Friday, October 23, 2009

A Gratuitous Act of Violence and the Patron Saint of Elsewhere - MJ Hyland & Nick Laird at the Martin Harris Centre

We find ourselves in the John Thaw Studio of the Martin Harris Centre on this typical Manchester evening (read: cold, wet and, as Maria Hyland puts it when she thanks us all for coming out, ‘grim’) to hear Mssrs Hyland and Laird read from their most recent publications. There is a table set up at the front of the hall and a lectern – Hyland chooses the table, Laird prefers the lectern. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

First up is Maria Hyland herself who reads from her third and latest novel, This is How, introducing things by touching on the difficulty she had writing it (the novel went through three versions, was Hyland’s attempt at writing a novel based around a ‘gratuitous act’, inspired in part by a trilogy of books, The Outsider by Albert Camus, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke and Andre Gide’s The Vatican Cellars and didn’t really bed down until she found ‘the voice’ – first person, present tense, ‘as always’ she affirmed). The novel opens with a man arriving at a guest house carrying two bags, one of which contains a toolkit which itself contains an instrument that will commit a terrible act of violence later in the novel. I wrote in my notebook that Hyland’s sparse prose felt ‘loaded’ and then crossed out ‘loaded’ because it didn’t seem to do the job; in the end I settled for ‘rich with a loaded brevity’ but even that doesn’t really do the trick. What she does accomplish – and it’s a good trick for a writer performing at a reading and, perhaps surprisingly, not something you see all that often – is this: she makes you want to go out and buy the book and carry on reading. This is How has moved up my books-to-be-read-soonish list.

Afterwards, talking about the difficulties she experienced during the three years it took to write the book, she referred to the ‘circus’ surrounding the Man Booker prize (Hyland’s second novel Carry Me Down was shortlisted) and the unsettling effect it had upon her writing (how she tried using ‘fancy language’ and ‘affected prose’). Even after finding the voice, though, even during the reading, she tells us, she can still see things she’d change, things she would improve on if she still could – ‘it’s never finished’ she explains before telling us that she can only learn and look not to make the same mistakes again. It’s the old Beckettian dictum of ‘Fail better’ so beloved by writers of all stripes.

Nick Laird is a different kind of writer to Hyland: he has written novels and he has written poems and, as the lovely lady who introduced things (whose name escaped me) said, has bagged all manner of awards this last two or three years for his books. He begins by reading from his poetry, a poem called ‘Light Pollution’ that absolutely blows me away (this is what I’m like with poetry – either it touches me or it leaves me cold). ‘You’re the patron saint of elsewhere,’ the poem begins, which I think is a great line. He follows this with a poem about his dog (admitting that poets have a tendency to do this kind of thing that he usually resists but on this occasion couldn’t), a pug called Maude. Pugs, Laird informs us, are a breed you’re not supposed to get because they have trouble breathing and, often, with Maude (he tells us) he can’t tell if she’s having a good time or having a fit – and it’s usually the latter. Once again, the poem is full of beautiful images (like the description of the pug’s tongue as being ‘salmon pink and coastal rock’). It strikes me that, as a poet, Laird is like Raymond Carver. There are poems in Near Klamath, say, that could happily stand shoulder to shoulder with the poems Laird reads. Again, the reading is such: I want to go out and treat myself to Laird’s two collections, To a Fault & On Purpose.

After the poetry, Laird reads an excerpt from his latest novel, Glover’s Mistake. I should admit something at this point. I’ve read Laird’s first novel, Utterly Monkey and – whisper it – I didn’t like it. There was something a little grey and lifeless and mordant about it to me. It never came alive on (or should that be ‘from’) the page. The excerpt he reads from the new novel leads me to believe that if I didn’t like the first novel I’m not going to like the second either. We are treated to two short excerpts – each of which contain great images (a girl has toes that are not beautiful, ‘misshapen like pebbles’; our narrator David has an ‘elliptical face’) and bursts of good writing (there is a sustained passage concerning the hour – which Laird pronounces ‘are’ – which goes ‘It was the dog walking are, the are of a blue plastic bag…’ – which captivated me) but each of which seem to share the ‘grimace’ and the ‘heavy gait’ of our narrator. There is a certain amount of shifting about in the audience that leads me to write, ‘Think Laird is a better poet than a novelist’ in my notebook. But then Laird is scooping bags of prizes for pretty much everything he does so what do I know?

Later Laird talks about his relationship with his poetry and his prose – in prose he tells us it’s easier to be funny because fiction is something ‘you can drag around by the scruff of the neck’ whereas poetry, he feels, marches to its own tune. ‘Poetry you have to follow,’ he says. He wonders if poems are a bit like short stories in that way.

Hyland and Laird take seats at the table and subject themselves to a smattering of questions from the audience. I ask a sort of clumsy question about the trouble Hyland had writing This is How and if she ever felt like she wanted to throw the thing at the wall and write a screenplay instead. She tries to qualify the question (‘Am I interested in writing a screenplay? Do I think it’s easier to write a screenplay?’) and I qualify again myself, saying I’m interested in whether there ever comes a point when a writer thinks: this thing just doesn’t want to be written. She looks a little cross with me and then says, ‘No. If I thought that I wouldn’t publish.’ I say thanks but I feel like I should apologise for asking one of those questions (you know, the kinds of awkward questions that writers don't want, that confuse the atmosphere of the room). Other people ask about influences (Hyland says Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Gogol and Dostoefski). Laird doesn’t really answer. He spends a lot of time looking down at the table. At one point he says, ‘I hate my books. I find it hard to read. I mean, there are phrases I like…’ People laugh. He goes on: ‘I find it hard to read any fiction. When you write, you just see the nuts and bolts.’ Again people laugh. He seems like a nice guy. It strikes me that he's a little like the patron saint of elsewhere himself.

All told, a good night, a night that challenges my views of Laird, that introduced me to the writing of Hyland. I fully intend to chase up other books by each of them. I’d recommend you do the same.

Peter Wild is the host of the Paint a Vulgar Picture event at Salford Lad's Club on Saturday 24 October featuring James Hopkin, Jeff Noon, Catherine O'Flynn & Helen Walsh. He's also the editor of the Bookmunch blog.


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