James Miller’s third novel UnAmerican Activities pays tribute to, and subverts, American pop culture and genre fiction. Through a series of interlinking stories, told by increasingly desperate narrators, UnAmerican Activities explores the hidden underside of American culture, taking in evangelists, conspiracy theorists, hipsters, survivalists, porn stars and vampires. A consistently inventive and politically engaged author, Miller’s previous work includes the acclaimed novels Lost Boys and Sunshine State, as well as numerous short stories. He is senior lecturer in English literature and Creative Writing at Kingston University and is Course Director for the Creative Writing MFA.
The Momus Questionnaire was created by musician Nick Currie, and is designed to identify the aspects of the subject’s personality which give them a positive self-image, or ‘subcultural capital’.
Have you rebelled against someone else’s dreary expectations of your life, and become something more unexpected?
Hard to say really. I went to a couple of dreary all boys’ Grammar schools in Surrey and Kent that only really valued sport and more hard-nosed subjects like maths (although I was fortunate to have some very good and sympathetic English teachers) and where the general expectation was that pupils would go on to commute to work in the City like their fathers did (and like mine). I was the only boy out of a hundred and twenty in my year to read English at university. The only one! No one really thought about becoming a writer, but I always wanted to be a novelist and that’s more or less what I did.
What in your life can you point to and say, like Frankie, ‘I Did It My Way’?
Up to a point I think I’ve always done things ‘my way’ which is to say I’ve always been an individualist and something of an outsider. I don’t like groups, I’m incapable of functioning in a team, I don’t really like to be too closely affiliated to any other organisation or ideology. I read a lot of Dostoyevsky and Sartre in my teenage years, so, I don’t know, all that did something to my brain anyway.
What creative achievements are you most proud of?
My three published novels, Lost Boys, Sunshine State and UnAmerican Activities. I’m also proud of my PhD which looks at the fiction and non-fiction of James Baldwin alongside post-colonial theory, Black Power and Civil Rights discourses. I sweated blood writing that thesis.
If there was one event in your life which really shaped you, made you the person you are today, what would it be?
I’m suspicious of the notion of a single defining life ‘event’ – on the whole I think these things are novelistic inventions. The events that really shape us are day-to-day, routine, gradual processes, habits and disciplines that we cultivate over time. I don’t really believe in single epiphanic moments or revelations. That said, I’m expecting the birth of my first child at any moment – indeed, I hope that when you are reading this (whoever you are) they will have been born – so I imagine that will be quite something. Perhaps ask me in a week.
[some weeks pass, and we ask again – ed]
Now my daughter has been born/ was born two months ago, I think I stick with this opinion. Obviously, the birth of your own child is a monumental experience but again, what really defines parenthood is very much the day to day process, it’s an on-going learning struggling transforming experience. So again, I don’t believe in the single event.
If you had to make a song or rap boasting about your irresistible charm and sexiness, how would you describe yourself?
Who is that tall skinny guy in the library?
His garbs are shabby, his manner is nervy,
He keeps on sighing and going to the toilet.
Why can’t he just sit still and focus on those books?
Are they just for show, that big pile fronting?
Oh my God look-
He isn’t even reading,
He’s just surfing twitter.
Apparently, his name’s Miller, which is why this rap
Is so off kilter. What rhymes with Miller?
Nothing but killer and filler.
They say he’s a lecturer – but that don’t rhyme either.
But he must’ve read some books sometime
To have the title Dr.
Oh look, off he goes again, going for coffee.
Try not to sit next to him.
He’s really fucking annoyin’
Have you ever made material sacrifices because of your integrity?
Well I’m a ‘literary’ novelist and an academic so yeah, all the time. I’ve had many chaotic years of being broke and on the verge of a breakdown. Thankfully things are much more bourgeois now. It’s great being bourgeois, I recommend it highly. The ‘bohemian’ life is a load of bollocks.
Describe a public personality who exemplifies everything you’d like to be yourself, then another public personality who incarnates everything you’d least like to be.
I don’t know about ‘public personalities’ – they’re all so awful. There’s a real deficit of people to admire in the world right now, an abundance of villains, frauds, scumbags. We’re in an acute crisis and I don’t see it ending any time soon. On the plus side, writers like Roth and Cormac McCarthy exemplify what – for me – it truly means to be a writer -the dedication to craft, the single mindedness of purpose, the persistence and ability to keep on writing, no matter what.
If you were an Egyptian pharoah and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?
My music collection. I’ve got so much music and acquire so many new tunes on a daily basis I’m not sure I’ll ever live long enough to listen to everything I have. A change of pants would also be handy I suppose.
Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?
“Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?
During my gloomy teenage years and my moody early twenties, I was obsessed with the Edward Burne Jones’ painting Love Among the Ruins. The fragility of the lovers’ embrace, the withdrawn gaze of the beautiful woman as she stares out, the concern in the man’s posture as he cradles her, the despairing knowledge that he can do nothing to help: the doom of their love signalled by the ruined buildings, the violence of sexuality by the sharp coiling brambles that surround and threaten to overwhelm them – it’s a Freudian dreamscape about the futility and despair of desire and a meditation on the transience of all human relationships and yet it’s also redemptive in it’s weird beauty, an overload of Victorian aestheticism.