If you have ever been anywhere near a writing group or book festival of any kind, you will know that writers come in all shapes and sizes, from big robust circles, to tiny stabby stars. They come in different flavours too, from cool, classic vanilla, to eyeball-exploding, triple-hot chilli sauce.
Thrillers With Attitude is on a mission to find out what makes these weirdly-shaped and strangely-flavoured writers tick.
My guest this week is poet, musician, teacher, and fellow presenter on Lochbroom FM, Jon Miller.
Hi Jon, welcome to the Literary Smorgasbord.
Tell me a little about yourself – where did you grow up?
I spent the first seven years of my life in India and Africa: Mumbai and Kenya though there was also about a year spent in Zanzibar. My father was a banker; my mother busied herself being a mother. We lived the colonial life in the dying days of Empire. We had live-in servants, nannies, large cars. My father appears to have fought the Mau Mau during the Uprising but no-one seems to want to talk about this in the family. He had some strange scars and his regiment did not have a good reputation. We had holidays in the Seychelles and there are old 8mm reels of film of us cavorting on white beaches our hair bleached by years in the sun. I have the moles and the skin damage to prove it.
When we came back to Glasgow, I grew up in and around Broomhill and Partick in the West End. I also grew up inside my body and my mind as they tried to make sense of each other. Most of the time was spent up trees, on bikes, playing football, exploring disused railway tunnels and discovering pornographic magazines discarded in hedgerows beside the allotments.
What were you like at school?
I watched myself attend school without much purpose or understanding as to why I was there. It was something that was happening to me, like body hair or the burgeoning notion of a future. I was good at football but average at everything else apart from English which I was also rather good at. Once I discovered books I read voraciously and the football faded into the background.
What are you passionate about?
I get passionate about playing music, politics.
Tell me about your route into teaching.
I had spent as long as I possibly could avoiding a proper job. I was writing – poetry and fiction – getting published but not really earning anything (I didn’t realise then that it takes a very long time for this to happen). I was eventually officially declared ‘destitute’ – perhaps my highest accolade – but by this time I had a young family. Teaching was something I knew I’d be good at so it suggested itself as a way of finding money (which you don’t find as a writer).
Was it something you wanted to do?
‘Wanting’ is as strange word. I found myself doing it and found it was energising and involving and rewarding although I was not aware that this would be the case before I started. Is ‘wanting’ unconscious? Are you impelled towards things that are good for you even if you are not fully aware of the reason for your choices? Teaching was not something I intended doing yet here I am still doing it so something must have worked out okay.
How did your expectations of the job match up to the reality?
Perfectly – I knew what to expect, had few expectations and they were all fulfilled. I realise now that I have helped a hell of a lot of kids get to a place that has done them a lot of good and that was something I hadn’t considered.
Do you ever get frustrated by the books or poems you have to cover in class?
There are many different ways to be frustrated with books/poems. We choose most of the texts we teach: these are selected for varying reasons, not all of them literary. There are very few texts we ‘have’ to cover by diktat. Those that we have to are of varying degrees of success in their composition. Some barely qualify as literature, some are deemed ‘classics’ – that might be the same thing. If you teach a particular text for many years you gain an intimate understanding of its flaws and successes.
Are there any you personally don’t rate or actively dislike?
Yes – but it would be churlish of me to mention them and I lack churl.
If it was up to you, what books or poems would you like your students to read?
I might like them to read them but they might not like to read them. Anything by Don de Lillo, Samuel Beckett, Les Murray, Czeslow Milosz. The Bible. Lao Tzu. As long as they keep away from Jackie Kay and Benjamin Zephaniah.
There is a scene in the classic 1980s film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where a teacher drones painfully on in front of a catatonic class – “ Anyone? Anyone? Anyone?” Have you ever felt like that teacher?
Yes. Today in fact. But part of the variety of teaching includes times when no-one wants to be there. I include myself in that.
How do you keep it fresh?
Generally, I keep it in the fridge. On other days, I rely on energy and the desire to take on what most people ignore. It comes from creativity and thinking up new ways of approaching an idea, character or poem. That’s the best bit.
Report cards aside, how much time do you spend producing your own creative writing?
Reports are less and less creative these days as they are often compiled from computerised banks of comments. The days of elegantly handwritten irony are long gone. I produce creative writing in fits and starts – usually I have a wee fit of remembering that I once did it and start something. I have lots of poems no-one has ever seen or have not been published at all (some of them are even quite good). I am wryly fond of Christopher Hitchens’ statement that “Most people have a book inside them – and that’s where it should stay”. I doubt if the world needs another minor poet cluttering up the shelves.
What advice would you give to the young Jon Miller?
He still is quite young – but I’ve no idea who he is and I doubt if I would recognise him if I did, apart from his mass of curly hair which I would envy. The young Jon Miller is still going to be the way he was so he probably would still be bewildered by the huge range of competing voices in his head so it would not make any difference. There is an assumption in the question that the current Jon Miller knows something about something worth passing on which is highly dubious.They both exist much like a hollow wind down a long corridor.
Bed, I think.
A few short questions to finish. What is your favourite book?
Samuel Beckett. Don deLillo. Les Murray
Probably toast. Anything cooked by my wife.
The first one of the day.
The films of Michael Haneke and Steve McQueen (except Twelve Years a Slave which is terrible.
I don’t watch television. Although I will watch football online when I can because it induces a delicious mindlessness, emptying me of all thought because football has a wonderful capacity to seem brimful of meaning but is finally and completely vacuous. It leaves me in a blissful state of benign Buddhist emptiness.
Most mainstream radio is pretty predictable – apart from some Radio 4 programmes where they are given space to discuss ideas and culture. I prefer podcasts such as RadioLab or Welcome to Nightvale. The best ones are more inventive, imaginative and experimental in their use of sound and deal with a kind of life that mainstream radio ignores.
The Phantom Band. Bukka White. R L Burnside. Mark E Smith. Nick Cave. Henryk Gorecki.
What are you reading right now?
The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud. It is based on Camus’ L’Etranger but told from the point of view of the brother of the Algerian Meursault killed. It is a neat conceit that redresses some of the psychological and imperial ideas the original did not deal with.
Where can people find out more about you?
Why on earth would they want to do that? Call round to the house. Bring cake.
Alternatively: Some poetry I produced in collaboration with Peter White, artist.
There is also a short poetry collection entitled ‘Still Life’ which can be purchased from the American Amazon site for $345.48. Obviously rare and collectible.
I have some wee interviews and local documentaries for Lochbroom FM.
There are also various videos and EPs of bands I have been in on Youtube: Naked Strangers, Mojo Walk. EPs also available.
It’s been a real pleasure having you on the Thrillers With Attitude blog, Jon.
LG Thomson is the author of Boyle’s Law, Erosion, and Each New Morn.