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Meet the WritersImage of M. J. Hyland
M. J. Hyland
M. J. Hyland was born in London in 1968 to Irish parents, and spent her early childhood in Dublin. She now lives and works in Melbourne. Her short stories have been published in Australia, the USA and Ireland and she also edited the literary magazine, Nocturnal Submissions, for a number of years. She is currently working on a second novel.

Author biography courtesy of Canongate Books.

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Good to Know
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Hyland:

"For six years before I began writing How the Light Gets In I was a lawyer, and a very bad one. I left work early each night so that I could read, and did very little on the weekends but write. My colleagues -- all hardworking lawyers -- hated me, and I was miserable."

"I write all over my books while I read them, and violently dog-ear the pages."

"I must go to Antarctica on an icebreaker before I perish."

"I must learn to deep-sea-dive before I perish."

"Before I go to sleep, I read for an hour, or longer, and I write in my notebook -- ideas about the novel I am working on -- because of a rather daft superstition that I might, while sleeping, dream solutions for my characters or my plots. It works. I woke one morning from a dream about a character -- now the opening stanza of my second novel."

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In anticipation of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Awards, M. J. Hyland took some time out to answer some of our questions.

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
L'Etranger (The Outsider) by Albert Camus. I first read L'Etranger when I was in my early 20s and have read it again, perhaps a half dozen more times. This is a perfect book: simply, sharply and concisely written, but not a simple book; an engaging and strong narrative, and writing that offers countless pristine and concrete images and a myriad of meanings. Above all else, Camus offers up an unforgettable atmosphere. One is completely submerged in Camus's world, and the world of this book is unforgettable and impossible to shake.

What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I like making lists, but dislike short lists, especially on the question of books. But here are some (and only some) of the authors who have been especially important to me during my apprenticeship as a writer. What all of these authors share is an unmistakable, idiosyncratic, and potent imagination and a direct and clear style. But, above all else, these authors matter to me because each knows how to give the reader a strong reason to turn the page, and always more than one reason to remember them and the story they have so deftly told.

  • Hunger by Knut Hamsun -- This is a great book about hunger and madness, with one of the most striking and successful first-person narrator's voices I've ever come across.

  • The Bread of Our Early Years by Heinrich Böll -- Another book that floored me when I was in my early 20s, for the strange and perverse world it conjures, as though by magic; it's a perfectly constructed book.

  • Tropisms & The Age of Suspicion by Nathalie Sarraute -- A forbidding title for what is quite simply a superb collection of very short prose pieces. Sarraute taught me more about clarity, brevity, and directness in these 100 pages than many others could in much longer works.

  • The Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka -- For Kafka's sublime imagination and his unparalleled evocation of anxiety in an anxious world.

  • Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov -- A stunning and unforgettable story.

  • Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee -- A great book about the ambiguity of guilt, by a truly great writer.

  • The Life and Times of Michael K, also by Coetzee -- With an atmosphere as unforgettable as Camus's L'Etranger.

  • Lorrie Moore's short stories -- I will never stop being impressed by her wit, and I run out of superlatives when it comes time to talk about her mastery of the image.

  • The Barracks and Amongst Women by John McGahern -- Two beautifully constructed and moving novels by one of Ireland's best and most compassionate writers.

  • The nonfiction of Annie Dillard, especially Teaching a Stone to Talk, from which I learned important lessons about clarity.

  • I love, too, the fiction and nonfiction of George Orwell, especially Down and Out in Paris and London.

  • The plays and short fiction of Arthur Miller

  • The plays of Henrik Ibsen and the plays of Tennessee Williams

  • All the works of J. D. Salinger, especially For Esmé, with Love and Squalor

  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

    This is a terribly incomplete list. I could fill three more pages with the most important books and another ten with the others that I have loved, not so much for the influence they have had on my writing, but for the pleasure they have given; like Paul Auster and Ian McEwan and Jeanette Winterson and Beckett and Carson McCullers and Steinbeck and Günter Grass and Hermann Hesse. Another time, perhaps.

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?

  • Midnight Cowboy by John Schlesinger -- Strange, funny and unforgettable with a closing scene that makes me sob every time I see it.

  • Brief Encounter by David Lean -- A million miles from Midnight Cowboy in almost every respect, but good for similar reasons; a perfectly made film; stunning and simple; sad and beautiful. A film about repressed feeling; about the things people almost do; the things people will not allow themselves to do.

  • Fargo by the Coen brothers -- An unforgettable atmosphere; a very funny film, a superb screenplay, and first-rate performances.

  • Six Degrees of Separation by Fred Schepisi -- A great story about an elaborate lie. Also about the desire to live another life. Great performances and an unforgettable atmosphere.

  • Smoke by Wayne Wang -- I love everything about this talking film, and the screenplay, by Paul Auster, is wonderful.

  • Down by Law by Jim Jarmusch -- A strange and funny film worth seeing for the performances of Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni. I still recite parts from the film when I want to make myself laugh.

  • The Rat Catcher by Lynne Ramsay -- One of the best films of the last decade. A powerful and perfectly evoked world of a boy living in poverty in Glasgow.

  • Adaptation by Spike Jonze -- A crazy, inspired piece of work that might annoy the hell out of me next time I see it: a question of mood, perhaps.

  • Kes by Ken Loach – A great film based on the masterpiece A Kestral for a Knave by Barry Hines.

  • Cinema Paradiso by Guiseppe Tornatore -- A stunning film about the glory and nobility of film and the role a movie theatre plays in the life of a young boy and the people of his small Italian village.

    Again, this list is incomplete and thoroughly inadequate. I am quite serious about film and my real list -- the one I keep at home, has more than 100 films on it. I love film; I see a film every week, if not more, and if video hire counts, then two, sometimes three films a week. Great filmmaking has always informed my writing, and if I ever tire of writing novels, then it'll be film school for me.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    While I write I listen to Chopin, Bach, Schumann, Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven. Liszt, Brahms, Mahler, and Grieg. I also listen to Leonard Cohen, whose song "Anthem" gave me the title of my first novel, How the Light Gets In. The musical highlight of the year so far was seeing Rufus and Martha Wainwright playing with the McGarrigle sisters (Kate and Anna; Rufus and Martha's mother and aunt) in Melbourne in February. Martha's performance astonished me; a great voice.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored. Phillips is a psychoanalyst who writes tremendously well on human behavior in all its perversity and delightful strangeness. Not an easy book, but a good one.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    Anthologies of good short stories and good nonfiction.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    I always write early drafts by hand, and I usually have a very clear idea of the premise of the story and its principle characters before I put pen to paper. Unlike Steinbeck, I do not have a host of physical rituals, such as pencil sharpening, but I do, like Roald Dahl, make sure that I am well hemmed in (trapped!) before I begin.

    I sit at my small wooden writing table (with its drawers sawed off), with a good dictionary and a copy of Norton's Anthology of Poetry at hand; I make sure that I am out of reach of the telephone and do not have access to email or the Internet; the door is shut, the "Do Not Disturb" sign is on my door; some food is always ready, and on my desk so that I don't have to stop or go to the kitchen to eat; the classical music is ready for playing on the portable CD player; there's a blanket over my lap or sometimes wrapped tightly around me. In short, I make myself snug –- cocooned -- and do all I can to reduce the likelihood of escape. But once I start, there's usually little chance of moving because I am in too deep.

    I sometimes write sitting up in bed, with two or three pillows behind my back. I always write in the afternoon, for a minimum of three hours; never in the morning or at night, and when I'm writing I very quickly get myself into a good funk; my temperature rises, my ears go red, I forget to eat, and there's nothing else I'd rather do. I sometimes procrastinate the moment of sitting down, but I never regret what it is I've given up to get there.

    What are you working on now?
    I'm working on my second novel, set in Ireland in the 1970s, and while I'm loath to give too much away, I will say that it's about lies and lying. I hope it doesn't disappoint.

    Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
    My first short story was published when I was still in high school. The teacher I was living with (I could not live at home) sent one of my English essays to a serious literary magazine, and the editor -- who did not know my age -- accepted it. So, I was off to a very good start. I had talent, but I had no idea what to do with it.

    For the next three years I worked in a mess of awful jobs, and was sacked from each, one by one. I wrote very little during these bleak years and was generally busy making a hash of my life. But then, I went to university to study English and Law and began to write again, not in earnest, but enough to begin to learn the craft. During the six years of my degree I edited a magazine, and I published fiction and poetry and interviews, and learned all about what separates good from mediocre writing. Toward the end of my law degree I took some creative writing classes, and some of them helped speed up my apprenticeship. And, to make up for my impoverished primary and high school education, I began to read several serious books each week. I took notes -- copious notes -- and I filled hundreds of notebooks (not diaries). When I read a great book, I'd fill a notebook with the reasons why I thought the author's writing worked and how I thought it worked.

    During my law degree I published a few very bad short stories, and then, at about the age of 28, as though I had been whacked across the back of the head, I realized that it was better to write one good story than spend a lifetime producing bad ones, and so I set about learning to write well by working away on one story. I became, at last, patient. I drafted and redrafted this one short story until I thought that I knew what I was doing: This story was published in New York Stories and was nominated for a Pushcart. Soon after, I began to write How the Light Gets In, and throughout the writing of this first novel I read nothing but serious fiction -- nothing but great fiction -- until, I thought, I understood what makes good, lasting fiction, as opposed to writing that merely helps a person pass the time. I don't consider my apprenticeship to be over and don't expect to produce a great book (if at all) until I am well over 40. I am 36 now.

    I take the art of fiction very seriously, and I am obsessive and painstaking when I write and rewrite. I have a particular stylistic intent, the details of which can wait for another time. Suffice it to say, I think fiction should offer up a way of seeing, and as you will see from the list of some of my favorite books and authors, my tastes run very much to a style that is clean, spare and direct.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    The only helpful advice I have for young writers is to get good at writing and to put this painstaking task ahead of notions of getting published for the sake of being published. I say, Do It Well, and if you can do that, then, Do It Very Well. Don't be in a hurry, and don't put all your eggs in one basket!

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  • About the Writer
    *M. J. Hyland Home
    * Biography
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    *How the Light Gets In, 2004