Andrew Miller’s latest novel, The Slowworm’s Song, explores The Troubles in Northern Ireland and is the first of Miller’s nine novels to be written in the first person. The title comes from the Quaker poet, Basil Bunting’s, poem – Briggflatts and the main character in the novel, Stephen Rose, has had a Quaker upbringing. Quakerism is important in the novel, particularly the idea of when to speak and when to remain silent which is seen in a Quaker meeting. There are also echoes of the contradictory slogans bandied about in Northern Ireland – ‘Set the Truth Free’ and ‘Forget the Past’ and the question – should we keep talking about what happened or should we let it go?
Miller told his audience that “books don’t come out of a single impulse – in this book there’s fathers and daughters, the lives of the soldiers, huge numbers who served in Northern Ireland, most very young, some only 17. I grew up with The Troubles in the background and curious shots of Belfast Streets on the TV. We were aware that this was Britain. Somerset is also part of the book. I’m in love with the Somerset landscape, the Levels and Glastonbury’s mysterious landscape.”
The novel takes the form of a confessional letter from Stephen Rose to his estranged daughter and it is prompted by a letter he receives summoning him to an inquiry into a troubling incident from his past as a young soldier in Belfast. What happened in the incident is not revealed until late in the novel. What we see is how the event has traumatised Stephen and left him struggling with alcoholic addiction. His letter to his daughter tries to find a version of what happened that communicates what he feels was important and which she will accept.
Miller also spoke about the writing process. Character is important to him as well as creating a character’s voice. “You have to get to know them, let them come to you, voice is a big part. Imagine sitting in an empty waiting room and they were the other person there. What sort of sense of them would you have?” He doesn’t provide detailed physical descriptions – voice is what matters.
However, the hardest part about writing novels is “to keep checking is this real or not. It’s also important to drop preconceptions about how things are when writing and come to things with a fresh eye if possible. It requires a certain kind of concentration that I’m addicted to. It’s a slightly mystical experience of entering into another space not easily explained.”
We look forward to Miller’s next book which is set in the 1960’s.