Surya Milner talks the importance of questioning oneself, weaving research with experience, and writing about place with associate editor Anna Emerson. 

Surya Milner is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Northwestern University’s Litowitz Program. Her work has been published in Majuscule, the Willowherb Review, Catapult, The Audacity, and High Country News.

Anna Emerson: So much of your essay “Protolith,” which will be published in our spring 2024 issue, is centered around landscape—the Absaroka Mountain Range, the encounter in Utah, Mumbai, the history of the Yellowstone River. I’m curious to know more about how you approach writing about landscape? For you, what are the key things to consider when writing about place?

Surya Milner: I think everyone’s approach to writing about place will be different and idiosyncratic and based on the way they experience landscape. In that sense, I can really only speak for my own approach to writing about place, which is that I think about place in two ways. The first is that there’s this incredibly personal connection I feel to landscape—a kind of deep reverence for it. And this reverence is sort of impossible to control and keep from coming out when writing about place. Then, once this reverence comes forth, I start to think about place more cinematically and consider the passage of geological time. So, when I’m writing about landscape I tend to approach it visually. If I took a snapshot or a postcard photo, what would this place have looked like a million years ago? Now? In my imagination? I try to imagine what those landscapes do or would look like and try to describe it as best I can.

The other thing, which I’m always actively working on, is how to integrate the social inflections of landscape into my writing—the material realities of landscape. Landscape is material, it’s tangible, and that’s what draws me to it. But it’s also what we project onto it. That’s the entire mythology of the West too.

AE: That makes so much sense. I feel like I could ask twenty different writers how they write about place and get twenty very different answers. And I think something that’s really interesting to me in what you just said is this combination of deep geologic time with the projections of the personal—where landscape seems to sit at the intersection. Which is something I also saw coming through in the research components of this essay. For me, the research threads were so vast and varied, and this piece does such a wonderful job of balancing both depth and breadth in terms of research. Not to mention, this research spans several places and decades. So, I’m curious, for you, how did you come to the research components? Was research something that came before sitting down to write the essay? After? A mix of both? 

SM: I think the research definitely drove the piece. When I started writing, I wanted to write about gold because I had these experiences in Montana and Utah and, for me, the moment I realize that a piece is worth writing, or a subject is worth investigating, is when I can see that subject existing in multiple contexts. That’s what’s interesting to me about writing—trying to examine the migration of a subject either through time or from one place to another, from India to the United States or the United States back to India. That’s what drew me to writing about gold in the first place, this recognition that this material has so many valences—social and literal currencies. I think I realized that I had these two parts to my personal life that seemed to be heavily determined by this element. In the West, there’s this history of goldmining—and the present status of mining as well. I also have a personal heritage from India, and I’ve been gifted gold my whole life. It’s a sense of familial obligation too. Whenever anyone in my family gets married, every member of the family gets a token of gold. It can be small, but it matters.  

So, I think writing about gold came about because I started to recognize gold as a character with several valences and that made me excited to research these valences. Research, for me, is a way to match your own experience of the world with whatever else you can find out there. 

I was also taking a class on Reformation England while I was writing this piece and that’s when I read Thomas More’s Utopia and was moved by it. And then that came into the piece too. 

Gold is everywhere and everything for so much of human time that this essay naturally lent itself to research.  

AE: For me as a writer, whatever I happen to be reading or interacting with at the time of writing, seems to make its way into the work in some sort of unexpected way. It’s interesting to see how many valences you can find between these seemingly external sources and what you happen to be currently investigating. Something else I was noticing and was really drawn to as I was reading “Protolith” is how the research or external components, like Utopia, seem to be intertwined with the personal. There seems to be a personal relationship between the narrator and these more external sources. And when we encounter the narrator, the narrator isn’t afraid to implicate themselves in these systems of commodification and the history of gold. So, for you, how do you approach the personal in your writing and figuring out how to name your place in these sorts of systems? 

SM: That’s a great question. I’m definitely still trying to figure out more generally how I’m locating myself in the work and how am I implicating myself. Which is, I think, a pretty critical part of nonfiction writing. To me, it’s not really worth writing about the self if you’re not going to question yourself. But it’s hard too, because at the same time, we’re all complicit in some of these larger systems and sometimes that complicity can also look like passivity. Sometimes I feel like questioning myself for being passive is not that interesting. So that’s all to say, it’s something that I think about a lot.  

In terms of the writing, I find the self to be most useful as a way to push the essay further, to a place where the research can’t quite go or a place where the questions the research is asking can best be answered.  

A large part of writing in general, and writing nonfiction, is figuring out how to integrate these seemingly disparate parts of myself. I think that the reason I’m drawn to nonfiction that blends research and the personal is because that feels accurate to my world view. 

There are so many different ways to think about the personal, but lately I’ve been thinking about the ways in which the personal lets me take an essay to an unexpected place or the next phase of the question. Then, it also allows for an emotional depth that research doesn’t always allow—especially when you’re doing geological or historical research. 

AE: I love that. Hearing you talk about this sort of constellation approach made me think about the structure of this essay and how it’s divided in parts. With your mention of phases, I’m curious if the sections of your essay are tied to this idea of the phases of going deeper? 

SM: I think the structure of the piece really reflects the way in which I wrote it and the way in which I was researching it—which doesn’t always happen. But I felt that it was important to keep the beginning and ending of the piece centered on this interaction I had with this man at the pool because it’s a classic structure of bookending but also it helped create a dreamy environment within the piece. So, it allowed me to sort of structurally dream.  

Then, I think in terms of blocking it as I did, I was thinking of each section as its own little vignette or inquiry. It was the research that spurred me to do it that way and it’s a good way to keep things really clean in a piece with a lot of movement—between continents and huge gaps of time. So, it was a good way to keep things legible.  

AE: I really appreciated what you just said about structure as a way of giving legibility to a piece—even if that’s on a pragmatic level of bookends giving footholds to the reader.  

SM: Structure torments me the most. Whenever I hear a nonfiction writer speak, I’m always most curious to hear them speak about structure. It’s the hardest thing for me to wrangle my pieces into a structure and I think content really determines structure too. Whatever the piece is about, ideally, should deeply inform the piece’s structure. For this piece, I was thinking about gold as these fragments and pieces—even if that sounds cheesy or meta. I was thinking a lot about the ways gold appears—both in the earth and then in a jewelry shop—and is extracted. It’s always in these little chunks. So, I was also thinking about that when I was writing. 

AE: I don’t think that sounds cheesy at all. I feel like that makes complete sense for this piece. I have one last question: Do you have anything else that you’re working on or toward? What’s next for you and your writing?  

SM: I have a lot that I’m excited about, that I’m excited to write. Right now, my biggest preoccupation is finishing my first book of essays which is about the American West, race, and landscape. It kind of follows my journey, by car, once again, across the West in search of ancestral landscapes. I’m really enjoying it. So, there’s that.  

Then, I have some other essays that I’m writing that are more about my life in Chicago. I spent a lot of time, while living here during my MFA program, kind of by relief, writing about my time in Montana before the program. Now, as I prepare to leave Chicago, there are a lot of ways in which I’m noticing that being here affected me and I’m now writing about them. But that’s what I’ve got going on for me right now. 

Anna Emerson (she/her) is an associate editor for Colorado Review as well as a third-year MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Colorado State University.