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Richard Milward: “I use humour as a coping mechanism”

Polari is the “perfect slang for a freewheeling anarchist”, says the author of the Goldsmiths-shortlisted Man-Eating Typewriter.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Richard Milward was born in Middlesbrough in 1984. He was 22 when his debut novel, Apples, an account of a teenager growing up on a council estate, was published and found a cult following. His other books include Ten Storey Love Song (2009), which takes the form of a single 300-page paragraph, and Kimberly’s Capital Punishment (2012), which offers the reader six alternative endings.

Milward’s 544-page fourth novel, Man-Eating Typewriter, was published by White Rabbit in March 2023. An ambitious novel within a novel, it is set in Soho, London, in the late 1960s. The central narrative is the life story of Raymond Novak, who writes in Polari, a playful slang form adopted by gay communities in the 20th century. Novak has threatened to commit a shocking crime, and sends his memoir manuscript, chapter by chapter, to an anarchist publishing house whose editors hope to profit from the coming scandal. The day-to-day drama of the publisher’s work – and the increasingly dangerous position in which its staff find themselves – is told via elaborate footnotes. The novel has been shortlisted for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize.

[See also: The 2023 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist celebrates northern fiction]

Ellen Peirson-Hagger: The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

Richard Milward: I don’t understand why a lot of writers automatically opt for more conventional narratives, rather than just setting themselves free. The beauty of writing is there are no constraints: anyone can start scribbling on a blank piece of paper and instantly conjure up anything imaginable. Unconventional fiction probably best mirrors the strange chaos of life, with all its loose ends and tangles and inconsistencies. Life never follows a simple plot, and isn’t chopped up into neat chapters or fully fleshed-out flashbacks.

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I gave up learning English at A-level and went to art college instead, where there seemed to be more emphasis on freedom rather than abiding by certain rules – and innovation and experimentation is just the norm in the art world, whereas the (commercial) literary world often seems to lag behind in that respect. To me “innovative” fiction feels more like an art form, as opposed to just plain storytelling.

The action in Man-Eating Typewriter takes place in two different timelines, played out in the main text and in the footnotes. How did you handle the challenge of writing dual narratives?

About ten years ago I was toying with two ideas for a novel: one involving a cult leader hell-bent on committing an act of surrealistic terrorism, and another set in a weird dystopia with characters speaking a slang I was going to make up from scratch. Man-Eating Typewriter is the result of squeezing those two ideas together, and it took about seven years to complete.

I wrote the main body of the book (Novak’s memoirs) and the footnotes simultaneously. Certain themes and clues bleed through from the main text into the footnotes and vice versa, so it was important to keep both those plates spinning at the same time. It was a bit of a balancing act at times in that, say, if I cut out a paragraph from Novak’s memoirs, a footnote might vanish with it, so I’d have to find a way of adjusting it or accommodating it elsewhere, but mostly it was a pure pleasure piecing the whole thing together bit by bit, turning the book into this large-scale puzzle for the reader to crack.

Another striking feature of the book is the dialect you write in, Polari. How did you first come across this slang form, and what about it appealed to you?

Polari would crop up now and then when I was reading books about 1960s counterculture and, as a writer, you just sponge up all these disconnected pieces of information and then pounce on them when the time is right. It made sense to set Man-Eating Typewriter in the late 1960s and early 1970s as this was the period when hippy optimism seemed to congeal to a more aggressive, militant anti-capitalism – and there was a rise in these extreme left-wing terrorist groups and cults, which is basically what Novak tries to conjure up in a small boutique in Fitzrovia. And so, Polari seemed like the perfect secretive slang for this freewheeling anarchist, given that it was prominent in the 1960s and was arguably the ultimate nonconformist lingo, spoken clandestinely by gay men under the radar of potentially hostile ears.

When I was deep into the research (Paul Baker has written lots of special books about the history and usage of Polari), it helped when I discovered Polari was very much a loose, shapeshifting slang: speakers would add words according to their whims, and so that allowed me to have total freedom with it. There were never any hard and fast rules with Polari, no official glossary – and so it fitted with the theme of unruly liberation that runs through the novel.

[See also: Why the novel matters]

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you when writing Man-Eating Typewriter.

Vladimir Nabokov, Anthony Burgess, Laurence Sterne and Jean Genet were all big influences but, once I started writing Man-Eating Typewriter, I was only reading non-fiction rather than fiction, throwing myself into research. There was a painting I kept coming back to while I was working on it. I feel like most of the themes in the novel are weirdly mirrored in Salvador Dalí’s Autumn Cannibalism: two figures merging into one, devouring each other; liberation of the imagination; uneasy sexuality; self-destruction; your sense of self dissolving; morality a blur; all littered with strange symbols to pick through.

The novel’s language and outlandish goings-on make it an incredibly fun read. What is the role of humour and pleasure in literature, and is there enough of it?

When people ask me what I write about, I tend to boil it down to just “the joy and horror of life” – and I do think comedy can be as powerful and insightful as tragedy. Sentence by sentence, I want to create a kind of rush in the reader, whether that’s through humour, or something unsettling, or an unusual turn of phrase, or the rhythm of the words. I think the Polari especially helps add to the humour in Man-Eating Typewriter. It’s quite a sing-song, sardonic lingo, and so when Novak’s criticising the world around him – a stifling, conservative world he finds unbearable – that world appears even more absurd than it would if he was slagging it off in standard English.

There’s a brilliantly dark humour in Middlesbrough that has always fed into my work. You could argue it historically comes from folks trying to escape and make light of the tedious toil of manual labour in the industrial jobs that created the town. In the pubs, it’s always a delight how mates are almost competing to tell the most outlandish tales – and it definitely makes life more bearable, softening all the sharp edges. In many ways I feel like I use humour as a coping mechanism for a constantly rumbling undercurrent of anxiety, and so, consciously or not, my novels end up following that same pattern, swinging rapidly back and forth between ecstasy and agony.

Some of the conversations in the novel, including around rape, abortion and women’s bodies, are very uncomfortable to read. How do you approach writing about such gendered violence?

Certain parts of the novel are there to reflect the brutality of pre-Abortion Act, pre-Sexual Offences Act Britain, as well as the horror of 1960s/1970s cult predators like Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Andreas Baader, who heavily influenced the Novak character. The violence towards and exploitation of women by Manson, Jones et al is shocking in the books I was reading, and all the more disturbing in that it was part of a supposed mission to build a utopian future. It felt important to reflect in the novel just how low some people will go to achieve their diabolical, selfish, hypocritical ends.

When I put violence in my work, I want its intensity to be unsettling for the reader, to force a response similar to how it would feel to witness or experience it in reality. A lot of writers seem to approach episodes of sex or violence with suggestive rather than explicit details, leaving it to the reader’s imagination – like panning or cutting away in a film – but this isn’t how either of those tend to go in reality.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

Financially and exposure-wise, it’s a savage time for creative people at the moment, and so it’s vital to have awards like the Goldsmiths Prize to help steer an audience towards work that might otherwise be overlooked. I feel like, of all the literary prizes in Britain, the Goldsmiths Prize generally offers up the most interesting shortlist. Some readers are repelled by the idea of “experimental” or “avant-garde” literature, but you need focused prizes like this to prise open people’s eyes and minds – and to give them that push to take a risk on books that they might not usually touch.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

You don’t hear Janice Galloway’s name enough these days, so I’d choose her debut, The Trick is to Keep Breathing. It’s a totally authentic portrayal of both the numbness and the frantic overthinking when you’re going through grief. There are lots of unconventional elements – the pages peppered with obsessive lists, different fonts, italicised shards of memory, commercial slogans, trash mag gossip and horoscopes – but it never feels heavy-handed. It brilliantly, agonisingly captures the indifference of a modern world eating up Joy as she struggles to cope with the loss of her partner.

[See also: Why are so many literary prizes closing?]

Read more about the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist here. The winner of the prize will be announced on 8 November.

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