
“What’s this supposed to be?” he asked. “A horse?”
“Or a dog. You’re not supposed to touch.”
There’s something about his voice.
Something familiar. What is it?
G continued to handle the statue for another five seconds. Then he set the animal down. When he looked at her again, his eyes were filled with curiosity, his smile irresistible.
“Oh. You asked me what I liked here! That’s what you want to know! I like the American watercolors on the second floor and the glazed pottery on the first. I haven’t seen much of the rest of the building—oh, except for the African exhibit on the main floor.”
“You like Africans?”
This time it was Sara who didn’t respond.
G shifted his eyes away from her. Was it with embarrassment?
Say something appropriate, Sara.
It’s your turn to explore.
“Do you come here often?” she asked.
“To the museum.”
“Oh. I thought you meant here—to your office.”
“Well, that, too.”
“Now I will,” he said, deepening his voice.
Oh, no! It can’t be! Oh, ‘Sweet Sir Galahad!’ That’s your voice! You can lock me up now, Dr. Schwarzkopf!
Was she really meeting her imaginary phone man? Was she someone in a movie that was playing in his mind?
Sara had never experienced such instant chemistry, or any chemistry at all, for that matter.
Did he find her alluring because she was white? If he was flirting with her, she had never been flirted with so eloquently.
Letting her questions drop like petals to the ground, she felt a sweet awakening—as if she were drinking in new nectar.
Does G thirst for it, too?
But the second he walked out the door, she realized she was once more projecting her own fantasies onto her would-be paramour, as she pictured him locked inside a glass booth, head cocked to one shoulder, bragging into a corded, black receiver.
“Hey, James. It’s me. I just met this girl in the museum. Not quite a girl. She’s an older chick, but not too old… old enough to make it interesting, you know what I’m sayin’? I got this feeling I’m gonna make it with her…. Not much to look at though. Wears thick glasses. Looks like a school teacher. No makeup. Not even lipstick. Average figure. Straight brown hair… yeah, right, the hippie shit.
“Funny thing. She thinks she saw me standin’ next to some fuckin’ cherry tree. She kept talkin’ about it. Don’t know what she’s talkin’ about.
“I don’t hang out in the Gardens, man… all that pollen… I could paint you what a sinus headache feels like.
“Oh wow, it just came to me! Y’know who gets off on the Gardens? Yeah, that quiet cat, Vinny… He can stand in the sun for hours… doin’ trees and flowers in day-glo colors… inhalin’ all the sickly-sweet aromas… and he hardly ever takes a break to eat. Matter of fact, he spends his lunch hour learnin’ some form of tai chi… says it loosens up his drawing… and he’s now a junior master of the tree pose.
“Hmm… Bet that little hippie got herself a case of mistaken identity. Yeah, exactly, all the black guys look alike. Dumb-ass white people. She don’t notice Vinny’s two years younger and a few shades darker than me.
“That’s all right. She wants a Brother. I’ll give her one. Uh-oh. Time’s up, man. Gotta go…. Yeah, I know we just got started, but there’s this heavyweight brother outside, waitin’ to make a call, and I don’t wanna mess with him. Looks a little like Cassius Clay—or should I say, Muhammad Ali? Shit, he’s big. I better go. I’ll talk to you later.”