Thursday, September 15, 2011

Making the brave leap to fiction

ERIC FORBES talks to former lawyer M.J. HYLAND who has made a courageous and successful leap to fiction with three critically acclaimed novels, one of which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006

Photographs © 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. She considers herself a mediocre lawyer at best and 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, she reiterates that she loved studying the law and believes that if she had stayed in the profession, she would have taken the road to academia. “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.” Her first novel, How the Light Gets In, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and her second, Carry Me Down, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006 and won both the Encore and Hawthornden Prizes.

Hyland knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life when she had her first short story published during her 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,” she says. But she did not 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.”

Her latest novel, This Is How, is an unsettling psychological exploration of an outsider at odds with the world and an intense meditation on the nature of guilt and redemption. It has a murderer as the protagonist-narrator of 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.” She read the interview—upon which the novel is loosely based—in 2004, and she made a note in her notebook: Must write next novel about a gratuitous criminal act, and must set the story in a seaside boarding house (though there’s no seaside boarding house in the original story). And then, in late 2005, she began writing in earnest. “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 Hyland three years of slogging it out to get the mild-mannered psychopath Patrick Oxtoby’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.”

One of her abiding preoccupations at the time of writing the story 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.”

Hyland was also keen to see how much emotional effect she could create with her seemingly unaffected economical 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.” She also wanted to explore moral confusion and 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, she says incisively. “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, she also explores 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 her to the idea of setting the 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. I ask Hyland what her thoughts are on this: “I think—if you’ve read the novel—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.”

Hyland, who lives in Manchester, teaches a class in creative writing at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. In what way does teaching influence her work as a writer, I was curious to know. “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 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.”

There is much depth and richness in Hyland’s writing despite her unaffected prose style, and in This Is How, she has succeeded in creating a character, though unlikeable in many ways, you still find yourself rooting for. She is one of those writers who keep getting better with every new work they put out. And we look forward to her next one with bated breath!

Reproduced from MPH’s 105th Anniversary issue of Quill magazine


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