An Eastlit Interview by Graham Lawrence
Hello, I’m Iain Maloney, I’m on the editorial board of Eastlit and my debut novel First Time Solo is out now on Freight Books.
So Iain, you have recently had your first book First Time Solo published, can you tell us a little about the book and about the process you went through?
The book follows Jack Devine, a young farm boy from rural Scotland, who joins the RAF in 1943. We see him going out into the world for the first time, going through his basic training and elementary flight training. He gets mixed up with some good guys and some bad guys, and has to make some terrible decisions.
The idea for writing a book set in that period first came to me at university but it took me a long time to find Jack and find what I wanted to say. I wrote two other novels in the meantime (both unpublished) and wrote two complete versions of First Time Solo that went into the bin. It was a long and difficult process but a necessary one. Writing a novel is hard work but the hard work paid off when I got a book deal with Freight Books.
Please tell us a little about your writing.
These days I write mainly literary fiction. I’ve dabbled in magic realism, sci-fi and historical fiction. I’ve just finished a novel that is part thriller, part gothic horror. But literary fiction is where my heart is. I’ve always loved reading books that explore the world we live in rather than books that offer escape from it. Novels are my main focus but I also write short stories, poetry and non-fiction, particularly about music, travel and literature.
Could you briefly summerize your literary activities and achievements?
First Time Solo is my first book. I’ve been included in seven anthologies, numerous magazines and online journals for writing prose and poetry. I was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize in 2013 and came third in a Twitter fiction competition run by Cargo Publishing in 2012.
When did you first start writing?
When I was a sickening adolescent I wrote sickening adolescent poetry and unoriginal songs. I began taking poetry seriously towards the end of high school and wrote my first short story at university. I did my masters in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow and wrote my first novel there. It was horrible but that’s how you learn. First Time Solo is my third novel, but the first one good enough to be published.
How long does it take you to complete a piece of work?
It depends what I’m writing. As I said, my main priority is novels. I have about six ideas in my head at any one time. Once one of them crystallises and I begin writing, it takes about twelve to eighteen months to finish. Often it can take years for an idea to go from ‘that’s a cool idea’ to ‘I see how that would make a book’. First Time Solo took a decade to make that journey but it took twelve months to write. I also never throw anything away. I recently finished a flash fiction piece that was built out of a messy story I wrote seven or eight years ago. Depending on how you view it, it either took me a day or eight years.
How would you describe your writing process?
If I know where I’m going, it’s joyous. I tend to write from the beginning to the end without too much redrafting as I go. I save that for later. I’ve learned that it’s easier to redraft once you know every step in the journey than second guessing what might be irrelevant. This has its drawbacks – redrafting an 80000 word document is daunting and headache inducing. Since working with a professional editor on First Time Solo, I’ve learned so much about the redrafting and editing process. Writing really is one of those vocations where you never stop learning.
Which piece of your own writing means the most to you and why?
It has to be First Time Solo because it’s the one that made it. Other than that, I wrote a story called A Job For Life which was the first time a short story just came together perfectly. It was in issue 21 of From Glasgow To Saturn, a journal in Scotland. There’s a link on my website. The short story is not my natural form (I like sprawl and tangents in books) and I tend to fight a war of attrition with stories, but that one just worked from the first word. It’s an exhilarating feeling when that happens.
What is literature?
Literature for me is when fiction is about more than entertainment or escapism. It’s not better than genre fiction, but it has different aims. The novel, to paraphrase Milan Kundera, is a tool for exploring individual existence. It’s also (and this is about taste not judgement) when the quality of the prose is as, if not more important than story and characters. I will happily read a book with dazzling prose but where nothing happens. I have no time for books that are, to quote Margaret Atwood, ‘one damn thing after another’ but the prose is barely considered.
Are there any Asian poets, writers, artists among your major influences?
The Japanese Nobel Laureate, Oe Kenzaburo is one of my favourite novelists. His prose, even in translation, is scintillating and he is unafraid to deal directly with deep and complicated philosophical ideas. Novelists in English, particularly in the UK, tend to shy away from openly discussing ideas in their novels, preferring to allow ‘themes’ to ‘arise’ from the text as if by accident. It’s a very British characteristic, not wanting to appear intellectual, I guess. But writers like Milan Kundera, Orhan Pamuk and Oe Kenzaburo regularly include short essays and ruminations on philosophical topics in their text. Personally I think their books are all the better for it, but in Britain people are scared of being ‘pretentious’ and blurring the lines of writer / narrator is frowned upon. I think this is one of the big weaknesses of British fiction at the moment. We need more writers willing to take risks. The novel is perfect for examining big ideas.
Other Asian writers? Tan Twan Eng, the Malaysian writer, writes beautiful, sensitive novels and his prose is better at evoking a scene than many painters. I also love Chiew Siah Tei, also from Malaysia, and Goh Poh Seng from Singapore.
What are the Asia-related subjects that have recently engaged your attention?
Living in Japan, the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake has loomed large in my imagination. I’m working on a novel set in Tohoku a year after the earthquake. I’m also slowly building up a collection of short stories set in various Asian countries. Sometimes Asia can be so different from Scotland (particularly cultural assumptions, which are different in every country), at other times it’s clear that below cultural differences, humanity is the same the world over. I’m fascinated by the moments when those two meet, either in a heightened moment of understanding or in a jarring crash.
If you hadn’t been a writer what would you have been?
I always wanted to be a musician. I play the guitar and write songs but I have a awful singing voice and no time to start a band with others.
How did you find Eastlit and what are your impressions of it?
I came across Eastlit early on. It’s a great idea for a journal, filling a very important niche. For anyone writing in their second language, getting published is tricky, and I think Eastlit provides a safe environment for these writers. As a reader I love being exposed to different stories, different ways of approaching themes.
Would you like to leave us with a favorite quote?
There’s a line by the band The Delgados: ‘When faced with reality / I choose frivolity’. When I was starting out as a writer I thought you could write funny books or serious books. The best books are both. It’s something I tried to remember while writing First Time Solo. It’s set during the war. People die, frequently. But my characters are also eighteen year old boys away from home for the first time. They wouldn’t spend every minute sulking like Hamlet. There must always be some frivolity to lighten the load.
Thanks to Iain Maloney for taking the time to give us an interview. All of us at Eastlit wish him the best in the future.
The following work by Iain Maloney has featured in Eastlit: