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Andrew Miller is a British author, originally from Bristol. He is the author of eight novels, and his most recent, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, came out in 2018. Andrew studied English and creative writing at university, culminating in a PhD in Critical and Creative Writing at Lancaster University, from 1995 to 1997. Miller’s novels fall into the genre of historical fiction, and he has been compared to Hilary Mantel by the Guardian. SCAN managed to speak with Miller (over the internet) on Friday 16th October.
1) What drew you to writing historical fiction?
I didn’t set out wanting to write ‘historical’ fiction. Before I was published, I wrote all sorts of stuff, probably not much of it ‘historical’. But the first two novels I published had 18th-century settings and so I found myself being described as a historical novelist and with, perhaps, some expectation I would continue in that way. For that reason – or that in part – I made sure the third book was contemporary (Oxygen), and since then I’ve tended to alternate between fiction set in the more or less now and fiction that might fall under the ‘historical’ heading. My publishers – wonderful publishers – have always been happy for me to write whatever I wanted, and that’s what I’ve done.
It’s true, however, that I’ve always loved reading ‘historical’ fiction. My first really powerful experiences of reading were probably Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novels for young readers, particularly Eagle of the Ninth, which I guess I read at about eight or nine years old. It’s hard to say exactly what the draw of historical fiction is above and beyond what makes any fiction worthwhile. For me – for many readers – history is exciting. The past, as they say, is another country and good fiction is one of the ways we can travel there. I feel very at ease writing about the world of two hundred years ago. It doesn’t feel freakish. Nor does it feel somehow less relevant than fiction set in the present, though I accept that one view of ‘the role of the novel’ is that it should be some sort of state of the nation report. That’s fine, it can be very effective, but it’s clearly not the limit of what fiction can do. (What is the limit?)
The truth, I think, is that what we want from fiction is complex – an expanded sense of things (life), a view into what’s normally hidden from us (the minds of strangers), a reality more coherent than the one that surrounds us (this can be a relief, it can be healing). Also, beautiful language (language that works) and perhaps just the company of another voice, another sensibility that we can, at our leisure, take inside of us. And these wants are just as likely to be supplied by a book following the lives of people in a world lit only by fire as it is by one lit by the light of electronic screens. Good writing is good writing. ‘Setting’ is not that important.
2) Why do you have a focus towards the early romantic period?
The late 18th century and early 19th appeal, I think, because they are both distinct and yet at the same time, recognizable and ‘modern’. In this country, the 18th century sees an acceleration in the decline of religious faith and a rise in scepticism and the secular. That’s what I mean by modern. If you go back much earlier you need to factor in the role of faith in people’s lives, public and private. That’s very interesting but it’s tricky to try to convey just how central that faith was, how much part of the shape of life. We are so far away from that now.
3) Who is your favourite author and why?
Well, I don’t have a favourite author, so I’ll give a couple of names. D.H Lawrence got me started (also Hardy). The Rainbow and Women in Love are among the best things written in English in the 20th century. And Penelope Fitzgerald was a kind of genius. I love her work, I love her wisdom. The Blue Flower should be in anyone’s top ten list of great historical fiction.
4) Has lockdown inspired you or hindered you?
Lockdown’s been pretty good. I was able to work every day and that’s not normally possible. The world was quieter and calmer; I felt the same way. That said, I’m a little over it now. Can we move on, please?
5) What do you have planned next?
I’m in the last stages of finishing a little novel called ‘The Slowworm’s Song’. It’s my first time writing in the first person and I’ve found that hard. No real idea if I’ve managed it or not. I don’t show my work to anybody until I’ve taken it as far as I can, then it goes to my editor and agent and I wait, very nervously, for the responses.
6) Did your PhD from Lancaster University help you become a writer?
I used the universities as my patrons. I had no real interest in having a PhD. The best thing about being at Lancaster was having David Craig as my supervisor. A calm and serious man, quietly helpful but never intrusive.
7) What is the best piece of advice you have for young writers?
Best advice? Camus used to say to young writers ‘Be ambitious’. That’s not bad. I’d add, be patient. Good writing, Art, takes time.
8) What was your first writing success?
The first work I ever published was a poem in the Rialto magazine. I was sent a nice letter with a five-pound note enclosed.
9) When did you first realize that you wanted to become a writer?
I was eighteen and taking my A levels. I thought there couldn’t possibly be a better way to use my life.
10) Do you have any writing quirks that you would say are specific to you?
Probably lots but I might not recognise them as such. Ask my daughter or my friends.
11) Would you say you have a writing routine?
Routine is good if you can manage it but life often gets in the way so it’s important to be adaptable. Write when you can and be ready to write anywhere.