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.
His new novel, Pure, 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. He lodges with the family living adjacent to the cemetery, in rooms heavy with the scent of death. To complete this monumental task, he hires an old friend and a band of Flemish miners, but finds the locals suspicious of his endeavours. He is also startled to find the church's organist still living within in its crumbling walls, along with his daughter.
In January 2012, Pure was announced as the winner of the 2011 Costa Book of the Year.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, he 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.
Below the interview is a list of titles by Andrew Miller currently in print in the UK. You may find other editions in our 'New and Used' section by typing the author's name into the Search field at the top of this page and selecting the 'Author Exact' filter to the far right of the Search field.
Questions & Answers
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.