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.
My interview with Maria Hyland was originally published 10/16/2006 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.