"The Good Fairies of

by: Radiant Flower



I am supposed to meet Martin Millar in a pub in Brixton and since this is my first ever interview I'm more than a little bit nervous. To add to my distress I'm also having trouble with my contact lenses, so more likely than not I won't be able to see him and will make a complete fool out of myself. All this discomfort I'm willing to put up with though, since a proper interview with Martin Millar is needed. Martin's books are unique both in content and in the sweetness that characterises them. No other writer can mix such sweet and lovely stories with sharp social criticism and cast it all as an ancient romantic comedy - if you don't believe me just read 'Lux the Poet'. And no other writer today creates such adoring characters as Morag and Heather, radical thistle fairies with a penchant for the Ramones, or even Dinnie, the fat no talent slob in 'The Good Fairies of New York'. Still every journalist keeps asking him the same dull questions about Brixton and comparing him to Irvine Welsh (they're both Scottish and, like, authors!). But I suppose that's the way it usually works.

Martin is a little bit late to our appointment because his cooker has broken down. When he finally arrives he needs a drink and we sit down and talk about music for a while. Martin's current favourites are the Beastie Boys and the Lo Fidelity All Stars along with a lot of anonymous ragga and hip-hop tapes. Despite having played in numerous punk bands Martin doesn't listen to "guitar music" anymore: "I am bored by it. I'm not certain whether this is because guitar music has become boring, or if it is just because I've been listening to guitars for too many years. Having seen Led Zeppelin, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, Johnny Thunders and Mick Ronson on stage, it's hard to get enthusiastic these days about anyone playing a guitar. Which is why I like techno, I suppose."

Half an hour later in Martin's apartment, situated in a typically excentrically built English brick building, he puts on 'Body Movin' and calls his agent. Meanwhile I get a chance to look at the apartment. In the living room hangs a calendar with fairy motifs and, above a bookshelf filled with copies of Penguin antique classics and books about ancient history, a detail from Botticelli's 'Venus and Mars' showing Venus in a dazzling hairdo. In the kitchen a picture of Xena - Warrior Princess adorns the wall opposite the broken cooker.

When done talking to his agent Martin makes us both a cup of tea and I turn on my tape recorder.

Radiant Flower - In your books there are some recurring themes like the fixing of broken relationships, perhaps especially friendships, and the importance of actually doing things. How come you return to these things?

Martin Millar - Well, I do like to write about relationships, and I particularly like to write about friendships because... eh, it's quite a hard thing to write about really. I don't like books with adventures in them. I like to write about people’s friendships, which I find is quite a hard thing to do. It's quite hard to make things interesting when you just write about people being friends. What interests me is that it is such an important thing in everybody's life and I know my books develop a kind of network of friends which I didn't really start off to do in a deliberate manner. But I've found that it's become one of the most important things in them. Apart from the friendships there is... people are not just friends but they are lovers. Which tends to go wrong, which of course is most people’s experience. Not many people settle down with their true love and then it's always alright - that's quite rare. So I like to write about these things - I've felt that quite powerfully in my own life, you know, things with girlfriends going hopelessly wrong.
And for a long time in Brixton, for years, I have known people who seem to be very talented and doing things but never get round to finishing them. I always find that frustrating. I always have ‘cause, ehm, I got permanent inspiration from punk rock energy in the seventies of getting up and doing things and I find it particularly frustrating when people stay around smoking dope and don't go and fulfil themselves really. If you are artistic in some way and you don't do anything about it you will always be frustrated. So I think this is very important. Elfish for instance in 'Sex and Stage Diving', that's really her only good point that she's determined and she won't give up and she keeps on doing things.

RF - When I had finished 'Dreams of Sex and Stage Diving' I thought Elfish was really OK, and I tried to explain to myself why I thought she was quite a likeable person. And it's very hard!

MM - Yes, well, you are meant to. When I was writing about her I was conscious of how disgusting she was in many ways, but she was always meant to be sympathetic as far as I was concerned. I sometimes do read people who just dislike her completely, and that's a surprise to me. Of course she's the main character and you generally are a bit sympathetic with the main character anyway. But, no, she's meant to be likeable in her way. Despite her numerous bad faults.

RF - I think many of the bad things she does she gets away with because people trust her when really they shouldn't. You get the feeling that people will get along with her better after the book has ended 'cause they will know that she is... just Elfish.

MM - Yeah, that's true, they wouldn't trust her so much after the book. But they would probably trust her a little bit too much, she could probably talk them round into this and that. Hahaha. I'm not entirely certain if she's got a heart of gold or not. It would be very well hidden. But there again for the purposes of the book, and you can't write a whole life into a book, the main thrust of her really was refusing to give up. And you have to admire people who are like that. You do sometimes come across people like that, you meet people who are just not gonna give up. I'm convinced this is a main reason in peoples success actually. I'm sure that's a large percentage of the reason why people become successful, particularly in bands and things. I guess there’re all different kinds of reasons why bands do become successful, but it's not by any means the best bands, as you know. I'm sure it's largely down to refusing to take no for an answer.

RF - Do you think people have gotten worse at doing things since the late seventies?

MM - Well that was a bit of an upsurge. It is an awful long time ago but there was a creative upsurge. I think that probably comes in cycles. And, I think there was probably another upsurge in the end of the eighties with dance music. And I'm sure that was very inspiring for a lot of people, going on and putting on their own raves. Learning how to DJ, learning how to put on events. Organising such successful events. That produces its own whole culture with designs and magazines and suchlike. So I expect that these things come in cycles.

RF - Do you think something like that could be starting now since it's getting easier and easier doing your own thing without involvement from the outside. You can sell your music over the internet...

MM - Yes that is true... And perhaps the internet will count as another cycle. For people to do their own creating things in art and design and writing and music that is a very good medium, so, yes, I think that probably is another cycle. And a very good one.

RF - You don't have to have a record deal before you can start to sell your music...

MM - Yes indeed. That is ideal, that's perfect really. It's always best to be in control of your art. People fall on the business aspect and that has always been the way really. That's what bands have always needed - someone to distribute their music. In the same way writers always need someone to distribute their books and if you can circumvent that then you should.

RF - Going back to your books, how do you create your characters?

MM - Erm...

RF - When you start writing a book, how do you go about doing it?

MM - Well, I will usually think of the character first. I don't exactly go about creating them, they just appear, I'm not sure how. But once the character appears and I think about him or her for a while and become sort of happy with what the character's like, and have an idea of their motivations and have an idea of what they do in various circumstances, although I haven't worked out the plot or the story yet, so I know how Lux the Poet is going to react or how Elfish is going to react, or the fairies. So I know quite a lot about the characters before I start the book. After that happens I'm content really just to start. I don't work out the plot beforehand. I usually have their main motivation and then I just start with that. And I've found that that usually work out well. It means I get through to the end, I usually have a lot of inconsistencies and things that's gone wrong with the plot because I haven't worked it out before, but that's OK.

RF - There are "story" books and "character" books. Some books you like because it's a good story, with other ones you just fall in love with the characters. I've found that the books I come back to are the ones with great characters.

MM - That is a reason to go back to books, ‘cause you like the characters. Maybe that's why you read things again. My favourite comfort book, the book that I would read for comfort, is 'The Hobbit'. This goes back to my schooldays and is 14 year old hippie behaviour... All young hippies had to read 'The Hobbit' and 'Lord of the Rings'. I don't really connect that period with writing at all. My writing I connect with my starting with punk rock really. All my creative things started then.

RF - What did you write during that time?

MM - Well, not a great deal. But I did write a book. I completed two novels, one when I was about twenty which was a science fiction book which was kind of like some of the science fiction I had been reading when I was a teenager, and that wasn't very good at all. But I wrote another one which was more into London life at the start of the eighties. I was kind of punky... still wasn't very good. I didn't write anything good until 'Alby Starvation'. There was nothing before that that should have been published or anything. When I wrote that I immediately liked it and thought that it was good so that kind of started it, I suppose.

RF - What about you interest in ancient history? You often mention ancient Greek and Roman authors in your books, especially in 'Love and Peace with Melody Paradise'.
MM - I have a big interest in ancient history, I particularly like ancient Athens and Greece, although the past few years I've been reading more about Rome as well because there is only a limited amount about Athens. And I think I must have read all the Athenian writers by now so... But Rome is also very interesting. The classical world is great, but I can't really explain why... It interests me for a lot of reasons. I remember when I was involved in left wing politics back when I was about nineteen or twenty or something and being radical, which is a fine thing to do when you're that age. But I remember left wing Marxist theory then used to say quite strongly that people were most influenced by their environment and that was the most important thing. So people would change through the ages in relationship to their environment. I'm not stating that particularly clearly, but I was never much of a theorist, but I do remember that was the thing that was stated. For instance people would claim that the family was a modern invention of capitalism and suchlike. But since my reading of ancient history I've come to disagree with this. I completely disagree with it, it just does not seem true. If you read various texts it should make you believe that people are much the same. And the motivations that people have now are not a million miles away from the motivations that people had in 500 BC in Athens. The plays of Aristophanes are particularly interesting for this. At all the time he was writing there was a long, long war going on with Athens and Sparta and his characters are completely fed up with this - they want peace so that they can really get on with having a quiet life, usually with their family. And getting a bit of drinking and partying done as well. And it's very regular, nothing about it is strange, nothing about it is hard to interpret or to recognise. And the sons would be rebellious, they would not get on very well with their fathers. The fathers wouldn't approve of their sons, they'd think they were disrespectful to the older generation. There'd be this generation gap. the fathers would try and cheat on their wives, trying to get a good deal on the market... All very recognisable behaviour. And also in Aristophanes very crude, very obscene the humor. Very funny. Much more attractive to me than many things which have come since although it's so far away.

RF - You often don't seem too pleased with the modern world...

MM - No it's not that bad, no. Ehm, maybe... I change my opinions about that. Regularly. It's nice to have penicillin, it's nice to have modern doctors. And I don't dislike the modern world as much as I say I do in 'Melody Paradise', hahaha, which again is exaggerated for comic effect. But, yeah, it's not that great in a way. It doesn't seem very cultured you know. Our civilisation doesn't seem great to me. But wishing to be living back in the ancient world, I mean, it's true in a way but I'm not consistent about it ‘cause I do like modern things. And modern music - I've always been interested in modern music for as long as I can remember. So I'd be a bit lost without that.

RF - How much of you is in the Martin Millar of 'Love and Peace with Melody Paradise'? (The narrator of Martin's latest novel is named Martin Millar.)

MM - Quite a lot. I didn't try to put in myself as the actual truth. But it's quite close. I can't describe it much better than that really.

RF - Have you ever been to a festival like the one in the novel?

MM - Eh, yes, but again it's exaggerated. I always assume when I'm writing something, even when I was writing that which was me as Martin I always assumed that everybody would know that this is just a novel and that it wouldn't really cause confusion. But actually it does seem to cause some confusion ‘cause I often get asked "Did this happen?" or "Did that happen?". But what I mean is that although it is written in first person with me as Martin I'm not actually claiming that any of it is true, it doesn't depend on any of it being true. What it comes down to is: there are bits that happened but many of the bits that happened would be changed or exaggerated, so, yeah, I've been at festivals surrounded by hippies and there was a time when there were many travellers in Brixton squatting, resting from their travels and I would meet many of these people. So it'd be more a case of the people being realistic and I just got them into my own story.

RF - Are you writing anything now? In 'Melody Paradise' you mention plans for writing an ancient Greek book.

MM - Yes, well, I have various things which I want to write and the time often doesn't seem like the right time for them. I can think of three things I want to write, but the time doesn't seem quite right. I want to write an ancient Greek book but that's quite hard - I haven't worked out quite how to write that yet. So that will appear some time but I don't know when. Part of that is commercial which is unfortunate. Because when you start writing, when you start off, you don't have to worry about selling books because you don't really think anyone is ever going to read them anyway. So you can just write exactly what you like and that's much better. Just like if you're a band you can just make your first single just whatever you want. And that's best really, that's the best state to be in. But after a few years when it's your career it's impossible, or maybe not impossible but you would have to be so determined just to completely ignore the outside world that it's almost impossible, and I have to be thinking about selling books now. I'd rather I didn't, but you know, I've never made an awful lot of money from my writing and... you have to live. Like writing the novelisation of the Tank Girl film - that was the last thing I wanted to do, but I needed the money. So the ancient Greek book, I haven't quite thought out how to write about ancient Greece, and I also would have to think about how to write it in a manner which people would want to read.
The second thing I want to write is another fairy book. I love the fairies and I often get enquiries about them, young German women e-mail me and say they want to be fairies and suchlike. So I will write another fairy book. Maybe after another book or two I'll write a comeback for Heather and Morag.
And another thing I want to write is another Lux book. I want to write about Lux the Poet again. He was living in the eighties and he could have been reincarnated, he could have been born again and grown up to be a teenager so I could write about him again in a while. However, all these things are things for the future. I am writing again just now, but I don't like much to say what I'm writing about at the present, as it seems like a bad thing to do. It seems almost to curse it in a manner.

After the interview is over we talk a little bit more about ancient authors (Martin’s favourites are Aristophanes, Plato and Cicero), British politics (it doesn’t seem to be getting any better, and the Community Arts Centre has had to close) and music. Then Martin shows me to a good vegetarian restaurant and makes sure I’ll get on the right bus to my hotel in Victoria, and is off.

I hope that this interview has given a fair picture of what Martin Millar’s books are like and what makes them special. If it has not you can always visit Martin’s own home page (where one can read many of his short stories and all the refusal letters he got for 'Love and Peace with Melody Paradise'!) or write to him at: martin@martinmillar.com.


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