Richard Milward, 38, grew up in Middlesbrough and lives in London. He is the author of three previous novels: Apples, published when he was 22; Ten Storey Love Song, told in the form of a single 300-page paragraph; and Kimberly’s Capital Punishment (2012), which has six alternative endings. His new novel, Man-Eating Typewriter, a book within a book, is written in Polari and presents an anarchist’s memoir with commentary by an editor at a pulp press in 1970s Soho. The writer Michael Bracewell has called it “extraordinary: as if Mervyn Peake and Kenneth Williams wrote a book with William Burroughs”.
This isn’t the book you’ve previously spoken about working on…
No, for three years I was occupied with a different novel rooted in the experience of spending time with young boxers for a magazine feature I wrote about an East End boxing club. My novels had been getting more surreal and I wanted to do something different – almost to be more experimental by doing something less dreamlike. There’s a novel there and I’ll return to it, but it was more of a struggle to write, maybe because it was outside my surrealistic comfort zone.
So what led you to Man-Eating Typewriter?
The main catalyst was reading Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter about 10 years ago. He was the lawyer who brought down Charles Manson by piecing together his bizarre motives. It’s a brilliant piece of literature and I wondered if I could do something similar in fiction. I’d been juggling an idea about a cult leader with another about a strange dystopia with an invented slang. I combined them and thought that Polari, as the ultimate nonconformist lingo, would be an ideal slang for my unhinged anarchist, Novak. Deciphering his Polari is the first puzzle I want the reader to crack. At first his publisher’s footnotes clear up a few phrases and seem to be a voice of reason but then everything bleeds together and it becomes another story entirely. A Clockwork Orange was a big early influence but I was also influenced by the hidden layers in Nabokov’s novels.
How did you write the Polari?
It took a lot of research in books about 60s counterculture but what really helped was when I realised that Polari was a shapeshifting lingo with no hard and fast rules. Novak’s Polari is rooted in Polari as it was spoken in the 60s but it’s by no means a watertight time capsule. The Polari word for face is eke – short for ecaf, or face backwards – but there’s no word for head or brain. Because Novak believes he’s French, I just looked at French and invented what I needed. So there are bits of bastardised French and German but that’s what Polari is – bastardised Italian mostly, with bits of Hebrew and cockney rhyming slang.
Does the novel’s linguistic and structural complexity explain why it’s been so long since your last book?
Yeah, I’ve been writing this for seven years, doing zero-hours minimum-wage jobs while I’ve been chipping away at it. I sort post at Royal Mail. I was able to write full-time when Apples and Ten Storey Love Song came out, but the advance for Man-Eating Typewriter was minuscule, the lowest I’ve had and nowhere near enough to live off. Working at Royal Mail is almost like being paid to be at the amusement arcades, firing parcels into postcoded mailbags, but at its worst it’s like prison labour, tipping mail-sacks on to a belt for seven hours, trance-like. It’s strange to come home and delve back into the experimental novel you’ve been writing for years.
What have you been reading lately?
I’ve reconnected with the Beat writers because my wife and I recently went to San Francisco and Los Angeles on honeymoon. I love the poetry of Charles Bukowski, Richard Brautigan and Allen Ginsberg and it seems so much more vivid now that I’ve witnessed up close the vast disparity between America’s haves and have-nots. Skid Row in Los Angeles is one of the bleakest places I’ve seen. I’m sure we’re the only couple that have willingly gone there on honeymoon but I wanted to see it. A lot of the Beats were aiming to transcend poverty or find bliss outside the material stranglehold of modern America. It was that search for freedom that really appealed when I first got into them, when me and my mates were taking ecstasy every weekend and living as much of the 60s ideal as you could in mid-00s Middlesbrough.
Were your friends writing, too?
Not at all. It was a brilliant mix of people and a time of real togetherness but I hid my writing like a secret vice. A big catalyst was reading the anthology Children of Albion Rovers when I was 11 or 12. It had Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner and Laura Hird. That book and Trainspotting revealed to me that you could write whatever you wanted, however you wanted. I started writing and sent stuff to Canongate because they’d published Children of Albion Rovers and they sent a really positive rejection quite soon after, saying: “There’s no way you’re 12! Keep going.” My English teacher read it out to the class but from that point on, kids being kids, other kids would come up to me saying: “Oh, have you written any novels recently?” It did make me very private about my writing. I wasn’t writing to impress people and that’s the same now; I want my books to do well but I don’t want fame. I’d prefer to vanish and for the books to exist on their own.
You’ve long been a fan of the band Mogwai. How does it feel to now be sharing a publisher with their guitarist Stuart Braithwaite?
It’s special. I discovered Mogwai through listening to John Peel. A friend of mine, Vinita Joshi, runs a record company called Rocket Girl. They’ve put out a lot of post-rock stuff and she had a mail order catalogue that I would get a lot of records from. She used to put Mogwai up whenever they played in London in the 90s. When I wrote Ten Storey Love Song back in 2009 I gave her a proof copy to give to Stuart and he emailed me to say he loved the book – he said it reminded him of why he stopped taking acid!