old Type: So. First things first. Settle the raging debate around me: is your first name really Mil? Everyone asks that, straight off, when they see your book on my desk.
Mil Millington: It's not my given name, but no one has called me anything else since I was about eleven. No oneit was only the other day, in fact, as I was filling in some legal form for schoolthat my children gaspingly realised that 'Mil' might not be my given name. For all practical purposes, 'Mil' is my real name. But, hey'Call me "Snake".'
BT: All right. Now to the book. Things My Girlfriend & I Have Argued About began life as a web site in which you documented the scuffles between you and your German girlfriend, Margret. It became an internet phenomenon, a regular Guardian column, and now this novel. What d'ye make of all this?
MM: It vividly demonstrates something very important. Though I haven't the remotest idea what that might be. In fact, I was asked to write the bookand was some way into doing itbefore the Guardian column came along. So, in my mind, it goes WebBookColumn. Not really important, of course, but I need to point it out as people have rightly come to expect a certain level of irritating pedantry from me. Next up, I need to stress that the book isn't simply the web page or columns. Though they have the same 'theme' and style, the book is pure fiction and doesn't use anything from the page. Finally, as the day winds down and couples begin to return home from their walks, huddled together against the cooling, night air in a single coat, I get round to answering your question. It's utterly stunning. To set up a web page (purely for my own amusement), be approached (spontaneously) by publishers and editors, and for all this to come of it, well...it's utterly stunning. I feel very lucky.
BT: A sign that you'd made it as an internet personality was when the Mail on Sunday ripped off your page in an article on relationships. After you threatened litigation, they paid you damages. Even though you won, did it affect your page at all? What did Margret think of the situation?
MM: I don't think it really affected the page. I stopped doing it for a short whileI didn't feel entirely happy if the situation was, 'Write some more, Mil...so we can come back in a couple of weeks and steal that too.'but that was its only effect there. Margret was very supportive, of course. As far as she's concerned, if someone's going to give me a hard time, then that person damn well better be her.
BT: Okay. Weird, satanic, unisex couple Colin and Karen Rawbone. Are they a reference to the Mail incident?
MM: Gosh, you're sharp-eyed. I feel oddly naked before you. Yes, the Mail used the web page text virtually verbatim, but they changed 'Mil' and 'Margret' to 'Colin' and 'Karen'. So, it pleased me to make Colin and Karen the names of the deeply vile couple in the book. I like doing these kind of personal things, just for my private entertainment. Like calling TSR 'TSR'a kind of computer program that sort of mirrors his function in the plot.
Imagine having to live with me, eh?
BT: Of course, the rows between Pel and Ursula are the main focus of the book. But you've got several brilliant comic set pieces behind them: IT geeks, office bureaucracy, Pel's discussions with Tracey and Roo, a Chinese Mafia subplot. Did you find it hard to come up with a narrative to bring all these bits together?
MM: The basic idea of Things was to say that, contrary to what we're often shown in the media, or told by therapists hawking pop psychology books, arguingabout stupid thingsis a normal part of a relationship. It actually shows intimacy; that you've reached a point where you feel comfortable being insane. You only have these kind of idiot arguments with those you're genuinely close topartners, siblings, parents. So, I wanted to do a polemic where you have a couple who have more stupid rows, about more stupid things, than anyone, ever, but then show that it didn't mean their relationship wasn't rock solid, under the noise. Have the world all around fall apartoften falling on top of them: problem after increasingly outlandish problem piling up until it all comes crashing down in an instant...but they're still standing up amid the rubblebecause their relationship is stronger and more important than the lot of it. I also wanted other thingslike a trio of relationships existing side by side with different characters: one forming, one constant, one disintegrating. It was all broad ideas like that. When I sat down to convey those ideas then, you know, the Chinese Mafia subplot is just the obvious way to go, right? The thing is, I was anxious that I got the message across, and keen for it to have a narrative, and hoping to work in many, many other points, but I had one, overriding aim that out-ranked the lot: make it funny. Laugh out-loud-funnynot 'laugh-out-loud funny' like you read on the cover of books that turn out to be 'gently amusing', but genuinely, 'laugh-out-loud funny'. I was pleased, in a literary way, when it was chosen as one of the best first novels of the year by the Guardian, but I'm actually more gratified by a woman telling me the other day that it was, 'the only book that has caused me to fall off the toilet laughing'.
BT: Since a lot of Things is based on your life, what do the people around you think of it?
MM: It's not really based on my life, though. That incident in the shower never happened with Margret and me, my children's teachers are perfectly lovely, I actually worked very, very hard when I was an IT manager, etc. The bits that are 'real', aren'tthey're just wallpaper. For example, it's set in a university librarywhich is where I used to workbut could have been set in, oh, local government offices, or a large company. But then I would have had to have researched career structures in local government or something andpffwhy make work for myself? So, the people around me don't have any problems, because they know it's fictionit's the people who aren't around me who think I'm basing it on real life. But, that's fine. I take the comment, 'This is just a thinly disguised autobiography, isn't it?' as a compliment, because it suggest that it all feels 'real'.
BT: What makes the battles in Things so hilarious is that you/Pel and Margret/Ursula are so evenly matched. Do you find that readers take your/Pel's side or Margret/Ursula's side more often?
MM: Honestly, I really am not Pel (Pel couldn't write Pelhis lack of self-awareness is part of his curse) and Margret isn't Ursula (though, deep down, I know she wants to be). Anyway, I hate to say this, but your reaction to Things really is like a test of your personality. I remember one day I got feedback from two completely unconnected people, both of whom worked in publishing. One said, 'I love Pelbut Ursula is vile, why does he stay with her?': that was from a man. Another said, 'Ursula is fantastic, but the Pel character is awfulI can't believe anyone would put up with him.': that was from a woman. I knew then that (a) I'd got it just right and (b) that I pitied the partners of either of the two people who'd made those comments. However, I thinkforced to choosemost people would come down on Ursula's side, and there is enough of Pel in me to agree with them: like him, I regard her with a combination of love and bemused awe.
BT: Is your readership more male or more female?
MM: I instantly leap into saying 'female', but maybe it's just that I get more feedback from women. Pel isn't 'laddish' (as we say in the UK), though. He doesn't sit around drinking beer, watching sport on the TV and talking about carsquite the oppositeperhaps it's understandable more women say to me, 'I am Ursulahurrah!' than men want to admit, 'I am Peloh dear.' Women are certainly better at seeing the affection that's the constant subtext than men are, I think. Men tend to just laugh and not examine it beyond that. There's an argument in the supermarket about how Ursula deals with things that are bothering her that kicks off after Pel says something about the motivation of one of her work colleaguesno man has ever said to me, 'Very funny argument, but at its heart, it's Pel saying how beautiful her thinks Ursula is, isn't it?' They just say, 'Yeahthat's my wife, that is.'
BT: With the popularity of Nick Hornby, Tony Parsons, and Dave Eggers, critics have suggested a new trend in literature: the male confessional. What do you think of this? Some reviewers have you pegged in this category, which I don't necessarily agree with.
MM: Wellll...I'm not going to publicly diss any other writers, because I think writers who do that are actually just saying, 'Look everyone, I'm really clever. Please think I'm really clever.' That aside, I don't think I'm confessional, but I appear to be confessional. That's fine: 'feels honest, feels intimate'I can live with that. However, as I've mentioned, my prime concern is the funny. The funny is king. Tony Parsons, for example, is clearly only mildly concerned with that. One person said, after reading Things, 'It's as if Douglas Adams could write convincingly about relationships.' I'm not unhinged enough to claim to be in the league of Douglas Adams, but I am much more a comic writerwho writes, sometimes, about relationshipsthan a relationship writerwho is, sometimes, funny.
BT: Aside from your page, you've written for the Guardian and co-founded the satirical online mag, The Weekly. And, last year, the Guardian named you as one of Britain's best new writers. Pretty cool for someone who didn't plan on being a writer and who took a really interesting path to a writing career.
MM: Mr. Nash will have you thrown from a high window on to a busy intersection for using the word 'satirical' there. (I'd like to help, but my hands are tied.) Yeah, 'careers', eh? Never had a clue about those. At various points, I've worked in a tyre factory, as an IT manager, played in a band, been involved with motorway construction, been a student (my degree is in Historyit relates to nothing I've ever done), reviewed computer games and spent a long, long time just staring into space with my eyes unfocussed. If life is a path, then jobs have been the holes I've fallen into along the way because I wasn't watching where I was going. I genuinely believe that what I'm doing now, though, is what I'm best at. I was dreadful at motorway construction workdreadful.
BT: Who are your literary influences?
MM: This sounds awful and arrogant, but I don't think I have any. I like lots of peopleJane Austen, say, or Raymond Chandler or Henry Miller or Dickens, lots of peoplebut I don't think they've influenced me. I lovealmost religiouslybrilliant comedy from all times and in all media. From Buster Keaton, through Rob Wilton (cripplingly funny English comic of the 1940s), the Goons, and Peter Cook, on via classic TV sitcoms (Taxi, Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones) right up to modern stand-ups like Will Durst. I've never wanted to do stuff like them, though: just stuff that's funny like them.
BT: The comic literary tradition of warring couplesBeatrice and Benedick, Elizabeth and Darcy, Scarlett and Rhettgoes all the way back to Shakespeare. Why do you think we like to read about couples who argue?
MM: Partly I think it's just innately compelling because it's such a human thingmen, women, love, frictionand nothing fascinates human beings the way human beings do. Also, there's the truth in it (I'm very big on 'the truth'sometimes, I even find myself saying 'The Truth': I am amok). When things are true, people relate to them more and their impact goes much deeper, which, somehow, makes them funnier. Don't ask me why. I just work here.
BT: Working Title bought the rights to Things, which you're adapting for the screen. So I have to ask: who should play Pel and Ursula? (Not Robin Williams, I'm guessing. For either role.)
MM: Arf. Wag. I don't really worry about who'd play Pelany number of people could do it. My concern is that they get Ursula right. It's a quite simply fantastic role for an actress, but so, so easy to destroy utterly if it's played wrongly or lazily. She's no one-note harridan with a comedy 'camp commandant' German accent. The accent must be subtlebarely noticeablethe comic timing perfect, she has to be casually, effortlessly beautiful while appearing not to care about such things in the least, she needs to be confident, forceful, pithy and potentially dangerous while remaining likeable, sensitive and just ever so slightly vulnerable. Suggestions welcomereally.
BT: Would it kill you if they pulled a High Fidelity and gave it an American setting? Or a Bridget Jones with Americans playing the main characters?
MM: I have no problem at all with Americans playing the roles. In fact, when I try to think of actresses who can do comedy well, the vast majority of women who come into my head are Americans. As for changing the setting entirely... Hmmm... I'm not completely tied to England at all but... Hmmm... Pel's really rather English, isn't he? He gets furious inside at the bad grammar of the not using 'fewer' on the 'Eight Items Or Less' sign at the supermarket, he can't stop himself frommid-argumentcorrecting Ursula's syntax, and he's always suffering dreadful embarrassment...do American men get embarrassed? Ever? I somehow can't see Pel as an American character. Still, I'm sure that purely artistic decisions like that are best left to people who have $25 million to invest, eh?
BT: Besides the screenplay, are you working on anything?
MM: A bit of editing on my second book (which is unrelated to Things, incidentally) before it begins the desperately long process that leads to publication, Mr. Nash and I are working on a TV script together, and also I have a pile of ironing to do.
BT: And, finally, mostly just out of idle curiosity: one of the things you and Margret argued about was the pronunciation of your First Born's name. How do you pronounce Jonathan?
MM: Ah-ha... No, in England, Jonathan is pronounced like this: Jonathan. In Germany, it's pronounced Yo-nah-tahn. Which, as I remarked to Margret during our debate at the time, sounds less like the name of human male living in England and more like that of someone you'd expect to be Dr. Who's mortal enemy.
interview by Kelley Kawano
|Photo credit: Mil Millington|