Posted by: Natalie Hatch | October 5, 2009

Author Interview: Kim Miller

Author Kim Miller is here to talk a bit about his new book “They Told Me I Had To Write This” published by Ford Street Publications. I met Kim at the CYA conference two weeks ago and am trying to get my hands on a copy of this book. Clem’s story isn’t an easy thing to get into, but after hearing Kim talk about how he came up with the characters and storyline I have put it on my TBR pile.

    As a chaplain you get to see a great many people who have made wrong choices in their lives and are now paying the penalty for that. How did that prepare you for writing Clem’s story?

My work wasn’t consciously in my mind when I wrote this book. However, I’ve been a full time prison chaplain for over ten years, and part time since 1988. I’ve also worked with boys in a Juvenile Justice Detention Centre. Then there is my many years as a Scout Leader, working with children and teenagers in outdoor adventure camps, and being involved with my son’s toxic school friends. When you add in my teenage experience of living with a bunch of young offenders in a boy’s home and coming from some very serious abuse in my childhood, you have a broad foundation for the story of Clem.

I’ve learned over many years that it is worth every effort to keep a young offender out of custody for that first sentence. There is no greater qualification for a teenager to end up in custody than having a previous sentence. If we can replace that first sentence by effective diversion then we have much more chance of the boy getting his life back on track.

What I wanted to do with the story of Clem was to show that successful intervention is possible, but it takes some very special people to do it well. The staff of Rocky Valley School are mostly fictional, but Mr and Mrs Hartley are very real people, close friends of mine who used to run Bogong Outdoor Education Centre in Victoria. I have come across many such inspirational people working with teenagers in my life. Every one of them has added something to my subliminal thought processes when I was writing this book.

I also have a PhD majoring in Jungian psychology with a special focus on initiation processes. I am interested in how a boy becomes a man. Those years of study have given me a very wide landscape so I can place Clem pretty well on the map of life.

  • Clem, the main character of your story, has a lot of bad things happen to him which he doesn’t know how to deal with. What advice would you give to those going through something similar?

Advice is always difficult, especially for young people. You might (or might not) notice that there is no advice given to Clem from anyone in the whole book. And on one occasion (page 29) he gets very angry when a teacher doesn’t say something to make a traumatised classmate feel better. Sometimes we think advice can fix things, but advice alone does not have a good track record. With that point in mind let’s see if I can answer your question.

If there is a young person who reads this book and it touches painful issues of abuse in your own life, my advice would be to pay close attention to what happens to Clem. Pay attention to the process of self-understanding that he goes through, and how the teachers create an environment where this can happen. Then do the impossible. Find somebody who can really help. Start with a school counsellor. Hand over the book and say, “I need somebody who can help me through this kind of stuff.” That would be my advice.

Dealing with these issues is a painful business but it can be done. Clem’s whole school environment is geared to promoting wholeness in his life. Most kids don’t have that opportunity.

  • I loved hearing your tale of writing this novel, can you just sum up the long and the short of it for our readers?

I’ve always written stories of people negotiating tough journeys of the mind. It started when I was a child and I would bash out my inner strife on an old typewriter and then destroy what I’d written. Then I started writing short stories, fiction, for my own pleasure. Then I was encouraged to send some to a publisher and he took them seriously and my first book was the fruit. While that book was coming from the printers I found myself writing They Told Me I Had To Write This.

We were holidaying at the beach and I’d had a week without thinking as my work slowly fell from my mind. One night I lay half awake, half asleep, in that odd state of drifting between consciousness and dreaming. And in that state this book built itself in my mind. I woke up in the morning, wrote a two page outline, and started typing. In five days I had completed the first draft of 55,000 words.

I didn’t follow the outline 100% as every now and then it was as if Clem said in my head, “No, not that, this is how it happened.” And I would get diverted. Serendipitous things happened, like the story of the soap.

My sister is an aromatherapist who makes the most wonderful soaps. She lives near where we were camping and I’d asked her to show me how the soap was born. So we spent a day making macadamia and sandalwood soap and drinking red wine and catching up. That evening I wrote the soap-making into the story. Clem just pointed out how soap-making is a metaphor of personal wholeness and all I needed to do was watch my sister at work. Many elements in the story happened like that. On day five the inner Clem voice said, “This is going to end in about twenty minutes, better get ready.” And that is what happened. In twenty minutes there was a whole new ending, the underlying issue of Clem’s relationship with his dad resolved and I shut the laptop. It was done.

That rough first draft had some very capable people cast their eye over it and it grew into a sharply focused novel. One of those people was Hazel Edwards of Hippopotamus on the Roof fame, who gave me some mentoring and pointed me towards the CYA competition.

  • Coming second last in a contest isn’t that bad, I personally have come last in a contest before, so I’m hoping that’s a good sign of things to come. What advice would you give teens struggling to write?

I came 47th out of 49. It was embarrassing. I knew I had a good story overall, but the contest only wanted the first thousand words so the ‘grab factor’ had to happen early. The judges comments showed that the opening lacked energy. So did the character. They were right but it took me some adjustment to see it. And when I saw it I knew I could fix it. Clem started out being a bit too nice. He was like the teenager next door who checks your mail when you are away, pleasant and likeable. So I re-wrote him from being effervescent to being simmering with anger.

The early drafts had the coppers appear several pages into the story, now they are in the third sentence.
Within ten sentences we find Clem being blamed for somebody being dead but we don’t know why.
On page two he hints at the sexual abuse from that teacher ‘way back’.
On page three Bundy breaks Troy’s arm and the coppers are back.
On page four Clem mentions the school’s ‘secret weapon’ for guys like Bundy, Mr Sykes who ‘takes no prisoners’, whatever that means.

OK, let’s answer your question. It’s about advice, which I’ve already given some bad press. This time I’m assuming a teenager has asked me something like, “Writing’s a bit of a struggle for me. What do you reckon I should do?”

1. Keep going. Write about anything you like, but keep going. Even if you burn it, keep going. Write your most secret stuff, destroy it before Darth Vader or Voldemort or Morris Gleitzman reads it, and keep going. Especially if you live near Morris Gleitzman.

2. Learn official stuff. Ask your school librarian for books about writing. Stephen King has written one called On Writing. It starts from when he was a teenager. Do a web search for books about writing. I play a bit of guitar. When I take lessons I improve, when I stop lessons I stagnate. Why should writing be different?

3. There are people out there who know what they are on about. Find them and take notice of what they say. Some of them are bloggers, some are on MySpace, some on internet forums. Some well established authors have good advice on their websites. It is easy to waste time online, but happy hunting. My most common forum name is Doctor Shifty. It was given to me by a convicted murderer. Life is fun, isn’t it? If you see me on a forum, say Hi. I get to, but not very often.

4. I live in the fog of ADD and have a dyslexia-style reading problem. I have the male brain asperges thing happening most of the time, so creativity is a mixed blessing. Sometimes I can focus, mostly my mind is scattered all over the landscape. Writing for me can be manic and fast (I touch type with all the right fingers on the right keys etc) or it can be slow and deliberate and filled with errors. My handwriting is illegible, so typing is the only thing that works.  If that is you, I feel for you. But this doesn’t mean you get off steps 1, 2 or 3. Sorry about that.

  • Ford Street Publishing brings out a great many issue related books, yours included, what did you like the most about working with a smaller publisher?

I’ve thought a bit about the small publisher/large publisher thing and I’m not sure what the general differences might be. I get on well with Paul Collins, that is a plus. Being a smaller press he has to really push his books and that means he’s constantly interested in how we might move my book through the stores. I’m pretty motivated about that and he’s always there winding up the rubber band.

However, at the CYA conference I was driven in from the city with some others, including Colin Thompson, a very talented author/illustrator and quite an extraordinary character. He talked non-stop. He rattled off certain publishers who were a nightmare to work with, and others who were magical. If even Colin Thompson has ups and downs with different publishers, I reckon I am well ahead with my experience with Ford Street.

And about the issues-related bit. People say that the large publishers need to be more sure of their profit status so they tend to take safer books, while the smaller publishers can take the risk of an issues-based book on an edgy topic such as child sexual abuse. This is one of the mysteries of publishing which seems to me to be back to front. I think it boils down to the fact that anybody who starts up a small press has a sense of adventure, so they take the more adventurous books.

  • What’s next on your writing agenda?

I have two novels on the go at the moment. One is a murder story set in the early white settlement of Australia. It’s a story with an undercurrent of mystery and with a plot twist of injustice that doesn’t get resolved until the final paragraph. I’ve got the beginning and the ending done, all it needs is the stuff in the middle.

The other novel is the story of Bundy, one of the characters in They Told Me I Had To Write This. It’s not a sequel but there will be resonances in there somewhere. Bundy likes burning things down, this novel follows his life into the past and into the future.

I’ve also got three collections of short stories that have been in the freezer since the story of Clem took control of my life. It would be good to get them thawed out. One collection is themed on memory and its importance in saying who we are. The second is a bunch of stories from a B&B – lots of weird and wonderful guests. And the third is collating the very engaging travel writings of my late aunt who was married to a diplomat.



  1. Great interview thanks Natalie and Kim. I enjoyed meeting you both at CYA and I just loved Kim’s book. Hearing Kim talking about his writing process; it’s hardly surprising that Clem is such a complex, irrepressible and compelling character. I’m looking forward to your next book, Kim.


  2. Thanks Dee, it was good to meet you too. Kim certainly can spin a good tale, and I loved his openness of his ADD, Aspergers etc.

  3. That was a great interview, I enjoyed reading it! Especially as Kim describes how he wrote and shaped this story. I really, really want to read this book now – definitely going to be on the lookout for it!

  4. It’s taken me a while to get to here, but Hi. Thanks, Natalie, for doing the interview. It’s something of a follow-up from the CYA day.

    And now for some irony of how serendipity gets into the writing process. I’ve been struggling a bit with the Bundy book. Writing a fiction novel about a fire-setter through the summer fires in Victoria prevented me from starting it on holidays early this year. And the Clem book publishing took much of my energy since then and it’s been a slow process.

    This week that changed. I’ve got the flu. Badly. All that roasting sweating freezing fever stuff and feeling like I’ve been hit by a truck. Well, the inner heat has given me a whole new energy for the Bundy book.

    I’ve been lying in bed thinking of all kinds of hot possibilities for the book. And when I’m back on my feet (five days out of action so far) I’m off to do some research with the manager at my local crematorium.

    There, that should get some interest going. 🙂

  5. I’ve just realised that I come up here as scribblygum, who is really Kim Miller.

  6. […] […]

  7. […] have interviewed wonderful writers/agents, including: Michael Gerard Bauer, Melanie Nilles, Kim Miller, Richard Harland, Kirsty Eagar, Tania Roxborogh, Kathy Charles, Scott Monk, Jacinta di Mase, […]

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