We know memory plays tricks, but as Andrew Miller and I activate our webcams to discuss his new novel, I reflect on the fact that it can’t really be 25 years – can it? – since the publication of his first novel, Ingenious Pain. “I say!” he says. “Each time I publish another book, I have lunch with my editor, we look at each other with an increasingly incredulous feeling that this is continuing. With the feeling also of getting away with it, that no one has stopped us yet!
Ingenious Pain has won numerous awards, including the International Dublin Literary Award in 1999, and since then Miller has published eight more novels, including his latest, The Slowworm’s Song. The shortened sense of time between then and now could also be related to the fact that on my laptop screen, Miller doesn’t look much older now than he did then, certainly nothing to do with his 60 years. The effect is enhanced by its holiday background: a white wall, a blue stable door and floral painting in blue and yellow.
He is not on vacation but in the southwest of England, in “a classic little Somerset village, more cows than people in fact”, his home for 16 years, where he lives with his daughter 17 years old. Fittingly, our two locations – Somerset and Belfast – cover the sets for his new novel.
However, I wanted to ask him the title of the book first. He has a good ear for a resonant track, after all — Oxygen, The Optimists, One Morning Like a Bird — and finding the right track is “really important to me,” he says. “It’s the opening line, in a way. When people just look at the object, the author’s name might not mean anything, but the title should mean something.
Along with The Slowworm’s Song, the title comes from the modernist poem Briggflatts by Basil Bunting: “So he arose and drove silently home through a clean forest / Where every branch repeated the song of the Slowworm.” Miller says, “It was perfect. There’s just something about that little bit of verse from a long, long poem, that suggested breaking free through something.
This pretty much sums up the theme of the novel. It’s told by Stephen Rose, a 51-year-old recovering alcoholic living in Somerset, writing a kind of letter to his adult daughter, Maggie, as he tries to come to terms with a defining period of his past: he was a soldier. in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, and one event in particular continues to shake his mind.
When I ask where the story comes from, Miller talks about “little rootlets” for the book “going back to different places. One of them goes back to a place in Somerset, a kind of very powerful atmospheric zone, dominated by Glastonbury Tor It’s kind of a very powerful landscape.
“And there’s also the story of a squad that had served in Northern Ireland, and that was something that had been on my mind for a very, very long time. It was one of those things that I I grew up and 250,000 soldiers served there at one time or another, and I didn’t know much from their point of view.
“I just felt there was something unsaid in there, which is how do you get over something you don’t have to get over? How do you get over that you can’t come back from?
I am aware that my editors had an element of nervousness, they were very supportive of me but it also immediately sounded the alarm
This “recovery” relates to the central event of Stephen’s time in Northern Ireland. And the book is published, I mention it, just after the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Did Miller have any concerns about the book from a sensitive point of view, about writing from the perspective of a British soldier in Ireland?
“Oh yes, definitely. Absoutely. And the more you go, the more you realize that in fact” – he pauses and his voice drops – “we probably shouldn’t do this. He laughs, perhaps nervously. “It was really like [the book] was going to be watched by other people I started to think, maybe it’s just going to piss someone off terribly. But I hope not. Stephen comes from a particular place and he has quite mixed opinions about what happened around the British Army in Ireland.
“But I’m aware that my editors had an element of nervousness, they were very supportive but that also immediately raised alarm bells. But there’s an element of ‘publish and be damned’ I guess.
It is certainly true that The Slowworm’s Song is not a celebration of the British presence (“When is it ever possible to watch a movie of soldiers in the streets”, asks Stephen in the book, “and not have any doubts about the correctness of this one?”).The focus is on Stephen’s regret and how what he did when he was in Belfast aged 22 the fucked up.
In this sense, the book follows a line in Miller’s work, most clearly from his earlier novel Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, which explored guilt in another war – Britain’s campaign against Napoleon in Spain – 200 years ago. years ; but also in earlier novels like The Crossing, where an enigmatic main character had to deal with a tragic accident.
Ireland, in fact, is closer to the very English-sounding Miller than you might think: his father was born in Belfast in 1925. “He told us that quite late, really. It wasn’t someone who sat down at night and said, you know, son, that was my childhood. It just didn’t cross his mind, but as he got older, a little more of that started to come out. He certainly considered himself a Scot, [but] his father worked for a company in Belfast, and he stayed there for five years.
Miller himself has visited Belfast on several occasions, partly because “it would be strange to put a book where the city is quite important, and not have set foot there”. But his novel about revolutionary France, Pure, is taught as an A-level text at Belfast Metropolitan College, which also brought him. And, inevitably for anyone with a parent born on the island, Miller and his daughter became Irish citizens after Brexit. “It feels like a surprisingly generous thing from the Irish state.”
I found it to be a struggle. And I’m still not sure of the voice, if I threw it [right]
Setting – time as well as place – is always essential in Miller’s fiction. Where his most garlanded novels have been historical – like Ingenious Pain, or Pure – the setting of The Slowworm’s Song is almost contemporary: a man in 2011 looking back to the 1980s. With the broad, all-knowing eye of his stories, Miller for the first time told a story in the first person.
“And it may be the last!” he said laughing. “I thought it was a struggle. And I’m still not sure about the voice, if I threw it [right].” The problem, he explains, is writing in the voice of someone who “isn’t a very educated man. There is a certain type of literary language that I wanted to stay away from. It had to be more conservative language, and I’m someone who, whatever else I am, I’m someone who is steeped in literature. Normally, I’m like a portable camera, I can move around, I can be very close. And I like it, it’s much better. So I don’t know if I would rush back to first person.
This, and the uncertainty over the setting, seems to reflect an ambiguity on Miller’s part about The Slowworm’s Song in general – or it could just be a very English sort of self-effacement. When talking in general terms about his next novel, he seems more enthusiastic: “I’ve embarked on something new, which looks like what I’ve been looking for for a long time.” No details, but “sometimes in the desert you find the burning bush. And sometimes you have to settle for one that’s a bit smoldering. With Slowworm, there was always a certain sense of struggle.
Anyway, I offer at the end of our call, I hope The Slowworm’s Song does him some good. “Good.” He pauses. “It will do something. It’s done now. We have moved on! He may still be thinking about how he’s “done” after 25 years – although readers and award juries have been very pleased with the results.