Cheltenham Q & A - Holly Muller
Waterstones exclusive: Holly Muller answers our seven questions
We here at Waterstones put our heads together and came up with seven snappy author questions. Then we put them to the authors appearing at Cheltenham Literature Festival (which runs from the 2nd - 11th October). The result? Read for yourself.
Tenth in the series: Holly Muller
Holly Müller is a novelist and short story writer born in 1981 in Brecon, Wales to a Welsh mother and Austrian father. Her short story, My Cousin’s Gun, was published by Parthian Books in their anthology of new Welsh fiction entitled Rarebit. Rarebit was chosen as Waterstones Book of the Month for January 2014. She presents her debut novel My Own Dear Brother at Cheltenham Literature Festival in Bloomsbury’s Proof Party on Thu 8 Oct 2015 4:30pm - 6:00pm
What book do you wish that you had written?
I wish I’d written Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. It makes me feel outright worshipful. Based on the real case of Grace Marks, a working class teenager who ended up a ‘celebrated murderess’ and involved in one of the most notorious murder trials of 19th Century Canada, Atwood reaches back in time, into the mind of Grace, to tell her tale of survival in a hostile world. It’s such an incredible achievement in story telling and academic historical research that it’s humbling and completely electrifying; I even kissed the page once while I was reading, I was so overcome. This book not only gripped me mercilessly throughout its 534 pages with its murky undercurrents of sex and violence, it also educated me, inspired me, unsettled me, moved me, made me feel sad for all humanity, and joyful, too, for the strength of people and the complex depth of them. And it proved to me just how much a novel can do.
Just as your books inspire readers, what authors inspired you to write?
I’d say that Kazuo Ishiguro has a lot to answer for – his novels inspire me hugely. I love the unreliable narrator thing; he does it so well. Writers like J.D. Salinger get me all excited about voice and character. Margaret Atwood; I’ll always cite her, no matter how many times over. She’d my hero. And then F. Scott Fitzgerald for his evocative, unusual descriptions – his acrobatic narrative style. And back in the day when I was just starting to write it was writers like Tracey Chevalier and Joanne Harris; I found them delicious. A big mixture – there are so many more.
Once you've had the initial idea for a book, do you create the plot first or do you begin writing straight away, looking to discover the story and characters along the way?
I’ve only ever written one book, which is My Own Dear Brother, and I dived in without looking at all, straight to the bottom of the proverbial creative pond, where plot and planning do not come into things. I explored an underwater world, things coming at me out of the dark, and currents sweeping me sideways. It was so exhilarating – for a while. But then I realised I was sort of drowning, and spent the next few years swimming for dry land. Turns out you do need a good solid plot beneath your feet. Still, I’m not sure I’d have found my characters if I hadn’t gone down there, and I loved all of it, even the pond muck and not having enough oxygen.
Do you read your reviews? How do you respond to them, good or bad? Any advice on how to deal with the bad?
Being a debut author, I’ve not read any reviews yet. But I’m anticipating them with a mixture of excitement and trepidation and will certainly read some. How could I not? I’ve read plenty of reviews of my band, Hail! The Planes. I admit that in those cases I found myself hanging on to every word, positive and negative, though luckily there’s rarely been negativity to contend with. Fragile ego? Absolutely. Hell bent on putting myself out there despite that? Always. Another Welsh author, Rachel Tresize, observed the tendency of writers to swing wildly between vaulting ego and crushing self-doubt and surely there’s no greater risk of that than when reading your reviews. My advice to myself is to get off the aforementioned swing as quickly as possible and try to listen to Rudyard Kipling:
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same.
If you were trapped on a desert island, which two books would you want to have with you and why?
Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 as it’s excessively long and I think I could spend forever in its beautiful but utterly mystifying world, trying to work out what is HAPPENING, and who are the Little People, and what does it all MEAN? And not caring that I could never figure out the answer. The book makes you puzzle away like a detective and then, effortlessly, surrender to not-knowingness, a state that feels wonderful and profound in itself.
The second book I’d take is perhaps The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis; something nostalgic that would remind me of my family, of childhood, and of imaginative play.
Who else do you wish to see while at the Cheltenham festival?
I’m only able to be here for one day – Thursday October 8th – so I’ve nabbed tickets to see Matthew Parris talking with Owen Jones, because I really admire Owen Jones and am currently reading his polemical book, The Establishment – and how they get away with it. Then, in the evening I’ll go to the event called ‘In One Moment, Everything Changes’, where they discuss how to write pivotal plot incidents. Sounds juicy!
What was the last book you read?
Michel Faber’s latest novel The Book of Strange New Things. It’s sci-fi and incredibly involving, despite – and this will sound a bit insulting – being somehow mundane. I read it especially fast and stayed up late into the night to find out more, more, more. I love the spongy, rain-washed, far-distant planet where moist, sibilant air lifts your hair and licks inside your clothing. There’s mystery. There are aliens. And aliens that are fearfully cute.