Recently I interviewed Alex Miller about his new novel Lovesong (Aus, US) for Readings Monthly. As many of you know, Miller is not only one of Australia’s finest authors, but he’s one of my personal favourites, so I took this wonderful opportunity to extend my conversation with him to his other works, as well as writing and life in general. Over the coming weeks I’ll provide you with some snippets…
Before telling me how Lovesong came about, Miller went into detail about the novel previous – Landscape of Farewell, which is a haunting and stunning work of fiction. Like many of his works it is simply told, but the sweet weight of it creeps up on you sometime later.
All the pieces of Landscape came together for Miller when he was sitting in his room at a hotel in Hamburg – ‘this amazing old room, bit of an old baroque ballroom they’d given me for some reason at the hotel’, he said.
‘I was just sitting there looking out at these trees, slapping against the windows, and it was raining, and … I was overwhelmed for the week or so I was there by the Holocaust, really, because the young people wanted to talk about it – the old people didn’t. The people who were the children of the ones who’d committed the crimes didn’t want to say anything or talk about it. Very rarely could I get anything much out of them except defensiveness – they were dismissive, angry, repressive, apologetic in a weary sort of a way … but the younger people, their children, they were just longing to talk about it. And also talk about Aboriginal dispossession. So it was really on my mind.’
Then there’s the character of Dougald, an old Indigenous man who Max, the German, comes to live with. ‘I know the Aborigines have strategic intelligence, and leadership. No one ever writes about that. A massacre has come to mean the killing of blacks by whites, in this country, exclusively’, Miller said. ‘They conducted a fantastically well-organised massacre, where there were no black casualties, not that day (although in months – yes, retribution).’
Miller talked about preferring to write it as a contemporary story – one that has the weight of history, but can explore the effects of it by being set in the present. ‘I live in a post-Holocaust world, y’no? I live in a post WWII world, I live in a post-Vietnam world. My mind is not around that stuff [in history], so I couldn’t do it, I knew I couldn’t do it. Some people can.’ But Miller did see how he could do it, how it would fit: ‘I didn’t quite see the complete logic of it, but it became a chessboard and I saw the pieces. I saw the King and the Queen and I saw the pawns all lined up. All the black pawns lined up … And it kind of started to make sense and I quickly wrote [he pointed to my scribbled half-sheet of question paper] no more than that, on the back of a notebook.’
Where did Max come from, besides Miller being in Hamburg when the idea came together? ‘I knew this professor of history at Hamburg. I got to know him. And he was a really good guy and he was the only one, sort of my age, who would talk about the Holocaust, openly.’
So then Miller had his components, ‘and it took two years. And I was fairly empty by the time I finished it. I was very glad to have a period off. No writing. Just reading.’ And after this, Miller began writing something lighter, fresher – the ‘simple love story’, Lovesong.