Beth Miller Catch-up Interview

Beth Miller 

Author of The Missing Letters of Mrs Bright, The Two Hearts of Eliza Bloom, The Good Neighbour, When We Were Sisters, For the Love of The Archers and For the Love of Shakespeare.

Interview with Sharron Green.

I thoroughly enjoyed Beth’s talk at the Surrey New Writers Festival in 2020, just before we went into lockdown, and since I started the Creative Writing MA course at the University of Surrey last September, she has presented two excellent workshops. 

Beth has published six books (four novels and two non-fiction) and has two novels on the way. I asked about them and had a general catch-up with her via email last week. 

Q: How has lockdown been for you? Has it helped or hindered your writing? 

Both, weirdly. Hindered, because I’ve got two kids here on the home-school treadmill. I’ve had to get used to people being around all the time, and it’s taken me pretty much a year to adjust. Pre-pandemic, I could write all morning, uninterrupted, then when I drifted downstairs to make lunch, I could stay in my head, in the world of my story. I would be quietly thinking about it, moving plot pieces around, while eating my sandwich. In lockdown, there is no space for quiet thinking, no solitary lunches.
However, it must have also helped, because I have finished and edited one book, and written another. Whether either of them are any good, of course, remains to be seen.

Q: And have you been teaching? If so, presumably it has been mostly online, how has that been? 

I’ve done some teaching via Zoom. It’s been OK. There are some good things about online teaching in terms of accessibility, and I absolutely love the power of being able to put people randomly into breakout rooms. But given the choice to go back to in-person teaching, I wouldn’t hesitate. Too many small social interactions are lost online, as well as nuance and humour and proper human contact.

Q: I believe you have a comic novel due out this Autumn, could you tell us a bit about it? 

It’s probably going to be called ‘Starstruck.’ It’s about Sally Marshall, who’s a tribute artist to Epiphanie, the world’s biggest star – think Beyonce and Madonna rolled into one. One day Sally comes home to find Epiphanie in her kitchen. It’s quite a shock. Epiphanie suggests swapping lives for two weeks… and of course, Sally agrees! But she can’t predict just how strange her life is about to become. 
The idea for the book came about because I’ve long been fascinated by tribute acts and their superb punning names (like By Jovi! and Fake That and Oasish). I’m fascinated too by the fact that some tribute acts have played more concerts than the musicians they portray ever did. For instance, the Bootleg Beatles have now been gigging for thirty years more than the actual Beatles. Two TV shows provided further inspiration: a BBC Arena documentary from a few years ago (it’s still on iPlayer), ‘Into the Limelight,’ about a now-defunct club that only hosted tribute acts. And on the Graham Norton show, there was an Adele lookalike competition that the real Adele entered and, well, you can see it on YouTube – it’s brilliant. I love tribute acts even more now that I have spent a couple of years researching them.

Q: And how about the reading group novel, due out next year? 

This one doesn’t have a title yet, but it’s about Pearl, who lives with her husband in France. She’s kind of retreated from life after a tragedy, and she no longer sees anyone from the UK. But then her estranged father dies, and her brothers get onto her about coming to the funeral, because apparently the dad’s left her a legacy and she’ll only get it if she attends. So she gets pulled back into her family, and there’s a big messy scene with her stepsister at the wake. But later she discovers things about herself in her father’s diaries, which he has left to her, that make her re-evaluate everything she thought she knew. This one does actually have some very distant echoes of things that have happened in my own life. Not that I have ever lived in France, ah, wouldn’t it be nice to be in France right now? Or indeed, anywhere new?

Q: On the 25th February you delivered a session titled ‘Pitch, Polish & (Possibly) Publish’ to the University of Surrey’s Literature and Creative Writing MA students. Could you tell us a bit about what you covered? 

The query letter, the synopsis and the first page. So many writers, when approaching agents or publishers, spend all their time on the manuscript, and then dash off a letter in an hour. But the letter is really important because it’s the first example of your writing that the agent will read. It’s worth spending time getting it right.

Q: The overall theme of the festival this year is short and long – do you have a preference in terms of fiction? 

I love novels but sometimes when you’re in the mood for a short story, nothing else will do. I’m no good at writing short stories, though; I don’t have the knack.

Q: Thinking ahead to when things hopefully return to normal – what are you most looking forward to doing? 

The same as everyone, I think: seeing people in real-life, going to cafes, travelling, cinema, browsing in shops. I can’t wait for my kids to be able to see their friends again. And meeting my writing group in person! Though we’ve kept it going via Zoom, there’s nothing like the alchemy we achieve when we get together in real life over coffee and toast.

Q: And is there anything you think you’ll miss about lockdown? 

I’ve rather enjoyed the lack of social obligation. And there’s something soporific about the endless, unmarked days that can sometimes be terrible, but also strangely comforting.

What an uplifting interview. I recommend taking a look at the Adele clip that Beth mentioned– it always makes me smile. The workshop last week was really useful – a perfect mix of information and workshopping. Beth’s anecdotes brought the session to life and made her cautionary tales more memorable. At the same time, having followed her tips and submitted work, she encouraged us to persevere and welcome any professional feedback. Thank-you Beth and best wishes with the release of your new books, they have great plots and I’m pleased that, despite all the upheaval, there was room for creativity in 2020. 

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