As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
As novelist and bus driver, Mills discusses The Maintenance of Headway, vinyl puritans, and the history of England.
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Few writers of fiction would retain a blue-collar occupation after meeting with literary success. In the case of Magnus Mills, however, it remains a vital component of his process. Throughout the span of eight novels, including one Booker nomination, the sixty-one-year-old British novelist has, curiously, remained a bus driver. It’s during his routes that he develops his ideas, which expand until he is ready to put them down on paper.
Plotted isn’t the most appropriate word to describe the kind of work Mills prefers to write. His novels are systems that slowly reveal their flaws as they progress. The Maintenance of Headway, released in the UK to much fanfare in 2010, now published in a US edition, is a poignant example of the Millsian style. The narrator is a bus driver who encounters little slips—a rushed or rerouted bus—that disrupt the optimal distance between the buses. Drivers are occasionally promoted to inspectors who, in turn, cite their colleagues for being early or late. New bus models loom on the horizon; others are retired. Headway remains a white rabbit.
Mills has since published two books in the UK, including this year’s The Field of the Cloth of Gold, a systemic novel tackling not the maladies of public transit, but the early history of the British, all woven with allegorical thread: a field of tent dwellers grows in population, including Caesarian and Christian inhabitants that bring about change.
In person, Mills is mild-mannered and unimposing. His voice never hardens or rises even as he speaks about some of his favorite topics—public transportation, vinyl records, and early British history up to the Norman Conquest. The following conversation took place on an ideal summer evening at Bloomsbury’s London offices.
Michael Barron You have two books out now. I couldn’t help but notice how different the they are in scope—the microcosm of the British bus system, which makes up the Maintenance of Headway, and the macrocosm of early British history, which you compact into allegory in The Field of the Cloth of Gold. Was going from transit systems to historical events a conceptual leap for you? Or did it make sense to grow the scope of your novels in magnitude?
Magnus Mills The story of the buses I’ve known the entire time I’ve worked as a driver. All the elements were already there. It was just a matter of compiling them into a story. Those elements would be the same now, because the bus system doesn’t change.
MB Except for articulated buses.
MM Right, and things like three-door buses. I guess the buses themselves change.
MB Were all the elements in place for this new book as well?
MM In a way, it’s more of a blank canvas. Half the books I’ve done are about occupations, jobs I’ve had, where I’m organizing the components into a story. And the other half are completely imagined.
MB I admire your ability to both work and write about blue-collar jobs. In your debut, The Restraint of Beasts, you write about foreman for a fencing company; in a later novel, The Scheme for Full Employment, you write about van drivers carrying cargo from place to place. These are both jobs you’ve actually held. There’s a tradition of writers who have held, temporarily, seemingly mundane jobs: Bukowski was a postman; Walser was a butler. Do you feel you are a part of this tradition?
MM To some degree, perhaps.
MB People do seem to pay heavy attention to your biography.
MM Well, the truth is I do work on buses full time. I can’t deny it. That’s what I do.
MB Is this a hindrance or a help to your writing?
MM As I do my routes, ideas begin to develop in in my head. They’ll mill about until I feel compelled to put it down on paper.
MB So all your books kind of begin on the bus now.
MM Right. Including a new one I’ve just finished this past weekend.
MB Congrats! May I ask what’s it about?
MM It’s about a group of vinyl record enthusiasts inspired by my experiences of buying records for the last fifty years.
MB So you’re a collector?
MM Not in the traditional sense. I don’t seek out specific titles. I just buy records, and always vinyl. I never transitioned to CDs. I don’t go to record stores and talk to the clerks. The enthusiasts in this book don’t go to record shops either. They already have the records. They decide to meet to make contact with one another, but not in record shops. And they form this society, the Friends of Records Society. Simple as that.
MB Records have made a comeback. It’s almost harder to find CDs of albums now than of records. Vogue is almost like a bus route. Things come back around. Does that cyclism interest you?
MM Yeah, especially in The Maintenance of Headway, it allowed me to introduce the various components of a route—the difference between early morning and late night shifts, and the types of people who do these jobs, which is obviously completely mixed up in the book. In the record book there is a schedule of meetings, where an element can change each time. That sort of thing I notice.
MB I see these periodical elemental additions in your new book, The Field of the Cloth of Gold. Your characters are living in tents on a large empty field, and this little society gradually changes as more people set up camp. A Julius Caesar character wanders in; a Christlike figure later emerges. What was the impetus behind this book?
MM It started when I began considering the actual Field of the Cloth of Gold in France, which is where Henry VIII met Francis I. They both had a large pavilion of tents set up. If you go there now, not knowing it’s historical context, it just looks like a big field. So I wondered what would happen if someone happened upon history occurring in an inconspicuous place and not knowing what was going on.
MB How did it end up being the reverse, with changes induced by new inhabitants?
MM I decided to place everyone in the tents. They’re all waiting for something, but they don’t know what it is. And these characters you mention, the Caesar and Christlike figure, are just the Roman Empire and Christianity coming to the British Isles. And that’s the book, early British history up to the Norman conquest unfolding before these people who don’t realize it.
MB Did you try to make that obvious to the reader?
MM No, not entirely. Some people read it and don’t know that it’s got anything to do with history.
MB It’s curious that The Field of the Cloth of Gold just came out in the UK, yet it’s The Maintenance of Headway that is now being published in the States. It’s also your first in many years to make an appearance there. Has the US publication felt any different to you?
MM Bloomsbury US have done such a good cover for it. The drawing on the jacket is really eye-catching. Everyone knows what a London bus looks like, and anybody who reads it will know it’s about London or another big English city. I mean, it’s obviously London.
MB Have you ever ridden a New York City bus?
MM I have. In fact, I even became friendly with a driver, as another bus driver would. One Wednesday evening, I’m riding a bus and I get to talking with the driver. Now, not many people in the outside world realize that if you’re on a bus at ten past ten on a Wednesday night, that the driver will be the same on both Thursday and Friday night. So that Thursday, we’re on the same road, and I began to think about this, and wonder if I’d see that same driver. And the bus came and it was him. He recognized me and waved as he drove past.
MB Bus driving is one of the only occupations where two people in motion would see each other in the same places.
MM I used to be at Brixton garage in South London, and I’d see drivers I used to know and pass them at the same point every day for a week, like exactly the same, opposite the same building. I mean it can go wrong the same way too, in any city, obviously.
MB When you’re in a different city do you find yourself curious how the transit system works?
MM Well that’s what my wife and I do. When we’re on holiday, we take buses wherever we’re staying. We never take taxis, I really don’t like taking taxis. They isolate—or insulate—you from the city.
MB What if there are no buses?
MM There are always buses in a city, but not everyone uses them. Some people even avoid them. We were in Saigon this past spring and wanted to take a bus from our hotel to the market. I asked the concierge if he knew if the fares were a fixed rate. But the concierge didn’t know, so he had to ask a bellboy who didn’t know either. They both suggested a taxi instead and tried to dissuade us from taking a bus. But we said, “Well, we went on it yesterday.” They’re jaws dropped. I said, “Yeah, we went on the 91, and I want to know if it will be the same fare to the market on the 19.” I knew the numbers and everything. So they had to go deep down the chain of command to find out the answer. It turned out that none of the people who worked in the hotel ever traveled by bus, that it had a stigma of being for the poor only.
MB Did the other passengers take notice to you?
MM Well, we were the only white people on the bus.
MB Where else have you bussed?
MM I’ve been on buses in Brazil, Mumbai, Beijing, Morocco, and Cairo among other places. Couldn’t work out the Tunisian bus system, but we managed to figure out the trams.
MB How does a writer like you end up as a bus driver?
MM All sorts of people end up as bus drivers. I was talking to a guy at my garage this morning, and it turned out he used to be in a moderately successful ’80s band that had a couple of hits and supported Blur on their first tour. Now he’s a bus driver.
MB Is “the Maintenance of Headway” a common phrase on the buses?
MM Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s used by the higher management all the time. They’re obsessed with it.
MB Your work reminds me of the Argentinian writer César Aira, who writes in a method he called “the flight forward.” He’ll start writing whatever narrative comes to mind, but he never revises, never goes back, so these narratives can unexpectedly move into prosperity. Do you have a similar process breaking down systems?
MM I don’t go back. I move on from what I’ve done. The only thing I check is to make sure I don’t repeat a phrase or a word too frequently—I mean, I do repeat myself intentionally—but that’s about all I go back for. In this new book about vinyl records, there are a couple motifs I repeat word for word in various places. If people notice, that’s good, that means they’re paying attention.
MB You’re someone who strikes me a paying attention to style, at least in your own work. You leave the barest essentials, and allow conversational dialogue to propel a lot of the narrative. It makes for a punchy read.
MM I try to work out the rhythm. If I have someone say something, then I have to figure in the rhythm of the response.
MB Does the dialogue direct the prose or visa-versa?
MM It’s whatever I think needs to happen next. Sometimes I’ll end a section quite abruptly. But then I’ll think: “Oh, I could just have so-and-so saying that.” And that leads you into another bit. Quite often you can have join-ins and lead-ups, a long conversation in which one person is questioning another. And then I’ll think, “I’ll just write a bit more prose.” Before you know it, of course, you’ve suddenly written another page. That gives you confidence to keep going.
MB There’s a comical absurdism to how you set things up, whether it be a nautical race to the “agreed furthest point” or having a kingdom completely shut down in the absence of its king. These premises remind almost of Calvino or Primo Levi, who are both playful but able to deftly execute ideas with a simple elegance. I’m wondering if we’ll see more of that in the vinyl book you mentioned. Can you tell me what breaks down in the Friends of Record society?
MM One guy in the group makes a rule that no one’s allowed to comment or pass judgement on the records. That it must be straight objective listening. This guy is such a puritan that they just listen to records on a turntable in silence and then go home.
MB No talking at all.
MM Well, in the beginning they can, but he gets more stern and tightens the screws. He also insists on punctiliousness. This one guy comes late, and he gets kicked out. A few weeks later the group discovers that the latecomer has started his own group, the Confessional Record Society, where they just gush about records. It’s a completely different approach. The two groups become rivals. Then there’s another incident and another split and all these rival groups emerge, all listening to records in the back of the same pub, but on different nights.
MB Sounds like an allegory for political parties or religious groups.
MM Right, in so far as there are hardliners and extremists.
MB What kind of music do they listen to? Do the members mimic your interests?
MM I like all sorts of music, though most recently I’ve gotten into classical, which has been a nice change from what I’d normally listen to on the radio. But when I was writing the book I’ve made it so one person sort of represents a different musical genre. One person listens to New Wave, roughly, and there’s another one who represents hippie-ish Byrds sort of stuff, and then there’s another one who mainly listens to Reggae.
MB Do you mention specific artists?
MM Not artists, no, though I do mention record names, and quite a few obscure ones.
MB What is it about the tyrannical perfection that certain characters of yours strive to achieve that keeps interesting you?
MM I’ve always had jobs where there’s some mini tyrant. And, you can also have it in leisure activities. The idea of listening to records and then somebody making rules and demanding other people adhere to them would normally take the pleasure out of the activity. But there are always people in the group who become part of the process, they actually enjoy helping to enforce these rules. But since these aren’t self-contained systems, outside influences are both able to emerge and disrupt. So perfection can be achieved—but only temporarily.
Michael Barron is a writer living in New York. Follow him on Twitter @_michaelbarron.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.