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James Miller in Conversation with Fernando Sdrigotti

By Fernando Sdrigotti.

Unamerican Activities

James Miller is the author of the novels Lost Boys (Abbacus, 2008) and Sunshine State (Abacus, 2011). His latest book unAmerican Activities, published by Dodo Ink in 2017, is a hilarious and timely piece of satire that falls somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories. Unable to overcome the natural border imposed by the River Thames, partly due to time constraints but mostly out of pride, we conducted this interview over a series of emails during spring 2018. 
— Fernando Sdrigotti.

3:AM Magazine: Exploding zombie cocks, vampires, gun-proud Americans, displaced British scholars with received English accents, religious fanatics, doomsday prophets, your book UnAmerican Activities constructs a constellation of characters and stories that is at times bizarre, at times creepy, sad, and often very funny. Having read only your opera prima — Lost Boys — I felt there was a satirical element in this latter work that clearly departs from a more solemn piece of writing. But then your second book is set in America… Would you tell us a bit about how this book came to be, and how it departs — if it does — from your previous work?

James Miller: In a sense, UnAmerican Activities builds on my second novel, Sunshine State, in that it is also a dystopian type satire set in a near future America — one that has balkanised into militant Christian and other radical identity based factions, all at war with one another. So both books exaggerate certain tendencies in American society for satirical and dramatic effect. I’ve since called the style ‘Deranged Realism’ which is based on the notion that the realism of the Anglo-American novel was predicated on the stability and efficacy of democratic and rational norms — unlike tin-pot dictatorships, Communist regimes etc. which rule through fear and propaganda and ideological distortion. But recent events have shown the Anglo-American world, far from being at the vanguard of a progressive, liberal vision of the future, is undergoing ruptures induced by a crisis of the everyday — a crisis bound up with the stalling of the meta-narrative of liberal-democratic capitalism which has intensified following the crash of 2007-8 and the failure to find any new, coherent, forward looking visions of the future. Reality is now entirely shaped by media and capitalist images of itself. Important distinctions between more metaphysical concepts like presence and absence, private and public, duty and desire have collapsed as have distinctions between politics and entertainment, news and amusement etc. All of these changes, some technological, some ideological, some a mixture of both have deformed the field that the novel is set against. As a result, Anglo-American society is undergoing convulsions of the body politic, outrages against self-evident reality and inversions of the everyday we all took for granted, and this, in turn, licenses a sort of turbulence in one’s writing. Between the writing of  Sunshine State and UnAmerican Activities is a gap of about seven years — although some of the stories in the book were first written around the same time… but in this period there’s been a shift from dystopia as a future potential immanent within the present into the present itself becoming a sort of constantly shifting dystopian distortion — the terrible future, although always slightly postponed, is also sort of already here… so as a result the latter book is set now, as opposed to fifty years hence. I mean, it’s funny, I used to give readings of Sunshine State and twice I had an outraged American in the audience — Floridians, of course — both liberal Americans who denounced the implausibility of the vision behind this book, said America “wasn’t like that at all”.  But, well, now… it seems tame, really.

3:AM: One thing that struck me about UnAmerican Activities is that it seems to be describing contemporary America but it always falls short from addressing the figure of, say, Donald Trump. Is this something intentional or a matter of timing?

JM: Well, some of the stories — in early drafts —  date back to 2008, 2010, even 2013/4 when the notion that this imbecile, this vile reality TV star and failed businessman could become President was totally absurd. Since then we’ve sort of gone down the rabbit hole, really — the deranged scenes in the book and reality itself have merged. I was writing the epilogue just before the election and considered putting Trump in it, or talking about the election, but then I thought, ”No, he can’t win, it’s impossible, America is a fucked up place but it’s not that fucked up.“ Sadly, I was wrong. I think we’re only beginning to realise just how ”broken” reality has become — writers, artists and musicians are going to take a while to work out how to respond to this situation. Everything changes so rapidly, that’s another problem. These days possibly the sharpest satire is the Twitter meme.

3:AM: I have seen UnAmerican Activities described both as a novel and as a collection of short stories. I am not sure how to categorise it myself as there are many connections between the stories which resemble the narrative coherence of a novel but also the stories stand alone without the need of an overarching narrative. How would you class it?

JM: We like to argue about whether UnAmerican Activities is a novel or a collection of short stories. I would say it’s both. Unlike a collection, but like a novel, it is meant to be read in order, the stories like chapters. It’s the difference between an album that’s just a collection of songs and a carefully constructed sequence of music, with motifs and refrains that speak back and talk to one another. Some of the stories follow on directly from the last and reading them in the presented order generates a certain narrative effect; but that said, the book started as disparate stories. In pauses between trying to write novels I enjoy writing short stories and found myself going back to and playing with certain motifs from genre fiction — vampires, zombies, UFOs — but trying to add a leftfield slant that usually involved presenting these outlandish themes with a more downbeat, pseudo-realist setting, tone and a tongue-in-cheek ”engagement” with current issues. After I’d written a few of these I saw a pattern starting to emerge — all had the constraint of an unreliable first person narrator, gratuitous sex, violence or drug abuse and the parodying of one genre cliché or another — so I consciously began grouping them together and writing a few more new stories that would also participate or bring through the narrative arc I was creating across the collection. By means of research I watched a lot of conspiracy theory videos on YouTube, especially those linking the Nephilim and Biblical prophecy with more obvious tropes derived (unconsciously, it seemed) from sci-fi movies and generalised cultural paranoia, in which angels quickly also become aliens who also have vampiric qualities and – of course – have secretly influenced the entire trajectory of human history. (Not to mention the horror of inter-alien human breeding, a big concern among the Christian-apocalyptic right). Some of these videos are genius — a folk sci-fi — it’s just that they present themselves as ”the truth” when they should be appreciated as brilliant inventions. But I decided to take a lot of these ideas as if they were true.

3:AM: Now, feel free to answer the following question with a “why not?”, but I am curious as to why you write so much about American culture. Is it purely an intellectual interest? Do you have a connection to America?

JM: I lived in Connecticut (my Dad worked in NYC) between the ages of 3 and 5 so all my formative memories are of America — when we came back to the UK I had an American accent etc. and I suppose, in a way, was an American little boy. That’s where the connection must have started. The majority of my literary influences are American — I’ve always preferred the great American novel with its range and audacity over the more mannered preoccupations of the English novel. I guess I secretly want to be an American writer, not an English one. My PhD is in American literature as well so the connection is both intellectual and more personal. I’m fascinated by the craziness of America: here, we’re just a lot more repressed, a lot more controlled — it’s much harder for ”stuff to really happen”. This makes day to day living more civilised but does impose a certain reserve on one’s writing.

3:AM: I haven’t read Sunshine State yet, but coming from Lost Boys I was surprised to discover a comedic strain in your writing. Is this something you intended to do? Did you write towards a comedic effect or did you find yourself there?

JM: It’s true, much of my other work takes itself VERY SERIOUSLY and has zero laughs but I’ve always had more of a comic side than a book like Lost Boys might suggest. I found the stories getting more and more ridiculous — ‘Exploding Zombie Cock‘ was the real catalyst — and I realised humour was the best ”filter” with which to write about these things. Also, the stories all play with horror/sci-fi genre motifs, and these genres always lurk very close to the comic. Get horror wrong and it’s not scary, it’s silly. There is something wonderfully subversive about humour, especially when mingled with the more reactionary qualities of satire. In a sense the whole book is a huge piss-take — and, as the prologue and epilogue should make clear — I’m taking the piss out of myself most of all.

3:AM: Accents — that of your characters — seem to form an important part of UnAmerican Activities. For example, when reading the parts of the British professor I couldn’t help recognising the linguistic patterns of the stereotypical British scholar. Being British I guess this is easy for you. But how did you go about writing the accent of the American characters?

JM: It’s tricky and I’m not sure I got them quite right all the time — but then I’ve woven a sort of frame around the stories that makes it clear they are my reinterpretations of material that was sent to me, so some distortion is built into the very fabric of the work. I think I have quite a good ear and I’ve immersed myself in American culture for many years. Some of my closest friends are Americans as well and I had a couple of them checking earlier drafts for any glaring clangers.

3:AM: I would describe UnAmerican Activities as a work of satire. Would you agree with this? If so, what do you think are the pros and cons of satire?

JM: I suppose it is a sort of satire. I guess the problem is, as I said above, that we seem to be in an era whereby reality is out-satirising itself. Trump, Brexit, these events would be dismissed as fanciful, over the top imagings had someone invented them ten years ago. It’s a struggle for “satire” to keep up — it’s bound to be even more of a reactionary position. I suppose I’m quite a traditional moralist, really, with a belief in decency, fairness and social justice and I’m just incandescent with rage and horror at the way the world is going. Everything is so very wrong — I have to try and write about it, somehow.

3:AM: One thing I think your book manages pretty well is to deal with a very contemporary kind of stupidity — a reactionary stupidity that is at the intersection of religion, conspiracy theories, right wing politics and the Spectacle. If you had to write UnBritish Activities, what would be the form this project would take?

JM: It would be a book about some ardent Brexiters campaigning for Brexit. We’re living in very divided times and at the moment  it’s clear that the slim majority of very stupid people (turns out about 51% of the population are imbeciles) have somehow been allowed to directly influence government policy or have in fact taken over the government.

3:AM: You teach creative writing, are a member of staff in a very renowned department. How does your involvement in academia inform your writing? Do you feel it limits your ability to write about certain topics? Does it give you a platform? Is it just a matter of making ends meet?

JM: Ultimately, one has to earn a living. This is impossible with writing alone. Teaching creative writing is a good fit with “being” a writer — the two activities are complementary and there’s a lot of freedom in the job, a lot of my time is mine to manage how I see fit. This gives me vastly more freedom to write than a 9-6 type job where it’s impossible. Plus I love universities, the culture of learning, teaching, talking about books and ideas — to me this is heaven, as close to utopia as one can get. Teaching CW helps you clarify your own practice and craft, but it can be slightly deadening, especially if one has a lot of mediocre work to look at. But then there is also the thrill of discovering new talent — I’ve taught a lot of brilliant students who have gone on to get published and this to me is immensely satisfying, almost as satisfying as getting published myself. Of course, thanks to the last ten years of government “reforms” the universities are now in crisis — it’s been an astonishing act of vandalism — and the system is going to shit. It’s all part of the collapse of the “real” that I’ve been talking about earlier. All the true values that should inform learning and education have been corrupted by neoliberal shock doctrine policies that devalue everything — now it’s all about money, something called “the student experience” and “student satisfaction” and meaningless performance metrics. I do feel sorry for students today, they have a shockingly bad time of it compared to my experience of university in the nineties. The sector has truly embraced the race to the bottom. It’s a great tragedy. But, for the moment at least, I still have some time to write (not nearly as much as I’d like) and the “system” wants me to write, so it will do for now.

3:AM: UnAmerican Activities was published by Dodo Ink, an independent press. What do you feel are the pros and cons of publishing with an indie press?

JM: The pros are that it’s a more hands-on personal experience, you have more say in what happens and can feel like your publisher actually cares about you and your book. It feels more like a ‘family’ enterprise, which can be lovely. On the cons side, they have less clout with Amazon, Waterstones etc., less influence with literary editors, festivals, less resources for promotion and publicity, perhaps less experience at managing these things as well. Less money. So what can you do?

3:AM: Can you tell us something about your current projects?

JM: I’m about halfway through the second draft of a new novel. It’s set in London, back in Notting Hill (like Lost Boys) and it’s a little more of a genre piece, a thriller-horror type thing. There are murders, a weed smoking detective, black dogs, a rediscovered manuscript, a dead father, an old friend from childhood who returns amid an escalation of violence. It’s perhaps lacking in laughs but I hope it delivers at least in page turning power.


James Miller

James Miller
is a London-based novelist. He is the author of Lost Boys, Sunshine State and UnAmerican Activities. He teaches creative writing at University of Kingston. @jmlostboys


Fernando Sdrigotti

Fernando Sdrigotti writes and edits Minor Literature[s]. He is the author of Dysfunctional Males. His novella Shitstorm is forthcoming with Open Pen, in November 2018. @f_sd

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 7th, 2018.