Alex Miller – A kind of confession: the writer’s private world

Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2023
Jacket design by Lisa White
Jacket illustration – Edwina Edwards, Blue Trees

A kind of confession provides a glimpse into award-winning author Alex Miller’s life from boyhood to the present, documenting his feelings, ideas about a multiplicity of things and some personal and shared histories.

Barbie spoke to Alex Miller about A kind of confession

In an era when the reading public is hungry for intimacy with its beloved writers, it is difficult to uncover new insights. In this work it is the assemblage of Miller’s work that allows the reader that sense of discovery.

The book contains journal extracts, letters and emails, mostly written by Miller to friends and family, fellow writers, publishers and the like, but also some written to him.

It is a pity that Stephanie Miller’s name does not appear on the cover of this book as it was she (along with Alex Miller’s long time editor Annette Barlow, I am told) who selected the pieces in it, an archivist’s meticulous and mighty task of sifting and sorting decades of content into a coherent whole.

There is so much in this book, but some preoccupations call to me for particular notice. One is the author’s friendship with Max Blatt, a man he met when just beginning on his writing career and who remained a friend and mentor throughout his life.

Blatt features in Alex Miller’s fiction but also in a non fiction biographical work. Multiple accounts reveal the way he connected with Blatt’s family members to fill in the many blanks in this history.

And this use of multiple accounts is something that gives the book some of its weight. Letters come back and back to the author’s major concerns and vignettes are presented from different points of view – a bit in the manner of a novel.

There are conversations with fellow writers about books and the writing-publishing process. Miller muses upon his own work, seeks responses from others and explains his reactions to things like editor feedback.

His philosophising includes the lot of the immigrant, the connection of the Australian Aboriginal people to land, his initial reluctance to use the term First Nations, his reasons for refusing an Australian honour – both because it is contrary to egalitarian thinking and because of some of the people on the honours list, the writer’s life, his perception of the function of the novel and how long it took him to understand this and apply it to his writing.

In the midst of this, there are also letters between family members which are mostly about the personal and quotidian; there is an account of his meeting with Stephanie and there are references to their life together, their travels, their children, their symbiosis.

There are also things in this book which will give the aspiring writer hope and a sense of fellow feeling – the author’s breathless waiting for audience responses to his published work is one of these.

If this is the lot of the twice awarded Miles Franklin author, then no wonder the new writer feels it.

The need to have readers’ approval goes beyond the commercial necessity though. Miller says, in speaking about the novel that it is imperative that ‘something of value should be left behind in the consciousness of the reader’ (p 53).

Then there is also the importance of the editor in crafting the finished product.

Alex Miller details for us the process of expansion suggested by his editor in the case of A Brief Affair, something which changed the entire tenor of the book. And so, for new writers struggling with their rewrites and structural edits, there is reason to take heart. Even those recognised as masters of the form rely on a good editor to create their best work.

While it is doubtful that we will fully gain entrée into any writer’s private world we are left with a sense of warmth and intimacy when we leave this work. What we have been given is carefully chosen so that it builds upon itself to give us the impression of a life – it’s not linear, in the way that life is not.

We return to the things that made us, memories and almost faded experiences which we may only recall through others’ telling or from photographs.

The deft marriage of personal and professional delivers a broad brush stroke impression of Alex Miller, curated with affection and intimate knowledge, full of enthusiasm and joie de vivre.

There is a sense of openness about it that may be artifice but we’re happy with it, nevertheless; we’re grateful for the insights, perspectives, wisdom, insecurities and love it contains.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy and Alex for spending such a generously long time chatting about all and sundry.