Finishing M.J. Hyland’s second novel, Carry Me Down, left me in a curious state. On the one hand I had that satisfied feeling one gets reaching a final full stop, like smacking one’s lips together at the finish of a particularly good meal. On the other, though, my eyebrows knitted together with questions regarding this deceptively simple tale of an eventful year in the life of a young Irish boy. And so, fingers reached almost immediately for the first page, to start again.
It may seem like a banality, but in this day and age of limited attention spans and competing artistic formats, it’s worth remembering the Czech novelist Milan Kundera’s comment, from an interview in The Paris Review (Dialogue on the Novel): “The novel’s sole raison d’être is to say what only the novel can say”. Carry me down, is a good case in point. The events that the novel portrays could, with relative ease, be translated into either a stage play (the action takes place in a very limited amount of locations) or film, but, like conversation on a crackling telephone line, part of the story would inevitably be lost. For example, on the stage or screen there could be little doubt as to the essential role of the central character, twelve-year old John Egan. He is a boy convinced that he has an extraordinary gift, an ability to detect lies. His discovery of this gift is told against the backdrop of his family’s slow disintegration. One of the questions at the end of the novel, for this reader, remained whether John was a protagonist in the action, a catalyst, or its victim? “That’s a good question – says Hyland over an echoing telephone line from Rome, where she is currently working on her third novel – and it’s not one that I wanted to answer in the book, though I certainly wanted it to be asked. Is he the supreme manipulator? Or supremely manipulated? or both, as is probably closest to the truth in most lives. It’s complicated. I’m really quite annoyed in fiction when characters are consistent, and neat, and it’s always possible to say that character x shows these characteristics, and then they continue to behave quite predictably throughout the book, so we know who we’re dealing with at each turn, and what the character is likely to do next. I’m really interested in approximating or attempting to approximate life more closely. People are so often unknowable, unpredictable, uncertain, and I want to do something with that in my fiction, without losing the reader. Because there is the bind that, in being close to real – and I want to be almost hyper-real when I write – it might very well be tedious.”
Hyland, born in London and brought up in both Ireland and later Australia, describes how she intended carry me down to be read: “On the first reading it should be superficially simple, but engaging, with a strong narrative pull. I intend to give the reader a reason to turn the page, so a good story on the surface, deceptively simple, minimalist, told with pared-back language. A nine-year old could read this book. But underneath the surface, I attempt to insinuate things, to do this quietly, and I suppose there’s a risk in that, because I have to trust that a reader who likes the book will go back and read it again, and notice what’s hidden, submerged.”
Her debut novel, How the light gets in was told as a first person narrative, that of the sixteen-year old Lou Connor, a gifted but frustrated Australian girl transplanted into an American household. In carry my down the story of John Egan’s twelfth year is told through his own voice, and Hyland admits that her next novel will also be told using the same narrative device: “I’ll probably always use that style, first person, present tense.” Her preferred style, though, is risky – as she pointed out at the Australian Writer’s Festival in 2004, with the first person “the reader is putting all of his eggs in one bastard” – but one that grabs her in particular, both as an author and a reader. “It only grabs me, of course, when it’s good. It can be disastrous. It can be a really bad way to tell a story, monotonous, gruelling, repetitive. Really dreadful when it’s bad. When it’s good, though, nothing beats it. At the moment, I’m reading David Storey, for example, who is very good at the first person. A person who’s read a little of the third book said, ’you know, Maria, it reminds me a little of this sporting life’. When I recovered from the shock [laughs], I picked it up again [Storey’s novel], and it’s exquisite first-person narrative. Because of the kind of territory I write in, it’s appropriate. I’m writing about claustrophobic, within four-walls situations, that could almost take place on stage. Dramatic, prose approaching drama – if that makes sense. It’s not epic writing, that depends upon sweeps of time, chronicling place and detailing nuances of history and that kind of thing.”
Novelist Jim Crace, talking to Three Monkeys, likened the process of writing to musical improvisation: “with writing there is a moment of abandonment for me, […] when a story starts to take over and take its own direction. Maybe that’s why I like contemporary jazz, when you have that highly focussed instant of abandonment, when the saxophonist stands up and all he’s got marked on his sheet of music are the chord changes, along with the other musicians, and he abandons that and extemporises”. Carry me down started life as a very different novel, until Hyland – incidentally, like Crace, a huge music fan (When I write it’s usually classical, but when I’m not writing it is likely to be Leonard Cohen, Eminem, Elliot Smith, Will Oldham to, well, yesterday I was listening to the Kinks) – was, in what sounds almost like an ambush, carried away to a very different story. The original story did not have John’s distinctive voice: “I wrote about thirty-three thousand words of it with him as an adult, including the first chapter which I really liked, but in the end couldn’t use it. The first draft opened with John Egan on the eve of his fourtieth birthday, on a flight from Dublin to London, where he was due at the BBC to give a live demonstration of his gift for lie-detection. He was already, at the start of the novel, a famous lie-detector, who had married a woman for no other reason than that she didn’t lie. That was my premise. I had great ideas about how that would work out. Imagine, you’re a lie-detector, that’s how you earn your living, and you have a wife you don’t love but who doesn’t lie. Then I wrote for six months, with him as an adult, before trying a flashback scene, and found myself in the narrative not just drowning kittens, but skulling them, and with this claustrophobic family triangle, with the mother and father, and I thought, ’oh, shit’, because that’s where the novel really was. That happens when you write, sometimes. Some writing has no pulse, it’s bloodless. Good writing is the opposite, and sometimes you end up stumbling upon something that has more of a pulse than that which you set out to write. Certainly my temperature went up when I started writing this flashback scene. I could see the cottage, I could see the family, the father with his feet pressed against the wall, though I didn’t know why. And so, it took me three years to write.”
While good natured and happy to respond to questions, the idea of a novelist talking about novel writing strikes her as slightly strange: “It’s interesting to me, that a writer would even attempt to describe the process, because it would take as long as the process itself. It would take as long as it takes to write a book, to describe what it is, how it was made. I’ve only written three books, but the experience of writing each one has been utterly different from the other. There’s at least one million strange machinations, deletions, moving things about that occur. It’s a day-in day-out shifting of words.” The way she describes it, it comes across as almost a physical exertion as much as mental. “I think writing a novel is a really strange business, for lots of reasons. First of all you need a character, you need a good character. You need to know that character really, really well. You need to show him, and all that he does – and character is action, a character is what he does, a really good Aristotelian idea that’s good to remember – all the obstacles that he encounters, etc. But it takes about three years to tell the story of his journey. I thought of novel writing recently as being like trying to solve a 100,000 piece jigsaw puzzle wearing mittens, without a picture on the box. Over time the mittens become gloves, and you can begin to feel the pieces, and put them together, and after three/four years the picture emerges. After all that time, though, you might not like the picture [laughs]. It’s a very strange business.”