|Interview with MAGNUS MILLS
by Marcia Morgado
The sale of The Restraint of Beasts for £10,000 to Flamingo radically changed the life of first-time British author Magnus Mills. We met up with Mills in Barcelona during the kick-off Spanish tour of the book. Three Spanish publishers battled it out for publishing rights during the auction at the Frankfurt Book Fair last fall and Julieta Lionetti of Muchnik Editores came out the winner. Having left school two decades ago, the author worked as a fence-builder in Scotland for six years before moving south to comply with his wife's wishes. In London, Mills worked as a bus driver for twelve years. The Restraint of Beasts has turned him into a well-known author and a 1998 finalist for the prestigious Booker Prize. It may soon become a film. His second novel All's Quiet on the Orient Express will be published shortly.
How do you like Barcelona?
Great; well, I've been here before... in fact the Gaudí houses inspired me to slap tiles all around my house.
Everywhere you go in Barcelona you see Gaudí houses, the tiles. When I got back to England I said: let me try that because an Englishman doing it is completely different.
You have a Gaudían touch or just plain gaudy...
No, I just stick tiles up.
What's your approach to writing?
I think about it a lot before I put anything down... for years at times.
When did you start developing The Restraint of Beasts?
About four years ago... it took me a couple of years to write, then there was a year of publication and another year [before its release]. I think I started 95, 96... I'm not sure exactly.
Was this the first story you wrote?
First novel, yes...
You had written short stories before?
No, I'd written sort of humorous, very short pieces for newspapers.
Six hundred words, yeah, 600-word pieces... about buses as well when I was a bus driver.
You knew that this novel would be published even if it meant paying for its publication yourself.
Yes, once I started I knew it'd be published because, you see, if you are going to believe in a book that much, you've got to be prepared to publish it yourself if no one else will. But I never actually thought about it until I started writing it. I never thought of being a writer when I was younger.
No, I just did manual work and that sort of job for years. It wasn't till I got married I started doing some writing because my wife said "why don't you write about when you were a fence-builder?"
So, it was actually your wife who suggested the story?
I kept telling her about things that happened...
Accidents, accidents on the hillsides...
Are there a lot of people buried around the hillsides, like in the novel?
Buried?... only a few.
Did you participate in any burials?
We used to threaten each other, you know, that if someone had an accident it was easier to bury them than to carry them over for a proper funeral.
Homicidal inclinations are part of fencing gangs?
No, it's just... I just wanted to spice up the book so I put the deaths in and then I built on top of that. I tried to structure the book like I was building a fence: tension; major turning points, so that the murders or the deaths were the turning points; then it keeps going in a straight direction and in the end it comes back to where it started.
So it becomes a rectangle?
Or a circle...
Or a boxing ring...
Yeah, it boxes them in. It depends on the shape of the field where you want to go... you've obviously read the book.
I enjoyed it very much.
Oh, in Spanish?
No, in English, I just skimmed through the Spanish. How did the story develop, the characters ...?
The characters are based on certain people I've encountered in different jobs, including fence-building; some of the characters are more than one person melded together, but some of them really stick to some of the [original people].
Where were you?
In Scotland. [That's where] I started working as a fence-builder.
Why did you move them from Scotland to England?
Because I liked the idea of them being transported from one place to another against their will, a bit like... I'd just finished reading about concentration camps and I think it affected me, so the idea of being shipped off to somewhere else....
What are you reading?
At the moment I'm reading Madame Bovary because my agent told me I should read it. I prefer to read things like William Golding, Primo Levi, an Irish writer called Flann O'Brian, and Hunter S. Thompson. But I've read, obviously I've read quite a lot of the classics. I don't like reading modern fiction.
No, I don't read contemporary fiction at all. I've read Graham Greene, Günter Grass, there's a lot of things I ought to read before I start reading the... and also, I don't want to see what the competition is doing too much so I don't read contemporary fiction.
Parallels are being drawn between Kafka and Mills. Is that fair?
I feel very flattered by that... obviously you read something like The Trial, you got a book with a fantastic beginning like The Trial has and you try to, you think... I don't try to copy it out, I'm inspired by a story like that, see if I can do it. I think that the most interesting one by him that I've read is America.The unfinished one, very interesting. As they say, it's just nice being compared; you know it frightens as many people off as it attracts, many people say: "oh, no, he's written that, it's too heavy."
The novel reflects a great sense of humor.
I try to be funny, I try to make people laugh. I want the book to be easy to read so I work a lot on the dialogue, I want people to turn the page easily, I want people to pick the book up without thinking: "oh, gotta read it!". You know when I read The Tin Drum, that was hard work but when I got to the end, I said: "Oh!" Of course, occasionally I read a review of my book that says it's boring and I say, "Oh, no."
I was under the impression that you didn't read negative reviews.
No, but somebody occasionally gives me... I don't if I can help it, my wife edits them, but sometimes, like somebody got me on the Internet the other day and found a lot of stuff on the Internet...
You've gone from blue-collar worker to literary celebrity.
How have you adjusted to such a transition?
Well, it hasn't changed my life much apart from I don't have to go to work in the morning, I still go to the same pubs with the same people. I still have the nights when nobody wants to go out because they've got no money or they can't go out, their wives won't let'em go out or my wife says: "here, take me out tonight." But we usually go to the same places we went before.
Does having money now make a big difference?
Not much, I'll just move to a bigger house...
When Francis Bacon moved from his crammed, littered studio to a larger flat in London, he couldn't paint. Do you fear that moving from your blue-collar section to a more uppity area will affect your work?
Well, no, because, you can get well-off people in Brixton as well as blue-collar people.
What routine do you follow these days?
In the summer I don't really do much writing anyway. In England the sun doesn't shine as well as it does in Spain and I used to resent having to go to work when it was a nice, sunny day, when I could do other things, go cycling or sailing or sunbathing or whatever. Now, a year later, I can do those things, I can do what I want. I like to work, but at my own pace. I like to have a job but I don't want to work forty or fifty hours a week because it takes too much of your time. I get up about seven o'clock and I go to the swimming pool, I swim a lot 'cause my wife likes the flat to herself in the morning, I stay in the swimming pool then I come home. I open my letters, there's usually some letters, then I have a nice English breakfast, then I think about doing some writing. But the weather has been quite nice lately so I haven't done any, although I've started my third novel.
So you don't actually follow a discipline of writing on a daily schedule?
No, not at the moment. I don't really want to spend all day writing. When I wrote the last book, if I could write a page a day that was enough. If I write more than a page or two, then it sparks out, I don't want to run out of steam while I'm writing so I just want to do it short, first. Even if I was going at full steam on a book, I would like to do one page a day. I would never write twenty pages; I feel I would stretch it too much. I've spent the last two weeks working on the first page of the third book because I want to get it exactly right. It's got to have the rhythm exactly right for the first few pages, because otherwise people don't read past the first page, they don't carry on.
Is that the same pattern of work you followed with The Restraint of Beasts and with your second novel, All's Quiet on the Orient Express?
Not really, no, because... it's easier now.
Well... I'm not so driven. Life's easier... I wrote the books because I was so fed up with having to work for a living; I haven't got that pressure so I'll probably take longer with the third. When I came home from work, I wrote every day because I had to get it done. I had no time... I did long hours but I wanted to do the book because if I kept putting it off I'd get too old and there'd be no book left. But now I've got more time, I'm taking my time.
How long did it take you to write the second novel?
Under pressure from your publishers?
Oh, no pressure was on but I had a year, fourteen months to wait between signing the deal and the book coming out and I thought I'd better get another one written. And I got it finished about a month before the story broke about me getting a million pounds for the book. After that, I wouldn't have got the time to do it.
Were you bombarded with interviews?
Bombarded with interviews, I did interviews everyday.
Are you fed up with the press?
Depends on the journalists. If the journalist has read the book properly, no I'm not fed up... The photographers can get a bit tiresome. I'm usually OK with the press. Relaxed.
You follow the same pattern of a nameless narrator in All's Quiet on the Orient Express.
Yep, same sort of person narrating it. In one line: "A man accidentally spills a tin of paint and thereby condemns himself to death". But there are a lot of other things going on. The Restraint of Beasts is linear; this takes place all in one area, by a lake, and everything ties - everybody is tied together, although they don't know it.
No, they're not trapped this time; they're all used to each other, they're interdependent, but they don't realize it. They think they're all doing their own thing but in time they're all doing it as part of a clockwork thing that's going there. I don't want to give much away because it's the second book and.. all the characters affect all the other characters, it's consequences, it goes round and round like consequences.
You have time now, you have money, you have the ability to choose when to write. Do you fear that this may weaken you?
No, no, I think I'll be able to write, it's just that I'm a bit lazy about it at the moment...
Are you working against a deadline?
Oh, there's no deadline... the weather's nice, this is the first year of my life that I haven't had to work, haven't got to get up to go to work, therefore I'm just taking it easy until I get bored. When I get bored, I'll do something about it.
But what I meant was that sometimes fame works against an artist.
I don't know yet.
You feel confident...
I'm confident - that's why I wrote the second book in four months. But at the moment I'm being a bit lazy about the third one because I've got time and eventually I'll get going with it but while the sun is shining in England I don't want to be sitting inside writing. I don't feel a desire to write, I wrote the two books because it was the only way that I was ever going to make a mark. And now I've done that, I can be a bit lazy. But I've got to carry on. I'm not starved, I'm not as hungry as I was... I don't know how that will affect me. When you see the third, you'll know then. The second book is very good but I've only just started the third book, so I don't know.
We'll be waiting for it.
Well, the second book is as well written or better than the first. It's better written because I was more comfortable.
There is a movie deal going on?
Yeah, for The Restraint of Beasts.
Will you be working on the script?
Just technical consultant or maybe, maybe a very small part.
À la Hitchcock...
Yeah, I'd like to just appear like Irving Welsh appeared in Trainspotting... for a moment. There is one line I'd like to say. When they were there in the pub and they say: "The Hall Brothers do all the fencing around here". And then it goes quiet. I want to say that one line.
You are also writing music reviews?
I was. I was writing for The Independent and I was also doing radio reviews for them but they sacked me at Easter.
I don't know... maybe they don't want my writing any more. No explanations...
I was struck by the novel's asexuality.
There is a sex thing...
That's the joke, there's very little sex in these men's lives. And when it happens, it lasts a minute.
And she complains that she is not a post.
I tried to make a point.
That fencers don't make good lovers?
No, that men like that just don't know what to do with women. The two women in the story have more power than the men do, don't they.
How do women react to The Restraint of Beasts?
Well, they seem to like it. I've got as many women publishers as I've got men publishers. They all seem to like it: there are more women who like it than I thought. When I was writing it, I thought of the middle-class Englishmen but it seems to be working for other people.
How is your wife reacting to your celebrity status?
She is enjoying it. She gets somewhat upset with me when I go on about something...
Well, about moving house, I'm fussing about how the move's going... I found us a nice house but I've been fussing that we might lose it because that's how it goes in England.
Have you become a brat?
I'm not well-known enough to be a brat yet. I still go round on my bicycle.
Do people stop you on the street?
I'm not well-known yet to be stopped.
If you could change anything in the process that led you up to The Restraint of Beasts, would you do it?
Not really, no... even though I got fed up with the buses at times, that sort of existence was good for getting on with the writing because I was home a lot. I had the house to myself and I had to earn a living to keep my feet on the ground. If I buy this house in London, I'll have to earn a lot more money. I'll have to keep on earning to pay for it so I'll be forced to write another book. I'll be the slave of the typewriter.
You use a typewriter?
A word processor, it started on a typewriter.
The Restraint of Beasts started on a typewriter?
The first manuscript was typewritten.
Do you prefer using a word processor now?
Sometimes... sometimes it's too easy and you can alter something and forget. It's too easy to make corrections. It's a double-edged sword: handy, and bad as well, but the spell-check is good... you can present it better to publishers.
What do you expect from an editor?
To be able to read it how I expect it to be read so they understand what I am trying to build, the flow of the language. So that it sounds to them exactly as I meant it.
Rhythm is very important to you.
Yeah, it's got to sound right; it's got to have a flow so that people turn the page. And I want the editor to recognize that - to spot the things that are wrong but not make me change how I write, which my editor doesn't do.
Once you finish a story, do you read it out loud?
You've got to read it out loud.
To your wife?
I read bits out to my wife - she's never had to read it, she's had it all read to her... She's my best critic, if she says something doesn't sound right or doesn't work, then it usually means it's true. She's my first one, then my agent, then my editor... but they're all on my side, so I'm lucky.
You're lucky and you're a hard worker.
Yeah, that's it. Tomorrow I turn forty-five and my bus driver's license expires, so there's no turning back.
|© 1999 The Barcelona Review
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|navigation: barcelona review #13 mid-june to mid-august 1999|
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