Andrew Miller: His dark materials

Andrew Miller's new novel is a crisis-ridden journey between darkness and light. But Christina Patterson meets an author who's sunnier than his themes
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Andrew Miller has spent three years "on the dark side of the moon". You wouldn't know it to look at him. Eight years on from the publication of his award-winning first novel, Ingenious Pain, he has retained his youthful good looks - today enhanced by a smart leather jacket, a jaunty scarf and a winning smile. There's something in the intensity of his gaze that speaks of brooding depths as well as charm, but nothing to indicate the horrors that have been flooding his brain.

Andrew Miller has spent three years "on the dark side of the moon". You wouldn't know it to look at him. Eight years on from the publication of his award-winning first novel, Ingenious Pain, he has retained his youthful good looks - today enhanced by a smart leather jacket, a jaunty scarf and a winning smile. There's something in the intensity of his gaze that speaks of brooding depths as well as charm, but nothing to indicate the horrors that have been flooding his brain.

Happily, the horrors are not his own. They have, in fact, coincided with a period in his own life of unprecedented stability. After many years as a literary nomad ("You're always anxious about being anywhere because you could always be somewhere else") he has had an unbroken stretch of three years in Brighton. And now, at 44, he's even got a daughter. "I just had lunch with her!" he announces with the soppy grin of the new parent. "She's five months old and she's completely fantastic!"

He makes it sound, I say, a little like a lunch appointment with a publisher. "We met at a local café," he explains. "Frieda's mother, my partner, lives across the way from me. We meet in the middle." Right. So, still not quite a fully-fledged member of the conventional bourgeoisie.

The horrors in Miller's new novel, The Optimists (Sceptre, £16.99), are far from Brighton, far from cosy lunches in cafés and very far indeed from the fancy wine bar in Victoria where we're sitting in a corner, sipping gin and tonics. The details, and the location, remain unspecified, but the general gist is clear from the start. "After the massacre at the church in N-- Clem Glass flew home to London," it begins, a sentence that captures, with admirable brevity, both the novel's theme and the shadow that looms over it.

It's a while before any further details are offered, but an epigraph from Fergal Keane's Season of Blood, an account of his time in Rwanda during the genocide, offers a hefty hint. "We had learnt something about the soul of man," Keane says, "that would leave us with nightmares long into the future."

"I like that book because it's quite undigested in a way," says Miller. "It's journalism and a bit more... He says in the book that after a while he lost his sense of optimism, that somehow in the struggle between good and evil, and dark and light, the light would win out, just. He said he didn't know how he would ever get it back". Haunted by this thought, Miller locked himself away with a pile of books of spectacular grimness and set out on a literary journey that proved radically different to all those that had gone before. "I was a bit like a man running downstairs in the dark at full pelt," he says. "There was something I wanted to pursue around this problem of evil thing, and I decided to go at it in a headlong fashion, just to see where I might come out. I berated myself later for working in this crazy way," he adds, "but I thought I couldn't actually have done it any other way."

Instead of the "world and character" that preceded the writing of his other novels, he started, he says with an idea, an idea that "was also a feeling, a cloud that has a certain kind of atmosphere, a sense of something that I'd not fully grappled with. The detail, the stuff of it, came afterwards." The "detail" is the crisis facing photographer, Clem Glass, whose life is in disarray after the horrors he has seen in Africa. Back in London, he wanders around aimlessly, unable to work and becoming "one of the people who go to the cinema in the middle of the day". He visits his father, now a member of an austere all-male commune on a Scottish island, and finds that his sister has had a severe recurrence of the mental illness that first hit many years before. It is in looking after her, at a family cottage in Somerset, that he begins to find a glimmer of stability and even hope. By the end of the novel, he has achieved "some slight but useful faith in himself, some small, stubborn belief in the others".

Clem's near-paralysis in the face of extreme cruelty and pain is just the latest example of Miller's continuing preoccupation with human suffering and what he calls "right behaviour". It started with Ingenious Pain, a surreal foray into the world of the 18th-century son of a yeoman who lacked the capacity to feel pain, and continued with a fictional portrayal of a Casanova overcome by weariness and doubt. It is even more central to his next novel, Oxygen, which intertwines the tales of four people - a dying mother, her two sons and a Hungarian playwright in exile - at a moment of crisis.

"The books have gone in pairs so far," Miller says, "the two 18th-century books and these ones. With both Ingenious Pain and Oxygen, in neither case did I manage to finish. In a sense I wanted to write some of the same material, but in a different tempo. After this slightly lugubrious, serious piece [ Ingenious Pain], I wanted something that would be a bit of a minute waltz. Casanova didn't end up like that. With Oxygen, the mood that flows through it was not exhausted and needed to flow through another 370 pages. And is now," he says, "at an end."

It's true that there are startling parallels between Oxygen and The Optimists. Both have anxious male characters looking after sick female relatives. Both have illness as a metaphorical leitmotif: in Oxygen, it's the struggle, literally, to breathe, and in The Optimists it's to do with eyes. "I got very interested in the idea of the eye being affected, physically affected, by what it sees," Miller explains. "There are two things that you can't stare at, the sun and death. I liked Camus's idea of the unblinking stare - that this was the last sort of courage you can have."

While his novels are, in their various ways, all about the struggle for courage, his characters couldn't be further from the stereotype of the strong, brave man. "They're all Hamletty types," laughs Miller "in the sense that they're all stuttering on the edge. They are characters who are at least very aware of the potential futility of all that they've done, or could do." They are, in fact, very English, often very fastidious and profoundly embarrassed by displays of emotion. They're also intelligent, analytical and more than a little tortured. Are there, I ask nervously, any affinities with their creator?

Miller smiles kindly. "When I realised that this was something that kept coming up in the books, I was quite surprised," he confesses. "I've also been surprised, talking to other men, how recognisable this thing is. I realised then that this wasn't just something completely aberrant and idiosyncratic. I look at my own biography. Yes, I can see that this was something. I was a secretive and quite withdrawn child for all sorts of reasons. I was guarded - that's what it was."

At this moment, the tape recorder clunks to a halt. "Emotion deactivated," jokes Miller. "I think", he adds, once it has whirred back into life, "fiction is a much more reliable autobiography than anything that has autobiography on the covers. I have seen, looking back on the last four books, that a picture begins to emerge - and of course it's your own face. God knows, I loathe the idea of writing as therapy, but it will be interesting to see if certain themes will change a little as we go on, and if things go out of view."

He is, he says, "delighted" to have finished this particular phase of work and keen to leave these characters behind. "I got weary of the slightly angsty feel," he sighs. "These people are so stuck! I wanted to shake them. Although they're doing their best, I'm out of patience with them, finally."

Andrew Miller is not just fiercely bright, but also charming and funny. But the wit that peppers his conversation is, in the novels, seen only in flashes. What, I wonder, is keeping it back?

"I'd like that to emerge more," he admits with a slight grimace. "In my family, conversation couched in some form of extreme humour is 80 per cent of how we communicate. I think it comes from the desire to have weight," he admits."But your character as a person and your character as a writer get closer as time goes on. Perhaps that hasn't quite happened yet. I think it will. Goodness knows, it will be a good feeling when it does."

Biography: Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller was born in Bristol in 1960. He spent his early childhood in a Somerset village where his father was the local doctor. His parents separated when he was four and he went to live with his mother in Bath. After leaving school, he worked in Social Services for three years before studying literature, philosophy and history at Middlesex Polytechnic. He did an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia and went on to teach English in Spain and Japan. It was while doing a PhD in creative writing at Lancaster University that he wrote his first novel, Ingenious Pain (1997), which went on to win the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Grinzane Cavour prize and the Impac award. It was followed in 1998 by Casanova and in 2001 by Oxygen, which was shortlisted for both the Whitbread and the Booker. His new novel, The Optimists (Sceptre), is published this week. Andrew Miller has been a full-time writer since 1996, living in Dublin, Paris, London and now Brighton.