Q & A with Alex Miller
Authors at the National Library
19 October 2017
Why do you write?
Writing is an exploration for me. The process of finding the way of a book is full of surprises. Some wonderful and generative, as with the revelation by the woman in prison in Chapter 1 of THE PASSAGE OF LOVE, others puzzling or confronting or downright contradictory. Writing is not a complacent way of life, but a way of life in which I am constantly challenged. When I'm not writing, a strange kind of loneliness comes over me. By strange, I mean I can be in my family or with close friends and something in me cries out to me and I can't answer that cry. Writing is my way of answering this silent cry within. I'm not sure what it means, or how it might be explained. I'm grateful for it. It lies in me like a mystery I will never resolve.
What are you reading right now?
I'm reading one of the most enjoyable and beautiful books I have ever read. Carl Seelig's WALKS WITH WALSER (New Directions, 2017). Carl Seelig visits the Swiss/German writer Robert Walser in the mental asylum where Walser lives after a serious breakdown, and they go for walks together. I have long admired the writing of Walser, so I was immediately attracted to this little book when I read the title. Seelig's writing, like Walser's, is simple, direct, uncluttered, wise and deeply humane. It is everything I could possibly want in a book. At the heart of this book is the mystery of a friendship that Seelig, thankfully, does not attempt to explain or account for.
THE LETTERS OF ROSA LUXEMBURG (Verso, 2011) also deeply engages my attention at the moment. Her letters from prison are often beautiful and delicate and always from the heart of this great woman. Her suffering, which was terrible, is veiled by her concern for her friends, her quiet attention to her inner life and her ready celebration of the smallest joy that comes her way - the song of a robin, for example, that comes to perch in the window of her cell. I began reading this book because it is set at a time when an old friend of mine lived in what was then the German city of Breslau, where Rosa was imprisoned.
What three titles should always be on the shelves of any self-respecting bookshop?
At least one set of one of the editions of Proust's great novel; Marguerite Yourcenar's MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN; and a copy of Vasily Grossman's epic LIFE AND FATE. Where these three books could be found, in that bookshop I would feel very much at home. Though if I were the bookseller, I might consider it an eccentric luxury.
What was the hardest part of writing The Passage of Love?
Deciding what to leave out. The book is what Virginia Woolf called fictional autobiography. She was referring to TO THE LIGHTHOUSE. So of course I knew the whole story. It might have filled twelve volumes if I'd cared to tell everything. But the art of the novel, I suppose, if it is an art, requires the author to find the story and not to simply present the material in chronological order - which is no story at all. The story, in a sense, is what we're left with after culling all the material that can be done without. I think of the work of the sculptor working in stone, cutting everything from the block, until the essential stands revealed.
What was the best part of writing The Passage of Love?
I love writing and enjoyed all of it. But there were several highlights that remain with me. My meeting with the woman in the prison deeply affected me and was personally very important to me. I loved writing it. Towards the end of the book I heard from Ann for the first time in forty-five years. When I received Ann's email, sent via my French translator, Francoise Pertat, I was close to writing the scenes when she visits me on the farm at Araluen and we become lovers. I told her this at once and we began a rather beautiful exchange of emails in which she rejoiced in the fact that I was about to write about our time together and its importance for me. I asked her what fictional name she would like me to use. She said at once, 'I want you to keep my real name.' And so I have. There were many uncanny moments during the writing of this book that were a great joy for me. It was a meeting of time past with time present in so many ways I had not expected.
What do you love about libraries?
Since I was a child and visited the British Library with my father I have had an image in my mind of libraries as the treasure houses of our civilisation. When I hear of the destruction or burning of a great library, I am more deeply affected than when I hear, almost a routine event, of the deaths of hundreds of people in a natural catastrophe or in a war. It's not easy to confess this, but I suppose it stems from the understanding that while we are mortal and must inevitably die, a library could conceivably persist for ever. The voice of our human past is in the library in a way that it does not exist anywhere else, and certainly not in the digital world. Things, opera tickets or love letters, fall from old books when we open them and disclose something of their own history and the story of those who have owned them and are now long dead. Digital books accumulate no such history. History does not exist for the digital world. The smell of books in a great library is like the smell of home, or the smell of incense to a devout. We go about quietly, so as not to disturb readers, but also because we know we need to tread carefully if we are not to miss the beauty of the spirit of the library. We leave the busy world behind. Unless we ourselves are employed by the library, in which case we are probably run off our feet all day long.