About Alison Miller
An Interview with Alison Miller
More About Alison Miller
Alison Miller grew up in Orkney and now lives in Glasgow. She worked for the WEA (Workers Educational Association) in an adult education project in Castlemilk, Glasgow, and more recently co-ordinated the counselling and group work service in the Centre for Women's Health.
In 2003 she graduated with Distinction from the M.Phil in Creative Writing run by Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities. Now, as well as writing, she works freelance as an adult educator and counselling supervisor. She is the author of the novel Demo.
Alison Miller, debut author of Demo, shouts to be heard above the ‘rammy’ and answers our quickfire questions, whilst steering clear of The Abyss…
Who or what always puts a smile on your face?
Babies. Must be my hormones.
What are you reading at the moment?
The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. I have a friend, Clare, who reads then introduces me to slightly more out of the way books, ones that don’t turn up in the 3 for 2 piles in the big bookshops. This is the second book of his I’ve read and I’m saving Revolutionary Road, which is supposed to be his best, 'til last. I’ve just finished We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, which was harrowing, gripping, very intelligent and something of a paradigm of modern American society. Lined up, I have, Borrowed Finery, Paula Fox’s memoir - I loved her Desperate Characters, which I read last year, recommended by two other great reader friends, Allison and Anne-Marie – and Cherry by Mary Karr, whose The Liars Club I thought was brilliant. All American writers? Hmm. I do read books by authors of other nationalities! But I seem to be on an American writer kick. The ones I’ve mentioned tend to scrape off the veneer of the American Dream, expose its fragility and hollowness, the ways it can divide people from each other. Orhan Pamuk’s Snow is also on my shelf waiting for the right moment. And I’m looking forward to getting a copy of Paradise, by A.L. Kennedy.
Which author do you most admire?
I admire Tillie Olsen, who kept her desire to write alive through a difficult working and family life and wrote Silences, which speaks of the obstacles less privileged writers have to face. And I also admire Arundhati Roy, who wrote her first novel, The God of Small Things, skipped off with the Booker, then announced she’d write no more novels and instead campaigns for various causes in India. Now, that’s cool!
What’s your earliest memory?
I got up on the stone step at the top of the garden, facing the door to the lane. The step was narrow; there was no handle on the door. I felt along it with my hands - only peeling paint, nothing to hold onto. The step was too narrow for me to turn on it without coming off. How could I get down? Behind me, instead of a garden path, where my mother and brother and baby sister were waiting, I sensed a vast dark nothingness. I was terrified to move. I couldn’t turn round and there was nothing to hold onto. How long did I stand there? Probably only seconds, though time was an eternity to match the abyss behind me. In the end I pressed my palms flat against the door and reached down carefully with my toe. My foot met solid ground and, in that instant, normality was restored to me, darkness dispelled, real time reinstated; I was safe. This happened when I was two and a half. I’ve often wondered since how, at that age, I could have conceived of The Abyss.
What is your greatest fear?
How would you like to be remembered?
I’ve never really thought about being remembered. I have more of a sense of wanting to live my life well by my lights, i.e. grappling with the puzzles and difficulties that present themselves along the road, mainly in terms of how to relate to other people and the world.
How do you spoil yourself?
I go to Stravaigin for a cappuccino or a glass of wine and read my book.
What’s your favourite book?
Like the character in We Need to Talk About Kevin, when someone asks me that, my mind goes blank, and I feel as if I’ve never read a single book in my entire life! One I read recently that I really liked was The Furies by Janet Hobhouse.
Who do you turn to in a crisis?
My partner, my friends.
What makes you angry?
The Iraq War, Tony Blair, George Bush and the rest. I’ve never in my life experienced such a prolonged period of helpless rage as I did in the weeks leading up to the war in Iraq. Watching it unfold, I couldn’t understand why the entire country didn’t see through the rhetoric to what seemed blindingly clear – that Blair was utterly determined not to let America go it alone, that the decision to go to war had been made by Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney etc, months before September the 11th, months before the spurious debates and justifications that happened here. Blair could have used his charisma and considerable eloquence to unite Europe against the war, persuade the UN and provide an alternative view – western, English speaking – to that peddled by the Bush administration; he could have offered a rallying point to all the millions of Americans who were anti-war and dismayed by their country's isolationism and bully-boy tactics around the world. But he didn’t. He put all his skills and much of the country’s resources in the service of Bush’s warmongering. What on earth possessed the man?
When was the last time you cried?
The other day, with a dear friend, who has two brain tumours and not long to live. She was rewriting some of the words she wants said at her funeral. We did a lot of laughing too.
Which foreign country would you most like to visit?
I’d like to go to India some day, though, being an Orcadian, I’d probably find it too hot – the kind of humid heat that wraps itself round your face in the tropical house in the Botanic Gardens.
What are you proudest of?
That I’ve written a novel. Though I’ve always been a secret scribbler and harboured vague notions that I’d like to write one, I never really imagined that I would. On the Creative Writing Course at Glasgow and Strathclyde universities, I started by writing poems and short stories and was frequently told my stories were really novels trying to cram themselves into too small a space. Demo started in the same way, but point blank refused to be contained in a short form, so I had to go with it. Well, I say ‘had to’, but to do so I had first to overcome a congenital tendency to procrastinate endlessly. Mañana, mañana or – in Orcadian – no chuist noo! It was a great feeling of achievement to actually finish it.
Where do you write?
In Stravaigin, in other coffee shops, in Glasgow University library, in the Orkney Room in Kirkwall library, in my living room at home. But, as of two weeks ago, I now have A ROOM OF MY OWN, so I’ll be writing there, once it’s done up.
Which is your favourite city and why?
Glasgow – nay contest! I moved here reluctantly from Aberdeen, where I’d gone to university; where – island girl that I am - I was beginning to get to grips with urban life and establish myself as an independent adult. I had dreams about Glasgow being a nightmarish wasteland. But a few months after we moved, I realised how much more at home I was here. After grey, Calvinist, Aberdeen with its keep-yourself-to-yourself, granite canyons of tenements, Glasgow felt more continental; more voluble and friendly; more volatile, with a buzz and a frisson of excitement running through its streets. It was also politically more congenial, given the legacy of Red Clydeside and the continued activism of many of its citizens. It’s a city that engages you, talks to you on the bus, calls you pal, asks you about yourself, won’t shut up. I began my adult education career in Aberdeen, where my main task seemed to be to draw people out, encourage them to talk; in Glasgow I struggled to make myself heard above the rammy! And, while it’s nowhere near as cosmopolitan as London, there is more of a mix of races and nationalities than elsewhere in Scotland, and I love that too.
Which is your favourite place in Scotland?
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Orkney. It’s where I was born and raised. At eighteen, I couldn’t wait to get out of its small community clutches and escape to the ‘big’ city of Aberdeen. In contrast to Glasgow, many of Orkney’s people have a northern reserve and shyness, which I too possess, hidden beneath the more gregarious persona I’ve developed as camouflage. I had to leave when I did, but now, when I go back, I love the place. I love the curves of the landscape, the big, big sky, the green and gold of the fields, running everywhere down to the sea. I love the cliffs and the rocks where Atlantic breakers crash, the wind that howls round the house in winter. I love the pellucid light of midsummer, when it never gets really dark and, driving through the countryside, between the lochs, past Neolithic burial chambers and standing stones silhouetted against the sky, I feel I could stay awake forever!
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