Born in London to Irish parents, Hyland’s family moved to Sydney when she was two and to Dublin – to Ballymun, then to Tallaght – when she was five. The family moved to Melbourne when Hyland was 11, but nothing improved for them. Her father, drinking constantly, was in and out of psychiatric institutions. Her brother has also committed crimes.
Hyland essentially divorced herself from her relatives in her teens: ‘‘I made a very deliberate decision to cut myself off from my family.” She changed schools, took elocution lessons and pulled herself up into the middle class by her fingernails, training first as a lawyer and then, aged 35, making the leap into fiction.
We first met in 2004 when the publishing house, Canongate, brought several journalists to dinner with Hyland. Meeting her was a strange experience – she was unlike any other author I’d ever met. Being in her company was intense.
She was also clearly a talented writer. Publishing houses rarely break open the piggy-bank to bring journalists to dinner; they believed in Hyland, and she believed in herself. Even then, you could sense how hard she was pushing into the literary world; how much she wanted it.
She read obsessively, studied the fiction of other authors; she befriended writers she thought could help her. With the publication of her first novel, it should have been the realisation of a dream.
And yet, she says, it was not a happy time. Looking back on that period, from the safe vantage point of 2009, having published three novels and received a Booker Prize nomination for her 2006 novel Carry Me Down, Hyland says she has changed enormously. ‘‘My life is so much better now,” she says. ‘‘I feel completely rearranged by life. I’ve grown up. I’m much more secure. I have much more confidence about writing and my career as a writer.”
Certainly, the MJ Hyland sitting before this reporter today, clad in dark colours, but with bright, almost garish make-up, is a very different author to interview, although perhaps not in the ways that she intends. Though she is less jumpy and less obviously volatile, she has traded candour for extreme wariness.
It’s arguable that, in 2004, she made a Faustian pact – selling the story of her terrible background to the media in order to achieve certain career goals.
Now that she has become more successful, and more comfortable, she has eased her foot off the pedal. Much of what she told interviewers then, about her life, about her past, she clearly regrets. But what you put forward, you can’t take back. She winces when you bring up the London Review of Books essay in which she candidly detailed her background.
‘‘The worst decision I’ve ever made in my life was to write that piece in the LRB,” she says. ‘‘It caused so much pain and trouble. It was so accurate that it got some people into trouble [with the law]. It’s not that what I said wasn’t faithful to the past, but I don’t know if the whole story [of my life] would ever have come out if I hadn’t talked about it. ‘‘I’d stupidly, naively thought that people would find out anyway. I was flattered by LRB’s invitation for me to write the piece in the first place. And now every interview I do, I have to say I don’t want to talk about it any more.”
What Hyland does want to talk about is her new novel, This Is How. It’s a strong, brave book. At one level it’s a very simple tale – the story of a 23-year-oldwho kills his fellow lodger and is jailed for the crime. At another, it’s a powerful exploration of the combination of factors that can lead a sane person to kill.
Hyland allows you to peer into the claustrophobic brain of Patrick Oxtoby, whose fiancée Sarah has ended their relationship and who has retreated to lodgings near the sea in the south of England to begin a new life. Asked to express his emotions, Patrick says he cannot. ‘‘The thing is, I don’t have that many,” he reflects.
Admittedly, there are points when you feel that the narrative – composed of such intense, yet subdued prose – might have worked better as a short story. But it has an irresistible draw nonetheless, sucking you into its pages with remarkable skill and verve.
‘‘I was going for claustrophobia, panic, fear and terror,” Hyland says, of the effect she wanted to create. ‘‘An intense intimacy with the character. I wanted there to be no sense of there being an author in the room. If it works, it should feel like reading a memoir.”
The novel was inspired by another book, Life After Life: Interviews with Twelve Murderers by Tony Parker. ‘‘I saw the title and like most people, I wanted to read a book with that title,” she says. ‘‘And one account is about a young man who is living in a lodging house and who kills his fellow lodger for no good reason. There were a few ingredients in that short interview that appealed tome.
‘‘I wanted to look at the idea of the gratuitous act, to explore how someone who is reasonable, not insane – how they could reach a point in which they might resort to the act that they resort to. In creating a very close relationship with one person, we might come to understand something about human nature. We might be drawn into a world we might not otherwise witness.”
The book has generated deeply mixed reviews – one Irish broadsheet review, in particular, was so incredibly negative it caused Hyland, who is still visibly distressed about it, to feel like she had been ‘‘dragged off the street and stabbed in the heart’’.
But other reviews have been stellar: the Guardian praised it as ‘‘bleak yet moving, mercilessly dispassionate yet shot through with kindness and wit, it is a profound achievement’’.
Flattering though such words have been, none of the good reviews will ever, you suspect, be quite enough for Hyland.
She’s an incredibly ambitious author, both in what she expects from herself and in what she hopes to gain from the world. More than almost any other writer I’ve met, she appears to have tried harder, changed herself more and shaped herself more thoroughly in pursuit of her goals.
Hyland teaches fiction at Manchester University, alongside her famous colleague, Martin Amis. Speaking of her creative writing students, she says she cannot understand their laxness in not making more of an effort to read her novels and befriend her – considering how helpful she could be to them in their future careers.
‘‘They have an arrogance I can’t even perceive of,” she says, ‘‘perhaps because I came from a council estate. When I was in the equivalent position as an undergraduate with [poet] Chris Wallace-Crabbe, I knew his CV inside out and began to sycophantically crawl all over him.”
Hyland wanted this life desperately. She still does. But traces of another self sometimes slip through the persona she has created for herself. She’s not always able to control her temper; and there are times – particularly when she doesn’t like a question – that her face is a little frightening.
More than anything, a fact that sticks with me is that Hyland took elocution lessons. How many people would go to those lengths?
You have to feel sympathy for what she has been through. But it’s hard to know whether to admire her control and her drive – or to feel alienated from it.
To a certain extent, Hyland’s most successful fiction to date is herself; she is a willed act of self-creation – and the mask has become the face. Though she may now regret her words, the closing paragraphs of her 2004 essay in the LRB still seem to sum up the peculiarity of her situation perfectly.
‘‘There’s a loneliness involved in survival,” she wrote, ‘‘in the kind of class-changing that involves disowning, and in some way despising one’s own family and saying, at least for awhile: I hate you, I’ll never be like you, and I don’t care how much this hurts your feelings.
‘‘For a long time, this is what I did, and sometimes it’s what I still do. I’m often a complete stranger to my family, and I’m just as often a stranger to the well-educated, well-read, well-dressed, middle-class people from good homes who were the reason I went to all the trouble in the first place.”