Michael J Malone Q&A: ‘I wish the books with The Girl … titles would do one’
‘It took me so long to see my words in print that I had to learn perseverance’
Michael J Malone: What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday? The Shining. It’s only proper that they go on into adulthood looking over their shoulder, right?
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
I read loads of Enid Blyton and then moved on to CS Lewis, but Ursula Le Guin and Tales from Earthsea was The One. I was immediately captivated.
What was your favourite book as a child?
And what is your favourite book or books now?
Depends on the day of the week. There’s a few and they change. Today my mind is with William McIlvanney and Laidlaw. The man was a genius – his word choice left a taste in the mind, and oh, the humanity!
What is your favourite quotation?
Benjamin Disreali and his quote, “The secret of success is a constancy of purpose”. It took me a long time to see my work in print and this thought was something that helped to keep me going.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux – he’s the tragic hero with the weight of the world on his shoulders. A fascinating character and beautifully demonstrated in Burke’s lyrical prose.
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
Declan Burke. This guy is a stunning writer. Why is he not famous already?
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
Print. Definitely print. I find it hard to relax into a book on a screen. It has the feel of a manuscript and I want to edit it rather than just fall into the story.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
Into the Forest (Saraband Books) edited by Mandy Haggith. It’s a collection of poems all about the life of trees. Beautifully bound and presented. I take it off my shelf every now and again and just give it a wee stroke.
Where and how do you write?
At my dining room table and straight onto the computer. My handwriting is shocking and my typing is (at last) quick enough to keep up with my thoughts.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
The Guillotine Choice was based on the true story of an innocent Algerian man given a sentence of 40 years’ hard labour and sent to Devil’s Island in the late 1920s. (He was there at the same time as Henri Charrière of Papillon fame.) I knew nothing about Algeria, French Guiana, the early 20th century in these countries, or France’s colonial role in Algeria. So, a lot of work was required to help portray those places and that period in time. It was truly fascinating reading.
What book influenced you the most?
It would be hugely difficult to pin this down to one book. I think most writers are influenced by writing they enjoy, aren’t they? Writers who have influenced me include Ursula Le Guin, Stephen King, Bryce Courteney, Pat Conroy, Val McDermid, George Pelecanos, Denise Mina, James Lee Burke, John Connolly … I could go on. They are all storytellers with a strong voice.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
The Shining. It’s only proper that they go on into adulthood looking over their shoulder, right?
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Read more. Write more. Learn how to accept feedback. Grow a thick skin. Keep the faith.
What weight do you give reviews?
If they are strong I take it with a giant pinch of salt. If they say anything bad, I obsess about it. Essentially, they rarely have anything constructive to say – and often the review says more about the reviewer and their taste, than it does the book. It’s probably best – for sanity’s sake – to ignore them. But I can’t.
What writing trends have struck you lately?
The fascination with Nordic Noir isn’t going away. I wish the books with “The Girl …” titles would do one, but sadly, the big publishers love nothing more than a bandwagon.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
How long have you got? I think the chief lesson concerns empathy. Studies show that reading enhances the ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions. I’m all over that stuff.
What has being a writer taught you?
It took me so long to see my words in print that I had to learn perseverance. I was determined I’d see my books published and refused to give in despite over a decade of rejections. Wasn’t easy.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Henri Charrière, to ask him just how much of Papillon was fiction. William McIlvanney, because I could have listened to him talking all day. Then I’d have Caro Ramsay and Denise Mina because they are both smart and hilarious.
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
It was in a Carl Hiaasen novel – can’t remember the title – and a bunch of hunters had imported a half-blind rhino into the Everglades. I can’t remember all the detail, but the rhino came out on top – and then some.
What is your favourite word?
Chocolate. The syllables in your mouth – said slowly – are almost as tasty as the real thing, aren’t they? What, that’s just me?
What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?
I’m proudest of my novel, The Guillotine Choice. As I said earlier it was a period and a culture I knew nothing of – and although there are a few movies that depict that time, there are very few novels. I met a young Algerian at a launch who was all but kissing the back of my hand in gratitude. He said to me that millions of people were affected by the French colonisation – an impact that carries on even now – and very few of their stories are known by the present population. Their own history isn’t being taught and he felt my book was hugely important in that regard.
What is the most moving book or passage you have read?
Pat Conroy’s Beach Music. I remember reading it in the car on a ferry to the Scottish island of Bute and trying to hide my face from other passengers as the tears ran down my cheeks. Big themes; beautiful writing. I loved it.
If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?
I read The Gruffalo to my son over and over and over again. And we had great fun while I did so. God bless Julia Donaldson.
A Suitable Lie by Michael J Malone is published by Orenda Books, £8.99