Things Mil Millington and I Have Spoken About (Part 1)

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…

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Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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