"I hope you won't be writing about buses being late," Magnus Mills tells a journalist who kept him waiting 20 minutes in the rain.
The voice is flat - not angry, not welcoming - and the lean 6-foot-2 frame of Britain's newest literary sensation is slouched against a tree outside his local pub.Mills, who drives a double-decker, is touchy about bus schedule gibes, especially after a full shift on the 137 route between south London and Oxford Circus. But he's resigned to the attention, aware of being an oddity: a bus driver who got his first novel published and has been nominated for Britain's premier literary prize.
Mills has publishing deals in the United States, France and Scandinavia, and he's sold the film rights. He even got a generous blurb from the reclusive Thomas Pynchon, who hailed "a demented, deadpan comic wonder, this rude salute to the dark side of contract employment."
And all without writing a word about buses.
"The Restraint of Beasts," a deadpan fantasy about building fences and the mystery of sausages, is rated the longshot among the six finalists for the $34,000 Booker Prize to be awarded Oct. 27, up against such heavyweights as Ian McEwan, Beryl Bainbridge and Julian Barnes.
The hype already has spawned a backlash, with one critic contending Mills was nominated only because he drives a bus.
"If that's the reason, then I don't want the prize," he says with uncharacteristic heat.
Mills wrote the book in his spare time, with ideas flowing as he jogged or showered or rode his bike.
Literary plotting can't be done while piloting a bus through London's teeming streets, he explains, because "you've got to really care about exactly where you're putting the bus traffic-wise."
Mills, a 44-year-old native of Bristol, built fences in England, Scotland and Australia before settling in London in 1986.
"The Restraint of Beasts" unrolls in his flat voice, in the monotonous way of working life.
Tam, Richie and the nameless narrator don't muse on the meaning of life or chafe against their limited horizons. They just get on with their fencing jobs - whether tightening a high-tensile wire or pausing now and again for the necessary work of burying someone accidentally killed.
The book got lots of attention in Britain after The Sunday Times reported in August that Mills received a $1.7 million advance.
The true figure was $17,000 from his publisher, he says, and $25,500 for the film rights. Not enough to give up bus driving for now.
Mills says outsiders don't understand the intricacies of bus driving - intricacies he doesn't try to explain.