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Andrew Miller
Since 1996 Miller has been a full-time writer living in Dublin, Paris and London. He now lives in Brighton and believes that on clear days he can see the coast of France. His daughter, Frieda Kathleen, was born at home on October 20th 2004. His new novel, THE OPTIMISTS, was published in March 2005.
Oxygen deals with the difficult subject of cancer and all the main protagonists are basically unhappy people but the tone is, not exactly light, but it's accessible and sometimes funny. How do you achieve this? How do you make people actually care about your characters? I can think of a couple of novels I've read recently where I just don't care about the characters or what happens to them.
Both Oxygen and The Optimists are quite dark books with difficult subject matter. Oxygen, of course, is not 'about' cancer any more than The Optimists is 'about' a massacre in Central Africa. In both novels I was asking questions about the strengths and limitations of family, and how flawed, vulnerable, but basically decent people try to survive in difficult times. Humour in my work tends to be understated, but is, I hope, always there. In life, comedy, broad or subtle, is often present even in the bleakest circumstances, and I admire an art that reflects this. Shakespeare's comedies have a wry and melancholic feel to them. Think of the clown's song at the end of Twelth Night - 'For the rain it raineth every day.' And I remember, years ago, seeing a wonderfully funny film (The Seven Beauties) that was set in a Nazi concentration camp. It's a mistake, of course, to think of comedy and tragedy as being somehow the opposites of each other, to imagine, as we sometimes do, that comedy, because it is productive of laughter, has no interest in human depths and human suffering. If there is a God, S/He will doubtless have the ability to look at our neediness and floundering, and find it, at one and the same moment, both very funny and rather heart-breaking.
Without labouring the image, the characters in Oxygen all seem in some sense to be fighting for air. You have been accused of being preoccupied with 'emotional vacuums' - is this fair?
I seem to have written a lot about what might be called 'the problem of feeling'. I have characters who are unable to feel, or who doubt their ability, like Alec in Oxygen, to express their emotions in the way circumstances demand. In the new book - The Optimists - the central character is a photo-journalist who has witnessed an event so terrible it overwhelms his capacity to respond to the world in any kind of normal fashion. It's not a theme I had intended to treat when, as an eighteen year old, I set out to write. I still find it rather surprising but have to accept that it's there. Perhaps, after four books, that seam is finally mined-out.
You were shortlisted for the Booker prize for Oxygen. Does the prospect of winning a literary prize influence your writing? And what do you think about prizes generally?
Prizes, like them or not, are a fact of life for writers (and readers). I have never allowed 'the prospect of winning a literary prize' to influence the way I write, and it would be hard to have respect for anyone who did.
There is no obvious pattern to the books you have written - they are very diverse in subject matter and period. This makes it difficult to pigeon-hole your work. Where do your affinities lie within the canon of contemporary British (or world) fiction, which writers do you admire and would like to be compared with?
The writers who influenced me are a fairly disparate bunch. Rosemary Sutcliffe, Conan Doyle, R.L.Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Malcolm Lowry. Lots of continental Europeans: Kafka, Knut Hamsun, Dostoyevsky, Gide, Aragon, Camus, Lampedusa, Calvino, Kundera. A sprinkling of Americans: Hemingway, Kerouak, Bellow, Updike. A couple of Japanese: Tanazaki, Kawabata, Mishima. Did I mention Shakespeare, Webster, Tourner? And I shouldn't forget Larkin and Heany and Derek Mahon and Christopher Logue and...perhaps I should stop there. I'm sometimes surprised at the people I get compared to. An American reviewer described me as 'a mid-career Iris Murdoch'. Perhaps I'm happiest not being comparedwith anyone. Comparisons, though probably inevitable, are too often the tool of a lazy critic.
You've lived in a variety of interesting places, Japan, France, Spain included. How do you find living in Brighton?
I love living in Brighton. It's not immune to the problems of all British cities - failing estates, weekend violence, traffic congestion etc - but it manages to keep a raffish, slightly eccentric charm. Best of all it has the sea. My house overlooks the beach. Even on a dullest afternoon in February the sea keeps its fascination.
Has your new baby (born October 2004) changed your view of the world? Do you think her birth will influence your writing?
Shortly before Frieda was born I remember looking along my bookshelves to see how many of my favourite writers had children. The answer turned out to be some but not many. Rather curiously, (male) writers seem to produce more daughters than sons. God knows why that should be. I'm sure Frieda will change the way I write because her being here has changed the way I live in the world. She's a great untangler of the heart. A six-month old guru who has already done more for me than I shall ever be able to repay.
Andrew Miller

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