Born in London in 1968, M.J. Hyland’s childhood was spent between Ireland and Australia. Having studied law and English at the University of Melbourne, she later worked as a lawyer and also edited a literary magazine, Nocturnal Submissions.
Her short stories have been published in Australia, the USA and Ireland. She has published two novels: How the Light Gets In (2004) and Carry Me Down (2006), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She currently lives in Manchester where she is working on a third novel.
You spoke in the National Library of how when you were very young you’d written more stories than you’d read. Perhaps you’d tell me about when you started writing?
I started very young—seven, eight, nine. When I read a story, I had a strange impulse, I’m not sure where it came from, to try to tell the story again in my own words. I grew up in a house without books and maybe because of that scarcity I became ravenous for more stories, for more words. Books were certainly a rare thing in my life then.
I have a distinct memory of, when I was about nine, and I was still living in Dublin, I had some talking books, on tape, some fairytales. I listened to them before I went to sleep at night. I remember this so vividly, this extraordinarily powerful thing that seemed to happen to my brain. It was like a rewiring, the impact was so… dramatic. I can’t… it’s pretty fucking hopeless for a writer not to be able to pin it down or to even come close to nailing it, this memory, but those talking books made it seem as though my brain was somehow enlarged. I really mean that; it was as though my brain was made bigger, by hearing those stories.
When did you first think of writing as a possible career?
By fifteen, sixteen. I was certain, I’ve never not been certain. It felt as though I was a machine designed or built to write, even if not spectacularly well. And now, that’s what I have to do, must do, want to do, and I’ve always known it. I tried other things, journalism, acting, law. For a long time I was very lazy. I had to acquire the discipline that’s required to be a serious writer. I certainly wasn’t serious in my twenties. But my first short story was published when I was seventeen and I knew then that I would write… eventually. I also had fantasies about acting and music, I wanted to be a musician, and then, instead, I studied law, I became a lawyer. Ultimately, working as a lawyer was something I did to pay the bills, but I’m glad I studied law. The time I spent studying law was good for my brain and ultimately good for my writing.
Then just to talk about the first book, How The Light Gets In, and how you got into writing that. Where did the character Lou come from?
It’s a complicated process, but, in short, I’ve had an obscene amount of luck. A publisher approached me. A publisher at Penguin Australia had read a short story I published in New York Stories , a magazine in New York. She really liked the story and she said, if you ever write a novel, please let me know. I was writing a long short story at the time, the main character was Mike, and Mike was in a prison for wayward exchange students. It became a very long story and then I thought to try to turn this into a novel—and that’s what happened. But Mike became Lou and I had this publisher in the wings, so I was extraordinarily lucky. I didn’t have to go through the experience so many writers have to go through, wondering if and where I might get published, and it certainly helped me get rid of that thing that can make a writer very self-conscious, the constant thinking about the desire to be published, the desire for attention. The moment I stopped worrying about being published, thinking about being published, was the day I became a serious writer.
What I mean is that even before the publisher came along, I had quit worrying about getting any kind of attention. And I had stopped sending things off to every magazine in the land, hoping for attention, hoping for recognition. I became more serious. The moment I stopped acting less like a writer, was the day, paradoxically, that I became more of a writer.
Young writers do feel a great pressure to get their work published and to seek recognition.
But this eagerness for attention can really interfere with the job; there’s too much serious work involved. This desire for recognition, for praise, handing your stories out to everybody and sundry. I stopped doing that. I stopped calling my friends for long and tedious conversations, telling them what I was working on, asking: will you read a draft for me? I stopped all that, and when I quit all that I became more serious. I became less like the hare and more like the tortoise. I was in for the long haul.
Did you produce the first draft and then give it to this publisher?
I finished the first draft, the publisher at Penguin saw it, she commented and made some good suggestions that were very helpful, and then I went back to the drawing board. But there were long, long stretches of time without any contact or communication with her and even though she was there in the wings there was certainly never any guarantee that this book would work, or be published. But she was there, and that helped.
At what stage did Canongate get involved with it?
Penguin Australia made an offer and I was a little bit smarter and wiser than many writers of the same age and in similar circumstances. I had spoken to a few writers, very successful and established writers, who said that I should think very carefully about giving one publisher world rights. So I got an agent in New York and he sold the book to Canongate, who are now my principal publisher.
And getting the New York agent, did that come from having the contract in Australia?
No, it had absolutely nothing to do with it. In fact, the agent… I don’t think he could have cared less about the Penguin Australia contract. I got in contact with him through a few writers I knew who had agents in New York and, more luck—I think I use the word luck too freely—I knew Peter Carey, as an acquaintance because I had earlier interviewed him for my magazine and he liked the interview. We had a good, decent conversation about books and writing, and then we stayed in contact. So when I had written a reasonable version of the first book I sent it to him and he liked it well enough to offer to help me. Similarly, another friend of mine, Elliot Perlman, a very good writer, made the same offer and both writers, I think, helped me in this way because they understood that I really meant business (laughs). So, em, yeah!
With the character of Lou, there’s the question of how much of Lou is you?
No, Lou’s not me. I wish I was as interesting, that I could remember my teenage years well enough to write an interesting and compelling account of them. Certainly the preoccupations and obsessions and concerns are autobiographical, how could they not be? The themes, such as the belief that rich is necessarily better than poor, the crude notion that being educated is better than being uneducated, the desire to pursue the American Dream, my attempted satire of the American Dream, the voyeurism, this business of somebody who on the one hand is very intelligent, but also completely stupid, human perversity… all these things are concerns of mine. I am also fascinated by transformation, I love stories which concern people transforming their lives or making an attempt to transform their lives. All of these matters occupy my mind.
But there is nothing in the book, not a single fact based on truth, not a single one. Nothing about where, how, who, the characters, the host family, absolutely nothing. And there’s no such thing as a prison for wayward exchange students.
I mean Lou and I have absolutely nothing in common in terms of character. The situation—that she’s very poor and wants to escape—yes, I was really poor and I wanted to escape, but the family I describe and give her in the book is fairytale compared to my own. I understand totally why this conflation is always made, but no, she’s not me. One of the things I did to help create her character was to decide, about halfway through writing the book, that she was somebody who, if she met me, would hate me. That’s one of the tricks I used. I’m pretty certain she wouldn’t be able to stomach me.
What would she dislike about you?
In physical terms, she would think I was horrendous to look at, too much make-up, etc. She would find me too confident. She suffers terribly from shyness, a kind of skinlessness. I don’t have any of these particular problems—(laughs) far from it— although I have plenty of others.
You know it’s kind of sad in a way because there are people who really love Lou Connor and who don’t love or even like me. Certainly Jamie Byng, my publisher, who’s changed my life utterly, whose steadfastness makes it possible for me to write full-time, he loves her so much—he met me and I could see he was disappointed that I wasn’t Lou. I get that reaction, people hoping I’ll be like Lou. I would like to be more like her and less like me… I’m bombastic and she’s intensely sensitive.
You went on to write Carry Me Down. I know it didn’t start out that way but it ended up being another young person telling the story. And first person, present tense.
In the first six months, for about thirty-three thousand words, John Egan was forty. In the very first chapter he was thirty -nine, on the eve of his fortieth birthday. He was on an airplane travelling from Dublin to London. He was already a world famous human lie-detector, married to a woman only because she doesn’t lie; he doesn’t love her. He has a terrible fear of flying.
So this is how the novel began and then I wrote a flashback scene in which John Egan remembered the first time he’d detected lying. And somehow this business of his father and the kittens emerged, and I understood as I was writing that suddenly the writing went up half a dozen notches, in temperature and pace. Suddenly, it had a pulse, and before it had been quite bloodless. I didn’t understand, and sometimes the writer doesn’t understand, these ineffable things that separate good fiction from terrible fiction. Anyway, the book started to work. There are many possible reasons for this: suddenly, I had a character in the confines of one room with a family; the claustrophobia, the intensity of that, the strange triangle of mother, father, child. Somehow this dramatic scenario suits me, it suits my shtick. I think that with my novels there’s a narrow range, most of what takes place takes place in the confines of one room, four walls, it might just as well be a play. It’s almost all dialogue driven, with set pieces, characters rubbing up against each other in an intense way.
Certainly I know from my experience reading submissions, that many people try to write from a child’s perspective and get it horribly, horribly wrong.
Well, I didn’t think of John as a child. It’s impossible for me to explain this, but I absolutely mean it: John Egan is who he is and I didn’t think of him as a child while I created his character. His impulses, desires, obsessions, his fundamentalism, the way he responds to situations. I didn’t draw on an idea of childhood, nor my childhood, or anyone else’s childhood. I can’t remember much of my own. He’s a child and he suffers from some of the things that perhaps only a child could suffer from, but I also wrote scenes in which he was a young adult at university, I wrote a scene in which he goes back to his mother in his twenties, another scene which took place in his forties, during which time his relationship with his mother has completely turned to shit and there’s an exchange between them and he was still John Egan as we know him in the final version, and once written—these early scenes, early drafts—well, I simply transposed these scenes: used them with John as an eleven year old instead of a young man. What he says, the way he does things… it seems to me that age, and gender, are quite redundant concepts where—and in the important ways in which—fictional drama really takes place. But fiction is so strange, once a readers knows a character’s age he thinks of the character in terms of that age and gender; these things have a really powerful and unavoidable influence. So while I do my utmost to avoid generalisations—age, gender, nationality—when I create fiction, these matters come up constantly in discussions about my books.
In both novels, the chief characters are discovering the world, and you show them being disappointed and almost disgusted with what they’re finding out.
Well, I’m trying to set out in dramatic terms their discovery of what it is to be human, to be alive. And now, in my third book, I am dealing in the same territory. My main character is a young man, a mechanic, his name is Patrick Oxtoby, and he lives in a boarding house by the sea. Perhaps I’m insanely immature and I’ll never be cured of this, but Patrick is like Lou and he’s also like John: ill at ease in the world and he’s discovering what it is to be human in skin that doesn’t fit particularly well. Maybe I haven’t grown up, I haven’t stopped going through whatever it is that we think we only go through only when we’re young. For me, it’s perpetual, this getting used to be alive, the mere fact of being alive sometimes stops me dead in my tracks. The questions I asked when I was five, when I was fifteen are probably the same questions I ask now. My encounters, my confrontations with people, my feelings of dissatisfaction…. I always want more, more of life, more of myself, more of people. Maybe I’m psychotically childish, but these things don’t really change. I think we’re too preoccupied with age, really too hung up on age. And gender, and nationality. These arbitrary things, the most arbitrary things somehow have become the most important. Where we’re born, our gender, our age, I mean, really, it’s extraordinary to me, when being human, the shock of that alone, that’s material for a thousand books.
Both Lou and John want to be good. But they continue to fail, to fall short.
I’m really interested in this, this gap between thought and action. Our bodies run our lives, or is it the other way round? Are we slaves to our bodies? At the mercy of our bodies? If so, to what extent? The gap between who we think we are, what we’d like to say, how we’d like to behave, and then how we in fact behave, who we in fact are. This gap, this dissonance is fascinating. I want to nail this in a book. I want to create a character that shows this problem in interesting and dramatic ways. I think we all suffer from this quotidian consequences dissonance, we all—to varying degrees—have experienced this gap between our thoughts, desires, and our actions, deeds.
In Carry Me Down, the new schoolteacher Mr Roche talks to John’s class about the saving power of the imagination. Would you say that imagination is what saved you?
Yes, and many other things. Imagination is critical. How it works in my case or how I use it in my work is impossible to say. But it certainly works, and I use it for several hours every day. Imagination is my life, I suppose. I ran to fantasy a lot when I was young. I spent a lot of time daydreaming, fantasising, imagining. I remember the first time, for example, the first time I read a novel by John Banville, it was Mefisto, I think. I was in my twenties, and this was before I had acquired any kind of discipline, but I was still certain—how arrogant was I to think so?—but I was certain that I would become a writer, certain that I would become a very good writer. Now I am not so confident. But when I was in my twenties, every time I picked up a book, I looked to see how old the author was and I saw Banville’s birth date and I saw it was possible he could be my father, absolutely the right age, and then I spent perhaps a week, maybe even longer than that, daydreaming about this possibility. In my twenties, so as you can see, I’m really quite a basket case.
But when I was younger, even more so, the real world and its real conditions… well, I made them somehow irrelevant, or less relevant, or less material then they might otherwise have been. Does that make sense? I escaped. Fantasist, escapist, these words are too strong, such clichés, and I don’t want to use them, but I suppose it runs to that kind of thing. But also, whenever I saw anything that appealed to my imagination, things that bore no resemblance to the real life that I lived-like when I went to someone’s house and I listened to classical music, these things from a different way of living sort of hit something, struck something in a part of my brain I didn’t even know existed. It was like a whack across the back of the head. I don’t know. That’s imagination, to be rut free somehow. To get off the road you’re on.
The novels end with flights of the imagination for both Lou and John.
Yes that’s odd, isn’t it. I’m utterly dissatisfied with both endings.
I’ve heard you say that, but what do you mean?
In Carry Me Down I like the final paragraphs enough, in and of themselves they’re ok, but I think I rushed towards the end. How The Light Gets In is the same. But also, this is a tragedy for me, I’m not the only one I’m sure, when I read from these books now—at festivals, etc—I feel a little embarrassed. I could drastically rewrite them both. I could make Carry Me Down a much better book, and I even know how I could do it now.
What kind of things would you do to it?
Sentence by sentence, I would clean it up, sharpen it; I’d be a little bit smarter about the imagery, I’m make the whole book more vivid. There are some dull, dull patches and the pacing needs some work. Also I’m getting fed up with my own shtick. My third book now, when I read from it last night, I thought: it really needs something else, it needs to go up a few degrees, up a few notches. And then when I heard Ian McEwan read last night—he’s one of my favourite writers and we were sharing the same stage—I knew what my failings were even more starkly. There’s something else I need, much more work needs to be done, just more work. More work. More work.
With the endings as they are, are you inviting the reader to believe that things could work out ok? Just so long as Lou and John continue to think.
Yeah, yeah. As long as they can think, then they can think their way in, or out, or through just about anything.
But the facts are stacked against them in a way.
I don’t think about either ending as particularly pessimistic. I think Lou will be fine. Certainly her crude ideas about rich being better than poor, etc, the American Dream, that’s all gone by the end of the book, she knows herself a bit more, and yet she wants to follow somebody home… John has a few decisions to make. Is he going to live a dual life? That’s what the stationmaster at the end is all about, amongst other things: the idea of more than one self being possible, more than one personality, occupying two universes in the space of one life, which we’d all love, right?
Can you tell me a little about your writing process?
First draft longhand. Usually six hours a day, six days a week. The morning doesn’t exist. I get up really late. I spend about two or three hours reading, answering emails, eating. I watch a lot of film and as much good TV drama as I can get my hands on. The Sopranos, The Wire, etc. And then I start writing about one o’clock and write through till six, seven, then eat some more, read, talk, watch more films, listen to music.
And is it a case of just getting something out and then a lot of rewriting?
It depends. It’s different everyday. Some days I’m fixing something I did the day before, sometimes it’s completely fresh.
How much planning goes into it? Do you plan out a structure?
No, no I never plan, I never structure. And I don’t know what’s going to happen next and I don’t want to know. The third book, for example, I had an idea, it started with an idea. That’s two books in a row, very idea driven in the beginning. At the beginning of the third book, I had an idea, a question: what would happen if somebody very good did something terrible, heinous, outrageously amoral, for no good reason? I wanted to have a good man commit an unmotivated crime, that was the idea. I thought, great idea, great idea. It has been written before, of course it has. There’s no such thing as a great original plot idea, but I thought it was something I could really work with.
I needed a setting, so I decided on one. What appeals to my imagination? I was going through a phase of watching loads of Schlesinger films and I’d recently watched Darling and I’d watched Polanski’s The Tenant, and I felt quite attached to this era, and then I thought of a boarding house, I love boarding houses. And I thought of the seaside, so I put my character in a boarding house at the seaside and started writing. And I wrote a scene at a time, one scene followed by another, not knowing what would happen next or how it might happen. Some days, just one sentence. Just fixing something, something I want to nail. But there’s no plan and the story and its characters change constantly. At the moment I’m doing lots of cutting. I’m on the computer now because the longhand was done a year ago. Every time I open the document, lately, all I seem to do is get rid of the bad bits and cut everything that I think smells like shit. So one hundred and twenty thousand words become sixty-five or seventy thousand, and on it goes.
So what’s the timeframe for getting the third book finished?
Well I’m beginning to think this third book is not very good and needs a lot more work, so maybe six more months of writing, then another six months of editing. So it’ll be a year, at least a year before it’s published—if it’s published. It might not be good enough. I’m not going to publish it unless I’m happy.
You talked about how supportive Canongate have been. Will the book go to them first?
It’ll go to my agent. It’ll go to my agent.
Ok. And has there been any talk of making films of the first two books?
Yeah, yeah lots of talk. But I’m sorry to say so, but I can’t see how a film can be made out of either of these books. How The Light Gets In is optioned by Pawel Pawlikowski who is a fantastic director. He’s won three BAFTAs, maybe four, he made an extraordinary film called Last Resort, and he made a film called My Summer of Love. He really wants to make How The Light Gets In into a film. But the book’s solipsism runs so deep, and it works, if it works at all, by accretion of detail, and atmosphere. There’s just not enough structurally, not enough happening. The dialogue is sometimes funny and strange but there’s not enough of it. Pawel would need to produce a great deal of original material.
Carry Me Down is very close to being optioned too, there’s been a lot of interest, but I think a director would need to depart drastically from the text, provide something utterly different in both cases.
Talk a bit about the reading that you do.
Good grief! That’s a long conversation. I can tell you who I’m reading at the moment. Do you know David Storey? He won the Booker for Seville. He’s seventy-something now, I think, and one of the best writers ever, wholly underrated. I’m just reading This Sporting Life, which was made into a great film. It’s first person, past tense, exquisite—very good example of how first person can work really well. A great novel about a rugby player whose life falls apart. Storey’s fantastic, there’s a lot to learn from him.
You talked the other night about reading The Dark for example, and the impact that had. And I noticed in both books, there are characters with the name McGahern.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah of course. I was hoping nobody would notice. I don’t know what my caper is there…but there’s a character in my third book called Davies after Ray Davies from The Kinks. I’ve a serious kind of affection and attachment to The Kinks just at the moment. A couple of their songs, I want them to inform this third book. But yeah, back to McGahern, there’ll probably always be a character called McGahern. I cried when I learnt that he was dead.
And then doing this type of thing, reading at a festival or the public interview in the National Library earlier this week, how do you find doing this sort of thing?
Good, yeah good, I really like festivals. I love talking to people about books and hearing what people say about how they read and what they read, why they read. I feel like a muso hanging out with other musos. Musicians get to play on stage and to watch the faces of the people they play for, and get an immediate response. Writers don’t get that. It’s often awfully lonely, like doing solitary confinement.
Did The Booker nomination for Carry Me Down have a huge impact on you?
Yeah. Um. Yeah.
Did you not enjoy the experience?
No. Well, I was very pleased and honoured, I still am. But I need to find a way to continue to write while that kind of busy-ness attacks. The whole thing from beginning to end was stretched over three months and I didn’t write so well during that time. I worked hard and I spent the usual amount of time writing but it made my writing—just briefly, I hope I’ve recovered from it now—a little bit more self- conscious. I put more pressure on myself. I think I’ve got through that. For the time it wasn’t good—for the work. The other catch is this: now that I’ve been on the shortlist, I’ll regard myself as a failure for ever after if I don’t get on it again.