By Pierangelly Del Rio Martinez
The Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University and the International Anthony Burgess Foundation presented an evening with James Miller on Thursday. Miller, writer of several novels including the well received Lost Boys and Sunshine State and Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, discussed his work and his recently published piece, UnAmerican Activities.
Miller was introduced by Manchester Met novelist Gregory Norminton. Before the conversation, as a tradition of the Anthony Burgess Foundation, a creative writing student from Manchester Met was invited to read a piece of his portfolio for the audience. After this, Miller took to the microphone to read a fragment of UnAmerican Activities, published by independent UK press Dodo Ink.
Miller explained, “It is up to the reader to decide whether this book is a series of short stories, or a novel, or a series of interconnected stories or whatever you want to call it,” before reading a chapter with the provocative title of ‘Exploding Zombie Cock.’ The content of the fragment was as provocative and bizarre as the title suggested, with two characters discussing the required ingredients to create a zombie. Fusing humour, horrific images and a dialogue with a distinctive American voice, the fragment was a delightful mix of genres that inevitably provoked laughter and picked up the interest of the attendees.
Indeed UnAmerican Activities has been marketed as a homage to American pop culture — which Miller has a deep interest in, having studied Anglo-American Literature at University College London— and genre fiction and explores the conspiracy theories and violence that defines the American landscape everyday through a series of deranged and desperate narrators.
He explained, “Its origins go back a long away. In a sense that probably, during 2007 or 2008, I wrote a couple of short stories as breathing spots between trying to write a novel. And when I was a teenager I read a lot of genre fiction, horror fiction; always had a soft spot for it. I thought it would be fun to write a couple of novels and retouch some of the tropes particularly vampires from horror fiction and set it up in America.”
Miller couldn’t explain exactly where did the idea of UnAmerican Activities came from, however, he recalled wanting to write a number of stories. Each of them would look at a trope of genre fiction such as zombies, vampires, UFOs and more. It would also be narrated in first person by an unreliable character. The project was going to be experimental and fun; Miller was also determined to be as rude as he could while also featuring violence, sex and drugs in each story. “Purely for my own perverse amusement,” he explained.
Despite the fictional status and fantastical elements of the novel, set in a dystopian America, a political concern can be sensed in the piece, similarly to Lost Boys and Sunshine State, as well as the persistency of paranoia, as pointed out by Gregory during the conversation. Despite having written the novel before Donald Trump’s presidential election, the post-apocalyptical landscape of UnAmerican Activities resonates to the paranoia atmosphere and absurd events that plague the American media nowadays. However, Miller explained his research and inspiration had been videos and conspiracy theories, which can be found online and to which small fractions of the population of the States are devoted to. “Fake news” came to the discussion to which Miller replied this phenomenon is nothing new to Western civilization. Miller said: “Post-structuralists back in 1960s and 70s tried to anticipate this when they talked about the disconnection between the signifier and the signified.”
He added, “It felt like reality was still real, tangible then, kind of a linear; coherent narrative in the Anglo-European world we were in.”
At the end of the discussion, the public had the opportunity to ask questions. Miller also gave insightful advice for writers and creative writing students aspiring to work in the publishing industry. He stressed on the importance of the short story, a genre relatively unknown to adult readers and often eclipsed by the popularity of the novel.
He said, “Writing a novel is kind of like a marriage. It’s a series of long-term investments. A novel is something you’d be in for years, there will be periods when you will not be speaking to one an other but you have to commit to it and you’re committing to it for a long period of time. One thing I say to my students is: you’re too young to get married.
“Short stories are still hard but you can write a very good short story in a couple of days. And it allows you to explore and experiment with different kinds of approaches.”
For more information about James Miller’s novels visit jamesmillerauthor.com
Upcoming events at The International Anthony Burgess Foundation include Kinofilm: Made Up North to be hosted on Monday the 20th of November.