It’s my first #Orentober Q&A day and I am super happy that Michael J Malone agreed to answer some of my questions, who of us aren’t intrigued by the person behind the words of a book? I was really excited to pick the brain of Michael after binge reading his domestic noir thrillers for #MaloneMonday earlier this year. Each one of his Orenda published books made me feel unsettled and I just needed to know the behind the scene details.
If you’ve missed out on any of my Malone posts, you can check them out below:
You can also check out my In The Absence of Miracles review later this month!
Michael Malone is a prize-winning poet and author who was born and brought up in the
heart of Burns’ country. He has published over 200 poems in literary magazines throughout the UK, including New Writing Scotland, Poetry Scotland and Markings. Blood Tears, his bestselling debut novel won the Pitlochry Prize from the Scottish Association of Writers. Other published work includes: Carnegie’s Call; A Taste for Malice; The Guillotine Choice; Beyond the Rage; The Bad Samaritan and Dog Fight. His psychological thriller, A Suitable Lie, was a number-one bestseller, and the critically acclaimed House of Spines and After He Died soon followed suit. A former Regional Sales Manager (Faber & Faber) he has also worked as an IFA and a bookseller. Michael lives in Ayr.
Hello Michael, thank you for visiting The Reading Closet this month to celebrate #Orentober, I hope that you’ve been enjoying the festivities! You have very recently had your fourth Orenda book, In The Absence of Miracles, published last month. Congratulations! After binging your Orenda four, I have found that you use a variety of non – fictional themes to build your storylines upon. Do you believe that this is an important element of being an author? Why in particular did you choose the themes that you did?
There are several things I look for in a book I’m reading – a good story, a combination of words that “taste” good in the mind, engaging characters, and perhaps to gain insight/ learn something new about the world we live in. (A writer doesn’t have to do all of this to engage me – I’ll enjoy a book where only one of these separate elements are well done – but if they manage all of them then they have a fan for life.) And that’s what I aim to achieve when writing. That last item on the list, writing about real life issues is key for me in helping me emotionally engage with my characters and their world. If there’s something meaty I can get my teeth into and get passionate about that can help drive me through the story.
I don’t think that it’s an important element of being an author – writers set out to do many different things – but it is an important element of writing for this author.
I’ve chosen the various themes I have because they hit me hard. I feel the injustice of them and I want to highlight that to my reader – particularly if it is something that is rarely talked about.
I think you’ve done a brilliant job in highlighting issues, such as domestic violence, mental health awareness and even issues that haunt society as a whole. Do you feel the issues that you include in your novel have affected you on various levels?
I haven’t been personally affected by any of these issues – thankfully – but when I research them, the stories I read, the people I meet, the troubles these people are forced to live through, the unfairness of it affects me deeply and I want to share that with readers.
As a reader, my eyes were opened to a multitude of things that many of us sometimes unconsciously decide to ignore – out of sight…. – but I’m in awe that you have highlighted these issues in such a carefully sensitive yet hard-hitting manner. Your books pre-Orenda are highly crime fiction based, why did you choose to begin writing meaningful psychological thrillers?
My pre-Orenda books have a different style or voice, and that was a deliberate choice, I wanted something more noir with those books. But I do think there are similarities – an interesting word choice (I hope), strong themes and empathic writing.
I’m not sure I “chose” to write such books, the impulse has been there from day one – it’s just that now I’m writing them through the eyes of “normal” people rather than cops and criminals.
Sometimes it’s the ‘normal’ view points that are more affecting, you’ve taken a genre and twisted it completely on its head in such a clever manner, especially with A Suitable Lie which blew my mind! I am really interested in the journey from plan to published work and how it can vary from book to book. That being said, what was your writing process for In the Absence of Miracles? Did the process differ from your other books, if so, how?
This was actually the very first book I wrote. I started it in 1996. Got an agent for it. They bought a TV station and dumped all their authors. Consequently, I lost faith in the book and it sat unread and unloved in a floppy disc (yeah, we had them way back then) for decades. But, as with A Suitable Lie, the central story stuck with me and when Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books asked me what I was writing next I outlined this one for her, and thankfully she was interested.
I hadn’t read the manuscript for a long time, and I expected that it might just need a little bit of tidying up before submitting it to her. That, I found out was a hugely optimistic view – it was dreadful. Obviously, I had nine other novels under my belt by the time I came back to it, and I was a very different writer from the one who started it way back in ’96. So, I had to start again from scratch. I re-wrote the whole thing, and added more of a mystery element to it.
Well I am so glad that it saw the light away from the floppy disk, all the best books start off this way, for example Attend by West Camel and even Stephen King’s Pet Sematary was kept in a drawer for many years! What did you find was the most difficult aspect of writing your Orenda published books, especially In The Absence of Miracles?
Covering the “issue” in the right way. I would hate someone who suffered from one of the issues I write about to think that I was being exploitative. Peoples’ lives are ruined by such experiences and I want to make sure I write about it with respect, while acknowledging the truth and the implications of being locked into such a situation.
I felt that you approached the issue, as well as all other issues with unbelievable sensitivity and respect, but I can imagine that it was difficult to get the voice of it just right. Having had a number of books published, even before Orenda Books, what advice do you have for people trying to get into the writing business? Is it the same advice that you’d give your younger self?
Yeah, for sure. Just do it – reads the corporate slogan. I try not to waste my time with regrets but if I could have my time back I’d go for it sooner. I wasted so much time, allowing myself to be distracted with other stuff, not quite believing that this sort of l career was for someone like me – a working class Scots lad with a basic education.
As well as just doing it, Stephen King said it best when he said “read a lot, write a lot”. I can’t imagine anyone being able to write a novel without being a reader first – and you have to develop your own style and the only way to do that is to write A LOT.
As I said earlier In the Absence of Miracles was my first attempt at a novel, way back in 1996 and as I read through that version from all those years ago – viewing it afresh from a distance of time – I was able to see how I developed as a writer as the book worked its way onto the page. The last few chapters were WAY better than the first part of the book (and some of that even made it into the final version). The problem was that as I was writing it I had just discovered Pat Conroy – raced through all his novels and this was my attempt to be him. And only Pat Conroy can write like Pat Conroy. My version of PC was full of bloated descriptions, clunky dialogue and finger wagging – this is my message and by God, dear reader, you better take it in.
Having since written a further nine novels I was able to see where I had gone wrong and fix it. I could see that my instincts as far as story was concerned were strong, but the execution was poor. I’m being harsh – the book did attract an agent – but it did need a lot of work.
And oh haven’t you created a style of your own, I suppose it’s the same for everything, practice makes perfect but so does faith and belief in yourself. You’ve said that to be a writer, you need to be a reader first. What authors and / or books inspired you to become a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer for so long it’s difficult to think of a time when it wasn’t part of my mindset and to pinpoint how and when that happened. I can remember holding/ reading books as a small child and thinking that one day I’d like to produce one of my own.
And I think everything I’ve read and enjoyed has influenced me to some extent. (I mentioned Pat Conroy earlier – his descriptions were his exquisite and his characters and their dilemmas wormed their way into my heart.) What I would add here is that I read widely – fantasy, crime, thrillers, romance, contemporary, and even so-called literary novels – and I think, if you want to be a writer you should try to do likewise. Clearly, you need to have a good grounding in the genre you chose to write, but other styles and voices can add to the breadth of your experience.
What would you like people to take away from your novels?
I think the job of a writer is to transport a reader into a different life/ world. Books offer people a break from the humdrum and the ordinary. Reading offers a safe diversion and entertainment and if people get that from my books then I’m happy. If they also happen to be moved to tears, anger or laughter then that’s even better.
Reading is a form of escapism, I for one love to get sucked into a book after a busy day – especially one that you can connect with on an emotional and mental level. An author recently told me that an author loves all their characters, even the horrible ones – interesting! From all your previous Orenda Books, do you have any favourite characters? Who and why?
I have a soft spot for Andy from A Suitable Lie. He was with me for SO long (as has John from In the Absence of Miracles) that it’s amazing to think of the impact he has had on readers. The year A Suitable Lie came out a woman contacted me to say that she’d been in therapy after living through an abusive relationship, and the final piece of that therapy was reading Andy’s story. As she described it, reading about Andy and his situation allowed her to forgive herself and to see that in no way was she to blame for what happened to her. A Suitable Lie helped her set aside that shame and put the blame firmly where it belonged – on her abuser. That one comment makes the experience of writing that book worthwhile.
I was going to say, that must have been a somewhat ultimate reward that your words abled someone to move on further from a traumatic past. Worthwhile is the word! Bouncing off the same sort of question, is it difficult for you to write characters that you dislike?
I’m not sure I actively dislike any of my characters. Of course I might dislike or even hate what they do, but to write about them I have to get inside their minds and for the time I’m writing them almost be them – and I think disliking them would interfere with and perhaps block that process.
It’s so incredible how you can get out of your own head, into someone else, a superpower I suppose, especially that you get it so spot on. Doug Johnstone told me that as an author you are constantly thinking about the next book, so, are you working (or have an idea for) your next book? Can we get a sneak peak into the concept, please?
I wrote around 25,000 words of another book last year and then stopped to work on In the Absence of Miracles and I’m about to jump back into that. I still haven’t quite got it settled in my mind as to the best way to describe it. What I can say is that it’s about a young actor with the world at her feet whose boyfriend is accused of molesting a neighbour’s child – and the novel is about the fallout from that.
Now that one I am looking forward to, another psychological nail-biting read by the sounds of it! Thank you again for answering my many questions, to finish off this Q&A could you share a random fact about yourself?
When I was a kid I used to do Highland dancing – sword-dancing, highland fling – all that stuff. I can’t remember any of it, so don’t be asking for a demonstration next time you see me.
Oh you must have some photographs you can share with your fans, or you could get practising for future demonstrations – maybe a book and Highland dancing tour!
So there you have it, I chewed Michael’s ear off with questions and he happily (well hopefully happily) answered them honestly. I’ve enjoyed every minute of his visit!
Make sure that you check out Michael’s books, every one of them is something to shout about. Keep up to date with this months bookish festivities using the hashtag #Orentober, and if you want to tweet, share etc you can use that hashtag too!