What will you be talking about at Charleston’s Small Wonder festival?
I haven’t the faintest idea! No-one’s told me yet, which is fine by me - the less time I have to think about it, the better. As it’s a short story festival, I guess I’ve been asked because I’ve written two books [The Devil’s Larder and Continent] which are patchwork quilt narratives of little stories. I love reading from those because then audiences get the whole thing. With a novel you read a bit, you have to explain who people are, then another character comes in, you have to stop again…
Have you ever visited Lewes?
Yes, I once did an event there, possibly at the Town Hall? There was a strange green room, I seem to remember. I liked the town, I thought it a beautiful but very liveable place, with history on the street and a busy cultural life. A working town that doesn’t just exist for tourists, unlike some of the Cotswold towns near us.
You’ve long said that Harvest will be your last book. How does it feel now it’s out?
If it’s true – you never know what’s going to happen in the future. It feels like I have some white space in my life for the first time in years. I’ve been very lucky. Publishers have always paid me in advance to write. I’ve never complained, but there are pressures; for example, when you’re two books into a three book deal and you have no ideas. I’m glad to get off that hamster wheel. So any books I write in future will be ones where the books themselves have nudged me, and not the publisher.
What will you do instead?
I want to write a stage play. I’ve fallen in love with the immediacy of theatre, and with the magic of staging. I also want to get involved more directly in politics. And gardening; later this year we’re leaving Birmingham to move into the country, in Worcestershire. Though I’m a committed townie, I’m ready for the move. We want an adventure and a change. We’re keen gardeners and the new place has a third of an acre.
Which of your books are you proudest of?
I’m rather fond of the ones that failed. Gift Of Stones is the orphan in my list. No-one bought it, but I know it’s not a bad book. I do wish it had more readers.
Your online profile is very low – is that how you like it?
I’m private, veering on secretive. And I’m not an autobiographical writer. A happy life, with a long marriage and good health, doesn’t lend itself to a novel. There’s something narcissistic about the creative world. Writers suck up all the oxygen. Because they’re creative think they’re more interesting than they are. They can become monsters. In order to stop myself becoming that sort of person I tend to go the other way.
Your books are rather serious, while in person you are funny and relaxed.
If you’re not your own subject, the person you are doesn’t necessarily grin through the writing. But if you read my books you’ll know things about me: that I’m interested in nature, and walking, and bird-watching, and that I’m a bleeding heart liberal. I did try and write a more personal book, about the loss of my parents, but it failed. I admire people who write autobiographically, who reveal themselves. I couldn’t do it. You have to sing with the voice you’ve been born with. I was trying to sing in a different voice.
Do you have any regrets?
When I was seventeen I was impressed by books that were like placards, books that set agendas. Like the Grapes of Wrath, or The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. I thought I’d be a writer who changed people’s opinions, but my books are more nuanced. I regret I wasn’t given a more strident writing voice. I’ve put politics into my life instead, not so much into the books.
If you were remembered for one thing, what would you like it to be?
Being Dead is an atheist’s look at what happens after you die. The conclusion is in line with Dawkins’ approach – that the cells simply go back into the world. But my dad died in 1979 and I still love him. If my kids still love me all those years after I die, that’s a good immortality to hope for.
Beth Miller. Published in Viva Lewes magazine, September 2013