SUZY, LED ZEPPELIN, PUNK AND ME: AN INTERVIEW WITH MARTIN MILLER
"I've never tried to write like Jane Austen or Dickens. Even if I could write like them -- which I can't -- but even if I could, I don't think it would be appropriate for the modern world. I spend time and effort to get the books looking like they've come out very simple in the first place. After the first draft the revisions are geared towards simplification. Making the sentences shorter. Cutting out inappropriate words. I like the effect of that. Not childish effects, but simple."
Richard Marshall interviews Martin Miller
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
MM: I like being disgruntled at lack of previous sales. It's the Thraxis books and swords and sorcery books that pay the rent these days. I like doing them. It was a strange departure in my life about four years ago. Four years ago I had just written a book, a sword and sorcery book. I had some time and I just wrote it. I've always liked that kind of thing since reading Michael Moorcock when I was a young boy. I wrote it and was picked up by a publisher, which was fortunate. They've gone fairly well since. One of them won a prize. A Fantasy award. That helped. They're sold to America but they're not out there yet. I've sold the Thraxas books [written under the name Martin Scott] to Russia, Japan, the Czech Republic, Poland -- most countries in Europe. It's not the most important thing though. The most important thing is the Martin Millar books.
I always wrote. I wrote a book at school. I wrote it out longhand, it wasn't very good. I did it intermittently after that. I wrote a book at 21. Then at 26 I wrote Alby Starvation which was the first book I tried to publish. I got an agent for it quite quickly. That was about 85. It took a long time to find a publisher. We had to work really hard to find a publisher. It took many, many rejections. Things went better after that.
3AM: The latest book Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me, out on Codex, is that autobiographical in parts?
MM: It's a novel. I remember the gig pretty well. I was there. But I've shaped it for my own storytelling purposes. A lot of it is autobiographical but there's a lot of shaping and reshaping. To make it a satisfying story. I was a fan of Led Zeppelin. At the time. As I say in the book, I forgot how big a fan I was and how big a part of my life they were. I forgot as life moved on. In recent years I have remembered how great a fan I was. It was a great gig. I have a bootleg tape of the gig. It's terrible quality, but it's great to listen to. It's strange to listen to something I was at so many years ago. It's the only bootleg I've ever owned. We've tried to contact the band, but they've never been very enthusiastic. Which is fair enough. There's no reason for them to be. My agent has at various times contacted them. We had some problems with lyrics I quoted which we wanted clearance for and we got nowhere with that. It wasn't really a problem. Just a couple of lines of lyrics. I just wrote the section and we sent it to the management. The management of the band showed no interest. But why should they? I suppose they get a lot written about them.
3AM: In the book you write about nostalgia and the way punk blew all those big bands away. You became a punk at the time. Looking back now in 2002, how do you feel about all that?
MM: It does seem a long time ago. I wonder now whether a couple of generations later young people are sick of hearing about punk rock. Who cares about The Sex Pistols? It was quite a long time ago. But once something has changed your life then it has. You can't help it. As I mention in the book, although it seems quite unimportant now, that year when progressive rock was defeated by punk rock, it did change my life. It inspired me to write. I used to think that the guitarists of these progressive bands had to be very advanced and so you couldn't make music unless you were a real expert, I had the same view about writing. After punk I just thought I'd write anyway. So that was important. When you listen now to the progressive rock bands it just sounds like guitar music, and then you listen to the punk bands and it sound like guitar music too. There's not that much difference really. Actually, the punk bands weren't as good. Except the Sex Pistols who were terrific. I made up a tape for the launch party that was seventies progressive rock and that was loud and raucous. I suppose it was about a changing attitude. Heavy rock and punk rock sound much more similar to each other than they do to anything today.
3AM: So did we lose something in losing the big rock bands? A fantasy element perhaps?
MM: Yes, they did have that. It depends what you were doing at the time. If you were alone in your bedroom these progressive bands did create a world which you could enter. It was fun. They were very good at that. Bands like Eater, one of Stewart Home's favourites -- and I like them too -- they were rebellious, but they weren't able to do that. The Roger Dean covers and the Yes albums. My friends would stare entranced at those covers. At fourteen we'd think it was fantastic. Look at that cover. They would fold out, huge things. I sold mine and regretted it afterwards. Mind you, it was high time for a bit of a shake up. There was a lot of terribly pretentious music about at the time. It was fitting and apt that punk happened at that time. It shook the country up. It lasted for a very long time. I'm 44. There must be a lot of people of my age in the arts who would say what it meant to them.
3AM: I identify with what you write about. I wonder if it's just generational or whether it also has something to do with northern provincialism. You introduce Glasgow in the book as if the reader might never have heard of Glasgow. There's a sense of feeling out of the cosmopolitan fast stream in that. Provincialism.
MM: I think this is possible. It might be as simple as in Glasgow there was absolutely nothing else to do except when a band came into town you had to go and see them. Or else you stood on a street corner. And that's what I did my whole early youth. Stand on street corners waiting for the next band to arrive. There was nothing else to do. I wonder if it was just a simple reason like that. I presume there was more to do in London. It only struck me as I wrote the book how me and my friends looked in 1972, 73. We looked like young hippies really, long hair and stuff. Thinking of that now, half the people of London had moved on from that since 1967. They'd be glam rockers by then. I felt very provincial. I couldn't put it into words but I felt I had to move to where things were happening. I was certainly keen to get away from Glasgow. Not that Glasgow was such a bad place, but I was keen to get away. It's a cleaner and nicer place now than it was then although where I lived was fine. It was a good bit of town. But I don't want to go back. I don't miss it. I'm at home here to the extent that I would still fanatically support Scotland but on the other hand I feel quite embarrassed when I see Scottish fans chewing on English fans. Get a life, I want to say to them.
3AM: Who do you think of as your audience, your readership?
MM: I think of young people because I still mistakenly think of myself as a young person. I'm not married, I haven't got children, I live on my own so I am shielded from some of the harsher realities of growing up. I selfishly spend my time doing what I want to do. So I think of my audiences as young. I don't know whether that's a good thing. It comes out fairly simple and then I pair it down to keep it simple. I like nineteenth century novels which are really complex but I don't like to write like that. I don't think it fits with the early twentieth century and the modern world. I like reading Jane Austen. She's my favourite, but there aren't that many novels. So someone else I like to read is Dickens. I like reading history. I don't read modern novels. I've never tried to write like Jane Austen or Dickens. Even if I could write like them -- which I can't -- but even if I could, I don't think it would be appropriate for the modern world. I spend time and effort to get the books looking like they've come out very simple in the first place. After the first draft the revisions are geared towards simplification. Making the sentences shorter. Cutting out inappropriate words. I like the effect of that. Not childish effects, but simple. I like to keep the chapters short as well. I do like American TV. Particularly Buffy.
3AM: We all love Buffy.
MM: Buffy rules. Buffy is the best. I like other things. I'm influenced by it. The attention span thing is quite important for books. If someone was to put out a Dickensian type book I would admire them, but it would take a braver person than me to launch that into the modern world. Although I guess you'd do it in bits. Instalments. It must have been rather different reading Dickens like that than now. I like a lot of things from ancient culture. I like Cicero. I like the Roman and the Greek world. I imagine myself in the Roman republic rather like when I was at the Led Zeppelin concert I imagined myself in some fantasy world. I still do that kind of thing. Maybe even with Buffy, I transport myself into her world. She's pretty full on these days -- sex up against the wall with Spike. It's great. I've loved that show right from the start.
3AM: Did you do the script for the film Tank Girl?
MM: No. I did the book of the film. I just got the finished script which was a poor script. A poor film. I was moderately a fan of the comic before the film. I liked the pictures. I didn't think the story was any good. She was a good icon, but there were very limited storytelling possibilities. So I think I wasn't a fan really. Buffy has good stories. They're very good at the story arc thing of a series -- good characters as well. I guess it must be down to Josh Wheedon -- a clever man -- he arrived with a very good set of characters. The six seasons of Buffy so far I have always been a fan. My friends are coming round. Some are pathetically asking me to fill them in on the first four seasons!
3AM: Are you a fan of the X Files? I love it for the same reason.
MM: I never got into that. I just tell myself not to get involved in another TV series. I watch too much. Sky TV is useless in some ways but it does bring in all this stuff which is very good. I particularly like Seinfeld and even more the Larry Sanders Show. The BBC put them on back to back at midnight. The BBC never showed them right. I do admire the writing of those shows. They probably have teams of people writing them. They are often very, very good. You get more enthusiastic about this type of thing than English literature -- English literature I wouldn't be able to give you such good conversation! I'm better at Buffy. I like films as well. I don't get to see quite enough to have a wide view but I like going to the pictures.
3AM: So what are your thoughts about the state of things at the moment?
MM: I have irrational prejudices about culture. I have a feeling that modern literature is pretty young women who work for advertising agencies who get a big advance and then their friends in journalism give them reviews. It's a view I pick up. There's not the nurturing that you thought went on in the past where you gave a talent twenty years to grow. Even after four or five books with Fourth Estate they dumped me which was a bit of a surprise. Such is life I guess. Fourth Estate used to be pretty cutting edge -- they started out like that but they seem more interested in being successful at the moment. To give them their due they are pretty successful. I don't want to sound like I'm whining. If you think about any artistic endeavour, its not as though anyone has any particular right to be published. You've just got to get in there and give it your best.
3AM: You come across as someone who is a fan. An enthusiast.
MM: Yes. Music. I like techno dance music. My intimate knowledge of rock music has faded with age which is a pity. I still like new things that I hear. I like The White Stripes. I like them, but I don't love them. That's what I feel about modern bands. I like Queens Of The Stone Age. Like them, don't love them. I like thrash metal as well, only because it's basically the same riffs as those from my past. It's better produced now, but if you were to take apart something like Limp Bizkit's "Chocolate Starfish" -- it's basically a riff that Black Sabbath could have produced. I like that because I've always liked that. I like movies. I liked Gosford Park a lot. I like cheerful American things. I think I'm still making up for being a fairly gloomy kid. That may be why I like teen TV. Clueless I liked. The finest example of that kind of thing is Legally Blonde.
3AM: Punk is an influence I take it?
MM: About my writing and punk. This thought has probably appeared in some of the theoretical books about punk that have appeared -- none of which I have read. I always thought it was important to read people like Jane Austen and learn how to put the language together and simplify it. And this reminds me that the best punk bands were probably the ones who could play their instruments best. This is not always true, there are exceptions, but I feel the best musicians were the best bands. Which wasn't what was supposed to be the case. The Sex Pistols, Steve Jones. He was a very good guitarist even though he hadn't been playing very long. They made a very good sound. They were very good songwriters, lyricists, they weren't really the shambles that they were pretended to be at the time. The Clash and Joe Strummer, an old stager really, a very experienced musician. I was in a band. A really bad one. Several. Bad punk bands. I believe in technique in writing. Enthusiasm can carry you a long way but not far enough. What do you think of that?
3AM: You're not that far away from Jane Austen. Tightly-structured and everything explained. Traditional. Read it quickly like Austen. A couple of hours. You come across as someone who knows what you're doing.
MM: I have not tried out new experimental models. I'm not doing a Kelman either. I'm not comfortable with that. I love PG Wodehouse. I love his sentences. It's just a fact that he makes his sentences so perfectly. I admire him for that. When I'm writing and revising the work I want to be able to read them out loud. I'd like to be as good as him. Evelyn Waugh's another writer I like. There is something satisfying in writing in that manner. I remember Waugh's Vile Bodies and Brideshead Revisited: great stuff. Another writer I need to mention, he wrote about sugar plantations, cakes and ale -- Somerset Maughan -- he described himself as top of the second division. He wrote in an interesting way about normal, mundane things. You can read his books and it would be hard to describe them. I like him a lot. I read a huge number of his books. I like reading, but I read history mostly. I drop that stuff into my writing. Penguin Classics I like to read. I read a huge amount of translations. Fortunately this doesn't crop up in my everyday life, but I have a friend who reads the same kind of stuff so we get into quite tedious conversations about this. My friend Andi, former punk/goth musician, Andi Sexgang, a fan of ancient Greece. We'd like to see movies of Salamis and Marathon, but I guess that's not going to happen.