Clean hands, a sharpened pencil and plenty of toothpaste – Richard Milward on his unique writing process.
Like a dog chasing its own tail, writing is a constant source of joy, wonder and manic frustration for me. Despite waking up every day and thanking the Gods I’m allowed to write instead of trundling off to a soul-demolishing ‘proper job’, the actual act of sitting down with pencil and paper in hand fills me with trepidation. I’m intensely superstitious when it comes to writing; washing my hands and blowing my schnozzle at least twice before getting down to business, putting music on at a barely-audible volume 2 (my hi-fi goes up to 100), writing in tiny, neat longhand on A4 perfectly folded in half, all the while praying in my head Michael Bublé doesn’t start yodelling in the flat next-door, like he has a habit of doing.
When I first started writing fiction aged eleven or twelve (saying that, I used to scribble stories on my tod at nursery, in ‘secret language’, which was more or less wavy squiggles my mam or the teachers at school had to translate into English for me), my routine was a bit more easy-going. I used to sit downstairs with my back to the radiator, scrawling in a lined notepad with the telly on whatever volume it fancied, and my folks and brothers pottering about. Back then, my books were like a cross between Trainspotting, Quentin Tarantino and Itchy & Scratchy and, while I sent them off to publishers and got a few encouraging letters back, the biggest reaction I got from writing them was a very, very hot back.
I had six novels already under my belt by the time I got around to penning my fruity ‘debut’, Apples. If you’re wondering, here are the names of them: ‘Insane Doubts’, ‘Down and Out’, ‘Wave Near Me’ (a trio of Irvine Welsh tributes/rip-offs, based around sewage workers and taxi drivers), ‘The Bottle of Notes’ (named after the attractive Claes Oldenburg sculpture in Middlesbrough), ‘There is Always Darkness Within the Light’ (pretentious crap involving a .357 Magnum), and ‘In Dust (Out Fluid)’ (a merry tale of suicide, murder and topless modelling). Like a bunch of embarrassing homeless people, they all live together now in a cardboard box, ostracised by society, and publishing houses.
By the time I got round to ‘In Dust (Out Fluid)’, the OCD was really setting in. I was about sixteen, and for some reason developed an adverse fear of touching toilet flushers and dirty plates and door handles, not to mention washing my hands thoroughly before touching personal items such as CDs, books, magazines. A bit like Adam in Apples, I was becoming a paranoid weirdo.
Today, I still enjoy the odd bout of paranoia. It keeps you on your toes, after all, despite also making you climb the walls and tear your hair out. I’m still not a massive fan of fondling toilet seats but, on the whole, my teenage OCD phase now only really manifests itself in my writing process.
Along with all the rampant nose-blowing and hand-washing, I have to sluice toothpaste round my gob before picking up my pencil (my pencils are all H Faber-Castells, by the way). Sometimes it feels more like a voodoo ritual than a creative hobby, cleansing myself of reality’s restrictive daily residues, readying myself to enter a kind of shamanistic literary trance.
Warbling away in my ear like a plinky-plonky mantra, the barely-audible music can range from a variety of genres (Steve Reich, John Coltrane, Mogwai), provided the CD lasts at least 50 minutes. The music works more as an indicator of time, rather than a soundtrack to the scribbling. On the odd occasion I try writing in complete silence, I find my mind gets spent after a mere fifteen minutes of graft, fooling me into thinking I’ve been at it for hours on end. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit listening to Ascension for ten seconds in between sentences; the Richard Milward equivalent of stretching your legs or having a bite of a Kit-Kat.
It was only after nattering to other novelists that I realised I write like a complete freak.
But I love it – once my agonising ablutions are done and dusted (hands cleansed, pencil sharpened, mouth full of toothpaste, volume control twisted anti-clockwise), then comes the intensely pleasurable part.
There really is no better feeling being in that trance, all my characters whizzing willy-nilly through my brain like supercharged worms, surprising me with their antics and daft one-liners. That’s the most exciting part of writing – the constant process of surprising your characters with strange situations, and them surprising you back again, with their reactions.
Real-life characters are always strange and surprising. For instance, sometimes my neighbours blast out Michael Bolton, not Michael Bublé. And sometimes I write with the volume all the way up to 3.