Sam Mills was born in 1975. She studied English Language and Literature at Oxford University. After graduating, she worked as a chess journalist and publicist. She also sang in a band and busked. Sam now writes full-time and contributes regularly to the literary magazine TOMAZI. Her first novel, A Nicer Way to Die, was published in 2006. She followed it with The Boys Who Saved the World (US title: The Viper Within) in 2007.
Her latest book, Blackout, was published in February 2010, and has been shortlisted for the Manchester Book Awards. She has just completed her debut adult novel, The Secret Quiddity of the Will Self Murders - see www.thewillselfclub.co.uk. Mills claims the publication of her books was helped no end by “pretending to be a man”.
The Boys who Saved the World is to be made into a film by Because we Can Productions. See the test trailer here: www.tbwstw.com.
INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR
You were once a chess journalist. That's an ultra-niche market. What aspects of chess did you write about?
Sex fanatics who like chess. It was very ultra-niche.
Were you always working toward being a novelist?
Yes, I have written every day since I was about 12 years old.
Do you think you'd ever write a non-fiction book?
I'd like to. I have some ideas, but it would be a new experience for me. I think that the different branches of writing – poetry, non-fiction, fiction, children's books – are like different musical instruments. You might be great at playing the piano, but that doesn't automatically mean you can play the violin. Each branch entails a new skill that has to be learnt, and that takes time and dedication. But yes, I'd like to learn.
Was it a struggle to become established? How true is it that the non-gender-specific diminutive of your first name helped you get published?
I suppose I should clarify here that I don't think that pretending to be a man will help you get published! Obviously publishers buy plenty of books by men and women and the quality of the book is the important thing. But I did let Faber think I was a man when I sent the book in. It was obviously aimed at male readers, and studies show men are less keen to buy books by women. However, being female can define what publishers want and expect you to write, in some circumstances, and how your book is marketed. There was a time after the Bridget Jones phenomenon when if you were female and put a book out, whatever the content was, you ended up with a pink cover. A lot of serious female writers got labelled 'chick lit', and chick lit was unfairly demonised. So it seemed to me around that time that being a female writer came with baggage. But I think times have changed now. There are lots of interesting female writers about, both commercial and literary. Hilary Mantel won the Booker last year; Sadie Jones won a Costa. And pink no longer seems mandatory.
You’ve written a lot about the subjects of terrorism and mind control, in its various forms. What attracts you to such subject matter?
I think terrorism is interesting because it's obviously very topical, and also because the media tends to write about terrorists in terms of stereotypes, so it's worth digging deeper and giving the subject matter more thought. Also, we live in an age when people don't care about issues in the way they did in the ’60s (well, so people who were young in the ’60s keep telling me). People are either more relaxed, or more languid or just indifferent. (Or maybe the government have just made it harder to protest.) And then suddenly, at the other end of the spectrum, we have people who are so passionate about their beliefs, they are prepared to commit suicide and murder for them – the contrast is interesting. In The Boys Who Saved the World I wrote about a group of boys who set up their own religion and believe they can stamp terrorism out, but in their fanaticism they become terrorists themselves...
How do you feel about your novel The Boys Who Saved the World being made into a film? Are you worried that they'll distort the story or do you have a degree of creative control?
I could not be more delighted. But I wouldn't have sold it to the film-maker, Ufuk Gokkaya, if I hadn't felt he understood the book. When I first met him, he'd made 30 short films and wanted 'Boys' to be his first feature. So there was an element of risk. But the moment we started chatting about the book I knew we were on the same wavelength, and I think we're going to keep working on projects together – he has his eye on turning Blackout into an animation, which I think is interesting. Also, I've had some creative input into the project. I've not written the script but I get to see the various drafts. I've also enjoyed meeting various actors along with the producers and seeing if they're right for the part. Recently we were actually approached by a fairly well-known actor and he is just perfect for Jon, which is exciting. But it's an independent production – it's not being made by a big studio, where the experience would be different.
Who are your favourite authors and why?
I like authors who write with their heads and their hearts. I think that's hard to find. I often read books that are written in beautiful prose but they leave me feeling cold. E.M. Forster was a writer who wrote with his head and his heart. I feel that Louis de Bernières is his modern-day equivalent in that respect – his writing is so intelligent and so passionate. I am a passionate reader, and as a result I've become increasingly hard to please! But I love the feeling – that happens only once every so often – when you pick up a book and you know you've found something special. When I was a kid, I loved Roald Dahl. When I was a teenager, I liked Robert Cormier. In my twenties, I discovered The English Patient, which is my favourite novel – I think it's the most beautifully written book I've ever come across. I also like Birdsong (doesn't everyone?!) as I found it very moving. I am also a fan of Geoff Dyer, Tom McCarthy, DBC Pierre, Bohumil Habral and Lisa Jewell. And I worship Will Self.
Are you a 'disciplined' writer? Or do you sleep till noon, stare out the window/check your emails then finally get down to it once the sun's gone over the yard arm?
I think I am quite disciplined as I try to make sure I write every day. Mornings are a waste of time and usually spent on emails. I get going in the afternoons – and in the evenings I soar.
What are you working on now?
I've spent the last nine years working on a quirky literary novel called The Secret Quiddity of the Will Self Murders. (Actually, that title keeps shifting. My agent came up with another possibility: The W.S.C. Murders which is perhaps more snappy. So let's just say it's a working title). Anyway, the novel is different from my other 'crossover' books: this one is definitely aimed at adults. It is the literary equivalent of Being John Malkovich, only Will Self is the object of fascination. It is told by five different narrators, all of whom are fascinated by the author in weird and wonderful ways. One section is about the mysterious W.S.C. Club; another section is set in 2042, when Will has died and a lesbian journalist is investigating the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. So it's quite a crazy book. People who have read it either love it or hate it. Anyhow, after spending nine years on the book I could have not have chosen a more difficult time to finish – recession, risk-averse publishing climate etc. But nevertheless I have finally had an offer from a publishing house so it will make it to the shelves – hopefully next year. And I'm working on another young adult novel. This one builds on the themes of my last novels but is more fantastical and ambitious. I've got a lot of different ideas for children's books I'd like to write.