Interview Part II: In which the topics aestheticism, word patents, the writing process, and Higgins from Magnum get more attention than they deserve.
This from my girlfriend: “What was written on the bottle of the stuff you dyed your hair with?”
“May kill your sperm, and your neighbour’s sperm.”
For reference, you genuinely can’t buy the fire engine red two-part dye that I use in the shops. I get it from a contact in the hairdressing underground.
I could say that it’s because I created the look of the Apology Homepage, whereas Mr Nash piloted the design of The Weekly. But that would be a laughably superficial analysis that you’d rightly reject as crude and despicable. The fact is that I want my site to look dreadful. I want it to look like what it is: Some Bloke’s Homepage. I’ve had many Web design people offer (sometimes ‘beg’) to make the site look presentable, but I politely decline them all. Its very amateurishness gives it a feeling of intimacy, I reckon. It is, not by a looooooong way, a glossy, business-minded site. I also turn away people who ask if they can buy advertising space on it or have banner ads, and I choke at the very notion of selling Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About mugs and T-shirts. I’ve nothing against commercial sites, you understand – not at all: I urge everyone to buy a Splendid from The Weekly Corner Shop – it’s simply that my site isn’t commercial. It lists my books, in case people think, ‘I am laughing. I would like to laugh more,’ as not mentioning them would be bizarre and, in a way, rude. That’s the single aspect that’s not completely Some Bloke, though. There’s a fragile beauty in awfulness.
What progress on your attempt to patent the word ‘meh’? How was it defined in your application?
I’m sure this can be found in cuneiform, along with ‘Pff’ and ‘Gah’. My sense is that lots of people write these things, and have done so for aeons. “Reader, I married him. Tch.” I wouldn’t dream of claiming captaincy of such a thing (let alone having initiated it), I’m merely a foot soldier.
You’re a cyclist, I gather. What’s the point of the Tour de France?
Well, I cycle; I wouldn’t call myself a cyclist, really. I don’t have a beard and go on touring holidays of Norfolk nor do I own a single piece of Lycra. I just like thrashing about down tracks a bit, and town is ten minutes away by bike, but over thirty minutes on foot (or, it being Wolverhampton, including waiting for one to turn up, an hour by bus). I can’t imagine why anyone would do the Tour de France. And my brain fairly ruptures at the idea that anyone would watch someone else do the Tour de France.
With regards the writing process, how does it work for you in terms of planning, letting others view the manuscript at an embryonic stage, that kind of thing? How long do your books take to write?
I plan on paper, initially, then – when it’s eighty per cent there – type it up. Sometimes I type it in Final Draft. This is a script writing prog, and has a ‘scene view’ mode which is useful even if you’re not doing a script. Each scene is really a very brief note saying what it’s there for. The first one in the nov I’m doing now, for example, says, “1) Root Chris’s character. (At work?)” It tells me that the first thing I want to do is establish what kind of person the protagonist is – not exhaustively, but fix a few key things there and make him solid; details and subtleties can be introduced later, gradually. And that, perhaps, at his work might be a good place to do this. I have another crib sheet listing the characters, by the way. This list doesn’t give much in the way of ‘character sketches’ – I just remember what they’re like as people – but lays down facts: age, eye colour, number of siblings, etc. I try to avoid giving much in the way of physical descriptions (I think it’s far better if the reader creates the images they feel most comfortable with) and it’s very dull indeed to recount unnecessary detail about histories. “I have a sister, Jane, who’s four years older than me, and two brothers, Paul and David who are younger by three and two years respectively. I grew up in Leicester, starting school – – in Miss Baker’s class – two days late, because I’d had the measles and…” CHRIST. Still, it’s best to have a reference so that someone’s eyes don’t change colour halfway through the book. Relatedly, I also date and time each scene. It’s very easy to write a Monday morning, have someone appear at work for a couple of days, then start talking about it being Saturday unless you keep track.
All the above done, I write the book. I’d love to sit down and write from beginning to end, smoothly. Unfortunately, Real Life kicks me all over the place. The longest I ever get to write on one thing is perhaps three or four hours. Often it’s more like thirty, fractured minutes, and very, very frequently it’s no time at all that day. With Love and Other Near Death Experiences I actually calculated it: I wrote the book in 82 days – by which I mean that there were 82 days when I managed to find the space to do at least something (perhaps only 40 words, but something). So, it took 82 snatched and hugely variable periods to write; if you combined them into full, eight hour, days then it’s probably more like 30. But – due to interruptions – that was actually stretched over 502 days.
This niggled, staccato, harassed way of writing a nov is hardly the best method of working, and is epically irritating for me to boot. I can’t whine too much, however, as I’m hardly the only person who has suffer it. You, for example, Hocking, surely have to find fleeting moments to write after spending all day reading articles in psychology journals and wondering if any of them aren’t based on faked research.
To jump back puckishly now – to the very beginning of what we’ll lavishly call The Writing Process – I generally let things evolve in my head until they reach a critical mass that means I can ‘actively’ start working on them. I always begin with an idea. This might sound staggeringly bleeding obvious, but what I mean is that there’s a ‘idea’ I want to explore. A mystery writer might begin with, ‘Hmmm… if a murderer did this thing I’ve just thought of he’d give himself a great alibi,’ and work out from there. Equally, someone who writes thrillers could start with, ‘What if a terrorist group hijacked a nuclear submarine?’ Others might even have a basic plot – perhaps triggered by something they’ve seen in a newspaper story, say – and weave details onto that framework. I always have a pure idea I want to play around in. The problem is how to do that as a novel. So, for example, with A Certain Chemistry the idea that interested me was the very slippery notion of freewill – we believe our choices and actions and feelings are our own, but to what extent are they actually governed by something as basic as our biology? How do I tackle that in a book? Well, the thing that’s always cited at most personal, ineffable, and human (meaning mysterious and impossible to dissect – “What is this thing you call a ‘kiss’, Captain Kirk?”) is love. A standard technique for debate is the take the biggest argument the opposition has and refute it; thereby implying that, if their best shot is a misfire, then all the lesser ones must be at least as weak. So – look at freewill in the area of love: win that case and you win all the others without even having to fight them. But how do you look at love? The story of a forty year marriage or something? Nope, it’s better to compress everything as tightly as possible if your going to make it into a novel. How do you have love on fast-forward, with the emotions heightened as much as possible, then? You look at an affair. Refine that a little more, cast Joe Pesci as God, and I’m ready to start on A Certain Chemistry. That’s the way I go about it. Love and Other Near Death Experiences is the same: ‘Existential angst – the old, “Why am I here?” question. How can I create a situation where that is magnified and speeded up?’ Or, with the book I’m writing now, ‘Nature/nurture – that’s interesting? But how do you deal with that in novel form? I mean, with nature/nurture research, there’s always that problem of how can you have a control in the experiment, isn’t there? Hmmm… wait a minute…’
You’ll probably have noticed that nowhere at all in that do I think about ‘funny things that I could write.’ I never ‘pre-arrange’ the comedy, and I really believe that’s the best way: it should come, perfectly naturally, from the characters and the situations. So, with the scene note from my plan – that will say something like, ‘Introduce Brian and establish he needs a place to stay’ – I ad lib, and ad lib having put on a comedy hat.
Then, two words in, I’ll get a phone call telling me that I need to be in Manchester in three hours or something.
Your books strike me as sitting at the extreme of masculinity. You know, like Higgins from Magnum. And yet you’ve said that you get most of your feedback from women. Do you think there is something uncomfortably true in your work that puts ‘lads’ off?
I look just as good in shorts as Higgins from Magnum does too. The fact is that the vast majority of fiction is bought by women aged between 18 and 35 (not sure what happens after 35; perhaps they join a library). That’s the demographic publishers go for, because that’s the demographic. (You’ll note that even the most vapid, sparkly-things-and-diets women’s mag will have a little ‘Books of the Month’ page.) I’ve had chaps tell me that they’ve wanted to read my books, but their testosterone would not allow them to hold such covers on the Tube. My covers aren’t even all that bad either. And my editor is practically a man in a dress, and is very conscious of not having girly covers. Still, though publishers might pull back from making them too womb-targeted, they will never do anything that could end up putting women off, or even not appealing to them enough. They will always err on the female side of caution. So, covers are an issue. Also, I didn’t want ‘love’ in the title of ‘Love and Other Near Death Experiences’. It’s not about love (there’s some love in it, of course, but it’s not the theme of the book, not remotely) – my working title was ‘Not Quite Dead’. But… well, the book’s on the shelves, and it’s called Love and Other Near Death Experiences, and I bet a good few fellows have seen that ‘love’ and lurched across a shelf to the safety of ‘SAS Blood Feud’ or ‘Killing Sharks By Hitting Them With Bears’.
The main problem is, though, that the majority of men simply don’t read many books. And are stupid. And unpleasant to look at. I think we’d see an improvement in all sorts of areas if the world were peopled by just six billion women, and me.
What would be the title of your autobiography?
I’d probably call it something like, ‘Actually, That Wasn’t What I Meant,’ but the publisher would insist on it being called, ‘Love, Love, Love, Flowers, Babies, And Love.’
There are some fantastic comedy writers out there. On the proviso that all writers are a boiling, maggoty mass of influences, can you think of one or two – dead or alive – that have contributed most to your fiction?
That ‘influence’ bit is always tricky when it comes to this question. Milligan, for example, fell into my life like a wonderfulness bomb (with the AH:MPIHD, mentioned above) when I was about nine, but I’m not sure that he’s had the slightest influence on (cough) ‘my style’. Wodehouse is also fabulous and you
The list of comic writers I love is large indeed – Mark Twain, Douglas Adams, Mark Leyner, to lazily name but three. However, I’d say that the biggest influence on my writing was actually American TV sitcoms – the ones I watched when I was young: Soap, Taxi, etc. As befits an English working class house, I spent a lot of time watching the TV. Back then, British comedy relied a great deal on puns and innuendo and music hall-style acting. The Americans were all one-liners, snappy dialogue and pseudo-realistic delivery (while each British gag was highlighted with much flapping about and gurning, it seemed effortless and natural – almost invisible – that everything everyone who worked for a New York taxi firm said was funny). That’s possibly where my liking for lots of snappy talk comes from. As for my narrative side, God knows. I can’t believe that came from anywhere outside me. No one in their right mind would have that many subordinate clauses.
Having watched a few episodes of Channel Four’s The IT Crowd, I was struck (thinking about the IT gags in TMGAIHAA) that ‘Millington’ would have done a better of job of this, starting with the title. Any plans for a sojourn into sitcom land?
I watched the first one, maybe one-and-a-half, episodes of TIC and thought it poor. Then suddenly got into it and liked it lots. Impressively, I’d watch it with my sons and – despite a span of almost eighty years between us – we’d all laugh at it. So, thumbs up Graham Linehan. Wait – I omitted a comma to disastrous effect. “So, thumbs up, Graham Linehan.”
Anyway, I’m fairly often asked by the mouths of TV producers if there’s a sitcom I fancy doing. The problem is, there isn’t. It’s largely to do with that being motivated by examining an idea aspect I mentioned earlier. I like to get something that intrigues me, lick it all over, then, done with it, move on to something else. I don’t want to have to lick it again the next week. And the next five weeks too. And for another five series. One-offs are far more attractive than series. I did write and then get commissioned to write a one-off for Granada TV (genuinely that way round: I wrote it – because I can’t pitch, as I’m unable to express an idea in under 10,000 words – they read it, liked it, then they paid me to write it – as if the script they’d read was actually a pitch), but I reckon that’s now officially in Development Hell. TV is much the same a Film in having the way to suck the life right out of you down pat; the only difference, really, is that Film companies generally have nicer offices.
What next for Millington?
Some ironing, obviously. Other than that, it falls into four categories:
- Standard, day-to-day stuff. Features for magazines, columns, putting my rambling gob out at ‘events’ (literary festivals, etc., possibly promoting the paperback release of Love and Other Near Death Experiences in October), putting my rambling gob out in the standard rambling gob spots on radio or TV, odd bits and bobs (such as, I’ve done a short story for an anthology called ‘Paint a Vulgar Picture’ that Serpent’s Tail are publishing an inexplicable age from now), the constant war of attrition with my email, and so on.
- Stuff that’s ‘at a stage’. For example, Mr Nash and I are Involved, in Things. Words have been written, events have moved, results have resulted. It’s not merely the two of us having written things that, maybe, one day, someone might take an interest in: it’s progressed well beyond that. However, neither of us will be even slightly surprised if it comes to nothing in the end. That’s forever happening.
- Stuff that’s not at a stage. This might, conceivably go somewhere, and demands work and attention, but is currently ‘air’. An illustration of this type of thing is the film producer bloke with – he’s pretty confident – access to a budget who’s just asked to meet me to talk about my writing a script for him. Sounds almost straightforward to young ears, but my old membranes can hear that it’s actually just a truckload of Ifs.
- The next nov. Due to publishing cycles and a pregnancy (not mine), this probably won’t be out until late 2007 or maybe even 2008. However, I’ll have finished it long before that, obviously. Yes: obviously.