MJ Hyland interview: Hyland games

MJ HYLAND HAS NEVER SUFFERED from writer's block. It shows in her books, those unputdownable bundles of lies. Her first two novels – How the Light Gets In and Carry Me Down – displayed a talent to delve into darkness. Her riveting follow-up, This Is How, its title as cryptic as the murderer Patrick Oxtoby who possesses its haunted pages, is her finest novel yet.

Of Irish parents but born in London, Hyland was ferried to Australia aged just two, then back to Dublin, then, at the whim of her drunken father, Down Under again, aged 11. She grew up in Melbourne. She comes from everywhere and nowhere. Does she care? "Where writers are from is one of the world' s most boring topics," she says.

"Where we're born, gender or race, wealth or poverty – those are the things we spend time talking about." She sighs. "Stop trying to label me. I'm a writer. Worry about whether I'm any good!"

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She chose "MJ" and not Maria, because it doesn't give much away: "That I am first and foremost a person and not a sex." Why not pick a number?

"You mean like a prisoner?" She pauses, then laughs. She knows exactly how diabolical she'd be. "I'd be 666. The Omen, remember it? I was born on 6 June 1968. I used to lie that I was born in '66. I was the devil. So, yeah, I know my number already."

Living in Manchester – "trapped in limbo between the suburbs and inner-city" – where she shares her accommodation with Eddie the cat ("Jet black. I don't like him. He's a compromise; I really wanted a dog"), she teaches a class in creative writing in the Centre for New Writing at Manchester University, alongside Martin Amis.

Amis, she says, is easy to work with and one of the best raconteurs she's met. "He's never boring, and surprisingly good and kind and civil and friendly. I've just finished reading The Second Plane and I think it's some of the best non-fiction I've ever read."

Creative writing, however you cut it, is slippery business. Novels betray the hand that writes them. Paradoxically, writer interviews are mug shots, presenting the face, the demeanour, the pose that the author concocts for the occasion. "So you're the mug and I'm the shot," she jokes. Touch.

She is signally upbeat, vivacious and smart. Look at the picture on her website – she's clearly in charge, amused, formidably alive, groomed and delineated, using the distraction of the photogenic image to take us in, in every way.

"I get into all sorts of trouble with my publicists, and with newspapers, because I won't do photographs," she says. "So, I knew I'd have to deal with it – get my hair cut, get my make-up straight, get dressed in something nice. You can see in the photographs that I didn't iron my shirt!"

She confesses at once to being messy: "I couldn't give a flying f***." She'd much rather prop herself up in bed, in a nest of pillows, and write her novels, moving words around in search of the perfect fit.

She endured a famously awful childhood – mind, she made it famous in the first place in an article for the London Review of Books in 2004. It comes across as the childhood from hell.

"I don't want to talk about it," she says. "I already have done. I don't blame you for wanting that dirt, because it's fascinating. People love reading that shit. I very stupidly wrote that big thing for the London Review of Books, thinking it's going to come out when my first novel's published. It was the worst thing I've ever done and my biggest regret."

The piece is both powerful and moving, terse and insightful in equal measure; it weighed her suffering, sifted the past. Yet it does not define her. "I have been obscenely lucky," she maintains. "I've got most of the things I've asked for and done well at the things I've wanted to succeed at."

She thinks she might have looked after her health a little better. "And yet I can't even say I wish I was a non-smoker, because some of the closest friends I've made are because I once scabbed a cigarette off them." She laughs. "And there are maybe a couple of people I shouldn't have bonked."

Apart from that, Hyland sounds stratospherically on the up, which is contradicted a little later when she states that she lives "in a kind of subdued terror – but I smile a lot". What she fears, she says, is death – "I just can't bind to the idea" – and "writing a novel that's predictable" – an absurdly long-odds bet.

So far her writing career has been charmed, although the sales of her books haven't matched their critical plaudits.

This Is How is deceptively simple. Its inspiration was the Paul Arrowsmith interview, cited in Life After Life, Tony Parker's collection of interviews with people who had been sentenced to life imprisonment. Hyland was riveted. "The raw elements really appealed to me. The murderer lived in a lodging house and went to his neighbour's room in the middle of the night and there he killed him. I was fascinated. I wanted to try my hand."

She describes This Is How as "day to day stuff", set by the seaside. That's where the murder takes place, a shocking unprovoked act that both heightens and purges the novel's accruing rack of suspense.

Isn't she worried that she's giving too much away?

"I don't have a problem," she says. "Helen Garner wrote a great blurb for the cover of this novel, which said: 'Hyland's examination of this murderer's soul is a tour de force' etc, etc.

"I did a reading at Hay-on-Wye and began by saying, 'This is the story of a murder …' It must be declared. If this novel's grip on the reader is so tenuous as to be ruined by them knowing there'll be a murder, then it's failed."

The novel itself is its own best advocate. Patrick Oxtoby, on the doorstep of the lodgings, armed with his toolkit, begins, from page one, to give you the shivers, to suck the oxygen, atom by atom from the page. His voice is pregnant with layers of suggestion, Pinteresque, dissolving through Camus into Kafka, becoming Hyland unalloyed.

Oxtoby carries the book; he narrates it. You scan his words, as though screening an X-ray for the flaw that's already embedded in his inescapable fate. The novel's weakness is that Oxtoby, though he's not in the least narcissistic, doesn't paint an in-depth picture of the novel's supporting players.

"One of the things I'm not doing well yet are the smaller parts," Hyland says. "I've so much to learn … I've tried to give them enough dimension … But all my eggs were in one bastard."

I laugh. I'm supposed to. But this is a quip she has used before. "It was spur of the moment the first time I used it, and then it was edited to 'basket'. I had to campaign to have it restored."

The "bastard" in question doesn't think much of what he calls "stupid creative writing workshops". Could she persuade him otherwise?

"I think they're grand," she says. "What's the fuss about?"

For four intense minutes we debate the pros and cons. Her bottom line is: "Look, what harm does it do?" Then she rattles off a salvo of neon-lit names – writers who've famously taken workshops: Richard Ford, Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver. She might have added MJ Hyland. What did she learn?

"My teachers were good. Prepared to give away their secrets." For example? A long hesitation ensues. "Right … OK, I can't … There isn't one." In frustration, but she adds: "I need to learn to tell nice, brief lies when doing interviews."

Hyland's bolder, more troubled childhood self would have cooked up a passable fib in the blink of an eye. "I was unstoppable," she acknowledges. "I'd rationalise it as proof of the size and depth of my imagination. It all wore off by the time I was 20."

Yet "lying" is surely fundamental to making fiction?

"Yes, it's the art of persuasive lying. The writer shouldn't be in the room. Writerly writing and showing off, I can't abide. Writing fiction and telling lies are interrelated."

This Is How is a prime example of the art – and of the writer staying firmly in the background, while bringing the world into blazing focus on the page, and achieving what Hyland calls "the ultimate lie – that I know another mind!".

"Patrick Oxtoby's awfully ordinary," she says. "Yet there's no such thing as ordinary." She pauses again, but this time not for effect, then adds: "And it takes a novel to prove that."

• This Is How by MJ Hyland is published by Canongate, priced 12.99.

MJ Hyland: In a nutshell …

Full name: Maria Jane Hyland.

Passport: British. "Nationality is vexed for me," she says. "I don't really have one."

Previous occupations: Journalist. Lawyer. Bit-part actor in Carson's Law on Australian television. Door-to-door saleswoman, selling fake art.

Literary prizes: The Encore Award and Hawthornden Prize for Carry Me Down, her second novel, which was also shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

On writing: "When it's going well my temperature rises and my ears go red."

On security: "I rebel against the idea of being secure. I'm nomadic. The idea of one job is repugnant to me."

Ambitions: "To be a guitar-playing singer-songwriter. Once, I had the fantasy of becoming a surgeon."

Too much information: "I play online poker. If I fold a hand to go for a pee, it takes two minutes. Exactly two minutes."

Current reading: "Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters: Storytelling Secrets from the Greatest Mind in Civilisation. 'It's terrific. I love poetics and use it all the time."

Favourite French movie: De battre mon coeur s'est arrt by Jacques Audiard.