Butler County author’s ‘The Piper’ is a cautionary tale
Ben Miller is a devoted father and a successful pediatrician, a graduate of Yale who earned a medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh. He looks like he could have just walked off the set of “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Scrubs.”
But the resident of Mars, Butler County, has a darker (albeit strictly fictional) side that manifests itself in his books. The author of two thrillers, including the just published “The Piper” (Krac Publishing, $14.99), his stories are dark and twisted, and involve the abduction of children.
“If I think about what scares me the most in life, it’s if something terrible would happen to my children,” Miller says. “And it seems odd to many people, as a father and a pediatrician, that I would write stories about bad things happening to kids, but I wanted to make it memorable and impactful.”
“The Piper” and its predecessor, “A Bustle in the Hedgerow” — Led Zeppelin fans will note the “Stairway to Heaven” references — are meant to be cautionary tales that provoke conversations and perhaps even spur ideas about safeguarding children. Featuring Jackson Byrne, a beleaguered FBI special agent investigating a predator who steals infants from young mothers, the novels are complex psychological thrillers.
Miller’s interest in fiction started when he was growing up in Franklin, Venango County, where he wrote screenplays on an old-fashioned typewriter.
“I grew up fascinated by Stephen King and Steven Spielberg,” Miller says.
Miller’s dream of writing went on hiatus during college and medical school. But a few years ago, he started dabbling in writing again, doing copious amounts of research on child abductions. He also spent a lot of time learning about the FBI, research that he hopes won’t come back to haunt him.
“I’m pretty sure I’m on some FBI watch list because I’ve spent 20 or 30 hours on the FBI website just trying to research its structure,” says Miller, who admits he’s also studied the works of writers such as King, John Irving, Mo Hayder and Dan Brown. “And there’s my own research as a consumer of pop culture.”
Miller’s undergraduate degree from Yale is in psychiatry, and he’s able to use that in both his writing and practice (he admits it’s more helpful in dealing with parents than their children). One of the main themes of “The Piper” is how people cope with loss.
“Every character experiences a sense of loss, I think,” he says. “The loss of control … Loss in both a very literal and figurative sense for many of the characters, even some of the minor characters. That was a big goal of mine, to explore how people might experience and deal with loss, in some sense that loss of innocence of what it’s like to be a child, when we grow up or grow up too fast.”
While Miller admits to studying writers, one of his innovations comes by way of the villain. Without giving away too much, it’s safe to say he’s made an unusual choice that nevertheless fits the story.
“The concept of this one falls under what I love most about writing,” Miller says. “Sometimes my stories surprise me and take me directions I didn’t think I was going to go. I had this book, the structure in my head and the first several chapters pretty detailed. … And then I thought, what if instead of a male, it’s a woman? Then it became a fresh twist on some of the more traditional psychological thrillers. That was something that came along part way through the writing process, and I was really excited about that.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.