Richard Milward writes his novels in bed, and he’s not bashful about it. He started sending out stories to publishers when he was 12, and 16 years on from those first submissions - and with his third published title, Kimberly’s Capital Punishment, recently out - his methods haven’t changed. “I've always written on my bed. I write pretty much horizontally. I wonder if that's why they always come out quite dream-like.”
Kimberly’s Capital Punishment opens with an Dali-esque eyeball and ends with five possible endings to choose from for Kimberly - life, death, and everything in between. Milward breaks down the novel’s fourth wall in presenting the reader with these choices, prodding up at them from the page to take part. He says: “I thought it would work in this novel because it is surrealistic, and it bounces between dream and reality. I've blurred it, so you know; I wouldn't want to write a really realistic novel and then introduce the reader out of the blue, so I thought it's quite nice, with this one the boundary between what's real and what's not is pretty blurred so it almost seemed feasible.” Milward admires the endings of 1984 and A Clockwork Orange: “Where it's kind of almost as if things have gone full circle but there's still this kind of ambiguity about what's gone on from that - none of this happily ever after type endings, I quite like happily for the time being.”
Raised in Teeside, Milward’s seventh completed book Apples was his first to be published by Faber in 2007, with Ten Storey Love Song following two years later. He then studied Fine Art at Central Saint Martins and started writing Kimberly’s Capital Punishment during his final year. As well as the book’s London setting, Milward said the timing leant the book its sometimes exhilaratingly frustrated tone: “I was starting to get a bit disillusioned with the place, so I'd sort of stored up all these stories from things that had happened over the last couple of years, that I kind of wanted to get off my chest.”
Kimberly is fundamentally a nice girl, with the plot driven by her decision to be uncharacteristically cruel to her boyfriend, leading to his suicide and her guilt dragging her through a series of fairly brutal episodes. Milward says: “With Kimberly the character, I definitely wanted to look at this phrase of trying to be as nice as possible, because it is what I strive to do myself. But then I thought I don't want it to be so sweet and saccharine-a story about a girl who’s too nice, you know, so I added all these quite manic layers of darkness for her kindness to struggle against, because I was interested in that tension of someone being too nice.
"I sometimes get accused of it myself, as if that idea exists, that idea of being too nice. It’s unusual for people to see that as a bad thing, but I guess it's that idea of being a soft touch."
The novel plays with the idea of doubles, pitching good against evil, fate against manipulation, with unnerving coincidences sometimes causing these doubles to literally crash into each other, such is the lickity-split pace of the action. Perhaps the most clear-cut double is Sean and Shaun, best friends/worst enemies who are only ever seen together, and whose speech is laid out in a table - a column for Kimberly with a column each for Sean and Shaun either side, giving what Milward describes perfectly as “a kind of Dolby surround-sound of domestic abuse”.
Milward’s precocious publisher-bothering was perhaps a symptom of his relationship with writing; unlike some authors, procrastination is not part of his method. The words pour out of him. Despite hundreds of rejection letters - and one response from Canongate, home to Irvine Welsh who first inspired him to write, which started: "I can’t believe you’re 12…" - he wasn’t deterred. “I thought I’ll just keep cracking on, all you need is for one person to have faith in you, and then you've got a partner in crime, someone who'll help you out.”
He admits to being “very disciplined” when he’s writing, with certain rituals. “I wash my hands multiple times before I get down to business. I listen to music volume one on a stereo that goes up to 100, so it's barely audible, it's like a musical cuddly mascot or something by the bed just egging me on, telling me to write.” He is also a bit of a purist when it comes to writing materials: “I can't really say I'm a Luddite because I'm talking to you on an iPhone, but I try to stay away from technology as much as I can when I'm writing. It just seems a bit impersonal, I hate the way computers can crash or whatever, but with a pencil and paper, you can snap your lead, but I’ll be honest with you, not a lot can go wrong, as long as you've got a light touch.”
His next project is going to involve boxing. “Boxers are tarred with the idea that they are these like really like ruffians or whatever, or really aggressive people outside the ring, but you'd be surprised, they are some of the most humble people I've ever met. The determination that they have is inspiring for one, even the fact that their diets have to be absolutely perfect, they have to sacrifice everything. Teenagers go through to go to the gym three or four nights a week. You realise although they've got power, speed and skill and all that, it is an all-consuming sacrifice.”
Though Milward writes with his feet up, there’s no sleeping on the job. As he says: “As soon as I put the last full stop on a book, I've always got ideas to get on to the next one . . . When I sit down to write, it does feel like automatic writing. It does feel like I don't know what sentence is going to happen after the one that I've written, it just seems seamlessly to happen. It's the spontaneity that really gets me going.”
Kimblerly's Capital Punishment by Richard Milward is published by Faber.