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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Miranda Miller has travelled widely and now lives in London. Loving Mephistopheles is her fifth novel. The others are: Under the Rainbow, Family, Before Natasha and Smiles and the Millennium. She has also published a book of short stories about Saudi Arabia, A Thousand and One Coffee Mornings, and a book about the effects of homelessness on women.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Loving Mephistopheles?
Miranda Miller: The trigger for this novel was surviving cancer. Having been forced to face up to my own mortality, I wanted to write about immortality. All my novels start with an image, usually half glimpsed in the mysterious state between waking and sleeping. For this novel the image was an old man (George) sitting at a bar at Heathrow, waiting to meet a woman (Jenny). She is reflected in his glass of brandy as simultaneously young and old. In the final version I cut this scene but it remained in the back of my mind.
I was trying to satirize the cult of youth and take it to its logical conclusion, which is that nobody who can afford to stay young will age. So science will catch up with mythology and science fiction. I also wanted to write, again, about homelessness and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. We all hate banks, don't we? The Metaphysical Bank seemed like a good name for a villainous power. I have lived in Italy where there is a Bank of the Holy Spirit.
MT: How long did it take you to write it?
MM: Nine years - far too long. Most of my novels have taken two to three years. I originally conceived of it as a trilogy: Loving Mephistopheles, Abbie in the Underworld and An Island in the Moon. I wrote the first and then discovered that I couldn't get it published. So I rewrote it, and still couldn't get it published. I started another novel but the characters and ideas, like Jenny, wouldn't die. I wrote Abbie in the Underworld anyway and began to think of it as a mad impossible enterprise that was great fun to write. I put it aside again and worked on another novel, but Jenny and Leo were still very much alive. Peter Owen had published my short stories about Saudi Arabia and I remembered that Antonia Owen shares my taste for literary fantasy. Eventually, I turned the two novels into one long novel and sent it to her.
MT: Do you read your critics? Have you been pleased with the response to your novel? Have you learned anything from them?
MM: I always read reviews of my books and I'm always interested to hear what readers think of them. With this one, 'strange' seems to be a recurring adjective. I don't think you can exactly learn from reviews. That suggests that you go off and tailor your next book to suit other people's taste, and of course you can't do that. Each novel demands to be written on its own terms.
MT: The Faust myth obviously lies behind your story. When did you first come across it? Why do you think it has such a hold on you?
MM: In 1996, I saw a wonderful RSC production of Goethe's Faust, in a vivid translation by Howard Brenton. Don Giovanni (another version of the same legend) is one of my favourite operas. I also admire Marlowe's Dr Faustus - I pinched Jenny's contract from that version. It is simply one of the great plots, infinitely rich and flexible. In a way it is strange that it has such a hold on me because I'm not religious and belief in the soul is central to the meaning of the traditional story. In this novel I have interpreted the bargain as being between youth, money and glamour and fear of death and aging and the poverty Jenny (briefly) chooses because she thinks her daughter is in danger.
MT: Loving Mephistopheles is your fifth novel. Does writing them get easier!?
MM: Not really, each novel feels like my first. The writing process itself becomes more addictive. I am now bereft if I'm not working on a novel and try not to have long gaps between books because even I find myself impossible to live with when I'm not writing.
MT: What were the principal challenges you faced writing Loving Mephistopheles? How did you overcome them?
MM: When I started writing Loving Mephistopheles I was on my own with my daughter Becky, then in her teens, and working full time selling advertising space. I tried getting up very early but most mornings I didn't manage it. So after about a year I bluffed and told my boss I had been offered another job and would only be able to stay if he let me start at 11 each morning. It worked! Then I wrote from about 8 to 10 each morning before I went to work. Apart from the practical and financial challenges of spending years on a project, this is the most ambitious novel I've attempted. As I said before, it went through many drafts and rejections. I wanted to write in a more imaginative way and also wanted Jenny, Leo and the others to be psychologically believable. Of all my books so far, this was the most difficult to write. But even when writing is hard, I enjoy it immensely.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
MM:I write straight onto a computer, in the morning, in my pyjamas. Writing belongs more to the sleeping than the waking world, so I try not to surrender myself to the day until I've finished. I cut off the phone and try not to look at my emails. I don't edit much at first but try to finish the first draft as quickly as possible, often leaving gaps and notes to myself to rewrite passages later.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
MM: I read; listen to music; talk to my daughter and friends; go to the cinema, theatre, galleries and museums; go for long walks around London, which I'm still discovering after all these years.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
MM: No, I've never imagined an ideal reader although I have gradually become more aware that my novels are (I hope) going to be read and that I want them to be accessible. I don't show my novels to anyone until I think they're finished.
MT: What are you working on now?
MM: I'm writing a novel called Nina in Utopia, set in London now and in the 1850s. There is a fantasy element and I'm trying to explore changing ideas about love and gender and madness.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
MM: Well, Mark, you said you liked long answers!
I was a solitary London child (the youngest of four children and the only girl) growing up in a bookish and competitive family. I loved fairy tales, legends, mythology, Narnia, Lewis Carroll and E Nesbit's magical adventures. An aunt, thinking I suppose that I should get out more, sent me Swallows and Amazons which I found wildly improbable. Why would children go out on boats alone? Why would they want to?
I graduated to Tolkien and Mervyn Peake. P.G. Wodehouse is the first 'grown up' author I remember enjoying (he isn't, of course, which is the secret of his appeal). In my early teens I loved Jane Austen and the Brontes. If I had to choose a favourite novelist it would be Dostoevsky. The Idiot, which I've been re-reading for 40 years, is the most powerful, vital, intense and astonishing novel I know. I love novels that are unpredictable and Dostoyevsky always surprises me. Another writer I admire, who I think is underrated, is John Cowper Powys. His characters have a rich and complex inner life. Until I was 17 (and realised I was no good) I wanted to act. My father loved the theatre and we went a lot. I read a lot of plays - Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov and Pinter, all of whom I was lucky enough to see performed. This early love of theatre influenced me, I enjoy writing dialogue and conceive of my novels in terms of scenes.
Although, as you will have gathered, realism is not really my thing, I hugely admire Zola and Balzac, who were brutally honest at a time when English authors had to pussyfoot around sex and create 'nice' heroes and heroines . As I get older I enjoy reading Henry James more and more. I thought Colm Toibin's The Master was a brilliant novel, capturing his voice without being a pastiche.
A list of novels that have meant a lot to me would have to include The Tin Drum, The Sea, The Sea, Henderson the Rain King, The Handmaid's Tale and Midnight's Children. When I was interviewed after my first novel was published, in 1978, I was asked if I thought the novel was dying. I didn't think so then; it's still alive and well nearly thirty years later and will be as long as people need storoes, which will be forever. Most recently Beyond Black, The Echo Maker and The Inheritance of Loss have all moved me deeply.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
MM: Lots of people will tell you it's impossible to get published but keep going until you finish that first book. Read voraciously and widely. Writing is lonely but take advantage of the many websites like this one that have made it easier to connect with other people. I've recently become involved with The Literary Consultancy's Mentoring scheme, which offers practical support to new writers.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
MM: Just: thanks Mark.
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