Sam Miller Posts

An Interview with Sam Miller on his Tribute to his Fathers

( I interviewed Sam Miller on his memoir Fathers for Bookwitty. It was published on 13 June 2017.)  

Veteran journalist Sam Miller was born and brought up in London but chose to spend the better part of his life in India. His father was the renowned literary journalist, Karl Miller, who co-founded the London Review of Books. His mother, Jane Miller, is a writer who has also worked as a publisher, translator and teacher. Miller joined the BBC World Service and was stationed as the BBC TV and radio correspondent in Delhi and then as Managing Editor, South Asia. His love for India runs deep as is evident in the many books he has published: Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity (2009), Blue Guide: India ( 2012) and a Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes (2014).

His elegant essay for Granta, “Gandhi the Londoner” makes for a compelling read. It was propelled in large part by Sam Miller’s curiosity about the years Gandhi spent in London upon his arrival in 1888, a period glossed over in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film. What comes through clearly is Sam Miller’s obsession to know more about the past, in particular that which is less remembered in the popular imagination, and to weed out historical inaccuracies that may have crept into modern retellings of this period in Gandhi’s life. It is this remarkable quality as a discerning writer and historian that comes together beautifully in Sam Miller’s recent memoir Fathers. In early 2014 Miller returned to his childhood home in London to spend time with his father, who was dying. Shortly after his death, Miller began to write about his father, investigating a family secret that he had been told about years ago, involving his parents and a close friend. With his mother’s help, his father’s documents, and interviews with people from the large circle of his parents’ friends, he put together a heart-warming memoir that explores childhood, marriage, and friendship, as well as exploring the personal relationship each of his parents had with their closest friend from Cambridge, Tony White.


Miller kindly answered questions for Bookwitty:

How many drafts did this memoir take? It flows smoothly as if it just wrote itself. There is almost magically ethereal quality to it.

It was the easiest thing I’ve ever written; it just came pouring out of me. There were one and a half drafts really. I’d written about half the book in conventional chapters, with long passages of prose. It felt a bit stodgy and linear to me, with all those ‘joining together’ sentences that often feel artificial. At the time, I was reading a French book called HHHH by Laurent Binet, and he uses short numbered chapters—and I tried it out, breaking up the text, inserting a few mini-chapters that enabled me jump more easily in time and place. I hope it allowed the text to flow more smoothly, more naturally—bringing it a little closer, in my view, to the way we talk and the way we think. I read my words out loud to myself as I write, and it is important that the text sounds right, as if I were writing for radio.

The elegant manner in which you write investigating your paternity also conveys the immense love you grew up with. Was Fathers emotionally tough to write?

It felt good for me, as if it were a kind of therapy, a way of releasing something that I’d half-buried. But it also was about dealing with grief, and a more specific sense of anger with myself for having not been there when my father died.

This story is as much yours as it is your parents’ and their close friend Tony White. How did you feel about your mother supporting you on this project? Would you have written this memoir if it had not been forthcoming?

I write anyway, not always for publication. So I think I would have written this tale, for myself at least. But my mother was always part of the story, and the telling of the story. I wouldn’t have published it without her support.

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Karl Miller and Tony White at a Christmas party, 1960

How closely involved was your mother with this manuscript? Were you required to make any critical changes in the drafts—sections you felt needed to stay and your mother thought otherwise or vice versa?

I would talk to her as I was writing, but only showed it to her in larger chunks. We did discuss minor changes, but nothing I would describe as critical. I know so much of the story through her anyway (and she is a writer too); that it has a strong Jane Miller imprint on it, though the final version is very much mine in style and content.

The forgiving nature of your father is an extraordinary quality to have just as the calm acceptance of your presence in the lives of the three adults: Karl and Jane Miller and Tony White. While writing Fathers did you ever wonder about the evolution of the institution of marriage? It seems to have been far more accommodating in your parents’ generation than it is today.

I don’t feel very well equipped to comment on the institution of marriage, but I do think that almost every couple’s relationships are pretty different from each other. And therefore simply following convention and ideas of normality are not a great basis for forming a relationship. I’m not quite sure that ‘forgiving’ is the right word here; I think my father’s response was more complicated than that and related to his own upbringing, and to his own ideas about the (un) importance of fidelity.

Does the crucial family secret your mother shared make you ever wonder about the popular debate about genetics vs environment being influencing factors in the growth of an individual?

Yes, I do. But I’ve not come up with any useful conclusions. I’ve been intrigued to notice the ways in which I am similar to Tony White, but these are not necessarily genetic. They could be learned, from what I know of Tony—and more indirectly and even subconsciously via my parents.

Many times in the memoir you allude to your father’s poems describing his friends bordering on the homoerotic or comment often on his close male friendships which, for his generation, seem nothing out of the ordinary. “Karl Miller struggled to reconcile close male friendship with the possibility or reality of homosexual love. My father was not, I think, a homophobe, but was sensitive to accusations that he might be.” Do you think it’s fair to your father and his generation to read in to their relationships what is a popular 21st century concept of homosexuality?

I’m not so sure that it was so different in the fifties; it was just talked about less. I would distinguish homoeroticism from homosexuality, as think my father would, and as I think Thomas Mann would have even before my father was born.

While writing this memoir were there any others you referred to as literary examples to emulate?

Not really. It was written for me, and then my mother. I was pleasantly surprised when the earliest other readers liked what I had written—I had been expecting them to suggest changes, particularly to the structure.

Of all the diverse genres you have published, travelogue, translation and memoir, which has been the most challenging and why?

I’ve written a history (A Strange Kind of Paradise) and a guidebook (Blue Guide India) as well! The guidebook was most exhausting. The history book involved the most research—and that was probably the most challenging—I wanted it to be interesting for people who think they aren’t interested in history. The publication (rather than the writing) of Fathers was quite a challenge – a nerve-racking experience. I was apprehensive about the response to what I had written. But the response has been largely positive.

Sam Miller Fathers Jonathan Cape, London, 2017. Hb. 

13 June 2017 

Sumeet Shetty, Literati, SAP Labs book club

Sumeet Shetty, Literati, SAP Labs book club

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Literati is the book-club at SAP Labs India, and India’s largest corporate book-club.

Headquartered in Walldorf, Germany, with locations in more than 130 countries, SAP is the world leader in enterprise software and software-related services. SAP logo

 

Literati aims to bring together books, readers and writers. Here’s a list of authors who have spoken at Literati:

  • Amit Chaudhuri
  • Alex Rutherford
  • Alice Albinia
  • Amish Tripathi
  • Amitabha Bagchi
  • Amitava Kumar
  • Anand Giridharadas
  • Anjum Hasan
  • Anita Nair
  • Anuja Chauhan
  • Anuradha Roy
  • Arun Shourie
  • Ashok Ferrey
  • C P Surendran
  • Chetan Bhagat
  • Geeta Anand
  • Harsha Bhogle
  • James Astill
  • Kiran Nagarkar
  • Manil Suri
  • Mark Tully
  • M J Akbar
  • Mita Kapur
  • Mridula Koshy
  • Mukul Kesavan
  • Musharraf Ali Farooqi
  • Namita Devidayal
  • Navtej Sarna
  • Omair Ahmad
  • Pallavi Aiyar
  • Pankaj Mishra
  • Partha Basu
  • Pavan K Varma
  • Peter James
  • Poile Sengupta
  • Raghunathan V
  • Rana Dasgupta
  • Sam Miller
  • Samantha Shannon
  • Samit Basu
  • Samhita Arni
  • Sarnath Banerjee
  • Shashi Deshpande
  • Shashi Tharoor
  • Shehan Karunatilaka
  • Shobhaa Dé
  • Sudha Murthy
  • Suhel Seth
  • Sunil Gupta
  • Sudhir Kakar
  • Tabish Khair
  • Tarun J Tejpal
  • Tishani Doshi
  • Vikas Swarup
  • Vinod Mehta
  • Vikram Chandra
  • William Dalrymple
  • Yasmeen Premji
  • Zac O’Yeah 

Contact: Sumeet Shetty (sumeet.shetty@sap.com)

Sumeet Shetty is a Development Manager at SAP Labs India, and is the President of Literati, India’s largest

corporate book-club.

 

Modern day travelogues

Modern day travelogues

Punjabi ParmesanTravel writing has always had a special place in literature. Readers have been fascinated by stories of other places, cultures, people. In the past it was understandable when there were text-heavy descriptions of people, dresses, cities, architecture, food, vegetation and terrain. But today? To read modern-day travelogues when it is the “image age”, the most popular news feeds on social media platforms are photographs. It is akin to being immersed in a National Geographic-like environment 24×7. There are websites such as Flickr, Pinterest, Mashable, Tumblr, and YouTube, wonderful repositories of images and movie clips uploaded by institutions, media firms and individuals. So to read three books — Pallavi Aiyar’s Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from Europe in Crisis, Rana Dasgupta’s Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi and Sam Miller’s A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes — was an intriguing experience. Except for Sam Miller’s book that is peppered with black and white images laid within the text, the other two books are straightforward narratives. I would deem them as travelogues written in the “classical tradition” of relying solely upon the narrator/author taking the reader along a personal journey through a country/city different to the land of their birth. They make for a sharp perspective, intelligent analysis and just a sufficient mish-mash of history with a commentary on current social, political and economic developments, without really becoming dry anthropological studies. The writing style in all three books is lucid and easy.

Pallavi Aiyar’s Punjabi Parmesan is a fascinating account of her travels through Europe from 2009 onward–at a time of economic gloom. It is part-memoir, part-journalism and part-analysis ( mostly economic) of what plagues Europe. It has anecdotes, plenty of statistics and footnotes, accounts of the meetings, conferences she was able to attend as journalist and have conversations with influential policy makers and politicians. After spending a few years in Beijing she moved to Brussels, so is able to draw astute observations about the decline in Europe. Having been a foreign correspondent for over a decade, reporting from China, Europe and South East Asia, mostly on business stories from the “frontline” of action, she has an insightful understanding of the depressing scenario in Europe. It is a book worth reading.

Rana Dasgupta, CapitalRana Dasgupta’s Capital is about Delhi, the capital of India. Delhi has been settled for centuries, but became the capital of British India in 1911. The first wave of migrants who formed the character of modern Delhi came soon after the country became Independent in 1947. Over the years Delhi grew but at a moderately slow pace. Twenty years after post-liberalisation ( 1991), Delhi transformed so rapidly that the old world, old rhythms and culture became quietly invisible. Delhi continued to be a melting pot of immigrants. It became a city synonymous with wealth, material goods, luxury and uncivil behaviour, bordering on crassness. It is a city of networking and networked individuals. Rana Dasgupta’s book is a meander through the city. He meets a lot of people — the nouveau riche, the first wave of migrant settlers post-1947, members of the old city families who bemoan the decline of tehzeeb in the city. Capital is a commentary on Delhi of the twenty-first century, a city that is unrecognisable to the many who have been born and brought up here. Rana Dasgupta moved to the city recently — over a decade ago–but this brings a clarity to his narrative that a Delhiwallah may or may not agree with. It certainly is a narrative that will resonate with many across the globe since this is the version many want to hear — the new vibrant India, Shining India, the India where the good days ( “acche din”) are apparent. There is “prosperity”, clean broad streets, everything and anything can be had at the right price here. It is a perspective. Unfortunately the complexity of Delhi, the layers it has, the co-existence of poor and rich, the stories that the middle classes have to share are impossible to encapsulate in a book of 400-odd pages. It is a readable book that captures a moment in the city’s long history. It will be remembered, discussed, critiqued, and will remain for a long time to come in the literature associated with Delhi. (The cover design by Aditya Pande is stupendous! )

Sam Miller A Strange Kind of Paradise by Sam Miller is a gentle walk through the history of India, mostly written as a memoir. William Dalrymple’s blurb for the book is apt —a “love letter to India”. When India was celebrating its fiftieth year of Independence there was a deluge of books and anthologies reflecting, discussing the history of India. To read Sam Miller’s book is to get a delightful and idiosyncratic understanding of this large landmass known as India, a puzzle few have been able to fathom. The author is not perturbed by doing a history of the things he truly likes about the country or that he has been intrigued by conversations he probably had. To his credit he has done the legwork as expected of a professional journalist and discovered people, regions, histories, spaces, cities for himself. For instance he states he is an “aficionado of cemetries and of tombs”, but discovered “many Indian are scared of cemetries — except when they house the tombs of ancient emperors and their consorts. They often find my desire to visit graveyards a little strange, as if I were a necrophile or had a perverse desire to disturb the ghosts of the dead.”( p.232) A fascinating observation since it is true — cemeteries are strangely peaceful oasis of calm. If you say that out aloud in India, people will look at you in a strange manner.

Anjan Sundaram, CongoModern-day travelogues are many, available in print and digital. Two recent examples stand out. Anjan Sundaram’s Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey into Congo about his time in the African country. Fabulous stuff! Very reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s writing ( especially his diaries) written in Africa. And the other is a recent essay that physicist and well-known speculative fiction writer, Vandana Singh wrote on her blog, “Alternate Visions: Some Musings on Diversity in SF” ( http://vandanasingh.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/alternate-visions-some-musings-on-diversity-in-sf/ ). It is a long and brilliant essay about her writing but also a though-provoking musing about diversity, different cultural experiences and writing — elements that are at the core of travel writing, have always been and continue to be.

6 July 2014 

Pallavi Aiyar Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from a Europe in Crisis Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 320 Rs. 599

Rana Dasgupta Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 460 Rs. 799

Sam Miller A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 430 Rs. 599 

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