No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, October 25, 2000

Interview: Martin Millar, October 2000

This interview took place in October 2000, at the monthly British Science Fiction Association night in London. This interview previously appeared in Vector #215, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

TB: You first published under your real name of Martin Millar, but the Thraxas books are published under the name 'Martin Scott'. Why the pseudonym?

MM: Just so as not to get them confused at first, and because I didn't think they were respectable enough for a proper author.

TB: Do you feel that fantasy's a ghetto literature?

MM: My reputation as an author - as Martin Millar - is OK, but my book sales …well, it keeps me going but it's not fantastic. Little, Brown probably wouldn't have been that keen to start publishing fantasy books by Martin Millar. As for fantasy being some kind of ghetto, I changed my mind about that quite quickly. I quite soon decided that it was OK to say it was me. But yes, at first thinking they were not respectable enough. Science fiction would have probably always seemed more respectable.

TB: Are the Thraxas novels selling better than the Martin Millar books?

MM: About equivalent. They haven't taken off to the extent we'd like, but on the other hand, with the way sales figures are on books in general, they're selling about equivalent in Britain and they're starting to sell in other countries. I don't really have proof of it yet, but it would be no surprise to me if they were to keep me going in my old age.

TB: How do you feel being labelled - as Martin Millar - as a cult author?

MM: I don't mind because I'm so used to it, but my dad groans every time he sees that. I don't like it too much really.

TB: The Martin Millar books have all been reissued, haven't they?

MM: They're in the process of being reissued. It'll be a while until they all come back out. It does mean that the book of mine which I get most email correspondence about, The Good Fairies of New York [hereafter Good Fairies], will be back in print in a while.

TB: That book, in particular, is very popular in Germany, isn't it?

MM: I get a lot of email from young German women who want to be fairies! I have fairies in my house that people have sent me, more than one from Germany. When I started off writing, twelve or thirteen years ago, Fourth Estate did sell Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation [Alby] to quite a lot of countries. That tailed off afterwards in most of them, but Germany carried on. I'm really not sure why.

TB: I could see Dreams of Sex and Stagediving [Sex & Stagediving] having a wider audience, because it's less rooted in the Brixton location. Perhaps the world of startup bands and pub gigs is more accessible.

MM: I guess so. I've suffered for this a little bit. It never seems to me that it particularly matters where books are set, if you like them. I've never broken through in America and I would seriously like to, and that tends to get stymied at the start with American editors saying 'What's this, Brixton? Our readers won't understand that'.

TB: You've put some of your rejection letters for Love & Peace with Melody Paradise [Melody Paradise] on your website.

MM: That was a strange experience, not being able to get Melody Paradise published. I had been kind of relying on Fourth Estate: it was a surprise to me when they didn't want to publish that book. I never really knew why that was. I think they just kind of changed direction, really.

TB: They seemed to be expecting something a bit grimmer.

MM: Yes. I'm not really a grim writer in that way. I could never have been Irvine Welsh. I was going to say I wasn't interested in people's sufferings, but that's not exactly right. I like to write about people who aren't in the best circumstances, making the best of it and having a good time. The trouble with Melody Paradise was that it was never going to be grim, because basically they were people who were going to have a good time in some manner.
I mailed a manuscript of Melody Paradise into the publisher. It went to an editor that I had never met, who was new at the company, and she didn't like it. That was about it really. It did make it quite hard to change publishers. If there's other authors at my kind of level, that's probably an experience they would have shared, trying to change publishers. Publishers like either taking on new people that they can build up, or taking on very successful people. But if you're in the middle, actually changing is difficult.

TB: Melody Paradise is a bit of a departure, because the previous novels are very urban, and this novel's set mainly in the countryside. The other novels are possibly more paranoid, less cheerful.

MM: Well, the first book, Alby, is very urban paranoia. I live in Streatham now, up the hill, but I lived in Brixton for a long time, so I wanted to write about that. The things that I really like, the books that I really like, and that influence me, don't really fit into 'urban paranoia'. If I was trapped on a desert island with just an English novelist then it would probably be P G Wodehouse - I'd probably want that to entertain me. I wouldn't really want to be reading about drug problems in the city! Everything I read is pretty old. Another of my big favourites is Somerset Maugham, and after reading a lot of Somerset Maugham, I consciously wrote a story in his style, or at least with his method of narration, which was published in Disco Biscuits . Melody Paradise is kind of an extension of that. It's me as Somerset Maugham reporting what I've been doing.

TB: Another of your literary influences is Jane Austen. You co-wrote a play about her, which was produced at the Edinburgh Festival. It's soon to be out as a book, isn't it?

MM: That's from a small publisher, Nick Hern Books, that specialise in play texts. They have paid us for it, but it's dragging a little bit coming out. The play was great, though; I wrote it with Doon MacKichan, who's a fairly well-known face on TV. She's one of the Smack the Pony women. I met her at an abortion rights benefit in Brixton. I can't remember how, but we just became friends, and we both liked Jane Austen, so we thought we'd write the play. We wrote it years before it got put on. It was the most co-operative thing I ever did. Writing is usually sitting at the computer, not speaking to anybody for a long time, and it was quite strange to be involved in this play. I was a bit dubious at first, but it was fun writing it with Doon. Then it had to go to a director and actors … That was really fun, I enjoyed that, and we got quite well reviewed, which was a big surprise to me.

TB: 'Jane Austen would spin in her grave', according to one reviewer.

MM: Which I say is a mistake. Jane Austen was such a mighty genius that I'm sure she wouldn't have spun in her grave. She had to live a kind of conservative life, because she was constrained by her circumstances, but I'm sure if she was living today she'd be a big media giant or something. She wouldn't be sat embroidering somewhere.

TB: Is the play going to be put on again in London?

MM: I wouldn't really think so, no.

TB: Any other plays, or theatrical productions, coming up?

MM: No, but … My favourite programme of all, maybe my favourite thing in the world, is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy is just fantastic: I love Buffy so much. So I thought I'd have a go at writing a film script, for a change, influenced by Buffy. Other than Buffy, one of my favourite films is Clueless - what a fantastic film, and it's Jane Austen again. As you can see I'm not really into the harsh realities of a lot of things, and my tastes are not really the harsh realities of life. I wrote a film script, which is a teen comedy set in Britain, which almost nobody knows about. And that's not really a very British thing, because our films are like Trainspotting and so on, but this is more a Clueless kind of thing. My agent has been sending it round film people, and they've managed to raise some interest…
This is part of my long-term plan to get to write Buffy. I get this film done, that introduces me to the film world, and I go to Hollywood and get to write Buffy … I had to connect to Sky, which I resisted for years, even though I like football: I thought 'I'm not bloody connecting to Sky, that Rupert Murdoch'. The BBC are just awful when it comes to the programmes they import. They have no respect for these programmes. They just kept messing around with Buffy, and I had to connect to Sky to keep up.
TB: In Sex and Stagediving, you create a computer game where there's a raft on the sea occupied by famous historical personages: you never put Jane Austen on the raft, though!

MM: It was a bit disrespectful. I do love Jane Austen: I don't know if she's an influence or not. She wrote such beautiful, perfect prose that I try to emulate her. And the world is so different now. Life is not the same these days. I've got a fairly short attention span. I need all the chapters of my books to be brief. So I could never really keep going at her sustained prose. However, after Alby, which contains slang, and incomplete sentences, I did consciously decide not to do that, and to form proper sentences and paragraphs, which is important to me. I think that's probably not important to anybody else. I like the grammar and the composition to be good. Maybe that's Jane's influence.

TB: Is there an element of magic realism in some of your Martin Millar books? The example that springs to mind is in Ruby & the Stone Age Diet [Ruby] where the nameless narrator goes down into the hall. He meets the postman, the woman from downstairs, and Ascanazl, the Inca god of lonely people. I had this flashback to Marquez and Louis de Bernieres, with the fantastic elements intruding into real life. Where do you stand on this? And are your characters seeing things that are real, or are they just taking too many drugs?

MM: I find that quite hard to answer, really, for that character. The narrator of Ruby was slipping out of reality at times, for reasons which are not entirely explained. It was more like he was building a fantasy world because of his loneliness and alienation, and just stepped too far into it at times. On the other hand it was slightly drug-induced. That's just what he thought.

TB: Quite a few of the narrators of your Martin Millar novels have magic in their lives. Or do they just concentrate hard enough on what's real to make it into something magical?

MM: Do they have magic in their lives? It's probably more fantasy than magic. Personally I have an extensive fantasy life: out shopping or on the bus or whatever, I find myself in various characters, some of which are really warped to a surprising degree. I think that everyone must do that: I'm sure that everybody must have some degree of fantasy life. I don't know how much everybody works it out. Scoring for Scotland has always been a popular one for me.

TB: There's the fairies, in The Good Fairies of New York, which is probably the point at which the fantasy world intrudes into reality.

MM: When it gets to the fairies, that's no longer the characters' internal fantasy lives, or the drug influences or anything. The fairies are meant to be real, which is a conceit, I guess. I always loved music. I never had any particular talent for it, but I did manage to play chords, and play in punk bands, which was fun. A lot of the crusties and squatters in Brixton played Irish music in pubs, and one good thing about Irish music is that if you're not such a good musician, you're kind of aware of the tunes, and you can join in. I liked playing with people, but I'm not a particularly good musician, so with the tin whistle and later with the flute, I started playing at the sessions. The fairies came out of that, out of my keenness for playing Irish music. I get slightly obsessed with things, and I always like to go with that, because it tends to lead to something worthwhile, like Irish music to the fairies, or Buffy to the film script. I'm always about to do another 'Good Fairies' book. Quite often it doesn't seem like quite the right time, but I'll definitely do another one some time.

TB: "How pleasant fairies are. I wrote a book about them once, and will do so again as soon as public disapproval for the first one dies down." (That's the narrator, one 'Martin Millar', in Melody Paradise). Was it that much disapproved of?

MM: No, it wasn't really: that was more or less a joke. Writing Good Fairies probably did end my chances of being a serious author - reviews in the Times, and the Booker Prize, and so on.

TB: Just how much of the narrator of Melody Paradise is you?

MM: This is the Somerset Maugham-influenced one. There's been bits of me in other ones - in Alby, in Ruby, in Sex and Stagediving - but those were more fictionalised and made-up. The 'Martin' in this one is more like me: anyway, it's meant to be.

TB: "My best endeavours in the world of literature have led to very little and I am now being superseded by younger authors with more enthusiasm and better ideas," he says. Is that how you feel?

MM: If I'm putting bits of me into it, I can put parts like that in: but I don't really think in such a depressed manner as the narrator in that one. But I do think in the Ancient Greek-obsessed manner of the narrator of Melody Paradise.

TB: Why Ancient Greece?

MM: I'm not sure, but it's a long-term interest. It's probably one of the oldest things I can remember being interested in. I can get really tedious on the subject. I don't know why. But I do love the thought of ancient Athens: I'd kind of like to be there - apart from the slaves, and the poor status of women - but I could institute constitutional reforms.

TB: You've worked it into various books, like the bag lady's delusion in Good Fairies - she is Xenophon …

MM: That might even be a plot weakness, really; there might have been something better for her. But they were very interesting, the Ancient Greeks. Such a huge outpouring of civilisation, and they were all fighting each other all the time, which was a pity. I kind of regret that. They left all these beautiful artefacts, and I just love them. I don't want to give them back.

TB: You managed to work the Venus de Milo into the novelisation of Tank Girl! Why did you do that novelisation - was she a particularly appealing character, or was it a lot of money?

MM: It was a lot of money. By the time they'd organised the contract between Jamie Hewlett, the originator of Tank Girl, and Penguin, the publisher, and the film people, it left me five weeks to write that novelisation, and the fee was £10,000. None of my other books was at a comparable rate. That's why I wrote it: it was such a lot of money for so little time. When I started writing my professional ethics took over and I thought "Well, I must just try and make this good". It wasn't a good film, and it really was a lousy script. I thought "Well, I just can't make this into a novel that isn't rubbish". So I tried to capture the spirit of Tank Girl. Tank Girl let me down in the end, because she was just an icon. I think most people who came across Tank Girl just saw the picture and thought "that's fantastic, what a great picture", but if they actually read the comics - well, I don't think they were particularly well-written or anything. But they have a good spirit and I tried to get that into the book.

TB: She did strike me as in the same spectrum as Elfish and Melody Paradise. Tank Girl is completely self-obsessed and vain, like quite a few of your other characters are.

MM: There's something appealing about heroic vanity. Lux (in Lux the Poet) was my first heroically vain character. Think back to the teen movies and American teen TV; you come across that character in there, but I can't quite think of a British equivalent. Alby was always worried about being ugly and grotesque. Lux, who is in some ways a kind of anti-Alby, is just so pretty and so good-looking. I think that must be nice. Tank Girl's vanity was different, but that fitted into the whole thing.

TB: Someone just gave me this review, which you may not have seen, of Alby. "A look at Thatcher's Britain from the point of view of a comic collector with a bad speed habit, a milk allergy and Triad enemies. It's for anyone who's ever wondered what life is really like in London in the Eighties, and anyone else who likes to read cyberpunk and is prepared to overlook a total lack of cyber'.[Science Fiction Eye, #5] So, are you a cyberpunk author then?

MM: No, not at all. I guess it was Thatcher's Britain. I never really felt that at the time: it was just what life was like, through that period. I was never thinking about Margaret Thatcher.

TB: They seem quite dated to me: I reread the Brixton novels and there's a real sense of period as well as place.

MM: There are some things that I would realise, in the way that Brixton has changed: the squatting and suchlike is very different now. There may be more things. It's too hard for me to comment on, being inside them. I really like to write about people, generally, and about friendship. I've really never tried to write cool characters, or make them hip in any manner. I was just interested in them as people, and all this stuff that they were surrounded with in the Eighties are just the things that I was surrounded with. I guess that's come and gone now, but when I wrote Alby, about 1984 or 1985, Brixton was not hip. At the end of the 70s and start of the 80s, if you couldn't really afford to live anywhere better, you went to live in Brixton. Slightly later there were the riots, and Scarman, and it developed a kind of hipness around it. But that was accidental as far as I was concerned.

TB: Onto the Thraxas books … it seems that it just came as a shock revelation from the publishers: guess what! Martin Scott is really Martin Millar! Is that how it was, or was the connection just not particularly advertised?

MM: The pseudonym was partly my idea at first, and partly theirs, because they wanted to establish it as a different author. It was outed by me. I think it struck me one day that if I was American, there's no way that I'd be hiding books that I had published.

TB: How did you start writing them?

MM: I didn't write the first one for money at the time. I'd finished Good Fairies, and I had some time before it seemed right to write another novel. And I always like being busy: I get itchy and unsatisfied if I'm not writing something. I wrote a version then, and that lay about for a couple of years. I had quite liked it but not been too concerned about it. It wasn't until the time when I had the publishing problems that I looked at it and thought "well, that wasn't bad, I should try and make money out of this." I have a slight Scottish Protestant thing about earning a living, and it seemed better to me to be earning my living by writing Thraxas under a pseudonym, rather than not doing anything at all. I had some good fortune, because my agent handed the Thraxas manuscript to the right person, which was Tim Holman at Little, Brown. He liked it. I had written it as short stories at first, and at his suggestion I rewrote it as a novel. Then he said he'd publish it, but he wanted three. It wasn't actually a trilogy, it was just three in a series. And they're pretty short, you know: you could fit three of them into various meaty books that you see on the shelves. They're probably the same length as the Brixton novels: about 60,000 words.

TB: The first three all came out in 1999, but you'd been working on them for quite a bit before that.

MM: I wrote them quite quickly. The first one was written a long time before. I can't exactly think how long I took to write the other three, but certainly within a year.

TB: Isn't Thraxas' world rather grittily realist for a fantasy novel?

MM: I have quite a lot to say about Thraxas that would probably not be apparent to anybody else reading them. For instance, Thraxas being fat is very important to me. He's the only large character I've ever written, and that's quite liberating, because I have an uncomfortable relationship with food. Most of the characters in my books have been thin: nobody eats enthusiastically, and I don't eat enthusiastically. Having Thraxas as an extremely enthusiastic eater, and being large, is almost therapeutic for me.
Another influence from real life is that I get to write about a character in a chain mail bikini. My other books have been heavily influenced, in rather a good way I think, by hardcore Brixton feminism. Having a character busting out of a chain mail bikini was kind of liberating. I always liked my Red Sonja comics when I was young, and I could never get that out in my Martin Millar books. As for the gritty realism … it's meant to be a city which is somewhere between ancient Rome and medieval. It's dirty, and there's bad weather, and poverty and suchlike.

TB: One thing that did strike me about the Thraxas novels is that he's more mature than your other narrators.

MM: Yes, he's reached the 'cynical about life' stage.

TB: He thinks people should cut their hair and get jobs!

MM: In the same way that he's able to eat properly, or over-eat, it's a release for him to be grumpy at these young people with funny hair. I don't personally feel like that, but I just like writing him. He could probably do with being slightly more grumpy and unsympathetic, but I have problems making my central characters too unsympathetic. They end up a bit friendlier than I intended.

TB: You write in the first person, and in the present tense, a great deal.

MM: The Brixton books were present tense because I liked that, and then I moved into the past tense, thinking that it was really time to grow up. Thraxas was just back to the present tense because it seemed to suit the detective theme. It would have been nice to write them in a completely noir manner, but that is a very specialised art. I don't think many people can do noir detective fiction really well.

TB: Especially noir fantasy detective fiction.

MM: Yes, it would be very hard to pull that off.
I'm unashamedly fond of Tolkien. I still use The Hobbit as a comfort book. What I would have most liked to do would be to set the investigator in the world of Tolkien, because I thought that would be rather funny, really, to investigate things from The Hobbit, into Minas Tyrith and over to Mordor and suchlike. But I knew there was no point doing that because there's no way that the estate would have allowed anybody to do that.

TB: You've done it on a different level, subverting the myth of the nice, friendly, pretty elves.

MM: I'm not a theorist about science fantasy or fiction, so I'm sure I have nothing particularly original to say about it, but one thing that always struck me, that I didn't really like, was that Tolkien's orc civilisations are savages, but that's not really credible. Any time you've got swords, then you have blacksmiths, and there'd be a king, and there'd be religion, and a whole culture grows up. Likewise, the elves couldn't all just be happy in trees, because society is never like that. Maybe a lot of them will be happy in trees, but there'll be some things going wrong, jealousies and stuff like that, so I was interested in that as well.

TB: Well, the other problem with Tolkien is that he hasn't got enough women.

MM: Well, his women are just awful, really, and they're idealised figures.

TB: So you've introduced the chain mail bikini - and the Association of Gentlewomen, which is a fine thing.

MM: Yes - the feminist organisation. Makri is meant to be very intelligent as well as a savage fighter, the reason for her wearing a chain mail bikini is to get tips as a barmaid.

TB: It's a shame that the Thraxas novels are marketed as comic fantasy: there's a lot more to them.

MM: I don't mind the comic fantasy aspect. We haven't got to the World Fantasy Award yet. I have something to say about that with regards to the marketing. The first Thraxas novel is up for the World Fantasy Award, which is judged at a convention in Texas on Sunday. [NB: IT WON!] I think the judges of the Award have already made their decisions, but I'm kind of hopeful about that. I've never won a prize for anything. I have no inside information except that Little, Brown tell me that they want to offer me a two-book contract, to do two more - which kind of makes me wonder "Oh, have I won the prize or something?" And they say they want to put them out in rather more serious covers.

TB: Who do you read, in fantasy and SF?

MM: I read hardly any contemporary things, because in contemporary non-SF writing, I don't find too much that I like. The reason, really, is that I just avoid contemporary literature so I can write my own. I've had a childhood and youth, growing up pretty happy with Michael Moorcock books, his long series of Eternal Champion books - he's no doubt a strong influence for my fantasy thoughts. I am more a 'books about Ancient Athens' person than a contemporary literature person. The fiction I read is mainly from the last century.

TB: In Melody Paradise, the narrator is asked: "Will you write the Ancient Greece book that only ten people will read?" Well, will you?

MM: I tried that. I tried to reincarnate Lux the Poet in ancient Greece, and it just didn't work very well. That was my best idea for writing a book in Ancient Greece, so I'm stuck on that now. I just would love to write something which was set in Classical Athens, but I'm not able. I'd have a slight worry that nobody would want to read it. At the start of my career I really couldn't give a fuck who liked the first book, and I didn't think anyone was going to read it anyway, and so I wasn't really bothered what I wrote about. The second one was the same. I just changed over the years - you've got to make a living. I would rather never have to think about what people are going to think, or what people are going to buy, or read or whatever, but I can't really avoid it. I regret that but it's true.

TB: Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

MM: I think I'm a pessimist. I'm not completely pessimistic. As I've got older I've become more career-oriented, in fact: I like my career in writing, and I refuse to give up. I'm fairly ambitious about various things, ambitious in a way that I wish I'd been when I was younger. When it comes to income, health, personal relationships, I'm pessimistic.

Claire Brialey: You seem to have a knack of writing short short stories which maintain the authorial voice of your main 'Martin Millar' novels. Is writing short stories something you particularly enjoy doing, or find easy to do, compared to writing novels? And will there be a collection?

MM: I like writing short stories a lot, but I don't do it for pleasure. I've collected nine or ten of them on my website, and they're all commissioned, which is why I start doing them. Yes, there probably will be a collection some time. I do like writing odd bits, but I might get slightly carried away with the thought that they have to be funny. I'd probably find that if somebody asked me to write a short story I'd have to be amusing in some way. That probably comes from P. G. Wodehouse, who wrote very funny short stories. I often mention P. G. Wodehouse if someone comes to interview me for the NME or something, and it always just gets me a blank look.

TB: Martin Millar, Martin Scott, thank you very much.