THE WRITING LIFE ... M.J. HYLAND
MAKING THE BRAVE LEAP TO FICTION
ERIC FORBES talks to former lawyer M.J. HYLAND who has made a courageous leap to fiction with three critically acclaimed novels, one of which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
Photographs by Rory Carnegie
M.J. HYLAND was born in London to Irish parents in 1968 and spent her early childhood in Dublin. She studied English and Law at the University of Melbourne, and practised as a commercial lawyer for seven years before taking the leap to fiction.
Her first novel, How the Light Gets In (2004), was shortlisted for the 2004 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Best First Book, Eurasia Region), the 2004 Age Book of the Year Award, took third place in the 2005 Barnes & Noble Discover Award, and was joint winner of the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Award.
Carry Me Down (2006), her second novel, was winner of both the Encore Award and the Hawthornden Prize in 2007. It was also shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Best Book, Eurasia Region).
Hyland lives in Manchester, where she teaches a class in creative writing at the Centre for New Writing at The University of Manchester. Her latest novel, This Is How (2009), is a psychological exploration of an outsider at odds with the world, described by The Times Literary Supplement as “a devastating portrait of a mild-mannered psychopath.” The New York Times called it an “an unflinching, absorbing, morally complex portrait of one life gone suddenly and terribly awry.”
Hyland wrote from her home in Manchester:
You were a commercial lawyer for seven years before making the brave leap to fiction. Tell me something about your legal career and why you left it.
That’s right, but I was a mediocre lawyer at best, and I took a half-hearted approach [to the profession]. I knew I wanted to write stories and my consciousness was torn, split, divided. When I was in the office, writing letters of advice, or letters of demand, or preparing witness statements for court hearings, I wanted only to rush home to finish reading Kafka or Flannery O’Connor. However, I loved studying the law and if I’d stayed in the profession, I’d have taken the academic road. I taught law briefly—criminal law—and, of the seven years I spent in the law, this was the most enjoyable time. I liked teaching law very much. But I quit not long after my first novel, How the Light Gets In, was published.
When did you know you were going to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I had my first short story published during my final year in high school—one of my teachers typed it up and sent it off to a magazine—and I knew then that I would be a writer. But I didn’t have any sane or rational grounds for knowing this. I had very little discipline and my character wasn’t compatible with the job. A writer, especially a novelist, needs extraordinary patience, a supreme doggedness and, of course, the writer must stick to a single idea for a long time, and hold his nerve. He must sit in one place and assiduously move words around on the page, and he must do this hermetically. When I was in my late teens, and through all of my twenties, I was far too distracted, too drunk, too stupid, too jumpy, too impatient, and worse, I had no stamina for the craft.
You teach creative writing at the University of Manchester. In what way does teaching influence your work as a writer?
I’m not sure that teaching influences my writing in any direct way, but I’m sure it doesn’t do it any harm. While this isn’t true for many writers, I like the way talented students remind me why I bother; the way their unabashed passion, their excitement, reminds me that this is a pretty blessed way to spend a life. To read, to love the art of conjuring vivid fictional worlds, and to write stories, and get paid to do it.
Can you tell me a bit about your latest novel, This Is How? What was the seed of the novel? How did you go about creating a protagonist-narrator like the murderer Patrick Oxtoby? Did it evolve into a work different from what you imagined it to be? If so, how? What are some of the themes you dealt with in it? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the story?
The idea for This Is How comes from Tony Parker’s wonderful book of interviews, Life After Life: Twelve Interviews with Twelve Murderers. I read the interview—upon which the novel is loosely based—in 2004, and I made a note in my notebook: Must write next novel about a gratuitous criminal act, and must set the story in a seaside boarding house (however, there’s no seaside boarding house in the original story). And then, in late 2005, I began writing. I wanted to write something in the territory of Albert Camus’s The Outsider and Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, and, of course, André Gide’s The Vatican Cellars.
It took me three years of slogging it out to get Patrick’s voice in tune, and for a long time the book didn’t work at all. It had no traction, no pulse, the images were too dilute and fancy; there were too many characters, too many redundancies and it was full of falsehood (both in terms of character motivation and movement). For several years, Patrick wasn’t credible.
As for the themes, there are too many to set out here, but one of my abiding preoccupations at the time of writing, was to argue with (and perhaps against) Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of radical freedom, and to explore Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s response to Sartre. Of course, none of this thinking is apparent on the surface of the story. It shouldn’t be.
I was also keen to see how much emotional effect I could create with seemingly unaffected prose. The impulse here was to create a fictional world stripped of artifice; a plain authenticity of tragedy; an apparently artless and ‘true’ first-person account, and I wanted to make the author invisible. I wanted, also, to explore moral confusion and I wanted to resist diagnosis or pathology. I wanted to skate on the very thin ice of an unsympathetic narrator and yet find a way to make it difficult for the reader to judge Patrick, to round him off, to make a sensible neatness of his world. I wanted a moral mess. Like life. I wanted to make both condemnation and pity difficult.
I also wanted to evoke an idea—in vivid and dramatic terms—of platonic love between men, and the nature of our neglect of freedom, and loneliness and ... well, the list of themes is too long [to go into].
In This Is How, you explore the relationships between prisoners in a claustrophobic environment, and the fact that many convicts are much happier within the cloisters of the prison walls than without. What attracted you to the idea of setting your story in this enclosed world?
If it can’t happen in a cave, then I’m not interested. I’ll always put my characters in close proximity, and the prison cell is a fantastically claustrophobic and appealing set for drama.
The death penalty has been a subject of much debate and controversy over the years. What are your thoughts on the death penalty?
I think—if you’ve read the novels—you’ll know that I’m not only against the very idea of the death penalty, but I want to show, in dramatic terms, how easy it might be for somebody to be falsely accused, and how it pays to see the shades of grey; to stretch to compassion. Have you seen Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line? It’s a wonderful documentary, a case study, a case in point. And I’m very pleased that organisations like Reprieve do what they do. If I had more guts, if I was a little less selfish, I’d take a year or so out of writing and go to the US and work for Reprieve. Small, guilty donations and my feeble attempts in fiction to make my point against the absurd absolutism and futility of the death penalty don’t seem enough.
I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their early or formative years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary heroes, so to speak? Have they, in any way, contributed to the making of who you are as a writer today?
There’s a play, which I first read when I was about 16 (it’s still amongst my favourites) and it’s called The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds by Paul Zindel. I saw the film by chance not long after I’d read the play—the film based on the play—and the effect of this film was so strong it seemed to rewire my brain, to rearrange me. Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie had a similar effect, as did Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Gogol’s short stories and Kafka, and much later, Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever.
The most difficult part of my job now is to face knowing that I’ll never come close to writing as well as the writers who caused me to want to do it in the first place.