Jonathan Miles wants to talk about the truth.
It’s right there, on the title page: Anatomy of a Miracle: The *True Story of a Paralyzed Veteran, a Mississippi Convenience Store, a Vatican Investigation, and the Spectacular Perils of Grace. Of course, it isn’t a true story—that’s what the asterisk is for—but it feels true, has all the mannerisms of truth. It is fiction disguised as reportage, the long-form account of an unseen journalist. (The journalist is fictional, too.)
But if it were real, which it isn’t, it would be the ultimate human-interest story: U.S. army vet Cameron Harris returns to his hometown in Biloxi, Mississippi after losing the use of his legs to an old Soviet landmine on tour in Afghanistan. The damage is unquestionably permanent. And then, four years later, in the thick of a Mississippi August, waiting for his sister to pick up beer in the parking lot of the neighborhood Biz-E-Bee convenience store, Cameron is overtaken by a funny feeling, “as though helium were being slowly released inside of him,” and gets up out of his wheelchair and walks. And in that moment, he becomes the human site of a great cultural divide. To believers, he’s proof of divine grace, to his doctor, a medical mystery that can be solved with good science. For the reality TV producer trailing him, he’s the opportunity for a smash hit.
For Miles, the whole thing—Cameron, the wheelchair, the walking—came from what he calls a “what-if” question, as in “what if an event like this, an inexplicable event, were to happen?” He’d been thinking about how we ascribe meaning to information, how “our prescribed worldviews lead us to give credence or not give credence to certain stories or certain facts,” when the image came to him: the wounded army vet rising from the wheelchair. “And it was off and running from there,” he says. “Or off and sitting.”
One might note that this concern, the interpretation of facts, feels awfully current. And it is. But when Miles started on the project in 2014, “fake news” had yet to enter the lexicon. There was fake news, always has been fake news, but we weren’t obsessed with it. “When I chose to tell the story in the form of a nonfiction account, it was because—I’m almost embarrassed to admit this—I thought that was the most authoritative voice at hand to tell the story,” he laughs. “And as I’m writing this novel, day by day, the idea of an authoritative narrator is being dismantled. I found myself having set out to write this with the most reliable narrator I could think of, and I accidentally happened into what might be culturally right now the most unreliable narrator.” It’s a perverse kind of blessing: He had a question; “society amplified it.”
It does not feel like an accident that in real life, Miles is himself a journalist as well as a novelist. If the story were real, he would have “for sure” pursued it as a journalist. Instead, he made it up—and then did what he now calls “speculative reporting,” talking to physicians and a reality TV producer. “Unlike the normal reportorial process, where you’re asking, ‘What happened?’ it was fun to ask ‘What if this happened?” And if the real-fake source wasn’t quotable, who cared? “One of the sly pleasures of this as a journalist was coming to that point in the story where I needed a spicy quote and realizing, ‘Oh, I can just make that up.’ It was so lovely.”
That’s the fun part, the making it up. “What happens is your characters become these living creatures, and novel writing is at its most exhilarating when you feel as if you’re just transcribing.” Which, he’s quick to note, doesn’t happen all that often. “I've joked before that that writing novels is like the worst drug ever because it’s only effective one out of 100 times. Ninety nine out of 100 times, it makes you feel worse,” he says. “But that one time it works, Oh my god, that high is good.”
Rachel Sugar is a writer living in New York.