Kansas City, Kan. Let me declare my bias up front: Joe Miller is a good friend of mine. He was, in fact, the first friend I made in Lawrence.
Back in 2000, Joe was a reporter for the Journal-World. But he moved on after just a few months, to a Kansas City alternative-weekly newspaper, seeking an urban lifestyle and a bigger canvas to paint upon.
"I knew I wanted to do books," Joe said last week.
Well, now he's done his book. "Cross-X" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26) chronicles the year Joe spent following the debate team at Kansas City's Central High School - a nationally ranked squad from a school that had recently been declared otherwise "academically deficient" by the state of Missouri.
When I sat down with Joe last week, he was a touch bleary-eyed, back home for a short stopover between visits to New York and Seattle to do readings and publicity for the book. The result, so far, has been positive: A B+ review from Entertainment Weekly, and featured by Barnes & Noble as one of their book club picks for October.
All of which has been quite an accomplishment for a writer who started out with modest goals.
"I knew I would get it published somewhere, because I have some friends with small presses," Joe told me. "I didn't have the goal of getting a really good publisher. I just wanted to do" the book.
A short description of "Cross-X" makes it sound as though Joe merely created the latest version of "Dangerous Minds" or "Stand By Me": A white coach (Jane Rinehart) helps underprivileged black students (notably Marcus Leach and Ebony Rose) overcome their circumstances - and apparent apathy regarding education - to become triumphant in the debate community.
The book goes beyond those tropes, with Joe coming to a visceral understanding that white privilege - including his own - remains a powerful force in both debate and American culture.
"I set out to do a cliched book, really: 'Life on the other side of the tracks,'" Joe said. "I realized it's not about the other side; I'm part of the equation, too."
Joe's journey becomes part of "Cross-X." He became an increasingly vocal presence in the lives of team members; at one point he convinced Leach not to drop out of the Iowa Caucus debate tournament -Leach and his partner went on to win the national event, one of the emotional highlights of the book.
Joe said he felt anguish about crossing the journalistic line from chronicler to participant in the story
"That's the key point where I thought I screwed up," he said. "I persuaded the kid to go, and he made history."
But it's hard to be an objective journalist where kids are involved, he said. "You feel you can't let them down."
He documented that increasing involvement in the book. "Ultimately it made the book a lot better and a lot truer," he said.
Even as "Cross-X" attracts publicity and gains steam, Joe is moving on to his next book project, documenting the life of an interracial church in Kansas City.
He is trying, however, to enjoy the moment - it's not every day you get your first book published.
"I've been lucky," Joe said, "every step of the way."
Joe will read from the book and sign copies in Lawrence, 7 p.m. Wednesday at The Raven Bookstore, 6 E. Seventh St.