Even though her first short story was published when she was seventeen Maria Hyland didn't follow the writing bug until after she went through the trouble of becoming a lawyer. Recently recognized on the Man Booker Prize for Fiction shortlist (Carry Me Down), this London born, Australian educated author of two novels, lives a rather simple life. When I asked her about an official website she explained she didn't even own a car! She currently resides in Rome on a scholarship with plans to return to Manchester in February 2007. Gee, I wish my life was that simple. Please enjoy getting to know M. J. Hyland.
Moe: Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer? Did you choose it or did the profession choose you?
Maria Hyland: I knew I would write from an early age. My first short-story was published in my final year of high-school and my first job was in journalism. I was a poor journalist. The facts made me sleepy. I preferred a world more like Kafka's or Gogol's; the only kind of headline I wanted to read, or write, was, 'Man wakes to discover he is a cockroach' or 'Man finds his own nose in a hot, bread roll.'
Moe: What inspires you?
Maria Hyland: Many things inspire me, especially great films. Most recently I was inspired by the film, Darling, directed by John Schlesinger, starring two of the finest actors of all time: Dirk Bogarde and Julie Christie. Great films inspire me to write vividly and they remind me of the importance of character-specific detail.
Moe: Every writer has a method that works for them. Most of them vary like the wind while some seem to follow a pattern similar to other writers. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Maria Hyland: My writing routine is strict and rarely changes. I write for six hours a day, six days a week and, after I've written, I read, eat and, at night, I often watch a film. Before I sleep, I read and write some more. If my writing is going well, the novel and its characters are the first thing on my mind when I wake. I am boring.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Maria Hyland: I begin my novels with an idea and a character. Once I have an idea and the coat-hanger on which to hang the character's coat, I concoct a few organizing themes or fictional pre-occupations; motifs, recurring images and an underlying mood; a few vital things that will inform the fictional dream and the novel's atmosphere. It took me three years each to write How the Light Gets In and Carry Me Down. I don't go out much.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Maria Hyland: I don't plan heavily. I don't map the book. I certainly don't know how a book will end. I don't want to know too much in advance. I want to be surprised, allow for the maximum number of sudden but logical shifts, and, in this important way, I hope the reader will be as surprised as I am. I am afraid of writing a predictable book.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Maria Hyland: I don't research until the end. I write the book first. I make it all up first; tell the fictional story I want to tell. I don't want the invention of a story to be encumbered by facts. I concoct a fictional world first and, much later, check-in with the boring world of facts. For Carry Me Down I called upon the help of my aunt Pauline in Dublin (for the Ballymun setting) and my cousin Anne McCarry in Wexford (for the Gorey setting). But this fact-checking and concern with historical and geographical accuracy didn't occur until very late in the process; in the final six months.
Moe: Writers often go on about writer's block. Do you ever suffer from it and what measures do you take to get past it?
Maria Hyland: I have never suffered from writer's block. I don't know what it is. I sometimes procrastinate, but within a few days of not writing, I feel murderous and sick.
Moe: When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope they gain, feel or experience?
Maria Hyland: I hope, above all else, that when somebody reads one of my books, that they might think I have told a good story well.
Moe: Can you share three things you've learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Maria Hyland: Three things I have learned? ONE: Never write with an audience in mind: thinking about an audience is likely to make your writing self-conscious and stiff. TWO: Never write in a hurry to get published. THREE: Never read bad fiction; it's more contagious than the common cold.
Moe: How do you handle fan mail? What kinds of things do fans write to you about?
Maria Hyland: I rarely receive fan mail but I like it when I do and always send a hand-written note in reply.
Moe: What's your latest book about? Where did you get the idea and how did you let the idea evolve?
Maria Hyland: Carry Me Down, my latest book, is about lies and lie detection; it's also about fascism of thought, madness, the desire for fame at any cost and, if I say any more, I'll give the ending away.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Maria Hyland: I like reading great books: serious, strange, dark, bent, mad, vivid and atmospheric books. I often like books about madness. I like books with a strong and unforgettable atmosphere. I could read Kafka every day and not read another author and I'd probably be quite content. Just me and the cockroach and a cup of milky tea.
Moe: When you're not writing what do you do for fun?
Maria Hyland: When I'm not writing, I read, watch films, eat and listen to music. I also smoke, drink, walk and talk. I fantasize about meeting dead musicians.
Moe: New writers are always trying to gleam advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Maria Hyland: Suggestions for new writers? Don't write with an audience in mind. Don't be in a hurry to get published. Don't read bad fiction.
Moe: If you weren't a writer what would you be?
Maria Hyland: If I wasn't a writer I'd be a dead musician or a French film-maker.
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Maria Hyland: My favourite word is MERDE. Spoken in either French or Italian. In both cases, there's a wonderful internal rhyme with the word, WORD.
Carry Me Down is Available from Amazon.com.
Carry Me Down is Available from Amazon.ca.
M. E. Wood lives in Eastern Ontario, Canada. If you are going to find this eclectic reader and writer anywhere it is probably at her computer. For more information visit her official website.