Derek B. Miller may have traveled all over the world. He may live with his wife and kids in Oslo, a Norwegian city that is, he will tell you, both expensive and cosmopolitan. “It’s a capital. You have that center-of-gravity feeling,” said Miller, 42, a New Englander by birth whose wife is Norwegian.
“It’s a workable city – where the Rolling Stones will occasionally pass through.”
But Miller said that in his debut novel, he is telling a story that will hold extra meaning for readers in this country.
“I’ve written an American story,” said Miller. “A generational story. It’s about patriotism – about country.”
Miller’s novel, “Norwegian by Night” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pages, $26) is the August selection of The Buffalo News Book Club.
Miller said he was delighted to be chosen by The News’ Book Club as his book begins to draw attention in this country.
“You folks are the first people in the States that have given me the time of day, and I appreciate that,” said Miller. “To know that this has resonance – that people are enjoying it.”
“Norwegian by Night” is a summer read with a twist.
It begins like a crime thriller – but quickly becomes much more than that.
“In Britain, my book is published as a crime novel. In the U.S., it’s not,” said Miller, whose non-writing career is as director of the Policy Lab and a senior fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. “It’s not Sherlock Holmes, let’s be honest.”
Miller spoke with The Buffalo News from New England, where he was in the midst of what he jokingly called a “New England propaganda tour” – summertime travels on the East Coast with his family, with the idea of buying a summer home for them to use each year.
Miller’s family includes his wife, Camilla, and their two children, ages 5 and nearly 2.
“It’s very important to me that my children have a strong sense of their American identity,” said Miller, who grew up in Wellesley, outside Boston. “As my wife and I agreed – our children aren’t half-Norwegian and half-American. They are 100 percent Norwegian and 100 percent American.”
“They can’t grow up with Daddy talking about the ‘Old Country,’ ” Miller joked. “The only way to get them an American identity is to get their boots on the ground.”
“Norwegian by Night” – which was written in English, first published in Norwegian, then printed in various countries including Germany and Australia – is hard to capture in simple phrases.
It’s the story of an American man who missed fighting in World War II, but who served with the Marines in the Korean War.
It’s a story of parents, particularly fathers, who lose children.
It’s the story of a brutal murder – and what happens afterward, when an 82-year-old with a failing body, and possibly a failing mind, flees the scene of the crime with a young immigrant boy who does not speak the same language.
And, it’s a story of love – and the sacrifices that people who love can make for each other.
“That is the center of the story,” said Miller. “If the love wasn’t there, the grief wouldn’t make sense.”
The center of the novel’s narrative is a deeply memorable character, Sheldon Horowitz.
As the novel begins, Sheldon, at age 82, has moved to Norway to be close to his only grandchild, Rhea, and her husband, Lars, a Norwegian.
Sheldon, a retired watchmaker, has recently lost his wife of many years. As the story begins, Sheldon is filled with memories and imaginations – as Rhea worries that he may be slipping into dementia, or depression.
Just as Sheldon is settling into his new life in Norway, he witnesses a crime – a murder. He needs to flee, and takes along a young boy who also witnessed the act. He calls the boy “Paul,” as they don’t share a language and can’t speak to one another. On their journey across Norway, Sheldon and Paul form a unique bond.
“The ‘Norwegian by Night’ – if I can sort of spin it out a little – the characters in the novel are all displaced,” said Miller. “They can all be immigrants.”
The title can be looked at in other ways, he added.
“The other way is night being representative of death,” Miller said. “Sheldon will be Norwegian at the end of his life. That’s his final destination.”
Throughout the story, Sheldon ponders his Jewish-American identity. He also thinks a good deal about his experiences in the Korean War, as well as the Vietnam-era service of his only son, Saul.
Miller said that in original drafts of the story, Sheldon was a minor character. But Sheldon gradually came to take over the book.
“I really knew him as a character,” Miller said.
Sheldon’s Jewishness is key to understanding his character, the author said.
“The Jewishness is significant for understanding Sheldon’s motives in saving the kid,” said Miller. “Not to say that somebody else wouldn’t have done it. But I wanted to engage the Jewish experience in America. It’s very different than the European experience.”
Miller said that part of Sheldon’s character drew on his childhood experiences spending time with his maternal grandparents, Esther and Lester Shapiro.
“He was called ‘Sonny.’ That’s one of the reasons why Sheldon is called ‘Donny’,” said Miller, of his grandfather.
Miller said he picked up elements of the style of language used in the book in some of those long-ago moments.
“The tone of voice, the humor – I don’t know, when you’re raised by old people, they hang around with other old people, and you listen to them,” said Miller, laughing.
Sheldon, he said, as an 82-year-old ex-Marine meditating on his past, is meant to remind people of other people of that generation.
“That’s ultimately what Sheldon is,” said Miller. “He’s an American man of that generation.”
He said response to the novel has showed him that a lot of people – of varying backgrounds and identities – can connect with Sheldon’s character.
“A lot of people have said, ‘This guy reminds me of my grandfather,’ ” he said. “That pleases me a lot.”
The ending of the novel – a specific exchange between two characters, with a vivid and poignant closing statement – came to Miller, he said, while he was waiting for his wife to deliver one of their children.
“The very ending – the last words between Sheldon and Sigrid – I knew right from the beginning,” he said.
“That moment came to me as I was awaiting the birth of my son. It came to me while I had that beanie on my head, the little thingies on my feet. I was waiting to get called in ... I was just alone with my thoughts, and I was thinking about my story.”
Miller said that he has completed a second novel – a book very different than “Norwegian by Night.”
“The next book is set in New England and doesn’t mention Norway at all. I hate to disappoint people,” he said with a laugh. “It will be set in southern Maine, along the coast. It takes place in an imaginary town called Norwood.
“It’s a cross between a family drama and a mystery.”
Miller said that the book might not have a Norwegian setting, but it does have some things in common with his first novel.
“If you like the writing of ‘Norwegian by Night,’ hopefully you will like this,” he said.
“But Sheldon is a tough act to follow.”
Derek B. Miller has inscribed some copies of his new novel, “Norwegian by Night,” for readers in Western New York.
The copies are going to be sent to a few Book Club readers who write to us to tell us what they think of this month’s selection – and why they think they should get a copy of Miller’s debut novel.
You can reach us in two ways. By email, we’re at firstname.lastname@example.org. And by regular mail, the address is Book Club, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.