Alright, it’s an obvious title for this reason. Simmer down. Particularly you, Millington. Everyone else — i.e. Dad — allow me to briefly introduce Mil Millington: British comedy author, red hair, German girlfriend, rose to attention with his website Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About (TMGAIHAA), which was plagiarised by a UK newspaper and subsequently became the book of the same name (though the book deal was in place prior to the newspaper shenanigans). Mil’s fiction is just about the funniest novel-length stuff being produced at the moment, as far as my experience goes. I’ve reviewed Love and Other Near Death Experiences for Spike Magazine (and you might be interested Debra Hamel’s reviews of TMGAIHAA and the LAONDE). In this interview, I asked Mil about his fiction, some thoughts on the writing process in general, and — it goes without saying, almost — that red hair of his. (Hyperlinks added by me.)
Part I: In which the film industry is considered, Germans girlfriends discussed, and gadgets dribbled over.
Reports abound that Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About is being developed for film production by Working Title, the scamps who brought us Four Weddings and a Funeral. Douglas Adams said — several times — that making a movie is like trying to cook a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it. Are you involved the development? If so, is it fun?
I’m deeply involved in the process of replying to the emails when my agent writes to tell me that Working Title has contacted them to renew their option again. However, a less gittish reply might be that I have been involved in the development — I’ve had ‘meetings’ and done three drafts of the screenplay — but I haven’t been involved for a while now. I’m fine with that. With films, the director and the producer have clout, as do the stars (if they’re big enough names). If you’re the writer and have the ludicrous notion that you’re going to ‘bring your vision to the screen’ then you’re simply delusional — and, moreover, storing up heartache for yourself. I think you have to regard it like a translation. I’m perfectly fine about A Certain Chemistry being in Russian, or Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About being in Japanese, but I accept that those versions will be, to a great extent, the work of the translator, not me. It’s in the nature of the game: you can’t say, ‘Right, I’ve been studying Japanese in the two weeks since I signed to give you the rights, and now think that the line about roofers would, in fact, be funnier with this ideogram.’
As for the, ‘Is it fun?’ bit… no. Writing scripts is fun. It’s writing, but with a different set of opportunities, and restrictions, compared to novels. It’s playing in another toy box. But the actual process of doing movies, or TV, is wearing. It’s slow, frustrating and, worst of all, idiots can make idiot suggestions — and you have to treat these idiots seriously, rather than your possessing the civilised option of having them drugged and then bundled into a furnace.
I, too, am honoured by the presence of a German lady in my life. It has been observed that Anglo-German relationships (particularly where the lady is German) are oddly frequent. Random error (statistically speaking)? Or is there something connecting German women with English men?
I given this one years of thought already, and no clear answer has presented itself. I mean, obviously, you can see why German women would want to do better than German men. But why they would then choose English men as an alternative is a tad baffling. That’s akin to someone who is hit in the face every hour with a shovel suddenly realising that it doesn’t have to be that way, and opting to change things so that they are hit in the face every hour with a trowel. I suppose English men prefer German women over their English counterparts because they are more attractive, erudite and serious-minded. Also for the slight sexual frisson of their partner dressing like a 70s lesbian. I’ll tell you, though, that I’ve always thought that, in this matter, there is much to be said for the feeling implicit in Principal Skinner’s line when he’s wooing Ms Krabappel and says he admires her, “ability to be personally offended by broad social trends.”
Where did you learn German?
From watching the dubbed versions of The Real Ghostbusters cartoon and The Streets of San Francisco on TV when we lived in Germany. That’s not a joke. Other than that, I’ve merely ‘picked bits up’ from being around Margret/other Germans. It should be made very clear that my German is risible, by the way — but it is far, far, incalculably far better than either my non-existent Spanish (had to do it at school for two years) or my four words of French (had to do it at school for five years). I think this pretty conclusively proves that watching television is better than secondary education, and we should perhaps replace the GCSE syllabus with episodes of Ren and Stimpy.
This from my girlfriend…
OK. Hold on… what’s that ticking noise?
“Would you be where you are today if you didn’t have a German girlfriend?” Please be careful. My sex life might depend on your answer.
It’s refreshing to have someone else’s sex life depend on my answer.
Well, I could be glib (unlike me though that would be), but the honest reply is, ‘Yes. Unless you don’t mean what I suspect, then it’s No.’ Counterintuitive as it initially might seem, the whole TMGAIHAA thing doesn’t need Margret in the mix for it to work. There are some ‘German bits’, yes, but they are few and far between and, in other circumstances, would be replaced by different things. Though the webpage is based of real stuff, it’s very stylised, edited, elaborated, etc. Assuming it’s merely transcripts is like believing that Spike Milligan fought in the Second World War and his faithful record of this naturally becomes — almost without his intervention — the hilarious collection of anecdotes that is Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall. Because, you know, WWII was just funny — ask anyone who was there. Also, I’ve argued with all my girlfriends — as does everyone (with their girlfriends, not with mine… probably). That’s the basis of half the humour: it’s recognition comedy. If it were dependent on Margret’s specific Margretness, then people would read it and huff, ‘Well, I must say that I can’t relate to any of this whatsoever.’ Yet another point is that once we move away from my idly amusing myself with the Webpage and talking about actual work then the TMGAIHAA book (as I repeatedly say, at every opportunity) is entirely fictional: Margret and I have had none of the arguments that appears in there, they’re simple the kind of arguments couples have. On the other hand, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without lots of other things. The Internet, for example. I wasn’t submitting things to publishers, or even thinking about do so, after all. I was, ahem, ‘plucked’ by commissioning editors, purely because the Internet meant my doodling was public.
If I’ve misunderstood, however, and you mean would I be — emotionally, spiritually, whateverly — essentially where I am today without Margret, then that’s an interesting philosophical question. And one I pleased not to have the opportunity to answer, because I’m hugely happy and grateful that I am with Margret. I’m vastly pleased that chance didn’t chance differently and see my winding up with, say, Kate Winslet. She has a weird mouth.
Would I be right in thinking you’re a jazz man?
Eh? Oh — Rob in Love and Other Near Death Experiences. Nope. It felt right for his character that he’d be into jazz. It was one of those things that says something about a person, without shouting it, and also just ‘fits’. Unfortunately, I’m not a jazz buff myself, so I had to research it. This writing lark, eh? They don’t tell you about having to research stuff when you get into it. Bah.
Somehow, you’ve swizzed a nice spot in the Guardian Weekend where you get companies to send you the latest gadgets. In return, you write about your girlfriend. Were you tempted to blow the scam by pinching one? If so, which?
Yeah, the first thing people say to me nowadays is, ‘Do you get to keep all those gadgets?’ No, I don’t. This writing lark, eh? They don’t tell you about having to give stuff back when you get into it. Bah. The one I’d most like to have kept was the projector (whack in a DVD — TV signal, feed from an X-Box, etc.) and it turns your wall into a cinema screen. Imagine Alyson Hannigan in her leather, Vamp Willow outfit filling your entire field of vision.
Wait… just give me a moment, will you?
Your correspondent enjoys the sensation of someone ironing his trousers while he’s still wearing them, so he writes his fiction on a MacBook Pro. What kit do you use to weave your masterpieces? Feel free to geek-out on the details.
I use unimpressive laptops, mostly. My desktop grew too ancient about four years ago, so I ripped the hard disks out, put them in external cases for access/back-up drives, and left the shell there. I haven’t got rid of it, though, because… well, you don’t, do you? Anyway, since then I’ve used laptops — plural, as go through about one every eighteen months or so: I just work them to bits. I’ll also sometimes write on my PDA — again, nothing special (a Packard Bell Pocketgear — I think they’re about £50 on eBay now). This is below fabulous because, with either the erratic IR keyboard or the built-in letter recognition util, it’s so frustrating and laborious that doing even five hundred words is like building the cathedral at Charte from toothpicks while riding a horse into a gale. The battery lasts eight hours, though, and at least you can do something while you’re waiting at a coach station, say, or attending a wedding. Oddly, when I’m planning novs, I always use a pen and paper. Perhaps there’s something about trying to arrive at a form and develop a flow that prefers to leave the keyboard to one side and use lots of scribble, arcing lines and crossing out.
As a former professional IT guy who has harnessed the beastly power of the web to get his writing known, do you have plans to employ other technologies to air your writing, such as a podcast?
Well, as I say, I didn’t mean to. I was simply amusing myself — I didn’t think anyone else would take any notice. And then, when they did, I still didn’t regard it as a career opportunity or anything so… so… so American. As an aside, I get lots of email offering to increase the traffic to my site, in various ways. I have no interest in increasing the traffic to my site — why would I? I have a bicycle. I got it from Halfords for about £100, in a sale. I’ve put a reasonable amount of care and effort into making sure it’s a good bicycle — I’ve changed the saddle, done things to the tyres and so on — and that it works well. If people see my bicycle as I go by, and take a look at it, and like it, that’s fine. If they actually call out, ‘Hey — like your bike! I’m pleased I saw it,’ then that’s nice, I suppose. However, why on earth would I feel the desire to have my bicycle seen by every person it was possible to gather round? It’s my bicycle. I have it because I like riding it (and I don’t have a car); I don’t have it because I want people to know I have it, and gaze at it longingly.
Obviously, publishers want to sell books and magazines want to have big circulations — and they’re the ones who pay me, so I have to be aware of the reality, or I’d be a dolt. That’s fair enough. But, personally, every single photon of pleasure I get comes from writing something I (I) like, not from the thought that however many hundred thousand others will read it.
Which is a long way of saying, ‘Why do a podcast? What’s in it for me?’ If I want to write something short and/or scatological then I do a Mailing List Mail. I’d do a podcast only if I wanted to write short things that could only work, or would work best, in audio format. (We do have some of those things at The Weekly for example.)
There’s also, I think, a danger in too much content. It’s the old ‘Viz isn’t as funny as it was’ notion. This is generally said by people who haven’t read Viz for ten years. They actually mean, ‘I’ve stopped reading Viz.’ And why did they stop? Because it was there, again and again, endlessly. Eventually, however good the quality, it just becomes a background noise. On the other hand, is it a much-commented-on problem that they made only 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers?
Thus, I feel best sending out Mailing Lists from time to time, publishing novels at erratic intervals, and writing pieces for obscure magazines that no one has heard of.
To be continued on Monday…