Things Mil Millington and I Have Talked About (Part 2)

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.

Your own web­sites — such as Mil’s Apology Homepage — are mar­vel­lously awful in their aes­thet­ics, and yet The Weekly, a cooper­at­ive effort, dribbles with style. What gives?

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 could ahh, ‘Ahh, and you both exhib­it a cer­tain ‘Britishness’, and a fond­ness for char­ac­ters whose hearts are in the right place but are bum­bling and inept, don’t you?’ But I think that’s coin­cid­ent­al. (A US pub­lish­er — not the one I went with in the end — who was anxious to pub­lish TMGAIHAA, read the manu and called rav­ing about how it reminded her so much of Kingsley Amis. Now, I can see a cer­tain ‘The world falls in on the prot­ag­on­ist, bit by bit, through no fault of his own’ sim­il­ar­ity to Lucky Jim, if I’m urged to, but that’s chance, as is (though I do like him) any­thing else Amisity. Both English; both with a pen­chant for com­edy; both gits — those ingredi­ents might res­ult in an ana­log­ous taste some­where in the cake, but it’s a far less­er thing than mine con­tain­ing lots and lots of mar­zipan, and Amis being dead.

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.

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Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

3 thoughts on “Things Mil Millington and I Have Talked About (Part 2)”

  1. He is great indeed. I’ve read them all now, well almost. I’m in the middle of Chemistry (yes i’m work­ing back­wards) and i’m wait­ing for the latest one, was­sit­called. I’ve just been extolling the vir­tues of Mil in fact, on my blog too, a page or two ago.

    Mil, come back. I miss our email chats. You’ve dis­ap­peared into the eth­er and it’s just not the same…

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