An Interview with Richard Milward
Teesside, England novelist Richard Milward started writing after he read Trainspotting, when he was eleven, and his "fifth or sixth" novel, Apples, was published when he was twenty-two. The story of teenage debauchery and unrequited love in a working-class town, it was met with universal acclaim. Milward was hailed as "the new laureate of youth" by The Guardian, and Irvine Welsh called Apples "one of the best books I've ever read about being young, working-class and British."
That was in 2007. Since then his novels have been highly applauded, though perhaps less furiously than the first: Ten Storey Love Song is a drug-fueled one-paragraph novel set on a Teesside council estate, and Kimberley's Capital Punishment sees its protagonist dies halfway through, giving the reader six alternative endings for her afterlife. Now Milward is turning thirty, and has just finished writing his fourth novel, The Headaches, which depicts the high-discipline boxing scene in a fictional South Wales village.
We met on a chilly Sunday afternoon in February at Richard's local pub, The Isaac Wilson, where you can buy a pint of Carlsberg for £1.50. The interview was conducted to the acoustics of clinking cutlery as the locals ate lunch (or, as they call it up north, dinner).
So where did it all start?
I think you get into writing because there is a catalyst, isn't there? There is one writer who makes you think "Right, I can really do that." I was eleven years old when I read Trainspotting and it was just like nothing else I had ever read. You know, in school they were trying to make you read these strange mediocre horror stories like Point Horror, or Sweet Valley High for girls, always American campus-based books. Because Trainspotting was an eighteen-plus film, I wasn't able to go to the cinema and see it, so the book was my only chance to find out what the hell this thing was. And when I read it, it was just completely different to anything else I'd read before, and it just made me think "as if literature can be like that." Because it is written in dialect and it is really experimental, it almost doesn't have a plot and is more like a collection of short stories. It just opened my eyes basically to what was possible.
So then the first few novels that you wrote in your early teens, were they rip-offs of Trainspotting?
Absolutely. My first rejection letter was for my first short novel, Insane Doubts, which is about a sewage worker. I only sent it to Canongate, because they had published this anthology that features Scottish writers who had suddenly become popular, like Irvine Welsh, Gordon Legge, and Paul Reekie, called Children of Albion Rovers. They wrote back to me and the first line was "There's no way you're twelve!"
What influence have women writers had on you?
When I was in my early teens, it was Laura Hird and Rebecca Ray I was reading. Hird's Nail and Ray's A Certain Age were influential in different ways. Hird has a genius knack of imbuing everyday Scotland with a surrealistic sense of unease, while Ray's A Certain Age spoke to me when I was that certain age myself: in my early teens, seeing the girls in my school go through similar things as its protagonist. It's a very truthful book, about a schoolgirl who starts seeing an older man, set in an instantly recognizable English suburbia.
Do you ever read back over your writing from those times?
Yeah, I do look back at them a little bit. It is nice to just remind yourself of what was going on in your head. I'm really proud of those novels being a moment in time. I'll be able to look back and think, "That's what I was like then, and that's where my head was." Perhaps I'll see loads of cringe-worthy sentences, but I won't overanalyze them too much. I started writing at eleven and I've never stopped. It is like this obsessive drive for me to keep going, so as soon as I've finished a book, I'm straight on with the next one. I hope I'll still be writing in my seventies; it would be mad looking back at the work that I'd done in my twenties.
I've finished my next book, but by the time it comes out, I'll be firmly onto something else. At least that's how it has been going book by book. Even talking about Kimberly's Capital Punishment now is quite strange because I'm a lot more distant from that as well.
So how much can you say about the new book? Do you have a title yet?
I'm thinking of calling it The Headaches. I think calling a boxing novel The Headaches makes sense, since headaches are part of the job description. The novel is set in this boxing club that gets set up in an eccentric fictional village in Wales, near Bridgend. The novel is set in South Wales because I have family down there -- my granddad's from Bridgend -- but also because I wanted to write about somewhere different from Middlesbrough. I almost felt, with the first two books especially, that I had amassed a lot of stories about this area and had a lot that I wanted to get off my chest. But I didn't want to base something up here again just for the sake of it. I like the idea of having a bit of distance.
But the novel is almost like little vignettes, little interwoven stories, a bit like what I was saying with Trainspotting, so it is quite hard to single out one driving plot. It's more about the way the characters interact. One of them is an eleven-year-old boxer who has intense tinnitus; it is one of the rules in boxing that you're not allowed to fight if you're deaf, so the boy and his ex-boxer dad come up with lots of weird and wonderful ways to help get him into the ring. When I've been to clubs, it tends to be that way. It seems like such a generational sport. It is not like it is taught in schools or anything. It seems to come from your dad more often than not. So your granddad will have boxed and his son will have boxed and his son will have boxed, so you get that beautiful community spirit in a boxing club, where it is almost a bit like a social club in a way, but much stricter.
It almost sounds like an extended family.
Yeah, it is absolutely that. The trainers feel as if they are training their sons. And there is that beautiful element that you get a lot in other sports, like football, when you take your lad down on Sunday and support him. I guess boxing is all based around real respect and discipline. It is also a sport where you've got to sacrifice a lot. There is this magic around it, as if it is this sacred thing in a weird way. Plus there is this unwritten rule that you can't get away with being a hot-headed bully. If you are going to box you have got to have a strict diet, and sometimes boxers I met were saying that they are not really allowed to have girlfriends. There are a lot of these really strange elements that could put them off this single goal of becoming a decent boxer: they sacrifice fast food, drink, and all the other things that teenagers are really drawn to. When I discovered this was the case, I thought it was a subject begging to be written about. It is that obsession again: all my books are about obsessions, where people become addicted to a certain thing, whatever it is.
I was thinking about that, because you said in another interview that broadly speaking Apples is about sex, Ten Storey is about drugs, and Kimberly's is about death. What is The Headaches about? Discipline? Ambition?
And sacrifice, that's the one.
I think that this parallels quite nicely with the idea of being a writer, of making a sacrifice, having this discipline or obsession, and having to actually give up quite a lot of things in pursuit of it.
Yeah, definitely. Obviously being a writer is completely different to being a boxer, but there are so many mad parallels. It is just about dedication. Novel-writing is a lot of legwork; it is not something you can do flippantly, which is the same as in boxing. People probably think they can fight, or people fancy themselves as hard blokes, but they can't specifically become good boxers, because they have to have that absolute discipline and dedication to the cause, which is the same as with writers. And writing is very reclusive; you do it in solitude.
The Headaches sounds very macho, but female narrators and characters are crucial in your work. Do you approach writing female and male narrators differently?
I'm not sure if I approach either gender any differently. I guess men often show so-called "feminine" traits, and vice versa, so I think you can tread the gray areas between sexes while writing from either viewpoint. There's an even split of male and female characters in my book; people often ask how I manage to write from the viewpoint of a woman or girl, and it's strange because I don't have sisters. Maybe I've just spent my days trying to figure out the fairer sex, though both genders definitely still have their mysteries. I never want to make my novels overtly masculine -- say, with The Headaches, people might expect me to write a book about boxing that is hyper-masculine: a portrayal of thugs or meatheads. But it's the opposite. It's almost got more in common with Under Milk Wood than with Rocky or Raging Bull.
How does gender affect the aspect of your novels? I'm just thinking that all of your protagonists come in pairs (Adam and Eve, Bobby and Ellen, Kimberly and Stevie).
I'm mostly interested in the way the sexes interact. With Apples being narrated by Adam and Eve, two fifteen-year-olds, I was fascinated by the chasm that seems to open between boys and girls at that age: biologically girls mature faster than boys, and often start focusing their attentions toward older lads, while their male counterparts seem to need an extra year or two to catch up and compete. With Ten Storey Love Song and Kimberly's Capital Punishment, I was looking at all the pleasures and pitfalls of post-teenage relationships: the initial blazing honeymoon period, the contentment, perhaps resentment, over-familiarity, jealousy, and the regular collapses. It seems to me there's so much tension caused by the interaction of the sexes.
There are some more specific family traits between your novels, too. I noticed that they all seem to feature people falling from a height. In Apples, a teenage mum "accidently on purpose" drops her baby from a flyover; in Ten Storey, Alan Blunt jumps out of his flat window after he has been divorced and sacked; and in one of Kimberly's death scenes she is her falling perpetually. I was wondering if you are aware of these recurring motifs in your work. Do you put them in purposely or are they preoccupations you have that you are not really that aware of?
That is not one I was aware of, but I do love recurring imagery. I love the filmmaker David Lynch when he uses dream logic, symbols and motifs, like curtains, fire, and lampshades. There are these little elements that he keeps placing in his films that create a weird sense of mystery. I'm always including strange elements in my books, like a weird obsession with animals; I feature a lot of talking animals because I'm really interested in that fact that humans are the most sophisticated animals, but still haven't shaken off all the animalistic traits we share with other wilder beasts.
And in Kimberly's you use eyeballs quite a lot. The first line is "I found the eyeball fifteen minutes before I found the rest of him."
Yeah, it's meant to signify reading. With the eyeball that features on the first page, there is nothing to say that that is specifically Stevie's eyeball, it could just be the reader's eyeball that has just appeared. Kimberly's is the book with the most recurring images, things like magpies and eyeballs and all that lovely stuff. That book was inspired by the Surrealists and Freud's theories about dreams and the unconscious. It was inspired by dreams and tabloids. That was basically where I got all my material.
Yeah, tabloid newspapers. I was having a period of weird dreams and then flicking through tabloids and thinking how bizarre the news was, or what is presented to us as news. So that scene in the novel where the seal rapes Stevie was based on a true story; a seal was raping a king penguin, and it was the first example of a mammal shagging outside of its species. I just looked at that and thought it was so perfectly bizarre that it had to be used. In that sense it is a freewheeling novel. I wanted it to be completely no holds barred, with no limits to it. I wanted my imagination and all these weird inspirations to be as valid as anything that occurs in so-called normal life. So obviously it has this really absurd flavor to it, but again I was using the Surrealists' dream logic: anything is possible, anything is valid. As soon as you give yourself no parameters in terms of logic or so-called reality then you have a very blank canvas to spew all kinds of multicolor over. I wonder if that novel will stand out in my body of work as the freest one.
Visually it is really different. There are the parallel columns as Sean and Shaun are talking, or there's concrete poetry making the shape of a reindeer's head.
For me it marks a period of my life when I was at art college and had six weeks of lectures all about Surrealism. It just blew me away; it split my mind open. I knew the Surrealist painters, but I didn't know too much about the films and the writing and everything. It was this whole new world that was so inspiring, and so free.
Have you tried out any of the restricted forms, lipograms, word games, and that sort of stuff?
I have given it a little go. I'm inspired by stuff like George Perec's A Void, which doesn't feature the letter E, the most common letter in the English (and French) language. It is kind of like a detective story, where the characters know something is missing in their lives but they can't put their finger on it. Perec was a member of the Oulipo group, who came after the Surrealists and were inspired a lot by them. I got into it as I was writing Kimberly's, and as I hadn't really read that sort of stuff before it was like a whole other world of experimenting with words. I almost wanted the novel to be like an encyclopedia of experimental writing, so that is why I have Burroughs's cut-ups in and acrostics and, like you say, concrete poetry. I wanted it to be a celebration of the experimental writing I'd only just been introduced to.
There's a part of Ten Storey Love Song where you say "watch out here comes the automatic writing" followed by a page of that style. I really like how these influences infiltrate the text, for example, you mention that Bobby the Artist "wants to be Jack Kerouac or the more hardcore one Neil Cassady."
Yeah, well if Kimberly's is a celebration of all the experimental writing I was getting into, then Ten Storey is a definite celebration of the hedonism that me and my friends got up to in Middlesbrough. We discovered On the Road during that time as well, and my mates had a house in Ventnor Road in Middlesbrough and it was just unbelievable. It has to compare to old stories like The Beat Hotel and these classic pubs in London that are, like, the epicentre of debauchery. I'm very fond of that novel, as it sort of captures that sense of being twenty-two; it captures a special moment in time.
In your novels you reference all of these influences by name, almost as if you are providing a reading list as you are going along.
On the one hand, I do want to share all that stuff, I do want people to read things that I'm into, and so I name-check all these influences. I do love that thing of naming bands and films because that is what life is like: you have your favorite films and music that you listen to, and it is absolutely part of life. But also on the other hand, depending on what you mention, it can age a novel really badly. It is weird that you mention that because with my new book I've stripped it all away. With The Headaches I wanted to give it that timeless feel, so it feels like it is set in the 1920s or '30s, even though it is set in 2008-2010. I wanted it to feel like it is set in that golden era, because boxing was so huge at the start of the twentieth century. This new novel does have dreamlike elements to it, but it is probably the most "realistic" book that I have written. It has this sense (if I have pulled it off) of being from this different time, and that is how I imagine boxing in a way: it has this sort of timelessness, it is so historic, almost like the first sport.
The novels you have written previously rely quite heavily on innovations in the form, whether you've got the one paragraph of Ten Storey or the six endings of Kimberly's. So as The Headaches is more of a "realistic" novel, how do you feel about moving into a conventional territory?
I think with every novel it is so important to experiment with words and be playful with it all the time. But I think it is strange the way that experimental has connotations of being unwieldy and difficult, whereas I think that it should go hand in hand with accessibility. I think you should be as experimental as you can, but make sure that you are accessible as well. That will give you a tension between what is conventional and experimental, so this novel, like Kimberly's, has wordplay and certain experiments throughout. But it doesn't have one big, specific gimmick.
Gimmick is an interesting word.
Well, with Ten Storey you get to say "this is a one-paragraph novel" and with Kimberly's you get to say "this is a six-ending novel," but with The Headaches it is not like that. It is different, subtler: the way I'm using color in it, for example, because there is a red and blue corner in boxing, so I only mention shades of red and blue throughout. Gold, silver, and bronze features in it, as well as black and white. It is a nice palette to play with. I do love just giving myself a restraint for every novel. With Ten Storey obviously the first idea was that it is going to be just one paragraph, but you have to think about how that is going to play out. You can't just flick the action from a bedroom in Middlesbrough to a tennis court in Switzerland. You need to thread the narrative through it and make it as seamless as possible, without cheating too much by making people phone each other all the time (which does happen once or twice).
So you might start with a restraint of form and then see where that takes you?
Yeah, and then you have to decide what you have to do to make that work. So with Kimberly's the six endings did come first. I don't want to use these gimmicks for the sake of it, the form should influence the subject matter and vice versa. So with Ten Storey the one paragraph device means every page looks like the tower block that the characters live in.
And that's quite On The Road as well, isn't it? Kerouac said he rolled the scroll along the floor and it looked like a road.
There is a logic to it. With Kimberly's I had this idea that I was going to write a novel about death. The fact about death is that we can't know exactly what awaits us. So many religions have so many different ideas of what happens after the final curtain, but none of us knows for sure because the dead can't come back to tell us. So it is the perfect subject matter to use alongside that device of six endings: you have the great unknown, and you have six endings that are six different religious ideas.
When you have these ideas and plan them out, is it often visual? Because you have mentioned "multicolour," and "palettes," and obviously you do some quite crazy art too.
The art I do is kind of like an antidote though, as it is really free, compared to novel writing where you have that discipline, that real obsessive dedication. With my artwork there is an overlap with the colour and the strangeness, but it is more like an antidote. When it comes to planning: I've started planning my novels a lot more, but only so far as my plan would be to get character A to his Mam's house, or get character B to argue with C, and so on. Beyond that I think all the imagery and creativity comes more from that Surrealist outlook when I've sat down with the paper, so that whichever route it goes in the text then that is how it goes. All of the imagery comes in that automatic fashion. Using your intuition is so important, and also trusting when you've gone wrong, having that insight into when you're writing terribly.
Early on in your career people were calling you the voice of the youth of today, but since then you have more become known more as a Teesside writer. Do you see yourself in any of those terms?
Not so much. But I am so thankful that I'm from this area, in terms of it being so inspirational. There is something about the wit and warmth of people up here, and the certain wildness as well. I'm absolutely indebted to this area. Whether I'm writing about South Wales or Timbuktu or Teesside, it will always carry through my novels. Teesside has given me my personality, and it has given my friends their personalities, and that has all influenced me and who I am. But it was strange when I was living in London for those three years. It was strange being in the big city, and being touted as the voice of youth. I guess the press wants to attach a label to you, and obviously I'm getting older so I'll just outgrow it. The way I see it is: I'm always going to keep writing and the way they interpret it is up to them.
But at the same time I am fascinated by youth. I think in all my novels I'm trying to retain that sort of playful, childlike wonder. I do love the teenage mindset, the idea of discovering new things, and being open to a lot of stuff. It seems like people do get a bit cynical as they grow older, and obviously they grow slightly more narrow-minded in their tastes and views. There is a quotation that "as soon as you stop seeing the world through the eyes of a child then you start dying." (Incidentally, I'm desperate to find where this line comes from; I think it was Marcel Duchamp, but I'm not certain.) That is how I go about all of my novels and my life, treating it as a bit of a playground.
I was going to ask you about the North-South divide, because obviously it is quite prevalent in Kimberly's, which is essentially about moving to, and being swallowed up by, the Capital. I think some London-based critics might not have understood that your novels deal with what life is really like up in Teesside. But it sounds from what you've been saying that you are not really too fussed about that. Are your readers free to misinterpret your novels as much as they want to?
I just try to write stuff that entertains me, and then just trust or hope that other people in the world have my taste as well, and that they get out of my novels what I do. But it is impossible to please everyone for a start, and it is pointless trying to write a novel that you think other people will like, or to mold your writing into something that is more commercial or acceptable. I think all great novels and films and paintings and, say, even the great shoes that are out there are the ones that are different. I think people don't realize what they want until it smacks them in the face. Also, with a novel you have such a big thing that people are bound to pick up on certain aspects that they don't agree with. But then I have heard lads on the estates in 'Boro getting Apples out of the library and going back to the librarian and saying, "this is like me, this is absolutely me." Stuff like that warms my heart. Of course Apples doesn't sum up all of Middlesbrough, it is just a very specialized little look, a tiny slice of the cake, but as it is the only recent book about Middlesbrough, when people pick it up they think it is going to tell them what it is like to live here!
Seeing as it is one of the only novels about Middlesbrough in recent times, whom do you see as your contemporaries?
I do read quite a few of my contemporaries, like Joe Dunthorne and Joe Stretch. We're all friends, as we ended up on the same circuit at readings. That is what happens if you are a writer and you are under forty, you get wheeled out on stage together. There's another great author from Hartlepool, Michael Smith. The Giro Playboy is unbelievable, quite like Kerouac in how he is writing about himself in these little vignettes of his life.
Jonathan Aldridge is a twenty-four-year-old writer from London. His debut novel Banes of Boys and Girls is currently available on Kindle, and his short stories have appeared in Cent, Liars' League, Frogmore Papers, Myths of the Near Future, and other magazines.