Alex Miller is twice winner of Australia's premier literary prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and a recipient of the Centenary Medal for an outstanding contribution to Australian cultural life.
His books ad awards include:
- The Ancestor Game, awarded the Miles Franklin Literary Prize and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1993
- Conditions of Faith, awarded the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2001 NSW Premier's Awards
- Journey to the Stone Country, awarded the Miles Franklin Literary Prize in 2003
- Landscape of Farewell, awarded the 2008 Chinese Annual Foreign Novels 21st Century Award for Best Novel and the Manning Clark Medal for an outstanding contribution to Australian cultural life
- Lovesong, awarded the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2011 NSW Premier's Awards
- Autumn Laing, awarded the Melbourne Prize for Literature in 2012
- Coal Creek, awarded the 2014 Victorian Premier's Literary Award.
Nic Brasch: Alex Miller is one of Australia's most celebrated authors, twice winner of the Miles Franklin Award, winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Melbourne Prize for Literature, among others. Every new release by Alex creates a sense of excitement among Australia's writing community. Alex, welcome to The Garret.
Alex Miller: Thanks Nic, nice to be here.
Nic: Where does your gift for storytelling come from? Who in your family told stories?
Alex: My Dad was a storyteller, but he wasn't a story writer. And you should probably know this, there's as much difference between being a storyteller and story writer as there is probably between loving the violin and being able to play it.
Alex: And yeah, I grew up telling stories because I think in some ways we mimic our parents and are given permission by them to do certain things, and storytelling was really important to him.
Nic: Were the stories he told from his life or were they just stories that had been handed down, or were they stories that he'd read?
Alex: If you said to Dad, ‘Tell us a story dad’, Mum would say, ‘It's a bit late for that darling, they should be going to bed’.
And he'd say, ‘I'll just tell them a wee one. And so you that light there? You see that bulb? Have you ever thought about that bulb before, the fellow who invented that bulb? Well, he's a wee Scots like myself, you know, and he came from Glasgow. And there were no bulbs. We didn't have bulbs back then and he thought we should have bulbs. And it really surprised us, because he was really coming up with some great ideas, you know? One day I saw him walking down the street had this big bag on his back’.
And we say, ‘Well, what was in the bag Dad?’
‘Wait, we'll get to that in a minute’.
He had no idea what was in the bag. So, I understood that story, like Christina Stead said, I understood this at that stage, ‘we live in an ocean of story’. She said that.
It was natural. He didn't think, Oh, crikey, what'll I tell them about? Oh gee, hang on. I can't think of anything at the moment’. He just looked at the door. ‘See them hinges there? You get your finger caught in the hinges you'll know it. Now I knew a lad who caught his fingers in the hinges and it didn't do him any harm in the end, you know?’
And you'd immediately be intrigued. Why didn't it do him any harm? I mean, I don't know. I'm just saying these things, that they're all the beginnings of stories.
Nic: Right. Yeah.
Alex: My daughter once said to me - I was driving her home from school, she was a little girl, primary school - and she just said out of the blue, because she knew I was a writer, ‘I can tell really good stories Dad, if someone gives me a beginning’.
We had stopped at the lights, and I said, ‘Well, a beginning is you just look and you see something and that's your beginning. It's offering itself to you as the beginning of a story’.
She said straight away, ‘Oh, see that man outside the pump? He doesn't really want to wash the pavement does he? He doesn't want to wash the foot path, he's hating having to do that. And that old woman came out and told him to get on with it. And she said, ‘That's the beginning of the story and a whole relationship’.
You could write a novel if you're a novelist like me, you could just keep going…
Alex: There's the whole family history, the family tragedies, the loves, the hates, the disappointments, the man washing the pavement. Actually he was gifted, but he lost his fingers in an accident when they got crushed in the door.
Nic: [Laughter] Yeah.
Alex: So it's all there.
Alex: Its ready. But at the same time, my stories, they don't come from telling. That's telling stories, and that's what I grew up with.
When I began to write, when I first wrote a book, and I wrote to Dad, they still lived in London, and I said, ‘I've written a book, Dad. It's going to be published’. He says, ‘Why the hell'd you do that for?’
Alex: And he wasn't being smart. He did have a dry sense of humour, and I think I might have inherited that too. But he meant you've lost your audience. The fun of storytelling is the people around you.
Nic: The audience, yeah.
Alex: Most of them probably didn't want to listen to a story, but then they find themselves listening to it anyway and they're intrigued. He said the problem with stories is finding the ending, not finding the beginning.
Nic: Do you find that?
Alex: No, I love endings.
Nic: You love endings.
Alex: Yeah, and I do need an offer, a beginning offer, but I think I don't tell them, I write them. I can tell them but…
Nic: What work did your father do?
Alex: He was a chef.
Nic: He was a chef.
Alex: The high point of his life was being ... Wasn't the high point actually, that's wrong, it was the most prestigious job he had, was head chef at the Grosvener Hotel. But the job he loved most was chef at the Bell Hotel in Bromley.
Alex: And the Bell Hotel was Dr. Johnson's favourite hotel way back when.
Alex: So, it had a kind of fame about it, and as Johnson said, It was a great hostelry. You could get a haunch of whatever.
Nic: Was your father a reader as well?
Alex: He was a repairer of books. He repaired to his books, but he was a reader of poetry more than I think... I'm not absolutely certain, but his collection seemed to be centred around Baron’s and a number of English poets mostly, not poetry in translation. And he would read it, and he certainly sat there reading books. I'm not absolutely sure whether some of them were novels or not. I don't think he had a lot of time for novels.
Nic: Who were the first writers who made an impression on you when you were reading as a youngster and through school?
Alex: Yeah. I think comics. They were a bit hard to get hold of, and also there were radio shows like ‘Dick Barton, Special Agent’ was probably the biggest influence on me. Barton was this old fashioned chap and they would be on for a about quarter of an hour just before Dad got home, and he didn't want us to listen to it. So he's say, ‘Turn that bloody rubbish off’, when he came in the door. But I loved it and Dick Barton would have these adventures in the jungle, you know, and it was also tongue-in-cheek. So it was a bit humorous. Will Dick Barton get eaten by the crocodile next week?
Nic: Did you write at all when you were a school boy? When you were at school, I mean other than obviously for school?
Alex: No, not into writing at all.
Nic: So, you weren't into writing stories or anything like that?
Alex: In fact at the university they used to say, kindly teachers, and they were all kindly, they used to say, ‘Interesting spelling you have here’.
Nic: You lived an extraordinary life after arriving in Australia, and certainly one that you have been able to draw on a lot in your writing. Do writers have to have lived their life before writing, do you think?
Alex: No, I don't think so.
Alex: I think everybody's different. I've just been reading a book about Rimbaud, the French poet in Java written by a bloke called Jamie James, hard to forget his name. It's a really unusual book. It's beautifully written. I think it was published probably in about 2005, very unusual strange book, you'd never see in a shop, published in Singapore somewhere. It's about a chap, Rimbaud the poet, who gave up writing when he was 20 or 21, they can't quite decide when it was that he gave it up, but left the worldwide reputation behind him, which is still there. So, no, I don't think so.
Nic: Yes. So many great writers are outsiders to some extent in the place that they write about. Do you think that that helps make them great writers in that they're seeing things in a different light or they're looking at things from a different perspective, things that are taken for granted by the people that grown up in a particular place? When you came here when you were 16 from England, very different and ended up in Queensland. Outsiders as writers, do you think they have a sense of advantage with their different perspective their writing?
Alex: I read a thing by Camus many years ago. He said then, ‘The first thing’ - and again this was kind of his gratuitous advice, the ex-cathedra pronouncement from a great writer, which I suppose people are tempted to do once they reach a certain eminence - he said, ‘the first thing you have to do if you want to be a writer is get rid of your family, get away from the family’. And it was his very last book, The First Man, was getting back to his mother, getting back to the place of earliest nurture that initially he'd felt convinced as a young man that you had to remove yourself from.
Alex: I didn't remove myself from my family for that reason. I removed myself from a place and a time more than a family, and a lack of opportunity, and a desire for adventure.
Nic: What made you want to become a writer then? You were…
Alex: Nothing left, nothing else.
Alex: Honestly, when I was on my first cattle station in Australia in the central highlands of Queensland, a place near Spring Shore in the escarpments south of Spring Shore, and I was working for a bloke called Ridge Wells. I'm still friends with his children. They got in touch with me after my first book was published, Watching the Climbers on the Mountain, which deals with some of that. And he had a wonderful library, and he hated being a cattleman. He didn't like it at all. He liked sitting by the first at night - we had frosts up there, winders were really cold, like they are where I am in Castlemaine now - and he's say, ‘For Christ’ sake, grab a book Alex and read it’. And that's where I really learned to read, and I think I read a lot of the classics there and they were unknown to me until then. So it's an odd thing isn't it? Nothing is ever the stereotype when you look at it closely.
Nic: It's more interesting if it's not, if you are surprised. It's like the characters in books…
Alex: We'd have a glass of sherry, sit by the fire and read. Probably he'd have three or four glasses of sherry, I'd only get one. I'd look at the decanter and think, ‘Can’t I have another one?’
Nic: I've met many hosts like that.
Alex: ‘You've had your sherry. Would you like a sherry now or...’
Nic: So, which of those classics do you still recall as…
Alex: I'm rereading The Iliad at the moment. Yeah and realising, God I read this! You know? What do you do? But of course it's a different book. But I've also ... I mean, I read a lot.
Nic: So how did you go about becoming a writer?
Alex: I made a huge mistake. Even though I'd been at Melbourne Uni for three or four years doing literature and history…
Nic: So you've studied there and now you're studying part-time?
Alex: I was studying full-time.
Alex: I was studying as a full-time student with a scholarship in those days, a Bob Menzies scholarship. I'd read lots of novels by then, lots of literature, lots of poetry, I knew the history of English literature by then, I'd read the great Russians, the French novels - not in the originals of course but in the famous Magarshack translations and all that. And I still misunderstood what novels were about. I thought they had to be about... I wanted to write serious novels, not ponderous or earnest novels, the ones that took a serious approach to life experience and the world of humanity and society. And I made a dreadful mistake. I thought that they had to be about issues, and what I hadn't realised after all that reading and the theory and everything else that we did, which was no help at all in the air of confusion, was novels are about the intimate lives of us.
Alex: And they're the only large concentrated form of writing per se - and not film and television and all that, which are of course equally so - but they're the only classical form where the intimate lives of us are dealt with. They can't be dealt with by the biographer, much as they'd love to be. If there are intimate letters, they can be presented to us, but the historian definitely can't go there…
There are overlaps. It's not a black and white thing. People who are interested in perfect demarcations are never going to get the answer to their insistence that, ‘But what's the difference between history and fiction?’ There is a difference, of course, and we can talk about that and we've talked a little bit about it there, a beginning of the difference. But the deeper you go, the more fictional history becomes, and in a sense also the deeper you go probably the best account of the Battle of Borodino was written by Tolstoy. It opens an endless Pandora's box, and providing you're not someone who stands in a corner and defends that corner to the death, you can probably have an interesting conversation with other people.
Nic: I'm glad you made that discovery back then because your books quite clearly are about the people and not the politics and not the issues.
Alex: It took me three books, and it was Max Blatt, who in this book is Martin Bloch and I'm writing a book about Max Blatt now. I've been researching his past in Germany and in the archives in Poland now for about four years, so I'm gradually putting him together. And he's the one who said to me, having read one of these ghastly pre-novels that I'd written, which were about some issues or another - I'd love to just erase them from my memory, I nearly have actually - and he said, with a sense of despair, frustration, annoyance, anger, ‘For god sake, why don't you write about something you love?’
Alex: And it was like an epiphany. He said it at the right moment in the right voice. I had no resentment at the fact that he thought what I'd written was awful. I knew it was awful. So I chucked that away and embraced him, and from then on I understood I had to write about the intimacies of one's life.
Nic: How did you feel when you were published for the first time? Was there are sense of achievement? Was there a sense of relief that you were on the right track? Or was it, ‘Goodness, now I've got to keep doing this?’
Alex: When Max Blatt read that, because it was a story that he gave me - he told me that evening, sitting around the fire, whatever were doing, we were down on the farm - in a few short sentences.
We'd had a lunch on the farm. We were on the farm at the time, and people had come down from Canberra, friends, academics, Labor people out of a job at the time, because it was the Liberal government was in forever and a few people were like that. And they'd come down and they'd bring their salamis and casks of red wine and their flutes and things like that and they'd all get all their gear off and rush down to the creek, sit around playing flutes, getting drunk and fucking if possible. You know? And we'd have these long endless, screaming, yelling lunches, everyone getting drunk.
And Max was there, and there were a few Jewish people among them and the conversation for some reason took, as it quite often did in those days, a turn of ‘So, what is anti-Semitism?’ So there was lots of loud shouting opinionated stuff going. Max didn't say a word.
When they'd all gone, everything had settled down and he and I are having a cup of tea in front of the fire, probably midnight, whenever it was, he said, ‘So do you want to know what anti-Semitism is?’
Then he told me the Comrade Pawel story. It's there, it's part of the culture, it's ineradicable. It will emerge under stress in the nicest places. All that was said in a sense in the story of Comrade Pawel and the title clearly was an ironic one. So I wrote it within days of hearing that from him, showed it to him and when he read it, he said, ‘You could have been there’. And we embraced and he was moved and I said, ‘Yeah, but I couldn't. I wasn't there, I mean’. So it was this wonderful experience. I knew I'd done something good.
I sent it to Meanjin, and Jim and about three days later Jim Davidson rang. Jim at the time was doing his first issue and he said, ‘Oh, can I speak to your father?’ And I said, ‘Well, he's dead. It'd be wonderful if you could’. Something like that, something silly. And he said, ‘Well, who wrote this story then?’ And I said, ‘Well, I wrote it’. He said, ‘Oh, no, it's in the voice of an older man, a European. It's a European voice’. And I said, ‘Yes, the voice of my friend who told it to me and I felt that was the voice it needed to be written in’.
The same as Coal Creek needed it to be written in the voice of the young man I once was in Queensland, semi-literate person who nevertheless could write. Being illiterate doesn't mean you can't write. It means you probably don't write, but he did.
Nic: When you were writing The Ancestor Game, which was your first Miles Franklin winner, did you know while you were reading it that you were getting that so right as well?
Alex: That was written about a man I loved, an old friend, a Chinese Australian who committed suicide out of deep frustration with life. He was an artist. Back then there wasn't really any acceptance of the seriousness of Chinese people, there was a cultural sense that they were in the ghetto and they were to more or less remain there, and very little understanding of the history of Chinese in Australia, who'd after all come here 12 years before Melbourne was established and had really been here a long time, as long as white people pretty well and certainly up north again had been here longer than Europeans. And I started writing a book about him. For years I'd have a couple of drinks and then I'd get a bit maudlin and I'd start talking about Alan, who was this dear friend, the Chinese Australian. And Steph said, ‘For God’s sake, why don't you write a book about him?’ And I hadn't thought of it. I said, ‘Oh. Okay, I will’.
So that took quite a few years. We went to China and went to places and met people. The Chinese loved it. They still do. I still get invited there all the time.
Nic: And while you were writing it, did it feel different to your two previous novels?
Alex: Oh no, I knew it was different. As I said to Dinio Hearn, both previous novels were autobiographical and so is The Ancestor Game in the sense that Steven, the narrator, was me in that relationship. The relationship was then explored in terms of the histories, the cultural baggage in the minds of these three people. The narrator, whose cultural baggage was this sort of outsiderness in England, which his mother had not herself been a part of, she'd been an insider on the outside, if you'd like, and the daughter of Dr. Spiess, who himself was an outsider in Australia and of course Lang Tzu, whose name meant The Prodigal, really, the one who goes away and then comes home eventually. He never did. Professor Fong, when I first went over to China, he walked up to me, he was the head of the Australian studies thing in China, he walked up there and grabbed my by the shoulders - we'd never met, hadn't even said hi like we did a minute ago - grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me and said, ‘How do you know the smell of duck shit? In Hang Tzu in 1936, I was there!’. I said, ‘Get off me. No I don't’. ‘You know it. It was up your nose’. ‘No, you know it, it's in the book’. I said, ‘it's in the book because you remember it yourself. The smell of duck shit's the same everywhere’. He was convinced. ‘You're lying. You know China. How do you know China?’ I said, ‘I don't know China. Leave me alone. Stop it’.
Nic: There's a sense of displacement and yearning for belonging that runs through several of your books. I'm wondering, is this reflective of your relationship with Australia?
Alex: My mother's people were Irish from the north of England. We lived in the south. It was made very clear to us that we weren't English, and as Dad said, ‘Never try to be English. Be proud of who you are, if you want to be proud of anything, but don't try and be English’. So when I came out here, the Scots and the Irish had organised a lovely little culture for me, which was nice and welcoming and I felt immediately accepted, even slightly celebrated.
Nic: You taught writing for a number of years, and I always believe that teaching is the best way of learning. I'm wondering how teaching writing helped you as a writer?
Alex: These pieces of writing that people did, and I'd have to look at them because you know, as a teacher you're supposed to look at them and read them and that, and I'd think, ‘Oh my god, I do that. Oh Christ. That's exactly what I do. This is terrible’.
Nic: An example, one of the things we were talking before about the simplicity of sentences is, particularly with emerging writers, there is this belief that you've got to make things as complex and clever as possible, and they don't understand that simplicity is the key and it's something that you can easily…
Alex: You've got to be interesting. I would say to them, ‘Whatever you do, don't try using your imagination’. If you're a bus driver or a cook, your imagination is with you. You have an imagination. Everyone has an imagination. Don't try and invoke it, because you can't coerce the imagination, it's invoked by some spring that's beyond our conscious ability to control. We can't just click it on and click it off. The imagination hides in its dark hole and disobeys you and then suddenly it's there. And when it's there there's this sense of an offer, and I'd try to explain to them what I meant by a fictional offer: take it with both hands and run with it.
Nic: I'm glad you brought up the thing about imagination and this is probably going to come out really the wrong way and it's not meant to be insulting, but I'm going to go with it.
Alex: It's because you're wearing those headphones.
Nic: [Laughter] I'm wearing the headphones so I feel a sense of power.
When I'm reading your books, I'm thinking to myself, ‘God, this guy's got no imagination. Everything he's just drawing on his life’. You know, other writers will write about set a novel in 16th century Russia and then someone else will do a futuristic... Yours seem so rooted in your own stories, in your own background and the people that you have met, where does the imagination in your books lie?
Alex: Well, it's up to the imagination. I'm a Realist and I'm a Romantic by nature. I write about people and their emotions and us. I write about us. So for example, there's a woman in this book, The Passage of Love, Wendy.
Nic: Yes, wonderful character.
Alex: Yeah. Now, I'm going to tell you the truth. I made her up.
Nic: No. Really?
Alex: Of course she presented herself to me.
Nick: Okay, because I so believed that was…
Alex: Yeah, my wife Stephanie said the other day - I said something like that in an interview - and Steph was there sitting, listening and she said, ‘Yes, but you did know someone like Wendy, with a sense of resentment in her voice’. And I said - and I didn't want to disappoint her too much - I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I did know someone like Wendy, but not really like Wendy’. Wendy was this… totally committed person to the political realities of her day, and that was her main thrust, the main theme that she was about, a bit of justice for the workers. And certainly there were people around like that and I did meet people like that, but I didn't actually meet her like that.
Nic: Ok. I’m wondering if you had read Journey to the Stone Country as a 16 year old boy in England, would that have driven you towards Australia? Or is it the type of thing that you were yearning for, to venture to that land. How would you as an outsider, as a 16 year old reading that book have thought about Australia?
Alex: Yeah, I have no idea. What did turn me on to Australia was I was in the west country, I'd escaped from London, I'd got to the west country, which is the wildest part of England, I was working there for a farmer and an Australian moved in nearby. He wanted to be an English hunting gentleman, so it was a misfit, wearing his hunting pink with this beautiful horse and everything. But he just didn't fit it, so he made friends with me, which is a very Australian thing to do, but not an English thing to do, not a gentleman with a beautiful manor house. You bought a manor house for god's sake? I don't know where he got his money from but he was rich, and he and I used to sit in their kitchen talking, and we'd talk about life and our hopes and fears and dreams. And I told him my great dream was to go to the limit, to the ultimate place where civilisation ended and the Other, whatever it was, began. I wanted to get there some somehow and I said I'm going to Canada and I was, I was going to the west coast of Canada.
And he got a book down, and he said, ‘You should go to Australia and go be the book’. And it was illustrated with black and white photographs taken by Sid Nolan of the Outback, and one of them was what's now become a famous sketch called ‘The Verandah’. And it was of the stockman standing on the verandah looking out, and they were all engrossed in looking out at nothing, at a horizon line.
And I said, ‘Oh god, yeah, I've got to go there’. I didn't analyse why, but that horizon line had the most powerful pull of attraction. We go to the Moon, we'll go to Mars if we can, we'll go. So it was that kind of fundamental urge. I wanted to see there. Did I want to see over the horizon?
And then later on of course, recently in New York, I pick up John Berger’s book, A Way of Seeing. And in that there's an essay about a painting and he mentions Lukacs' Theory of the Novel, which I hadn't read. He quotes a line from it. The novel originates… Lukacs is an oddly difficult person to sort of get to, and here was the wonderful simplicity, Lukacs says ‘the origins of the novel and in a yearning to see beyond the empty horizon’.
What? Suddenly these two halves of my life that had never really fitted together, Lukacs fitted them together for me. A theoretician of the novel, the sort of person I should loath, but of course I fell in love with him. I immediately bought his book and read it and he couldn't say anything wrong as far as I was concerned.
Nic: The Passage of Love, probably more than any other of your works, has so obviously drawn heavily on your own life, and the protagonist particularly obviously. I'm wondering, Wendy aside, why is it labelled a novel? I mean it read...
Alex: No, not Wendy aside.
Alex: Essential. Essential to have Wendy in there if it's going to be a novel.
Nic: That's why I ... Yes.
Alex: There's no such thing as having Wendy aside. I'll tell you one thing I've told you. There are other things which will puzzle people. When did you really write Comrade Pawel? It doesn't fit with the farm.
Nic: Okay, but that was very little details, aren't they?
Alex: They're little details but they're also important. The folding of time takes place in this book. Time is folded in in a way that I couldn't... The thing about memoir is you're so into your reader, you can trust when, how and what happened. This is the real story of when it happened, how it happened, who it happened to. If you say it's a novel, there's an element of imaginative recreation in there in order to arrive at a narrative of experience. The novel gives you the freedom to accept those offers of the imagination. If it were a memoir that would be in the book. That's important. Memoir can be relied on, or ought to be, in that way. A novel, a novel is there for some other reason. A novel is there to seek out something that none of us understand but we all love. You know?
Alex: I think. And what it is, it's got to be a story. It can't just be a chronological account of events ,because that's not a story.
Nic: No, it’s not.
Alex: You've got to find the story, and finding the story means leaving everything out. Like Michelangelo cutting the slabs of marble and he's left those half-emerged slaves. Have you ever seen them? Or illustrations of them. There they are, these great muscular men and they're trapped in the ice I was going to say, they're trapped in the marble, they can't, they never will get out. The truth of the art is their emergent, and I think the novel is like that. Out of the sort of... I know we've got this person Knausgaard, he's attempting something. It's got nothing to do with me, nothing to do with what I do. His attempt is this gargantuan effort to include everything in his life over six or seven vast volumes of detail. And that's not what I could ever do. That's his thing.
Nic: Just finally. You said before, a sort of dislike of theorists of novels…
Alex: No, I said I should.
Nic: Do you have a favourite book on the art and craft of writing? A writing guide that you believe is above all others that listeners may take as one to add to their collection?
Alex: The only book of theory that I've ever read, and it's not to do with the art of writing, is eroticism. What was his name? Georges Bataille.
Alex: The French theorist, Georges Bataille. He begins by saying ‘I'm not a philosopher, but I'm going to write this, this is my philosophy’, and it's really the progenitor of so much theory and people don't read it and haven't read of it because they have to read other people who were really doing that. But he writes about Christianity, religion and the erotic and the relationship in history and time, and also to the creative spirit in a most beautiful and fascinating way. Yeah, but I haven't read a book of 'how to'. Ever.
Nic: There you go. Maybe that's the advice. Alex, thank you very much for your time on The Garret, really enjoyed the chat.