Alison Miller Interview
BooksfromScotland.com: The voice of Clare, as the novel opens, is extraordinary. It is realistic, strong and perceptive and the detail is convincing. What was the inspiration for Clare?
Alison Miller: It may sound strange, even a little spooky, but I ‘heard’ Clare’s voice starting to talk to me. I was in a pensione in Venice, on my way back to Glasgow from the big Social Forum demonstration in Forence, trying to get to sleep, when Clare began to tell me about her experience of the demo. I heard her so clearly, I had to write it down when I got home. At the time I thought it would be a short story, but once I started to follow Clare on her travels, it kept getting longer. Sometimes I think that, rather than my creating Clare as a character, Clare created me as a writer!
Men are not portrayed as sympathetically as women in your novel... What's that about (if it's not too cheeky a question!)?
Well, I think that Danny, Jed and Clare’s father are portrayed sympathetically. And Julian isn’t a complete bastard, though I know some people think he is. Nor are Clare, Laetitia, Laetitia’s mother, Clare’s mother, Farkhanda completely positive all the time. The point is that the story is told from the perspectives of the two young women, Clare and Laetitia. That means that you see the world through their eyes. And they don’t have identical perspectives either: Clare sees Laetitia quite negatively at times; then it switches to Laetitia’s point of view and you hope that enough of her story comes across for the reader to re-evaluate any previous judgement, inhabit her skin, walk in her shoes for a while. Now, it should also be possible to do that for the male characters and it would be interesting to hear Danny’s story and Julian’s, told from their own standpoints.
But I think it is still true that, while women read more novels than men, a higher percentage of novels that make it into print are by men with male protagonists. Maybe as readers we are simply more attuned to seeing women through the eyes of male writers, than we are to seeing men through the eyes of women. I mean, there’s no male character in Demo portrayed as demeaningly as Henry Miller depicts the prostitute, Germaine, in the section quoted in the book; and that was written in the guise of a positive response to her.
And, while we’re on the topic of prostitutes, if there weren’t men prepared to exploit women sexually, you wouldn’t have women being trafficked from Eastern Europe, beaten, imprisoned, deprived of their passports, forced to have sex with a succession of men, who basically don’t give a shit what the experience is like for the woman, ask no questions about how she came to be there, and are happy not to have to consider her humanity. Sex tourism is another example; I’m writing this on the day Gary Glitter has been refused permission to leave Viet Nam after having sex with a twelve year old girl. There is a large element in the literature and other material available to men about sex, which gives the message that you don’t really want to bother with what the woman (or child) might be experiencing; much better for men if they can project onto the woman sentiments that fit with their own desires. That’s bound to affect the way some men think about sex. Julian has absorbed some of that way of thinking from his reading of Henry Miller for one. But, I’m confident that Danny, Jed and Danny’s father, at any rate, as well as many of the men who read the book, would be appalled at such treatment of women. And I don’t think even Julian would consciously approve – at least not in relation to Laetitia. And that’s another trick: divide women into virgins and whores, marry the virgins and treat the whores as badly as you want; after all, they’ve got it coming to them.
Okay. End of rant.
Diaries and notebooks play a key part in 'Demo'. Do you keep a diary yourself and do you have views on the value of the 'diary' in modern society? - the fact that so many people are blogging now suggests the form is still as strong (but perhaps less private).
A. I do keep a journal, though I tend to write less in it these days. When I’m under a lot of stress, my journal is a way of holding on to a thread of myself, telling myself what’s worrying me, reassuring myself it will get better! I rarely reread what I write in it. And – unlike the words of bloggers – it’s not for public consumption.
In Demo, I used diaries in a variety of ways. They offer first person narratives different from that of Clare’s narrative, which is also in the first person, but appears not to censor any of the thoughts of the character; whereas the journal writers tear out pages they don’t want read, score out passages, stifle thoughts before they’re formed. This, of course, could also raise ethical questions about ‘revealing’ Clare so thoroughly through her unspoken responses to her experience. In other words, if Clare’s narrative had been in diary form, what would she have left out? The diaries – incomplete as they are – are also there as a reminder of how difficult it is to know another human being.
Bloggers, on the other hand, post their thoughts on the web. Reports of the way young people in Iran use the form as a means of political protest, defying the edicts of the totalitarian, fundamentalist state, show that it can be a powerful ‘underground’ medium for those denied open forms of expression and a way of reaching large numbers of people.
Class struggle is a huge theme in 'Demo', whereas modern politics tends to focus on poverty. Do you think class is more important?
Not so much class struggle as class antagonisms, consciousness, prejudices, perspectives. I think poverty is hugely important and we’re nowhere near tackling it despite all the rhetoric at the G8. But class differences are still there in our society.
Glasgow, Florence, Rome, London... Travel by bus and train, and 'Place' are very important in 'Demo'. Just a reflection of contemporary society?
Certainly a reflection of contemporary society, a depiction of the way young people move about the world today in ways previous generations would never have dreamt of, unless they had a considerable income – or were in the armed forces, or took part in conflicts like the Spanish Civil War. Nowadays young people travel for football matches, working abroad and holidays, as well as political protest.
Place is important because each country, city or area of the world has a different atmosphere, as does every public space, building, room. Getting across the ‘feel’ of diverse physical surroundings is one of the things that makes a piece of writing real.
You have a balance of first person and third person narrative, and changing perspectives. Was this tricky to structure, or were the characters always very clear from the start?
The characters were always clear to me. Having a Clare/Laetitia/Clare structure did make it difficult to work out how, for example, the threads of Laetitia’s narrative could be woven into the last part. But I wrote the book by following the characters and ‘listening’ to their voices. I never knew in advance what was going to happen next; didn’t know what was behind the door till the character opened it. It wasn’t planned this way, but the book has ended up with the last part mirroring the whole structure, so you have: 1. Clare; 2. Laetitia; 3. Clare, with part 3 reiterating the Clare/Laetitia/Clare pattern.
I used the first person present historic in Glasgow dialect for Clare’s narrative, then the more conventional third person past tense Standard English for Laetitia. Though, within that, Standard English appears in the first part through Clare’s perception of the English characters; and in Laetitia’s narrative, the dialect of the Glasgow characters appears much as it might in a more conventional approach – i.e. narrative in Standard English, dialogue in dialect. I was also trying to see if Clare’s narrative could convey her subtle responses and insights, using what many people would regard as an ‘impoverished’ vocabulary, with all the inhibitions about being articulate that a lot of young people have. And, on the other hand, in Laetitia’s narrative, I was trying to achieve a level of immediacy, that educated, Latinate, circumlocutory English doesn’t necessarily lend itself to.
Well it’s clear to me!
Did you ever consider writing the entire novel in Clare's voice?
When I started it, I had no idea it would develop in any other voice than Clare’s but, by the time I got to the end of the first section in Florence, Laetitia’s story had started to tell itself to me. I was quite surprised by that, but I just had to go with it. It gave me a chance to overlap the stories, so that you see some of the same events from two different perspectives. That is a central theme of the book and is echoed in all the relationships.
What are you working on next?
A. I’ve been brooding on a novel about a woman returning from Glasgow to live in her native Orkney. No, not autobiographical!
How did you feel when you heard Penguin were going to publish your (first) novel?
Delighted – and incredulous! I still sometimes don’t believe it. I mean, Penguin!
Which writers have influenced you?
Margaret Atwood. I love the way she can lay out society’s and individuals’ foibles so forensically, yet allow an enormous compassion for humanity to shine through.
The challenging of assumptions about dialect, the nature of what can be said in it and how we hear it, was done in the 1980s by Tom Leonard; James Kelman’s work insists his narrator can speak/think in the same Glasgow dialect as his main character. I learned from them both.
Zoë Wicomb and Janice Galloway were my tutors in first and second years respectively of the creative writing course. The fact that they took my writing seriously and persuaded me I should also, their own achievements in writing and their teaching, were phenomenally important to me. They were an inspiration.