Iain Maloney is the author of three novels – The Waves Burn Bright, Silma Hill, and First Time Solo – and a haiku collection called Fractures. Iain is also one of our BPA editors. In anticipation of his latest work, a memoir entitled The Only Gaijin in the Village, we asked him a few questions about his experiences as an author.
How did you get into writing?
I feel like I’ve always written. I remember writing a story about a dog when I was a child, and I had a poem about trees published when I was in primary school, but I began writing properly in high school. Poetry first, most of it adolescent and cringe-worthy. Then narrative, the shape of a story gripped me and I moved into fiction. I started getting published regularly at uni and that cemented the desire to be a writer: receiving an acceptance letter – it was still letters then – and seeing yourself in print, it’s like a drug, I was hooked. So I did the Masters in Creative Writing at Glasgow University and never looked back.
What did you find the publishing process like?
Lots of rejection, but that’s okay, it’s part of the process, it’s how you learn what is good, what isn’t. It’s how you learn what matters to you in your writing and what doesn’t, how you begin to define your voice and your intentions as a writer. Getting published is tough, and it should be otherwise we’d be drowning in half thought through books and unedited prose. I was lucky to have stories and poems published early, but it still took years for my first book to come out. I graduated from Glasgow in 2004 and my debut novel, First Time Solo, was published in 2014. Ten years of writing and rejection. First Time Solo wasn’t the first book I wrote – it was the first book I wrote that was good enough to be published. I have metaphorical drawers full of finished bad novels. Hundreds of thousands of words written, rewritten and edited that just weren’t quite there. It was dispiriting at the time but looking back it was something I had to go through – we’re not born able to write novels, we have to serve an apprenticeship. An unpublished – unpublishable – novel isn’t a waste of time, it’s all the training you do before actually running the marathon.
“I have metaphorical drawers full of finished bad novels. Hundreds of thousands of words written, rewritten and edited that just weren’t quite there. It was dispiriting at the time but looking back it was something I had to go through – we’re not born able to write novels, we have to serve an apprenticeship.”
You have written several novels, a war story, a historical thriller, as well as a haiku collection and a (soon to be released) memoir about Japan. These are very varied, where do you get your inspiration from?
There are stories everywhere. Socrates said the unexamined life isn’t worth living – the flip side of that is that every life bears examination from a narrative stand point. Everything is a story if you can find the nugget of truth in it, the kernel that is universifiable. Finding inspiration isn’t the problem, it’s never the “what” that stumps me, it’s the “how”. There are infinite ways a story can be told – which is the best for my particular set of skills and interests? As for genre, I guess I’m just a product of my environment – in music, genre is increasingly irrelevant, streaming and playlist culture has broken down those barriers. It’s the same in cinema. Nobody bats an eyelid when Tarantino follows a heist movie with a western or a samurai revenge film. But in literature we still pigeonhole writers – “she’s a crime writer, therefore she can only write and publish crime stories.” I never understood that. One of my favourite writers is David Mitchell – he just goes with whatever genre suits the specific story he’s telling. I’m the same (though not in the same class as him). At the end of the day, genre is just a way of telling a story – the stories themselves are genreless. All my books – the memoir and my haiku collection included – are stories about people trying to find their place in the world. The genre is just the vehicle.
Tell us a bit about your writing process. How do you go from idea to final draft?
Chaotically. It’s been different with each book. I think I’m maybe getting a handle on the process but it never looks any easier from the starting line. There’s the notebook stage, which is the most fun, when it’s just ideas connecting with other ideas. Then there’s the post-it notes all over the wall stage – my wife hates this stage as post-it notes succumb to gravity all too easily and the house begins to look like it’s autumn in a post-it forest. Then there’s the writing and the rewriting and the breakdowns and the hours talking to myself. Then the happy happy day when I email it to my agent and go out and get very, very drunk.
“Everything is a story if you can find the nugget of truth in it, the kernel that is universifiable.”
Your novel ‘First Time Solo’ was shortlisted for the Guardian Not The Booker Award, what was that like?
Horrible, to be perfectly honest. Firstly the guy running it gave my novel a kicking in the Guardian – lazily and unfairly in my opinion, but I won’t go into that, there’s nothing worse than an artist railing at a reviewer – which given I’m a Guardian reader was very painful. It didn’t help that the review was (and probably still is) high up on the first page when you Google me. Secondly one of my oldest friends, Simon Sylvester, was also nominated and deservedly won. I’m not by nature a competitive person but the way Not the Booker works is that you’re forced into using social media to campaign for votes, it’s an active competition in a way that most literary prizes aren’t, and Simon and I were drawing from the same well. It put a lot of mutual friends into an awkward position and inevitably caused some tension. Beyond having that line on my CV: “shortlisted for…” there’s little about it I look back on with pleasure.
Tell us a bit about your latest book ‘The Only Gaijin in the Village’.
I’ve lived in Japan since 2005 but in 2016 my wife and I moved into a rural community where I was the only foreigner – gaijin – in the village. The book is about my efforts to fit in and my neighbours efforts to accept me in their community. It’s also about the experience of being an immigrant in another country, both good and bad. It’s funny, sometimes dramatic and occasionally angry. Given the way immigration is demonised around the world by the media and politicians, I wanted to write a positive book about the benefits of immigration. Hopefully that’s what comes across. It’s out in March 2020 on Polygon in the UK.
You are also a BPA editor, do you have any writing advice that you have found to be particularly useful or memorable?
Hemingway always stopped for the day halfway through a scene so that when he came back the next day, he’d know exactly what he was going to be writing. Never ever ever sit down at your desk if you don’t know what you’re going to write that day. I don’t mean necessarily planning everything to the last comma, but don’t do your thinking at the desk. Do it while you’re stuck in traffic, while you’re hanging up the washing, cutting the grass. Your brain is always working away but just staring at a blank page while you’re thinking is a waste of time and will make you feel like you’re blocked. You aren’t blocked, you’re just not ready to write yet. You aren’t prepared. There’s no such thing as writer’s block, just a lack of planning.
“Never ever ever sit down at your desk if you don’t know what you’re going to write that day.”
What are you currently reading?
Just Kids by Patti Smith, Gutter 20, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Speaking with the Angel – a short story collection edited by Nick Hornby – and A User’s Guide to Make-Believe by Jane Alexander. I always have a number of books on the go because my moods shift.
Iain’s latest book ‘The Only Gaijin in the Village’ is out in March 2020. Pre-order here.