Book club webchat with A.D. Miller
A.D. Miller was our book club guest author in January 2012 to discuss his debut novel Snowdrops, a 'moral thriller' which was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize.
He chatted to us about his inspiration for writing the book, how he identified with its characters and his fascination with Russia.
TillyBookClub: Which childhood book most inspired you? What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?
A.D. Miller: The answer to this depends on how you define childhood. When I was very young my mother gave me Archy and Mehitabel, which I loved. When I was 10-ish, I used to read a lot of Agatha Christie books. If we're talking about school days, then perhaps The Great Gatsby or A Handful of Dust, being a little more flexible, than probably Moby-Dick, which I read on my gap year.
On writing: do it your own way, ie try to find your own voice. Also, stick at it. Writing a novel is a long, lonely enterprise: as much as anything else, it takes a lot of stamina.
yUMMYmUMMY: I enjoyed the writing and descriptions of characters but I found the ending somewhat disappointing. Is there a follow-up book planned/being penned? I'd like to find out more about Nick's current situation. Also, how much personal experience is in the book?
A.D. Miller: Good, it works! I'm sorry that you didn't like the ending. It is intentionally opaque, partly because that's how things often are in Russia, a place where getting to the bottom of events, and crimes in particular, can often be impossible. You sometimes feel as if you're living in a world of infinite regress.
This isn't a story in which anyone is punished, or in which the guilty feel their guilt very acutely. Nick doesn't even leave Russia because of what happens to Tatiana: he only goes because he has to, on account of his job. So this isn't a very consoling story, I'm afraid. And I'm afraid I intend to leave it there; me and Nick Platt are done (me and Russia too, so far as novels are concerned).
cakes82: Have you ever been in a similar situation to Nick, where someone has tried or even succeeded in duping you? Was it an influence for the book and did you learn from it? Also, I think Nick did feel guilty, especially for Tatiana but he got sucked in to the Russian life and his feelings for Masha. However, I can't believe the business world (even in Russia) would have allowed the Cossack to get away with so much.
A.D. Miller: I should say that this book isn't autobiographical. I lived in Moscow for three years, but I lived there with my wife. I lived a very different life to Nick. I wasn't involved in any acts of grand larceny or murder. Having said that, there is a lot in Snowdrops that is drawn from personal observation, if not direct experience, of the city and the way the foreigners who lived there found themselves behaving.
And this is as much a portrait of a time as of a place: the years before the credit crunch, a time of no questions asked money making, and general blind eye turning, not just in Moscow but elsewhere.
This relates to your point about the Cossack and the oil terminal plot in Snowdrops. Six or seven years ago, bankers really were lending silly amounts of money to Russian firms with little or no security, for some of the same reasons that brought about the financial crisis, perverse incentives which meant they didn't worry too much about whether the banks would ever get the money back again.
The plot in my novel is maybe a slight exaggeration of the sort of things that used to go on, but not an enormous one. I'm pleased you pick up on the relationship between Nick and Tatiana. I wanted to convey the idea that he likes her, genuinely, though that doesn't stop him doing what he does.
CountrySlicker: I felt Tatiana's acceptance was a last fling. The Old Russia versus the new. She is loving the attention and the fantasy of the move and the memory of the woods but knows she would never be able to do it, her life in her home has gone and there is no life beyond. That was my take.
A.D. Miller: You're not wrong. In my mind Tatiana is a bit like Nick, in a way: lonely and therefore vulnerable. She doesn't go along with it exactly, but she is needy and flattered by the youngsters' attention and turns a(nother) blind eye. For all her worldliness and experience of wartime and the Soviet era, she's a bit adrift and out of her depths in the new Russia. I met quite a lot of elderly Russians like that.
whereismywine: How did you anticipate Nick being received by readers? I found him exasperating. Was this the intention?
A.D. Miller: The short answer is yes. I hope that at the beginning of the book he comes across as a reasonably likeable, recognisable sort of guy, not a hero, but not a villain either. He's a drifting, lonely 30-something. He's nice to his neighbour and gives money to beggars. But he changes, and because of his circumstances and self-deception, comes to behave in ways that he might never have imagined.
So yes, absolutely, you're supposed to judge him; if you like him by the end, I've done something wrong! But at the same time, I hope readers will be able to follow what he does, and understand why he does it.
kumquatsarethelonelyfruit: The male characters (Nick et al) are pretty vile and exploitative. Do you see your novel as having a feminist message?
A.D. Miller: I'm really pleased that you've asked me this. Yes, when you send a book into the world, you have to be prepared for people to respond in all kinds of ways that you weren't expecting and might not like. But something that has been a bit distressing for me is for readers to confuse the voice of the narrator with the message of the book. This is Nick's account of himself; these are his views, even his style and syntax.
I wanted readers to judge Nick, not least in his attitude to women, which is pretty exploitative and sleazy. The way men like him, and there are quite a lot of them, think about women, and what that leads them to do, is one of the themes of the book.
Whizpuff: I enjoyed this book and surprisingly enjoyed the inevitability of the story. Something I really would like to know is what does A.D. Miller think happened to the old lady?
A.D. Miller: Like Nick, I'm afraid she has probably come to a sticky end. But I think I feel a lot sadder about that than Nick does. On the inevitability thing: this is a 'how' book, not a 'what' book. You find out on page one that something awful will happen, and somewhere along the way you will work out roughly what it is. I wanted the reader to see ahead of Nick, and think "oh no, don't" and then see how he did it anyway.
Greedygirl: I didn't think the letter was really meant to be read by his fiancé, I imagined it was Nick just pouring out his heart in a 'Dear diary' kind of matter to be chucked on the fire. Is this the case or do you imagine that Nick actually intended to give the letter to her? How do you respond to those people who think it is full of stereotypes? Is it based on your experiences?
A.D. Miller: Well, obviously I don't agree with them, except in the sense that, as some stereotypes do, the sorts of people who are characters in my book really do exist. There are indeed some thuggish businessmen in Russia who, like the Cossack in my story, have progressed from crime to business and finally into politics. I could name some for you but I don't think Mumsnet's lawyers would thank me.
There are lots of baffled old people and some unscrupulous young ones. Sex is a big industry in high-rolling central Moscow, ie: the part of it that Nick frequents. I think most people who have spent time there would recognise these features. In any case, whatever you think of my characters, I hope there are some details of Russian life; what the Metro is like, or the suburban trains, or Moscow architecture or the different phases of the winter that might be new and interesting to you.
champagnesupernova: Presumably, he also lost out on the £25k, and Masha and Katya conned him, too? Or did delirium take over and I miss that bit?
A.D. Miller: Yes they conned him too, though he didn't really expect to get that money back, did he? I think he says somewhere that he was almost glad to pay up, since he knew there had to be a price, and it turned out to only be money.
TillyBookClub: Were any of Nick's personality traits inspired by foreign/war correspondents that you've met through work? It seemed to me, especially at the end, when Nick is mourning his 'full' life in Russia and bemoaning his 'thin' life ahead, that he is addicted to the thrill and the messiness and the 'otherness' of it all. And that seems to be a strong tradition amongst foreign correspondent journalists too...
A.D. Miller: Yes, I met lots of expats who were a bit like Nick: lonely, allergic to home and their families (though actually I think Nick's parents are not as bad as he is), constantly behaving as if they're on a long, irresponsible holiday, and yes, journalists, too.
There is a journalist in the novel in fact, who has some composite traits of several of my colleagues. No names will be named (see reference to lawyers above). In answer to your final question; I'm working on a novel called The Faithful Couple. It's set in California and London.
southlondonlady: I can see that Nick was not being naïve, he knew he was being played but in fact didn't care because he just wanted some glamour in his life. I'd say there are plenty of men like this out there.
There's also the interesting point as to how people's boundaries change when they're away from family and friends. Nick's story is an extreme example, obviously, but lots of people do things on holiday that they would never do at home. My question: what is the likelihood of the wedding going ahead now? Aside from Nick's part in tricking the old lady, he's also told his fiancé that he misses Masha and that she (the fiancé) is part of his now 'thin' life.
A.D. Miller: The point of the framing device is to reflect and reinforce the themes and mood of the Moscow narrative. I tried to disorient the reader in various ways: this might seem like a story about scheming Russians and naïve Westerners, but it turns out (I hope) to be more morally complicated than that.
Similarly, the story is presented as a confession, but the reader might begin to wonder how guilty Nick really feels about what he's done, and whether he fully understands their gravity. They might also ask whether Nick's feelings towards his fiancé and impending marriage are more complicated than they seemed at the beginning.
As you say, I imagine the fiancé's feelings might have changed a bit by the end, too. Incidentally, I'm pleased that you've picked up on the fact that Nick isn't really naïve, willfully blind and self-deceiving, yes, but not gullible, exactly. He can see what's happening but goes along with it anyway.
Bellstar: I thought the description of life in post-Soviet Moscow was excellent. I don't know if I would describe it as a thriller as I don't think it was that thrilling. I think it was more psychological, a look at the influence of Moscow, its culture and people, on Nick's life.
A.D. Miller: You are right that this is not a conventional thriller. I never intended it to be. There are no spies and very little violence (none that we actually see, in fact). The term I have used for it is 'moral thriller', ie this is a book about how something (a bad thing) happens: how does an ordinary person like Nick come to be complicit in very bad deeds?
Part of the answer is Moscow; part of it is him, his background, his yearning for excitement and his lasciviousness. Part of it is something more ancient: our ability to deceive ourselves, in particular to tell ourselves that true responsibility lies elsewhere. In a way, the most important moments in the book are ones where Nick recognises a lie, but knowingly chooses to ignore it.
Somewhere towards the end of the book, Nick writes that the real snowdrop in the story is him: that what he discovers when the snow thaws is himself, and what he's capable of. That is what the image and the title are supposed ultimately to represent: dark, close truths about ourselves that we would prefer not to confront.
Teaddict: How long did you have to spend in those horrendous winters to be able to describe it so well and is this really an accurate depiction of the Russia of today or have things moved on since then, (ie do the attractive girls still try and hook an oligarch as a career path?)
A.D. Miller: I spent three years in Russia, working as a foreign correspondent. Actually, I quite liked the winters, in a way, albeit not the day when Moscow was the coldest it had been since 1941, and the zip on my coat broke.
On your question about the depiction of Russia: I'd like to stress this isn't a comprehensive portrait of Moscow, let alone Russia. There are lots of other stories you could tell about that country, including heroic ones: the best and bravest people I've ever met have been Russians.
This is a first-person vision of Moscow through the eyes and experiences of one louche expat, an account that I hope ultimately reflects on him and his weaknesses as much as on the setting. But on the other hand, the kinds of crime that the book describes, the pervasive corruption it depicts and the vulnerability of people without powerful connections, like Tatiana, are real. The sort of apartment fraud that is at the heart of the story is in a way the quintessential Post-Soviet crime: it happened an awful lot in the 1990s and still goes on today.
And you don't have to take my word for that: Russia's leaders frequently bang on about the evils of the corruption, since they could hardly deny it. In those ways, I'm afraid, things haven't changed much.
lilyfire: When I was reading the book I was thinking a lot about Crime and Punishment. Nick seemed to be a modern day Raskolnikov, a lawyer, but without any pretence of ideology and so his involvement in the death of Tatiana was through inaction (not action like Raskolnikov and his 'old woman'); Masha is like Sonia, but without virtue or religion, she's just pragmatic. How much were you thinking about Crime and Punishment when you were writing the book?
A.D. Miller: Yes, I think Dostoevsky was definitely lurking somewhere at the back of my mind when I wrote Snowdrops. Nobody does filthy honesty better than him: love that contains hate, conversations that are really wars, etc. I am in no way making a comparison, but I am sort of gripped by some of the same things that exercised him: what is a crime, who commits it, ie, just the person who wields the knife or other people too, passively or otherwise and how do they live with themselves afterwards? In a way I think the Brothers Karamazov was an even bigger influence than Crime and Punishment.
glitch: As a journalist and a fiction author, which do you prefer to read and which do you prefer to write? Which book have you got on the go at the moment?
A.D. Miller: Yes I read a lot of fiction (insofar as I read anything much these days: we have a four-year-old girl and a nine-month-old boy, so I mostly read The Gruffalo). At the moment I'm reading Fathers and Sons by Turgenev. I enjoy both journalism and novel-writing, and hope to carry on with both. I'm only a novice fiction author, but it seems to me that the challenges of the two are not as different as you might think.
Yes, in a novel, you've got the freedom and the burden of invention (I'm aware that some people think that comes naturally to journalists). But in other ways, there's a lot of overlap: the big challenges, or some of them, are decision-making (there are an infinite number of directions in which a chapter or a paragraph or even a sentence can go); structure; above all the morale of the author.
Digressions in an article and sub-plots in a novel are both hard to pull off. Beginnings and endings are always tough. I think a journalistic background is in some ways quite useful for writing novels. Apart from anything else, it means you're used to criticism.
champagnesupernova: Why do you use your initials and not your name?
A.D. Miller: I know it sounds like a bit of an affectation, but in fact there's a perfectly innocent explanation. My first name is Andrew, but Andrew Miller is taken at the moment (by the author of Pure, which just won the Costa book prize). I guess I could have invented something, like Tarquan Hunter, but instead I retreated into initials.
Bellstar: I have been slightly/very obsessed with Russia since I was very young. I have a completely romantic view though, all Doctor Zhivago, Bolshoi Ballet, Anna Karenina etc. Nick seems to be seduced by Russia? Is that the effect it had on you? Does it still hold you in its thrall?
A.D. Miller: Since you ask so nicely, but also since it's true, yes, definitely, though not for the same reasons as Nick. There is no resigning from Russia: it is too fascinating, too alive, too infuriating and too addictive a place. I hope some of that comes through in the book, along with all the bleakness.
Greedygirl: What did your wife think about the way women were viewed/objectified in Russia?
A.D. Miller: She is sitting next to me so I'll ask her. She says it's a very chauvinist place. Out of time, I fear, thanks for having me.
TillyBookClub: Time is up. Thanks to everyone for their excellent questions and for making this such a brilliant chat. Andrew (or can we call you Andreivitch to distinguish from author of Pure?), thank you very, very much indeed for giving us so much of your time and energy and for answering all our questions with such thoughtfulness. I can't wait to see what you do next. Good luck with it all and many thanks once again.
A.D. Miller: Thanks Tilly and thanks everyone for your questions and comments. I think this is the best discussion of my novel that I've had.