Ali Millar is a new literary voice with a hot debut novel out later this month with White Rabbit Books, the publisher of David Keenan’s acclaimed novels and Goldsmith Prize shortlisted Richard Milward’s Man- Eating Typewriter. White Rabbit Books are renowned for their music memoirs and essays, but with Ava Anna Ada are continuing this interesting fiction foray.
Her memoir, The Last Days, published by Penguin in 2022, told her story of growing up with, and her escape from, a group of Scottish Borders Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ava Anna Ada, a beguiling title, explores madness, child loss, nature, and a whole host of other themes. Thankfully, the novel gives plenty of space to let these sit with you – be warned, though: it’s a chilling novel with an unusual narrative structure that gives voice to all three characters, some collectively. Millar has created a frightening world, one that will make you think twice about your next social media post.
Millar spoke with us about what inspired this novel, along with her thoughts on nature writing and the need to address climate change.
How did you find the experience of writing your memoir before anything else had laid the path for Ava Anna Ada?
I wrote them concurrently. For some reason, when I write I work on two manuscripts. The memoir was kind of something that I wanted to get off my chest. When it came to fiction I basically had the freedom to do what I wanted, but what’s quite funny is I think in a way I’m still exploring similar things.
Where did the inspiration for the novel originally come from? It’s disturbingly dark: would I be right in saying that elements of The Last Days are reflected in its pages?
Well, I think that to a certain extent, every author is going to draw on what’s happened to them. The past, it’s kind of a walk in the mind’s eye. Every artist has their own preoccupations that they want to explore forever. But also, maybe around 2009, I was working for a large NGO, and I was doing work with a lot of climate data, and climate projections, and I found all of them completely terrifying. And I wondered why nobody was talking about climate change.
We were still, at that point, talking about climate change in the future tense. But what we [as a society] were doing instead was becoming very preoccupied with manufacturing versions of reality, versions that were cropping up on Instagram. People were hell-bent on constructing this kind of beautiful version of their life.
I was also very frustrated with nature writing and its neglect to turn and face climate change: how nature is very much [depicted as] this sanctified thing, a bodily thing, and it’s going to save us. But actually, it’s coming to get us. So that frustration crept into it.
I’m also intrigued about [the book’s] structure and your approach to chaptering the book: your focus on character, but with Ava and Anna being sometimes combined?
I love the idea of having two people tell you the same story, but they’re also telling you their own version of events. And I think perhaps that came from working on The Last Days and realising that I was telling my version of events, but that there’s an awful lot of missing voices. I became increasingly aware of the unreliability of all narrative generators, but also that we know what suits us.
That comes back to social media and the way that we build our lives online: we certainly shy away from showing the true parts of ourselves. So that’s why it’s split like this: it’s a very simple story, but they’re telling you different things. As you’re reading it, you wonder, which one do I trust? And then there are sections that are narrated by them both stitched together.
I had a lot of fun with it, because I needed to make sure that didn’t sound like either of them, actually. Having those two voices was so much fun; I was probably being occupied by these two people. The ‘We’ [the chapters that add narration] softens it as when they are themselves they’re quite intense – I couldn’t do that to the reader [all the time].
Both Ava and Anna are such complex and messed up characters, characters that have many layers of depth to them. They feel longlived. Have you written about these two before in previous works?
Years before, in a short story at university, I wrote about a teenage prostitute who does what she can with what she’s got, and I loved this character. At the time I thought: you’re gonna come back.
Handling and exploring child loss: was there a part of you that felt a weight and responsibility for the manner in which this was handled? What compelled you to touch upon this and explore how it might affect a mother?
I tried not to, because I think if you’re too aware of how we read or write, you know that that’s not your responsibility. I saw Bret Easton Ellis talk about this, actually, in relation to American Psycho. People might take your work and they might use it to justify things. It’s not your fault. It’s [them] kind of abdicating their responsibility. So when I was working with these themes, I tried not to ‘feel the weight’. Also, when I’m working on anything, I have this thing that I tell myself, and I quite often like to imagine it: that no one exists.