Sunday, August 30, 2009

Melbourne Writers' Festival - 3

This is HowThe 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!


Anonymous said...

Hi Sherryl,

Thanks for posting this. It sounds like it was a great experience being there.It was interesting to hear of Hyland's process. I loved how you explained her aim - to make herself invisible. What a great thing to aspire to. Would love to get a MWF one day. Looking forward to the Brisbane WF coming soon. Festivals get me all revved up and inspired. Love them!

Great post,



Sherryl said...

She said a lot of really interesting things - wish I could have taped it for my students.
I'll be at the BWF too - doing school days - but hope to attend some of the main sessions too. Wave if you see me!

Anonymous said...

I will jump up and down like an idiot and then introduce myself as the Idiot jumping up and down! Just so you know its me!

Kristi Holl said...

Her talk sounds fascinating--I love hearing how others create. I can sure understand why she prefers setting her stories before the age of technology. With cell phones that take photos and movies, you can do things now that makes it harder to paint your characters into a corner!
Kristi Holl

Writer's First Aid blog