Creatives in profile: Interview with Iain Maloney

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In the latest of our ‘Creatives in Profile’ interview series, it’s an honour to introduce fantastic author, Iain Maloney.

Maloney was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and now lives in Japan. He is the author of three novels, First Time Solo, Silma Hill and The Waves Burn Bright and has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize and the Dundee International Book Prize.

 

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

MALONEY

I’m originally from Aberdeen, Scotland. I lived there until I was 23 and studied English literature at the University of Aberdeen. Then I moved to Glasgow to do a Masters in Creative Writing. I’m currently based in Japan but I come back to the UK regularly to do various book related events.

INTERVIEWER

Is creativity and writing – your first love, or do you have another passion?

MALONEY

Writing is what I’ve always wanted to do with my life. I first began writing songs when I was about 12 or 13 years old but I’ve never been a very good singer and growing up in the countryside there weren’t many people interested in starting a band, so I began writing poetry, then prose, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I was writing for about 20 years before my first book was published and creativity has been central to my life for so long, I couldn’t imagine a life without writing.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

MALONEY

From a writing perspective, people like David Mitchell, Ali Smith, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce – writers who do things with language that is startling and original. They, to me, are the pinnacle of what can be achieved with a pen and a blank sheet of paper. When I was wallowing in my formative years, Iain (M) Banks was a huge influence on me and even today I still find fossils of that influence in the way I plot or manipulate voice to achieve certain effects. His death was a huge loss to literature.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

MALONEY

Probably the most important initial moment for me as a writer was joining the University of Aberdeen Creative Writing Society in 1998. None of the people I knew at school were interested in writing and until then it had been a solitary activity. Meeting others who were as passionate about writing as me, people who liked nothing more than sitting around talking about literature, reading each other’s work and critiquing it seriously (while partaking of a drink or many) opened up a new world. It confirmed that this was what I wanted to do. I was lucky that, at that time, Alan Spence and Sheena Blackhall were working at the university. They both gave me help and advice which I will always be grateful for. Later on, Zoe Strachan became my tutor at Glasgow University. She’s a wonderful teacher and I still use many of the tips and techniques she taught me.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about your two novels – First Time Solo and Silma Hill?

MALONEY

First Time Solo is the story of Jack Devine, a farmer’s son from the North-East of Scotland. In 1943 he joins the RAF and leaves home to train to be a pilot. The book follows him through his training as he makes friends and starts a jazz band. When another trainee dies Jack has to choose between morality and loyalty. It’s a book about friendship and identity, set against the backdrop of World War Two.

Silma Hill is a very different creature. Set in late-18th century rural Scotland, it tells the tale of a village torn apart by accusations of witchcraft. Centering on Reverend Burnett and his daughter, Fiona, it’s a Gothic tragedy set during a time when the clash between science, religion and superstition made for a volatile society.

INTERVIEWER

As you write and prepare to write, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

MALONEY

Planning. I wrote a couple of novels before First Time Solo and they were messy, woolly affairs because I set off with a character, a setting and a fair wind, and quickly got lost. I don’t plan down to every last detail but I need to know roughly where I’m going and have a general idea of how to get there. When Captain Cook set off around the world, he had a good idea where he was going and where he would end up. The excitement and adventure was in what he might discover on the way. My first two attempts were more like hacking into a thick jungle with a machete until I was exhausted, lost and too disheartened to go on.

The other important thing is to always remember that a draft is just a draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect from the start. Even once a publisher has accepted a manuscript you’re only at the start of the editing and rewriting process.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

MALONEY

That’s a tough question. On a basic level we have an ethical responsibility because we are humans, part of human society, and everyone has ethical responsibility. We often like to think we are outsiders, observing and commenting, but that’s a myth. We also have an ethical responsibility to our subjects, particularly when dealing with people or events that are / were real. My latest novel, The Waves Burn Bright, is about the Piper Alpha disaster. 167 men died when the oil platform exploded in 1988. By taking on that subject I have a huge ethical responsibility to their memory, to the survivors and to the families. I also have an ethical responsibility to the facts of history. The events surrounding Piper Alpha are set. I cannot mess around with them for my own ends. By choosing to deal with a real disaster rather than creating one from my imagination, I took on the responsibility of getting it right.

On the other hand, ethical responsibility has come to mean, particularly on social media, not offending people. I see a rise in self-censorship. Writers are afraid to commit to a political or moral position, are afraid to tackle some of the most vital issues of our time or take on controversial subjects because someone might get offended and kick off on Twitter. A writer’s job, for me, is to examine the world around us. My publisher, Adrian Searle, recently wrote that writers need to be sociologists as well as artists and he’s right. We live in a time when politicians and corporations believe they can do what they like because no one will hold them to account. The majority of the press certainly won’t. I think writers should. We have an ethical responsibility to engage honestly with our stories, with our subjects, not to shy away because a handful of people won’t agree. We saw this in Scotland where writers who engaged openly and publicly (on both sides) with the Independence Referendum became the victims of some atrocious abuse. What they had to go through was awful but what is worse is that so many others were scared of joining the debate because of the abuse that awaited them. That’s sad and it means the trolls are winning. We can’t let that happen.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind when you write?

MALONEY

I don’t, though my publisher wishes I did. Publishing works by selling books to a readership and publishing companies rest easier when a writer complies and aims everything at that demographic. Doing what Iain Banks did and splitting your work into science fiction and non-science fiction undermines the way books are marketed at the moment. This is entirely sensible and if you have a genre you love and want to stick to, great, but my inspiration ranges wildly over genres and eras and characters and stories and I want to write them all. It’s much more acceptable for film directors to follow a story regardless of the genre (take Tarantino, no one complains that he jumps genres, even within the same movie. No one told David Fincher that because he’d started with Aliens 3 he couldn’t do Seven or Benjamin Button). It’s a shame that the pressures on publishing – both financial and social – are pushing the industry away from risk-taking. I understand that and sympathise, but at the same time it’s frustrating.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written that “audience engagement for a writer is a strange thing” – could you expand on that at all; how do you adapt to those rather strange situations where the audience attending public appearances haven’t read much – if any – of the writer’s writing?

MALONEY

I was talking about the difference between, say, a stand up comedian and a writer. The comedian knows within seconds whether a joke has worked or not and can react accordingly. For writers, it might take years for all the opinions and reviews to settle into a general response to the book, by which time we’re usually two or three books removed. So when we do events – at least at my level – you’re talking to people about something they haven’t read, and maybe won’t read for months even if they buy it then and there (we all have the ‘to be read’ shelf).

It may be different for writers like David Mitchell or Margaret Atwood, but I’m not nearly famous or successful enough to have hundreds of advance copies circulating the media so with a couple of exceptions everyone at my launch will be completely new to the book. In some ways it makes the writer’s job even easier. You are introducing the book – what’s it about, why did you write it, give an example of the text. There’s an element of being a salesperson.

INTERVIEWER

How do you find your work as an editor and journalist influences and compliments your work as a writer?

MALONEY

Editing and journalism – specifically reviewing – has helped my writing enormously. It’s much easier to be objective and critique someone else’s work. It’s easier to see the flows and ebbs of a text, to find bad habits and good techniques when I have no emotional attachment to the story and the characters, and then it becomes easier to see those things in my own work.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?

MALONEY

I think the financial pressures on the industry are causing it to be too risk-averse. Independent publishers like Freight are doing wonderful things, finding new writers, taking on books and projects that the big companies wouldn’t touch, but they are working under such difficult circumstances that it’s hard to see how the situation can be sustained indefinitely. We’re experiencing a reallignment in the industry which is making everything uncertain and unpredictable but for writers the most important thing hasn’t changed: people haven’t stopped reading books. What’s changing is the means by which writers and readers connect. While financially writers are taking a huge hit, creatively it’s an exciting time.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

MALONEY

Loosely, it’s the urge to create something new, something that hasn’t existed before. I try not to examine the urge to closely in case I scare it away.

INTERVIEWER

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?

MALONEY

As a writer these days you have to be pro-active, both online and off. Independent publishers don’t have big marketing divisions and big budgets, so gone are the days when a writer can put a book out into the world and consider their job done. We’re expected to engage with our readers, to be active on Goodreads, to join in the conversation on sites like this, to be on Twitter and Facebook promoting our work. We need to be out doing readings, going to spoken word events, building a reputation and a presence. Some people are resistant but I love it. The act of writing is solitary but being part of a wider community is a lot of fun.

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. Often, writers’ speak of developing an ‘other’ – who provides that voice when they write. How have you created and refined your voice and tone for your writing – and do you have a separate, ‘other’ persona who helps you write?

MALONEY

I have my own writing voice which developed naturally, and comes through most when I’m writing non-fiction. In a novel the most important voice is that of the characters – whether I’m writing first, second or third person, it’s the character that’s telling their story, not me. My most recent novel is written from the point of view of a woman at various stages in her life and she has to sound authentic, to speak in her own voice – she can’t sound like a 35 year old Scottish man. We all have our ticks and habits, the kind of rhythms we like and they’ll always be there – it’s why you can recognise a David Peace novel in a few sentences, for example – but one of the main aims of the editing process is to remove the ego of the writer as much as possible from the story. David Mitchell is the master of this – his prose takes on the persona of his character so completely.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

MALONEY

My new novel, The Waves Burn Bright is out in May 2016 so we’re doing final proofreads just now, and I’ll be tinkering with the text until my publisher tells me to leave it alone. Most of the year will be devoted to promoting that. I’ve got a few ideas for my next novel but I’m not sure which one to pursue and I don’t want to jump into anything until I’m convinced it’s the right direction. I’ve got a poetry collection called Fractures coming out later in the year and I’m putting together a short story collection.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

MALONEY

Not a good one.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

MALONEY

There are only two that are important: write every day and don’t be afraid of mistakes. We learn by trying, we learn by failing.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Creatives in profile: Interview with Iain Maloney

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