Meeting award-winning authors can be a hit-and-miss business. Often, one finds that they would much rather be writing than talking. Other times, they suddenly reveal hidden depths; or hidden shallows, which can be more fun. But few interviews with Booker-shortlisted novelists can be as rewarding as one with Magnus Mills. An afternoon with him, it turns out, is a masterclass in literature and writing, a picnic, and an insight into a world of work that few modern office drones have ever experienced. And then he can give you detailed instructions on which public transport to take home.
For those who haven't read his books, Mills might be better known as "that bus-driving novelist", whose first book, The Restraint of Beasts, was conceived while "hauling a 109 up and down the A23" and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1998. Many of his colleagues were surprised to find that their laid-back, bespectacled chum from the canteen had suddenly turned into a literary superstar. But not as surprised as some of those on the book scene, who couldn't quite believe that the latest Big New Thing seriously planned to go on driving a bus.
Rumours of a £1m advance turned out to be greatly exaggerated, and then Mills produced a second critically acclaimed novel, ' All Quiet on the Orient Express, in 1999; it became clear that this was not just a flash in the pan produced by a sinister and brilliant publicity machine, or the work of some kind of bus-driving idiot savant. Mills was that rare thing: an aspiring novelist for whom having a proper job was not just a means to a literary end.
His books were narrated by fence-erectors and boat-painters; they depicted strange little allegorical worlds in which repetitive manual work provided a framework for a seemingly naïve, philosophical curiosity. Reviewers started comparing him to Kafka, Beckett and PG Wodehouse. "To write one unique book is a rare achievement," raved The Independent when The Scheme for Full Employment came out in 2003. "The ability to produce several is truly special." He was frustrated, he says, that journalists who interviewed him in those days wanted to talk only about buses.
Eleven years, five novels and two collections of short stories on, then, it is quite a surprise that Mills has finally written a book about bus-driving. The Maintenance of Headway is a short novel set entirely in the cabs of buses and the canteen of a bus garage. The title refers to the impossible, Sisyphean task of preserving the correct distance between each of the buses on a given route. The book's surreal humour comes from the managers' attempts to prevent the ultimate sin and the drivers' inclination to indulge in it: "There is no excuse for running early." So, is this a satire on the hierarchies in work and life, or a meditation on the futility of trying to run on time when ultimately the destination is always the same? "No," laughs Mills. "It's all absolutely true."
We meet in his publisher's office in Soho, where his publicist jokes that Mills has had to be bribed with a big box of cakes in order to consent to an interview (which might turn out to be all about bus-driving). "Hmm, why did I suddenly decide to write about buses?" he ponders through a mouthful of Danish pastry. "I think I just decided it was time to explain."
It is a very British peculiarity, apparently, immediately to ask new acquaintances what they do for a living. When people ask Mills and he answers that he is a novelist, he says, "if anyone asks what the book is 'about' then you know for a fact that they're not the type of people who read very much. Because writing is about the words you use, not the subject. I could have written about some other subject and still be sitting here doing the same thing – I think. This just happens to be about buses. Although it's probably easier to sell, being about buses. I think if my first book had been about buses it probably would have sold even better..."
When he replies that he is a bus driver, however, people only ever have one question: why can't the buses ever run on time? "The general public all assume that buses are always late," he sighs. "They're hardly ever late. And if they are late they are very quickly corrected by the management. People miss buses because they're early. At least, they do come when they're due, but only at certain points... The thing is that to time an arrival exactly right, you have to make adjustments further along, so you might have to go through one of the other points early because the powers that be have a different idea about the time from what the drivers have..." It feels rotten to end up talking to Mills about buses again when he is so keen to talk about writing, but it does give you an idea of where the surreal version of reality that turns up in his novels might come from.
In fact, Mills did temporarily give up bus driving, after publishing his second novel and before writing his third. In an interview he gave at about that time, he described how he would work a "spread-over" shift on the buses, which meant that he could sit in his garden each afternoon writing and thinking about novels. "When the sun dipped behind the chimney I knew it would soon be time to go back to work," he said. "[Whereas] as a professional writer, I'd have been able to stay there all day."
"The first thing I noticed when I became a full-time writer was that I didn't do that any more," he recalls now. "I'd had this hare-brained idea that writers sat in the Coach & Horses in Greek Street drinking Guinness with other writers... Well, I did used to go in there, when I was a 'wannabe writer'... But I've discovered that I actually write better when I'm working – at something else – so I thought that I might as well get a job." After a long stint driving vans (the job that The Scheme for Full Employment just happened to be "about"), he went back to bus driving. It was a different route and a different depot, but, he says, it felt like going home.
Currently, Mills writes about a page a day, loving "fiddling about with semi-colons and words". He draws with his finger on the table how he likes "writing dialogue first and then you can see it just going down the page. And then I like having a proper block of narrative for a bit. And then there'll be some little twist, or remark..." Then, as the sun dips below the chimney each day, he is back on the 390, loving the evening rush hour "as the sun beats up Oxford Street" and dialogue plays around his head.
"It seems better to have a full-time job and a lucrative hobby," he says, joking that "at one point I must have been the only bus driver in Britain paying the higher-rate income tax." And then he adds that if I want to get to King's Cross at this time of day I ought to get the 73, the 10 or the 390 from outside McDonald's. What a very useful award-winning novelist he turns out to be.
The Maintenance of Headway, By Magnus Mills (Bloomsbury £10)
'... Few of us were innocent. I once participated in a convoy of nine vehicles, all bound for the same destination. Such a sight could turn the officials quite apoplectic because it ran counter to their guiding principle. The maintenance of headway was sacrosanct. Any violation threatened to undermine an entire ideology. Hence, they feared if all the buses came at once, the walls of their citadel would tumble'
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