The session with M.J. Hyland was in the largest theatre, and was almost full. A lot of people were curious (her second novel was shortlisted for the Booker), a lot of people had obviously read at least one of her books. The joy of listening to a fiction writer speak, particularly one who examines her own work and processes, is that you gain fascinating insights into the process of creating imaginary characters and worlds. MJ was no exception. She began by talking about the book that inspired This is How- it was a collection of 12 oral histories from murderers, 'Life After Life'. And went on to pondering the problems involved in using a first person/present tense voice. 'It's like ventriloquism,' she said, and comes with serious limitations. For example, if readers don't like the character or find him sympathetic, the book fails.
She begins with a loose outline or loose idea and theme and then creates a character, but she doesn't know a lot of it until she writes. Setting is important - she sets novels in the 1960s before mobile phones and technology because it creates more difficulties for characters but allows more to happen. In a boarding house, perfect strangers are rubbing up against each other, which is a perfect place to begin. She never wants a perfect answer - we are complicated persons so a story and character should never be simple.
Being shortlisted for the Booker made her feel self-conscious, anticipating the reaction to her third book. So she played with style, feeling she had to prove she was a 'writerly writer' but none of it worked, and it took a while to shake that self-consciousness. She finds endings difficult and is often unhappy with them in her books - she tends to leave things open which she realises is a problem for readers. (A reader near me muttered about the ending to 'How The Light Gets In', and wondered why the editor lets her get away with it!) She also talked about how strong the voices of her characters are, and how it takes a while to shake the previous character when she begins a new novel.
Her early drafts are long and messy - twice as many words as the final draft - and she takes half the words away, so that there are still shadows in the final story, but not the words themselves. She talked briefly about teaching creative writing (I was really hoping she wasn't going to be one of these writers who takes the money for teaching but scorns creative writing courses! And she didn't.) She said it constantly surprises her how many younger writers write way too fast - they complete a story and rush to post it on their blog or on a website, and she is constantly telling them that good writing takes TIME. She was also quite scathing about the idea of writers posting stuff for each other and then giving a cyber "group hug".
The interviewer then asked her if she was mean to her students, and she said, 'Yes!'. What makes a good writer is the ability to be patient and revise. Finally, talking again about language, she said she aims for unadorned prose. Early drafts might have complex language and lots of descriptive words, but as she revises, she simplifies - her aim is to make herself, as the writer, invisible, and yet achieve a certain effect. MJ was great - very open and willing to talk about her processes, giving us an insight into her books. Everyone in the audience went away buzzing and talking at length about writing!