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'Are you that Jeff Miles?"
I've heard the question numerous times over the past three years. I've been approached by neighbours, students, teachers, distant acquaintances, even family members, all of them dying to hear about my connection to a famous Canadian author.
Who is that Jeff Miles you ask?
You may remember him from the Acknowledgments page of Emma Donoghue's 2010 bestseller, Room. He's not just mentioned in passing; indeed, it appears he was integral to the creation of Room's intricate narrative. Here is what Donoghue says about him on the novel's last page: "Above all, [I would like to thank] my brother-in-law Jeff Miles for his unnervingly insightful advice on the practicalities of Room."
Clearly, Jeff Miles was a significant catalyst for Room's success. He rises "above all" others, having been singled out as the book's most important collaborator. One wonders why it wasn't published jointly as Room by Emma Donoghue (with Jeff Miles).
The cryptic sentence hints that Donoghue herself was at times so baffled by the logistics of setting a novel within the confines of a single room that without Jeff Miles and his keen sense of "practicalities" the book might not have ever been completed.
There is no reason why I should not be that Jeff Miles. I, like Donoghue, live in London, Ont. I make a living teaching English so I am, in some sense, connected to the literary world. I have literary aspirations of my own. And I am roughly the same age (well, six years younger, but certainly within a brother-in-law's age range). So when people ask me the question, they are relatively certain that I am in fact that Jeff Miles because the world – or rather London, Ont. – is much too small to allow for such coincidences.
But, sadly, I am not that Jeff Miles.
The routine is always the same. People approach me excitedly, smirking a little, slightly awed, eager to hear some juicy behind-the-scenes gossip about Emma and me, our late-night debates and tough edits, the ecstasies and agonies of the artistic process. They want to know exactly what my "unnervingly insightful" advice was, and how it contributed to the shaping of Room.
Perhaps, if they're lucky, I'll be feeling talkative and I'll regale them with tales of scintillating conversations I've had with the illuminati of Canadian literature. Like the time Emma, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and I gathered in Scott Griffin's drawing room after a Governor-General's award ceremony and sipped cognac while debating the merits of Stephen Leacock's satire of the idle rich.
Or the time David Gilmour (the writer, not the Pink Floyd guitarist) harangued Emma, expressing his inability to relate to her fiction because she is both a woman and a lesbian, and I gallantly defended her by extolling the formal merits of her finely crafted novel.
Or when Emma, Russell Smith, Michael Ondaatje and I, on a mountaineering expedition, found ourselves stranded on a dreary Mont Blanc precipice by a flash blizzard and had to huddle the night away beside a crudely constructed fire, entertaining ourselves with a ghost-story competition until we were surprised to realize the sun had already begun to rise.
None of these things ever happened, of course.
I've never even met Emma Donoghue, though I'm pretty sure I once spotted her dropping off her son for a tennis lesson. (I thought about introducing myself, but decided that would be too much like stalking.)
The conversation always ends with me saying, "No, I'm not that Jeff Miles." A look of dejection quickly spreads across the person's face. The mixture of awe and interest quickly turns to mild disdain, and they give me a look that suggests: "Of course you're not that Jeff Miles. You're just a nobody."
About a year ago, I received an e-mail from a stranger thanking me for installing closets in her condominium. Having never installed a closet in my life, I was deeply confused. For several days I pondered the name of the mysterious sender. Eventually, after a Eureka moment, I traced it to a certain Acknowledgments page. The sender was a Professor Roulston, who, as I recalled from that page of Room, was Emma's partner. She had mistaken me for that Jeff Miles.
For a moment, I considered responding in the character of that Jeff Miles. I could glean intimate secrets about Emma's current works-in-progress and shock the CanLit world with my prescient knowledge of her upcoming literary output. But I chickened out. Instead, I politely informed Prof. Roulston that she had contacted the wrong Jeff Miles. She apologized, having selected the wrong address from the university's e-mail directory.
It's kind of sad that the closest I'll ever get to fame is to be mistaken for a guy who was mentioned in the Acknowledgments of a bestselling novel. But now, hopefully, I have taken back my own name. Perhaps now the conversations will go something like this:
"Are you that Jeff Miles?"
"The one who wrote that essay in The Globe and Mail?"
"Why, yes. Yes I am. Thank you for asking."
Jeff Miles lives in London, Ont.