In the second of our series “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews AD Miller, the British author and journalist.
About AD Miller
AD Miller was born in London in 1974. He studied literature at Cambridge and Princeton, where he began his journalistic career writing travel pieces about America. Returning to London, he worked as a television producer before joining The Economist to write about British politics and culture. In 2004 he became The Economist’s correspondent in Moscow, travelling widely across Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is currently the magazine’s Writer at Large; he lives in London with his wife Emma, daughter Milly and son Jacob. He wrote a critically acclaimed non-fiction book, The Earl of Petticoat Lane, in 2006. His second novel, Snowdrops, was shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize.
About his novel, Snowdrops
A fast-paced drama that unfolds during a beautiful but lethally cold Russian winter. Ostensibly a story of naive foreigners and cynical natives, the novel becomes something richer and darker: a tale of erotic obsession, self-deception and moral freefall. It is set in a land of hedonism and desperation, corruption and kindness, magical hideaways and debauched nightclubs; a place where secrets, and corpses, come to light when the snows thaw.
Q&A on Location, Locution
JJ Marsh: Which comes first, story or location?
AD Miller: Story. But locations can be suggestive of certain kinds of story. For example, Russia lends itself to tales of moral challenge and to philosophical inquiry.
JJM: How do you go about evoking the atmosphere of a place?
ADM: Take notes. Write down what people wear on the Metro and what the vendors on commuter trains are selling. You will recollect less than you think you will. For historical settings, read old newspapers and unpublished memoirs. Remember it is the inconsequential detail that is most important.
JJM: Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
ADM: Smell. Sounds. Language (especially slang and proverbs). Clothes. And weather: in Snowdrops, the Russian winter functions as a sort of ancillary sub-plot.
JJM: How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
ADM: You need to know it, and then you need to unknow it. A novel isn’t a travelogue or an encyclopaedia; you enlist only those aspects or details of a place that serve the narrative.
JJM: Could you give a brief example from your work which you feel brings the location to life?
ADM: There’s a passage in Snowdrops in which Nick, the narrator, is taxiing at night alongside “the soupy Moscow River, not yet frozen and curling mysteriously through the wild city”, which is OK.
JJM: Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
ADM: Isaac Babel and Giorgio Bassani (Odessa and Ferrara respectively).
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Thanks, JJ, for that fabulous interview! Readers, any comments on what AD Miller had to say? Up next month in Location, Locution: Steven Conte, Australian author of The Zookeeper’s War.
JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)
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