A bus driver for 12 years earning pounds 5.03 an hour, he spent his twenties as an itinerant labourer, living in a caravan or a Ford Transit van. Although he did an economics degree at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, he enjoyed the freedom of travelling and spending time in Scotland as a farm worker. The inspiration for his book, The Restraint Of Beasts, comes from farm labourers.
Eventually he moved to London with his wife, Sue. He said: "She wanted to come down south, so I said we would go to London and I'd get a job as a bus driver. I wrote the novel between shifts." Film rights have already been sold.
Mr Mills, who received a pounds 10,000 advance for The Restraint Of Beasts, is joined by Beryl Bainbridge.
With Master Georgie she picks up her fifth shortlist selection - the highest number for any author without a win. Ian McEwan, who has been nominated twice before, has been given odds of 6-4 for Amsterdam, just ahead of Ms Bainbridge, with odds of 5-2.
Also on the list are Julian Barnes' England, England, Martin Booth's The Industry Of Souls and Patrick McCabe's Breakfast On Pluto.
The five judges ,who were expected to have read 125 nominated books, were locked in a room at a central London gentleman's club, the Savile Club, for more than four hours yesterday while they discussed the shortlist.
Lord Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary, is chairing the panel. He is joined by Nigella Lawson and Miriam Gross, the journalists, Penelope Fitzgerald, the novelist, and Professor Valentine Cunningham, the broadcaster and literature lecturer. Lord Hurd said: "We have had a strenuous, good- humoured session. Five very different judges from five very different backgrounds and we have arrived at a talented shortlist with a lot of excitement in it. There's no obvious front-runner, nothing guaranteed to win."
Graham Sharpe, of William Hill, said: "We're going to see a lot of money going on Beryl Bainbridge as a sympathy vote because of all her nominations, but I think the judges will come down on the side of Ian McEwan. "
The shortlisted authors receive pounds 1,000 and generally benefit from a boost in sales with their Booker success. Arundhati Roy - last year's winner and another first-time novelist - saw sales of her book The God Of Small Things double after her victory.
The final decision for this year's 30th Booker Prize will be taken on October 27 when the judges meet again. The results will be announced at a dinner in Guildhall, London.
Review, page 3.
THE BOOKER SHORT LIST
(Duckworth, pounds 14.99)
when not writing: loves to paint
shortlisted four times
A fourth shortlisting for the nearly-woman of the Booker, two years after her Titanic novel, Every Man for Himself. Typically terse and vivid, this account of the Crimean War through the eyes of a geologist, a photographer and a girl from the Liverpool backstreets shows her ability to illuminate history in lightning-flashes. Hilary Mantel, in the Independent, acclaimed a "blackly funny and fiercely intelligent" book whose battles scenes are perhaps "the most powerful Bainbridge has ever imagined".
(Cape, pounds 15.99)
when not writing:
travelling to France
In his first novel for eight years, Barnes is shortlisted for the first time since his debut, Flaubert's Parrot in 1984. England,England satirically invents a giant theme-park on the Isle of Wight which gathers all the attractions of Olde England at the behest of a corrupt tycoon. In the Independent, Valentine Cunningham - one of the Booker judges - admired the book's "essayistic enticements" but also its "regular pleasures of narrative". He predicted it would "delight Barnes's huge European following".
The Industry Of Souls
(Dewi Lewis Publishing, pounds 6.99)
when not writing: broadcasting on wildlife
The yearly small-press outsider comes this time from a Stockport- based publisher which began with photography books before moving on to launch a tiny fiction list. The very experienced Martin Booth, a Far East expert and author of novels such as Hiroshima Joe as well as a history of opium, moves to Russia with this tale of a Briton arrested for spying in the Stalin era. Abandoned in the Gulag and released into obscurity, he must revisit his traumatic past when glasnost arrives.
Breakfast on Pluto
(Picador, pounds 15.99
lives: Sligo, Ireland
when not writing: sings in pubs and clubs
McCabe, whose novel The Butcher Boy was turned into a widely- praised film after its Booker shortlisting in 1992, here gives an unexpected spin to the over-written Troubles in Northern Ireland. Transvestite outcast "Pussy" Braden learns to survive among the macho hard men of his Ulster town and then emigrates to become a rent-boy in Seventies London, where the violence he has spurned still tracks him down. An inventive, touching and slyly comic take.
(Cape, pounds 14.99)
when not writing: playing
Another repeat Booker contender who has never quite snatched the gold. Lighter in tone than much of his previous fiction, this compact novella involves an intrigue among the metropolitan elite that embroils an editor, a composer and a cabinet minister in a plot that wavers between comedy and pathos. Interviewing McEwan for the Independent, Robert Hanks missed the author's trademark "flashgun moments" but enjoyed its "light, brittle satire" as a "decisve break with the past".
The Restraint of Beasts
(Flamingo, pounds 9.99)
lives: Brixton, London
when not writing: bus driving, gardening,
Behind the hype about the bus-driving blockbuster there lies a cool and stylish parable about the abuse of power and the way ordinary people connive in their own destruction. Ostensibly about two feckless Scots fencing contractors whose jobs grow ever more sinister and murderous, Mills's uncanny debut arguably has more in common with early Ian McEwan than does Amsterdam. In the Independent, Kim Newman hailed "a work of rare originality and power" that "contains multitudes of meanings".