Meeting Alex Miller part four: on re-reading, storytelling, and writing as a woman

Alex_Miller_Conditions_of_FaithSee also – part one: on the origins of a contemporary story; part two: on wisdom and imagination and part three: on cross-eyed novels, the time we have, and liberties of language. My feature interview with Alex Miller on his new novel, Lovesong (Aus, US), was published in Readings Monthly. You can find it here.

Here’s something I don’t do enough, re-read books. Miller said: ‘Re-reading books is a big deal to me. If I’ve been impressed by a book, if I really like it, then I will say okay, in a year or two, I’ve gotta go back and read it. While there is still some of the energy of the first reading left, but, in a sense you’ve almost forgotten everything. It’s really weird. I’ve been having a big splurge of re-reading Nabokov lately. I’ve read about seven of his books in a straight row, and a couple that I hadn’t read before, like Invitation to a Beheading, and The Eye. But then I thought okay now it’s enough, it’s time to go back to Alexis [Wright]. It’s amazing the similarities in a sense. She’s another one who rips into the language – not in such a self-conscious way, although Nabokov is kinda assailed by his verbal imagination. Alexis is also assailed – she’s liberated herself from the norms – she’s relaxed in a sense, into her own familiar idiom. And the idiom changes and swerves and moves around, from the idiom of Aboriginal people who’ve grown up on the tips on the edge of town – and educated people. And it swerves around in between all these, but it does it with huge energy and confidence. A truly great book. You don’t always recognise that at first reading, because it’s so new and so different, like music.’

One of the central issues of Miller’s life, he said, is the ‘difference between storytelling and storywriting’. ‘I gave it to Sabiha [in Lovesong] to say that storytelling is a communal thing. You’re in a group, you’re sitting around in a group, chatting. Dad used to tell us stories every night when I was a kid. For Dad it was the company. The company made the story. When I wrote my first novel, he said “so what?” Because it wasn’t an improvement over telling – it was a lessening, a reducing of experience. Because it’s a solitary thing. Y’no Sabiha says, looking at John reading in bed, she says “men are lonely, look at them”. He’s in there alone with that book. Why is he reading that autobiography? He’s trying to find himself in there he’s trying to find an echo of his own life in it. And reading and writing are solitary experiences. And it’s the imagination that gives you your company. In a sense it’s a very self-centred thing, both reading and writing. And I can’t live without either of them, but so what? Y’no? But telling a story, you’re with company and to tell the story is an improvisation, always. It’s always different. Someone tells you a good story and you think “I’d love to tell that story” and sometimes you dare to. And you have to change it…’

After I told him a bit about a story I ‘found’ on the tram on the way to Carlton to meet him he said: ‘So that’s it isn’t it, partly what we do. We celebrate the stories … To me it’s very important that the people you write about acknowledge themselves in what you’re written.’

We talked a bit about Conditions of Faith as it’s the one I was reading at the time of our interview, and is set in the time of Miller’s mother’s youth.

He said: ‘I was doing a reading in Sydney and the young woman down the back selling books was glaring at me. She had her arms folded. During discussion time, she stood up she said “yeah, you really disappointed me. Meeting you today is a big disappointment for me.” She said “I read your book and I knew the woman who was writing it. And I imagined the woman who was writing it. I believed in her”. It didn’t have a photograph on it [the book], and obviously she didn’t do any enquiries and didn’t know me before … she said “when I met you today I thought, this can’t be right”. So I had a chat to her about it afterwards, and she finally cracked a smile, but she was seriously upset! But I thought – it’s a great compliment … I don’t have a problem writing as a woman. Why should that be different or difficult? I mean, Sabiha [in Lovesong] is the main character. I didn’t set out to make her the main character. She became the main character. When I read Mum’s memoirs, what there were of them, I just saw my mum as a young woman in Paris. She didn’t know Dad, she didn’t have kids, didn’t have anything like that. The whole world lay before her. What was she gonna do? And it was all so exciting. That was where I started from.’

I hope you’ve enjoyed this four-part insight into one of Australia’s best writers, and one of my personal favourites. Again, Miller’s new novel Lovesong is just out – a great Xmas pressie in hardcover, but I would also recommend all of his backlist, particularly Prochownik’s Dream (if you’re a creative type), Landscape of Farewell (to anyone) and Conditions of Faith (to anyone who has stared out a window wishing to be somewhere else). And I hope Santa brings me The Ancestor Game for Xmas, because it’s just about the only one I haven’t read!

3 thoughts on “Meeting Alex Miller part four: on re-reading, storytelling, and writing as a woman

  1. Enjoyed ‘The Ancestor Game’ a few years ago, so will read Alex’s new one. The issue of writing opposite gender characters is a challenge for many authors, especially in YA. How about some examples of female authors who write men well?

  2. I really like MJ Hyland’s character Patrick Oxtoby, in This is How. I haven’t read all her books but I believe they’re all male characters. Looking at my bookshelf now I realise there aren’t many examples of this. Personally I’ve really enjoyed writing male characters lately. Miller is right in that it doesn’t have to be an issue. I know many men and the imagination fills in the gaps. Thanks for your comment Hazel!

  3. Pingback: Let's read writing by women | LiteraryMinded

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