Andrew Miller on Writing A Female Lead

By Rosie Connell

To conclude the North Cornwall Book Festival’s events, I watch renowned novelist Andrew Miller being interviewed by Rupert Thomson in the beautiful St. Endellion church. When he isn’t practicing his martial arts, Andrew is immersed in his writing, telling us “you give whatever you’ve got.” Later going on to say “my writing is never aimed at me,” though his own experiences and emotions inspire his work, “I ransack my life” he tells us. He gives a word of encouragement to new writers, touching on the writing of a first novel, “the thing about first novels is you feel a bit hopeless… no one knows you’re doing it, but you give the best part of yourself.” Andrew is fifty-five years old, but has a distinctively boyish charm and a playful yet forgiving sense of humour that often shines through in the talk.

Andrew has perhaps been known mostly for his lusciously-written period novels, which span from 1940s Japan to prerevolutionary France. His highly acclaimed historical novel Pure won the 2011 Costa Book Award for “Best Novel” and “Book of the Year”. Research, he explains, is a highly important factor in the authenticity of his work. “I have to know what it looks like in the room, what everyone’s wearing – and their underwear too,” he says, “I always fret about underwear.” The audience laughs amongst themselves; Andrew’s easygoing amiability on stage creates a sense of intimacy which would normally be difficult to achieve in such a large space. He emphasizes the importance of the “day to day facts of living,” when constructing a period piece, “which is why diaries and letters are so important” he tells us.

Not one to be defined by genre however, Andrew has also successfully tackled contemporary settings that examine topics like genocide, male friendship and cancer. His latest novel The Crossing centres on the enigmatic heroine, Maud. A clinical researcher of opioid painkillers and a brilliant sailor with a knack for survival; she sets off on a solo voyage into the ocean following the death of her child. The novel has been described as a frank and alternative examination of motherhood and gender. Whilst interviewing Andrew, Rupert Thomson described it to be “atmospheric,” “dreamlike” and “gripping,” elaborating that it “takes you on an unexpected journey.”

This is probably in part due to Andrew’s organic process of writing; he says that “a certain amount of the project must come to you.” It seems that Maud herself materialized over time, he tells us that “I didn’t know who was going to move between these islands I had created.” Perhaps this is what has made Maud so believable despite her mystery; she is a woman who would willingly explore these distant places by herself.

Andrew then reads out a section of The Crossing, and everyone sits silent, intent to absorb the rich and evocative prose that characterizes his work. Following this, there’s further discussion and a Q&A on how he tackled such a challenging heroine.

Andrew-Millers-The-Crossing“I wanted somebody who would be an ordinary person, which is why she’s from the most ordinary place I know, which is Swindon.” Ordinary in a credible sense she may be, but Maud is also unemotional and unusual in another way – acting against every social norm that is to be expected of her, which comes to her naturally. “She’s doglike – she has a presence; she’s just in the world and moves through the world.” He says, describing her to be in a sense “illiterate” to those around her, drawn into any sense of culture only through her partner and his family, which represent a confused norm unable to figure her out. The reader will also struggle to have their expectations met of Maud; “as a mother, Maud is not going to be winning prizes” Andrew says. Being a parent himself, he was unable to actually detail the death of the child, which is why it remains between the lines of this story, much like its ambiguous heroine. “I had to make sure the child was older than my own” he says, even describing how he wrote a “counter-story” exclusively for himself where the child comes to no harm, never intended for publication.

On writing in a woman’s voice, he says that “originally I thought it was a man, and I went on with that thought for a while.” He then elaborates that since the novel is about parenting, for “cultural reasons” he chose to write a woman because of the expectations on women as parents, which left him more room for subversion. Andrew then said that “we shouldn’t just not write about the opposite sex… let’s see where this goes, you might not pull it off but don’t feel you have to stay with someone like you.” To the testament of Andrew’s characterisation, which in Maud’s case must remain subtle, a woman in the audience described her to be “profoundly female” despite her reluctance to live up to typical expectations of her gender.

The reader is not given Maud’s thoughts or feelings and she seldom communicates them, but as Andrew has remarked, she isn’t mean to be explained, she is presented unfathomably to the reader as she is to everyone else around her. This unique novel studies how an individual deals with a personal tragedy whether we can comprehend it or not, whether we like her or not, and from this we can gain an alternative understanding of people.

Pick up Andrew’s gripping and dreamlike novel The Crossingpublished by Sceptre.