Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Carry me down – M.J. Hyland in interview

Much of what happens in carry me down is violent, both physically and emotionally – events that one would wish on no child – and yet, as J.M.Coetzee correctly pointed out, it’s a book that is “rich in understated humour”. “A relentlessly sad book is rarely a pleasure,” Hyland responds. “The humour, or my attempts at humour, is there for a number of reasons, but I’ll just give you one (I could talk about this until the cows come home, the long way) : one of the reasons that humour is there is that I love those moments, for example when I watch some great TV, like The Soprannos, or The Wire, when the characters do or say something that has nothing to do with the central narrative, or getting characters, or the story, from a to b. The moments, for want of a better word, of spontaneity, or eruption of the strange or the idiosyncratic. The Guinness book of records [which is John’s bible, his favourite book] was perfect for that, because I could bring in the world, something quite strange about the world. I wanted to suggest the 19th Century freak show, but I didn’t want to write a historical book, because I really don’t like them. We seem to have a current obsession (although this obsession is not new) with the freak, the strange, which takes many different forms, one of which is the fascination with plastic surgery gone-wrong, or the super obese. We seem caught up now – and I don’t disapprove of this, for me it’s fascinating – with when the human being, the physical being, goes wrong. And when people stand out for reasons of physical peculiarity. John is, in at least some ways, a freak. I wanted to bring in that strange world, of people being ghouls, and loving to watch and hear about the extraordinary and strange things that people can do, and have been done. Records and wild, strange feats. But also that stuff is funny, I think.”

Hyland has taught creative writing at the University of Melbourne, and worked for a number of years (while studying for her law degree) as the editor of a literary magazine. When asked in a previous interview for a tip for new writers, she told them to “avoid reading bad fiction”. So, she’s well qualified to get to grips with a deliberately broad question: What distinguishes a good novel from a great novel? She takes a deep breath, then laughs and takes up the gauntlet. “The difference is something ineffable. It’s something powerful, and extraordinary, that cannot be described. The writer’s genius – I think of someone like Dostoevsky or Kafka or Flannery O’Connor – is a sensibility, a way of seeing the world. It’s not just about how a writer puts his words together, it’s a way of seeing. It’s a vision, or sight, that most of us simply don’t have. And the person behind that vision may be bad [Hyland uses the Italian word ’cattivo’], and not worth knowing. A stupid hypochondriac – think of Nietzsche, who only drank milk, and refused to drink alcohol (Imagine spending an evening with him!), but what a great writer. A great novel is more than the sum of its parts, and cannot be analysed, though many attempts are made. The greater the book, the more attempts are made.”

While an evening with Nietzsche might be off the cards, reading a great novel, for Hyland, is almost like a meeting of minds. “When I read a great book, and I think it’s one of the things that great fiction can do, it makes me feel as if I’ve read the mind of the writer, even if the writer is not using the first person voice. I feel as if I’ve met the author’s mind (but it’s not important that I know what he eats for breakfast or how many times he has been divorced). It’s as though there’s a conduit, or an access to the mind of another human being – and a good mind, that’s key”.

This brings us, interestingly off course, to discuss the general devaluation of a writer’s chief currency: the imagination. “I can’t remember the last time that I saw the word ’imagination’ used in the review of a great book – or the word ’talent’, for God’s sake! Talent has become something like a filthy concept.” Hyland says, echoing remarks made by Rupert Thomson to Three Monkeys. “There is an obsession with the life of a writer,” she continues. “There always has been, I think, but now there’s a glut, an exposure to everything, so now we, perhaps, notice more. There’s the cult of fame, of being famous, which feeds into the same problem. I don’t know whether it’s because readers are bored with the plain fact of a great book for its own sake, that they need to feel connected to the writer. They really want to know you, and that the muted, twice-removed experience of reading the fiction isn’t enough.”

There is also the sense, in an age when there is a manual printed for virtually everything, that writing is something that anyone can do. That there’s a novel in everyone, and all you need to do is to understand the tricks of the game to unleash it. As if hard graft is the only thing separating the great artist from the rest of us. Hyland, unapologetically, blows this idea out of the water. “Of course there is such a thing as a born writer, a born artist, but this fact is often ignored An artist must have, above all, prima facie and fundamentally, talent. You either have talent or you don’t. It’s not true, though, to say that writing can’t be taught. A good writing school can certainly speed up the apprenticeship of a serious, fledgling writer. Some important aspects of the craft can be taught, but the art of writing must be taught in the same way that art is taught in art school, and music in music school. Nobody would dare turn up to the door of a music school saying ’I’d like to be a guitarist, but I don’t have a guitar, I don’t have time to practice, and I don’t listen to music’, but people do that in writing courses. They turn up and say, ’I’d like to be a writer, I know how to write a letter, my friends say my emails are funny’ etc.”

While Hyland talks of the strange process of writing a novel, she is at the same time very definite about what her fiction is (and equally importantly isn’t) about. I suggest that th
ere’s a keen sociological profile of Ireland in the ’70s, that comes out through the spaces in John’s narrative throughout carry me down, but she is having none of it: “Clearly a novel isn’t a white-paper. I’m, unlike some writers, not particularly concerned – and some might hate me for this – with time and place. I didn’t set out to say anything about Irish culture – nothing. The novel needed, of course, to be vivid. To have atmosphere. So I got what I needed to make this believable, and plausible, but I didn’t set out to say a single thing about Irish culture or its place in time”.

In conversation it’s evident that she is someone who has thought deeply both about her own books, and literature in general. She laughs a lot, and while tolerant of the odd meandering question (one or two flounder in search of a point), she’s not afraid to disagree. At one point in the interview, while she pauses to find a fitting word, she apologises, saying “my English is a bit strange today”, as she has spent much of her time lately trying to speak Italian. With the ghost of James Joyce hovering in the background, I ask whether speaking a foreign language has changed her relationship with English, and also, perhaps her writing? “I wish I could say so, because it sounds like a really lovely idea, but… no,” she laughs. “My mostly failed attempt to learn Italian has made me think I love Italian, and I’d like to live in Italy for a long time, but I’m in love with the English language and suspect it is much more flexible ”.

And so admirers of Hyland’s work who may have hoped for Rome to figure in her fiction will, for the moment be disappointed – at least on that score. We finish the interview with a tantalising glimpse of the novel she is currently working on: “Most of the action takes place within four-walls. The novel is set in a boarding house, at the seaside, in an unnamed year. But the era is definitely pre-internet – which is very important, I don’t think I could stomach writing a book which features technology, which is set in a high-tech world, in which characters might be rescued by mobile phones etc� So, in this as yet unfinished third novel, there won’t be any laptop computers, broadband internet connections or ipods, etc. � And my main character is a mechanic, who does something terrible, for no good reason. Most of the action takes place in the boarding house, in his room, in the sitting room, the kitchen, or a cafe around the corner”.

Familiar territory? Perhaps, but given the way that Hyland transformed a relatively conventional theme of adolescence into something fresh and captivating in carry me down, the landscape will, in all probability, be unrecognisable.

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