AD Miller juggles 5am starts and fatherhood to make it to the Booker long list
PUBLISHED: 17:12 23 August 2011
The author’s debut novel Snowdrops is long listed for the coveted prize
»Forty years of Booker Prize winners, reads the placard on the wall of an exhibition of winning books on the top floor of Waterstone’s in Piccadilly. Actually, the exhibition is a bit dated – the prize is now in its 43rd year. And I’m here to meet someone who has made it onto the Booker long list this year – Andrew Miller.
It was a couple of weeks ago when Miller found out he was long listed for the prize. The 36-year-old was happily going about his day job (he’s Britain editor of The Economist) when one of his co-workers (presumably the literary editor) called him to tell him he’d made the list for his debut novel Snowdrops. “I needed to see it with my own eyes. But, even when I did (I’ve got a little baby at home so I’m in a permanent state of exhaustion) I had to look at it for a long time before it made sense.”
It was fitting that Miller found out while in the office since it was his job which got him writing in the first place. He spent three years as a foreign correspondent in Moscow for The Economist, during which time he gained inspiration for the novel – a psychological crime story set in the modern-day Russian capital.
He started writing the book in 2007, on the last leg of his stint working there. He finished it in England, while living in Kentish Town with his then baby daughter and wife. “It’s hard sustaining a project that is drawn out over a long period of time. When I was writing, I wasn’t even sure that it would see the light of day. So, when it appeared on the Booker long list, I was astonished and extremely pleased. You always have moments where you wonder whether it is such a good idea after all,” he says.
Miller’s book is the story of a “partial view of Russia through a jaundiced, slightly sleazy ex-pat”. Lawyer Nick takes us on a journey through the city in the form of a confessional letter to his fiancée. It is a sleek tale of isolation and moral degradation set against an intriguing backdrop. The story charts the seedy and corrupt underworld of the country, but Miller is keen that it isn’t seen as a complete view of Russia. “It only portrays a slice of life in Russia. Having said that, the kinds of things which happen in the book happen in Russia. The kinds of crimes are real and happen every day. Most Russians who have read the book identify with that. I’m not going to apologise for showing the dark side of Russia. It definitely exists and it can be dark. Equally, there are good parts of Russian life. I’m a bit disappointed that people think it should show every part of the country.”
Miller is eloquent and direct. It’s impressive. With a Cambridge and Princeton education and a successful journalism career, it’s no wonder that his first novel has attracted the attention of the Booker judges. He’s a good writer for a good reason. Still, it’s remarkable that he’s managed to operate as foreign correspondent, editor, author and father almost in parallel time frames. “Actually, having a child seriously curtails your social life, so if you can stay awake, you have got some time to write a book. Having two children, on the other hand, is a different proposition, I’ve got to say,” he laughs. “I don’t have much time for writers who whinge about how difficult it is and how they get up at 5am to work on their book. I did do that, but nobody makes you do it. I think a writer is only entitled to a limited amount of sympathy because, after all, you do it because you want to.”
The book is a first person account of a man who is British and working abroad in Russia. Consequently, many believe the work to be autobiographical. After reading the illegal and immoral escapades of its main character, I hope it isn’t. “When the book came out in France, I did some interviews over there and the journalists mostly wanted to ask me about my sex life in Moscow on the assumption that this was an autobiography,” Miller laughs.
So it isn’t autobiographical and it is only “a slice” of existence in Russia. But that still doesn’t answer the question of where the story came from. Miller seems to stay away from saying that he used his journalistic intuition to spin a good yarn. His answer is “the novelistic image” of a snowdrop – a word used in Russia for dead bodies covered by the snow and revealed in the thaw. It seems partially true: the icy isolation of the backdrop to lawyer Nick’s life helps to create the right atmosphere for the story.
Still, Miller seems to have made the most of a privileged vantage point of a country shrouded with rumour in western Europe. “Russia is such an eventful place. If you have got any sort of inclination to write fiction then it will bring it out,” he says.
It looks like Russia has brought out the best in him.
n Snowdrops is published by Atlantic Books at £7.99.
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