Irvine Welsh of the Boro
Charlotte Stretch interviews Apples author Richard Milward.
While arranging an interview with Richard Milward, author of the bestselling novel Apples, his publicist reminds me that the appointment has to fit in with Richard’s course at art school. This makes me think two things: firstly, that Milward is, as all the critics say, obscenely young to have written such an astonishing debut; and secondly, he apparently refuses to be content with just the one creative talent. Such things lead me to a third, slightly worrying, thought: he is, by rights, sure to be a cocky overachiever.
The reality is somewhat different, however. In the café where we have agreed to meet, I spot him standing shyly in the entrance. As we settle down to the interview, he is extremely polite and (initially at least) more of a student than anything else, chatting about coursework, deadlines, marking and exams.
It’s only when we begin discussing Apples that Milward the novelist emerges. He is massively enthusiastic about his writing, and despite his studies seems determined not to stray from the path he’s chosen. “First and foremost, I want to be a writer,” he says. “I think that’s where my strengths lie – the painting’s a nice sort of antidote to it, just sort of an outlet.” Such vehemence, however, belies Milward’s obviously keen eye for the visual throughout his writing, emerging in a style of writing that a number of critics have referred to in artistic terms. “In art you’re kind of encouraged to be experimental which in writing, is maybe not always… So I quite like treating writing as being able to do whatever you want. I want it to be real, but also have this kind of magical side to it. I want a nice balance, which comes out of an artistic way of looking at it, I guess. Like in the descriptions, they’re a bit weird and wonderful.”
True to his reputation as a prodigious novelist, Milward began writing at the age of 12, “that age where you sort of tell everyone everything. I didn’t get much stick for it, but people thought it [being a writer] was dead weird, you know, so I didn’t really want to share it in the end.” He grew up in Middlesbrough, where Apples is set – a fact that inevitably invites speculation about novel’s degree of autobiography. “It is a total mix [of fiction and autobiography]. It’s just kind of based on stories that you hear. In the novel, things that I’ve based on real things, I’ve twisted so people don’t know it’s about them.” A wise decision, perhaps: Apples is an outrageous account of hedonism, soaked in the sex and drugs that, as Milward would have you believe, characterise adolescence. One of the novel’s key characters, Adam, only reluctantly subscribes to this culture however, preferring to stay inside the safety zone of his own bedroom. “People ask me if I’m Adam,” Milward says, “but it’s kind of like, it’s a mix in a way. ‘Cause when I was writing that, I’d be going out and getting experiences, getting wrecked and all that, and it was dead happy. But then, as a writer, you know, sort of compare that to being Adam: locking myself up a bit, being a bit of a recluse like that.”
I ask Milward about the local reaction, and he beams happily. “I did my first radio in Middlesbrough, and they had a questions and answers bit, and that went down really good. Like this teacher said it had changed his perspective on how he saw his kids, you know, that he teaches, that they were, like, tearaways and stuff but he saw them differently after reading the book. And I thought that’s enough, just to have that compliment.”
Apples is, certainly, a refreshing diversion from the glut of London novels that dominate contemporary writing. Will his time in London affect a witty and accurate vision of his native town? “I’ve actually got to go back to Middlesbrough, after my art and that so… I can only write about places I’ve been, and places I’ve lived in, and I’ve only lived in two places in my life. I think that Middlesbrough is quite close to my heart; when I move back now I’ll probably write about it, but a slightly different perspective again.” As it happens, the next stage of Milward’s crusade to put Middlesbrough on the map has already taken place: his next book, he reveals, adopts the same setting. “It’s quite like how someone like Irvine Welsh has quite strictly written about Edinburgh all the time, interspersed with other places. I quite like that sort of stubbornness, you know, just giving a sort of insight into somewhere that doesn’t have any little histories, and that no-one’s written about.”
Though Milward is secretive about his work, admitting, “I don’t show anyone the book until it gets to the stage where I think it’s completely done,” he is happy to discuss the new novel (recently dropped off to the publishers), albeit without giving too much away. When I ask what it’s about, he laughs and says, “It’s about sex, death, paint and sweets.” He’s more keen to talk about the structure, anyway, which is clearly a source of pride and excitement. “It’s a bit more experimental, now, like, just one paragraph long. I like that idea of not needing the paragraph, just doing the continuous prose where the characters will come in and out, kind of how the page looks a bit like a tower block. That’s the part of writing I enjoy the most, just playing about with structure.” The eclecticism of Apples, it seems, applies to Milward’s whole approach to writing, and he expresses a desire to continuously produce fresh and innovative ideas. “Apples is loads of different characters, and first person, and past tense; this one’s third person, present tense,” he discloses. “The worst thing for me would be to get stuck in a rut. The themes are kind of similar, but it’s got to be something that’s really different.”
It is this determined attitude and remarkable drive which has given Milward not only his success, but also the certainty about his future. Even starting out, Milward appears to have been relentless in his ambition. “I was constantly sending stuff out,” he reveals. “I’ve got stacks of rejection letters, but when people have faith they’re like, ‘Just carry on.’ I knew how hard it was to get a book published, but I kind of always knew I was going to stick to it, and carry on and not give up after the first one, and for every book, finish one. I like to just start them straight away. I’ve never really had writer’s block in my life, touch…” He turns his eyes to the tables, and laughs. “Touch formica.” His superstition might lack convention, but Milward, surely, wouldn’t have it any other way.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Charlotte Stretch lives in Brixton where she is a freelance writer and an editor of 3:AM. She is currently working on her first novel.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 3rd, 2008.