About The Author
Andrew Miller was born in Bristol in 1960. He has lived in Spain, Japan, Ireland and France, and currently lives in Somerset. He is the author of six novels; his fiction has been translated into over 30 languages.
His first novel, Ingenious Pain, was published in 1997 and won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction and Italy's Grinzane Cavour prize. Set in the 18th century, its tells the extraordinary story of a surgeon unable to feel pain.
Casanova, a fictional portrait of its titular subject, was published in 1998, followed, in 2001, by Oxygen, which introduced a haunted Hungarian playwright into the lives of a woman dying of cancer and her two unhappy sons; it was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Novel Award.
Since then he has published The Optimists (2005), which depicted a photojournalist's return home to domestic difficulty after covering atrocities in war-torn Africa, and One Morning Like A Bird (2008), set in Japan, where a young poet is grappling with the realities of life during wartime.
Pure, which won the 2011 Costa Book of the Year, is set a few years before the French Revolution and sees provincial engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte charged with clearing the bones from the overflowing cemetery of Les Innocents in the heart of Paris.
(Beneath the interview on his new novel, you can read our previous interview, conducted when Pure was first pubished; Andrew talks about different ways of shaking off the burden of history, the limits to social climbing in pre-Revolutionary France and and why any of us get up in the morning at all.)
His latest novel is The Crossing, just out in paperback. Set in the present day, he sees a blossoming relationship between two young people brought together by a love of sailing. But their between Maud, a pharmaceutical researcher, and Tim, a muscian, is to be devastated by tragedy. As Tim's family closes ranks around him, Maud embarks on an epic expiatory journey.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Andrew talks about wrangling with a main character who defies categorisation, the sentence that kickstarted the book, and frigatoons, heart thimbles and rumbos.
Questions & Answers
Maud sports, and is often judged for, a tattoo of the words Sauve Qui Peut. Why does she cast such a shield of apparent indifference around herself?
In an earlier version of the novel I explained the origin of the tattoo. Later I preferred to leave it as a 'given'. I never wanted to explain Maud - I wanted to present her. I wasn't particularly interested in her 'psychology'; I was interested in her movement, her atmosphere. I often thought of her in terms of a non-human animal - a horse, a dog. Other characters in the book sometimes do that too. Attempts to catagorize her, to understand her, end in failure. She is indigestible! Simply Maud, simply there. It is possible (the old vicar thinks so) that she is not from quite the same human roots as those around her. (I'm quite interested in the idea now being suggested by bone-finds and combing through the DNA, that there were a number of competing 'human' groups in the era before homo sapiens domination) but it's just a theory and more likely wrong than right.
Why did you decide to avoid describing directly the incident that devastates the relationship between Tim and Maud?
There were several reasons for avoiding a more direct description of the 'incident that devastates the relationship between Tim and Maud', most of them to do with dramatic effect. It's also probably true that I could not bring myself to write it in a way that would require me to picture things I did not want to picture.
You've taken great care to employ all the correct jargon for sailing sequences. How did you go about researching this?
Sailing has a language all its own - highly evolved, exact, and horribly easy to get wrong. I have done a fair amount of sailing and did more for this book but a copy of Burgess's A Dictionary of Sailing was never far from my desk, a little book full of terms I would love to have found room for - frigatoon, heart thimble, rumbo.... I am also much indebted to chandlers' catalogues, their lists of merchandise that are a kind of poetry of the practical.
How would an experienced sailor assess an attempt to cross the Atlantic single-handedly in a 32-foot sailing boat?
An experienced sailor would have no great qualms about crossing the Atlantic in Maud's boat - an old boat but sea-worthy and built for blue water. As for the way Maud handles herself - it's a great deal better than anything I could manage. She's highly practical and very stubborn. Good qualities in a solo sailor, I think.
You've published seven novels now, shifting constantly in period and location, from the 18th century to the present day, Tokyo to Paris. What tends to be the starting point of your ideas for each novel? Are there any situations you feel you might return to at some point?
With The Crossing, I found myself one day writing a sentence that contained the image of a sailing boat (two to be exact), and in that moment uncovered a longing to stay with that world - with boats and the sea. It may - that moment - have revived memories of childhood holidays on the south coast (Kingswear) and of sailing with my father and brother. Who knows? It doesn't matter. And in the end The Crossing is not a book 'about' boats and the sea. That was just a first impulse, the first driver. As for my returning, from book to book, to similar situations, certain patterns, I suspect I do that all the time. Most writers do, don't they?
If enjoyment of The Crossing were to encourage a first-time Andrew Miller reader to try another your other books, which would you recommend first?
For someone who enjoyed The Crossing, perhaps I'd point them towards Oxygen. Or for the sake of contrast (though there are also continuities), to Ingenious Pain.
Pure is set a few years before the French Revolution, with public discontent still largely expressed in whispers. Were you looking to explore the underpinnings of later events or was them some other aspect of the period that attracted you?
The revolution hangs over the story like - well - the blade of a guillotine. The events of the story are a kind of ghoulish preface to that odd period of freedom, joy and mass murder between the storming of the Bastille and the Napoleonic coup. Everyone (except the poor king) knew something is coming. Few could have imagined the final shape of that something. Certainly very few could have predicted the brutality of it.
The existence of the church and cemetery of Les Innocents are historical fact. Did you have to take any liberties with this history or are the records very few anyway?
The records are few though I'm sure, had it mattered, I could have found more. My main source was a book by Phillipe Aries, a study of Western attitudes to death and burial, called The Hour of Our Death [currently out of print]. Two or three paragraphs described the demise of this appalling cemetery. I was struck by the way the cemetery's physical destruction had something very theatrical about it, but what made it seem worth taking further was the date of the destruction, just a few years before the Revolution. Clearly this was more than simply a public health matter. Clearing away half a millennia of bones from a site in the centre of Paris was, in some degree, inspired by the new thinking. The past would be got rid off. Everyone would start again unburdened by History. A few years after the disappearance of Les Innocents the Revolutionary government set the hands of Time to zero.
Jean-Baptiste Baratte's lodgings with the Monnards are very meagre compared to the opulent echelon of society to which he has been introduced. Does this illustrate how unbridgeable the gap between rich and poor was at the time?
Jean-Baptiste has already risen above his class origins by virtue of his education and training. But no-one, including the family he lodges, with are going to mistake him for anyone of real importance. He has neither wealth nor blood.
The suit Baratte has made when he begins his work in Paris is of an extravagant and modern design. Does this choice mark his own feelings at the time of his rise in society or would is simply have been expected of a man his position?
The suit is modern. Jean-Baptiste very much wishes to be thought of as modern. But, of course, the suit never quite suits him!
Baratte is given to reading Buffon's ground-breaking Histoire naturelle during quiet evenings. Is this symbolic of a France keen embrace fresh ideas?
Yes. Jean-Baptiste is an assiduous and self-conscious consumer of the new thinking. For him, however, it is a fairly lonely exercise. He is not a clubbable man.
Baratte's friend from the mines, Lecouer, doesn't seem to adapt to city life as well. Are this perhaps symbolic of revolutionary and traditional France in opposition?
Le Coeur is my attempt at a portrait of a good hearted man who, one night, becomes a kind of monster (and knows it). He is (a little like Jean-Baptiste) a very lonely man.
The miners who accompany Lecouer to help with the work at Les Innocents are Flemish speakers. There had been incidents of strikes by miners in Flemish-speaking areas in the previous decade. Do you think they would have brought any kind of political awareness with them?
The miners are working men with their own traditions and mysteries. They are loyal only to themselves. They are kin perhaps to the English Luddites (whose 200th anniversary has just passed).
Is there any historical significance to 'Beche', the name given to Baratte by other members of the nascent revolution?
Beche is French for spade. Each of the 'conspirators' is named after some personal or professional attribute.
The places and times in which you've set your six novels have all been very different. Do they have anything in common in terms of why you've felt drawn to write about them?
Feel certain there must be an answer to this but am not quite sure what it is. I write about people trying to find some way to go on, meaningfully, with their lives. I suppose I'm interested in why any of us should get up in the morning.