A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Today we are delighted to bring you an interview with MJ Hyland, author of three novels including Booker prize shortlisted Carry Me Down and the glorious This Is How, an engrossing study of a young murderer, which I reviewed here.
Lisa Glass: I read somewhere that you write in bed.
MJ Hyland: That’s true. I don’t use a desk. I keep a desk in my office, but only for the sake of appearances.
Lisa Glass: Why do you write in bed?
MJH: Allegedly both Marcel Proust and Mark Twain wrote in bed. But that’s not why, of course, but it’s where I first got the notion. It’s important for me to be comfortable when I write; unlike my characters, who are rarely comfortable. I like being comfortable. I couldn’t write standing up the way Hemingway did.
LG: Yes. Your characters are young and appear to be exploring what’s what in the world. They also seem uncomfortable in their own bodies. I’m thinking of Patrick’s physical awkwardness, Lou’s emerging sexual power and tendency to blush and her voyeurism and John’s abnormal height and…
MJH: I think the insistent bewilderment about being alive goes hand in hand with physical awkwardness. I think, therefore, I’ll always give my characters some kind of deformity (small or large) as a kind of motif, if nothing else, to highlight or reinforce this lack of ease. Ultimately, I want to write tragedy; good, arresting tragedy. I want to achieve a plain authenticity of tragedy, in unadorned prose, the writer made invisible, with all artifice hidden. I want, also, to deal in the ‘unconscious life of the mind’ (to borrow a phrase from Knut Hamsun.) And to this end, my characters will always have something conspicuously wrong with them; mind and body, but not so grotesquely as to become characters that a reader can’t readily identify with.
LG: I find that there can be a slight ‘disconnect’ and it’s something I’ve also written about. That life can be a little bit dreamlike, and almost doesn’t feel quite real. I felt that most strongly as a teenager when I was trying to figure out where to go and what to do, and battling certain pressures.
MJH: Yes. To be alive must necessarily give rise to all kinds of confusion and bewilderment; of being at odds with the world, of not getting it right, of not seeming to ‘fit in’. If you think at all, that is, about what it is to live and to be destined to die, there will be some level of subdued terror: not a regular terror, of course, but an unsettled sensation, a sub-surface discomfort.
LG: Destined to die… Horrible thought. How do you approach the writing of your novels? Do you plan or do you just begin and see what comes?
MJH: I have a very good idea of the overall movement of the story, but I don’t usually know all the details of the plot, the totality of the shape, or the nuances. I figure that if I’m surprised by what happens, then the reader might also be surprised. For instance, This Is How is loosely based on the true story of a young man who killed a fellow lodger, but I didn’t know when I began that he would necessarily land in prison. I knew only this: that I wanted to take an unprovoked, un-premeditated murder, ‘a gratuitous act’, and try my damndest to write it – in my own style – in the loose tradition of Camus’s The Outsider, and Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (the latter was written in direct response to The Outsider.) And I knew that I would use a boarding house at the seaside for my setting. Also, I wanted to draw on Andre Gide’s The Vatican Cellars and I wanted to explore the idea of a super intense, hyper close-up, zoomed-in study of one man’s mind. And I wanted to make moral judgement very difficult; to eliminate any neat cause and effect, and to avoid pathologising or diagnosing his condition. I wanted a good tragic drama and plenty of moral confusion. An argument (in dramatically satisfying terms, I hope) against the idea of radical freedom.
LG: You’ve partly answered my next question, which is: As killers go, Patrick Oxtoby isn’t the most proficient. He’s hardly a lean, mean killing machine. I know you’ve talked about Tony Parker’s book, Life After Life: Interviews with Twelve Murderers, and I wondered what particularly attracted you to the story of the man who kills without really meaning to? Why him rather than some bizarre serial killer, say?
MJH: I’m compelled to explore and examine the impulse to violence. I’m drawn to it. Why do I love books like Crime and Punishment? Why does anybody? Because there’s something fantastic about a vivid study of the act and its aftermath. Something ghoulish, riveting, wonderful. Like Patricia Highsmith when she got it right. Highsmith’s novel Strangers on a Train is an extraordinary story and it seems strange to me how seldom in literary fiction people deal in this territory. If you think about Ian McEwan’s early novels, The Cement Garden, for instance, there’s something brilliantly visceral, perverse and sad, compelling and true. Books written in the realm of the dark and the perverse. Catnip to me.
LG: “Catnip”… I like that. So do you think that most people are capable of extreme violence?
MJH: No, I don’t. Of course not. And I don’t mean to say that Patrick stands for the proposition that we all have this dark violence in us.
LG: From the start of the book there are markers with Patrick. There’s this tension in the prose and the reader can sense that there’s something unusual in Patrick. There’s a feeling that he could go down a very dark path. He’s not necessary your ‘everyman’…
MJH: That’s right. He couldn’t be an ‘everyman’. Otherwise the book would fail. I think that a writer’s job, first and foremost (other than having a good story to tell and to tell it intelligently), is to avoid generalisation and cliché of any kind. So, Patrick had to be peculiarly himself and not stand for anybody or anything else. He’s not an emblem, and he’s not a cipher. He’s an atypical murderer, statistically-speaking, as most murderers are known to their victims, most are predictable and, by the way, a great many murders happen in the kitchen; they tend to be domestic (or, of course, drug-land or gang-related).
LG: Lots of good weapons in the kitchen.
MJH: Yes. And quite often murders happen in the kitchen in the morning. And I’m not surprised at all by that. Domestically speaking, the morning is a good venue for disputes and kitchens are particularly awful in the morning. If, like me, you don’t much fancy the morning.
LG: I’ve heard that murders can often have some kind of sexual component or motivation, but Patrick doesn’t seem to have that.
MJH. Yes and no. What he suffers from is an escalating and cumulative sense of disorientation, a feeling of being left out, and a frustration both physical and emotional. Small gripes in his life begin to gang up on him. The gradual accretion of annoyances. Each new gripe and irritation seems to echo earlier ones, and I tried to evoke this powerfully in the book. Sexual frustration is one of the gripes which culminate in murder.
LG: Patrick seems always to be ‘the third man’.
MJH. Yes, that’s right. And things don’t seem to work in his favour because, in small degrees, he suffers from paranoia, a little contempt, a little misanthropy. And these things cumulatively bring him to a boiling point. And he doesn’t even know it’s coming when it comes.
LG: Yes, and Patrick hardly seems to recall the murder. It was so quick. Afterwards he doesn’t really know why he did it. He barely remembers being in his victim’s room.
MJH: Yes, that’s right. The book (if nothing else) says something about the quotidian, the arbitrariness, and the banality of certain murders. A man might be called a murderer even if he’s murdered only once. He might end up paying with his life for a split-second action. I wanted to look at this awful and fantastic tragic paradox of the instantaneous nature of the act and its lifelong consequences.
LG: Did you have an idea then of how Patrick would fare in prison? Or do you not go that far? Do you leave it where you leave the book?
MJH: No, I wasn’t even sure that he’d be sentenced and I wasn’t sure what would happen to him in prison. The details of Patrick’s fate came to make sense and ring true in the act of writing, the assiduous process of interrogating who he is and what, subject to the internal logic of the book, should happen next. And yes, I leave him where I leave the book. I don’t know what next happens to him.
LG: It seemed to me towards the end of the book that Patrick was comfortable in prison, or was growing to be. That the world was smaller there, more knowable.
MJH: Yes. He says that ‘life is shrinking to a size that suits me more.’
LG: That was fascinating.
MJH: When I was writing This Is How I didn’t know how or where the book would end. I discovered some wonderful things by accident. And, as I got to know Patrick’s character better (and it took three years for this to happen) I understood him sufficiently to make him plausible and credible. In the kind of internal logic I’d set up, it seemed right that he should be able to say something like ‘life is shrinking…’ And also Patrick does a better job of things in prison, the very things that caused him to disintegrate in Part One, he manages better when his freedom’s taken away. A tragic irony.
LG: Patrick also seems quite popular in prison; in a way that maybe he wasn’t in the outside world. People are interested in him. The prison guards as well.
MJH: Yes, I suppose because he’s an anomaly; he evokes curiosity. He’s middle class and seen as ‘educated’ – although he’s not especially. He’s aberrant, so people are somewhat attracted to him. But I also wanted to show prison guards (or prison wardens) as compassionate, and to avoid the usual clichés.
LG: Yeah, I really enjoyed the prison guard characterisations.
MJH: And they’re not all benign. Of course, if you take a slice of life anywhere, a cross section of any part of society, you’ll find lots of crud and you’ll also find beauty.
LG: Your protagonists, Lou Connor, John Egan and Patrick Oxtoby all seem to have quite intense – maybe even strange – relationships with their mothers. As if they feel let down by their mothers or even jealous of them. Could you talk about that? Do you agree with any of that?
MJH: I suppose yes, and in the next book I have a character who has a difficult relationship with his father. I think something happened around the time I was beginning to write, when I began to think of myself as a writer. Take, for example, a play which is amongst one of my favourites. It’s called The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds by Paul Zindel. I read this play when I was about fourteen. And, one day, I wagged school and I saw the film – which is based on the play – and the effect of this film was so strong it seemed to rewire my brain, to rearrange me profoundly. The Glass Menagerie did that. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman did that. Crime and Punishment did that. All of Gogol’s short stories did that. Kafka did that. Sophocles did that. I read them all very quickly and, collectively, they re-formed me. I knew then that I would be a writer. Terrible, gut-wrenching, intense and vivid drama (particularly within the goings-wrong of family life) seemed destined to be the foundation of the stuff I wrote. Then I read Aristotle’s The Poetics and a great many books about the workings of tragedy. It sounds like an obvious thing to say, but good fiction must contain conflict. There must be tension and small (or large) disasters between people. Fear and Pity. Magnitude and Astonishment. Where does that first happen? Where are the earliest and arguably most powerful moments of fear and pity, magnitude and astonishment? Well, of course, between the child and his parent.
LG: I’ll say. Would you like to talk a bit about your new book then, since you mentioned a strained relationship with a father?
MJH: I have ideas for the next three books. The next one involves a kidnap and murder. I want to continue to try my damndest to produce intelligent fiction which tells a good story and I’m continually fascinated by human perversity and so the next one is all about…I shouldn’t say, it’s too early.
LG: You don’t want to kill it by talking about it too much.
MJH: I’ve figured out, like most writers do – sooner or later – that you should write, not talk.
LG: Yeah, I find if you discuss a work-in-progress too soon you can talk all the magic out of it.
MJH: But I will say this: This next one is a good idea and, in the right hands, it could be a very good book, so someone might steal it from me and make a better job of it. If McEwan got hold of it, or Carey… (Laughs)
LG: As an established author, what advice would you give to a new writer like me?
MJH: To find out whether you have any serious talent, you need to write, and you need to write for a long time, and spend a great deal of time re-writing. And there’s the rub; the frustration. Early drafts will almost always be awful. You need to know when your prose stinks, and have the guts and patience to do the work to fix it. You need to persist through the awful stage. Spend some considerable time learning to do it well, and it will take considerable time. It always astonishes me how little this is understood. A sane person would never say ‘I think I might like to be a concert violinist,’ and be surprised to be told that – even with enormous talent and natural flair – they might need to practise for five or six hours every day. The same is true of writing.
LG: So should a writer do their million word apprenticeship, as some people say?
MJH: I don’t know about that, but you probably need to write for a few hours every day. You need to make it a serious physical habit. And I would also recommend that a young writer switch off the phone, chuck out the TV, cancel Sunday picnics and Tuesday night quizzes; make it his mission to find out if you can write. And you must leave the tap turned on. Turn it on, and leave it on. Or get in the cave and stay in there. Get yourself a better metaphor and use it. A writer must spend a great deal of time writing. It’s not negotiable. It will take time. Unless, of course, you’re a member of that extraordinarily rare club of writers who can produce very good first drafts very easily.
MJH: And there’s a lot of mythology around that idea of the super gifted writer who doesn’t need to work very hard. I’ve never met such a writer.
LG: Any other tips?
MJH: When I was writing my first novel, I read only first-rate fiction and I read it with a pen in my hand and transcribed long passages to understand the rhythms and internal workings. Great writing often uses fantastic rhythm, so it survives off the page. But I have a long list of tips, and we don’t have time for them all now, and I’m not sure how interesting it really is.
LG: What about navigating the book industry, which just seems so horribly difficult to do? Any advice?
MJH: For the young writer, patience. That’s a daft piece of advice. How can you tell someone to be patient when they’re starving for recognition and attention? But I do strongly urge the young writer not to be in a hurry to publish for the sake of being published. Perhaps I’d say, don’t blog your work or spread your work all over the inkie-web. Don’t get into that unhelpful self congratulatory situation where people pat your bloggy back and tell you how delightful you are. Be prepared for the job of a writer to be a serious long slog and have something else to do. Have an alternative source of income.
LG: Did you have an alternative source of income when you were learning to write?
MJH: I was a lawyer. A half-hearted and incompetent one, but a lawyer nevertheless, and it paid the bills and saw me through the apprenticeship.
LG: I think it can be dangerous for a writer to invest too much of their self-esteem in publication. There are so many rejections along the way. I think you have to be something of a dauntless spirit and quickly develop a thick skin.
MJH: And therefore writing has to represent something that you can’t live without. While you’re getting good at writing, and you’re sharpening your knives, it’s vital to be patient. Don’t do it unless you have to, unless you love it.
LG: Can you imagine a time when you’ll not write?
MJH: I’ll be dead.
LG: Here’s the last question. Could you please recommend three of your favourite books?
MJH: Sure. I’ll recommend three books; three excellent books that I’ve read recently; not necessarily my favourite books.
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark. A stunning, tight, wonderfully constructed piece of fiction. Spark does something rare. Her manipulation of the reader’s attention is wonderful, as is her ability to construct a story, and her tricks are mostly invisible; they seem inevitable and necessary parts of an overarching truthfulness.
Oh, and one more?
LG: Many thanks, Maria.
For more details about M J Hyland and her novels, check out her excellent website here.
Lisa has pre-programmed this post as she is currently sunning herself in Malta.
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