Monday, July 12, 2010

Karen Maitland Interview (with Charles Tan)

Karen Maitland

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. In your novels, superstition and paranoia are key elements in the conflict. What made you decide to tackle these themes?

I have always been fascinated with how religion, or a belief in the supernatural, shapes our lives. It brings out both extremes of human behaviour. Think of the extraordinary lives of self-sacrifice and service which religions can inspire. Yet, faith can also bring out the very worst in humans, so many conflicts and atrocities throughout history have been committed in the name of religion and through superstition as well. Communities have cruelly murdered innocent people because of a superstitious belief that an albino child can bring the evil eye, or someone who looks too healthy might be a vampire.

In Middle Ages if you were born poor and without power, religion or magic could give you power. If you became a priest, a shaman, a toadsman or a horse whisperer, you could gain power over your community and that is still true today in many countries. In The Owl Killers the Church has the power of life or death over people, as well as holding the keys to the next world, but equally the pagan cult of the toadsmen, the Owl Masters, use superstition and magic to wield control over the villagers.

Even in this modern scientific age, in times of crisis and uncertainty, we are desperate to gain some measure of control over our lives. Sales of lucky charms, tarot cards and people consulting mediums shoot up when there is an economic crisis. There is currently a huge interest in angels, vampires and ghosts reflected in TV and books. People today claim not to be superstitious yet you only have to look at the little rituals most of us perform around sporting events or lottery draws or job interviews to know, there is still a part of us that hopes that by crossing our fingers, clutching a lucky mascot or wearing our lucky underpants we can influence events which are beyond our control.

I love the old saying which goes – “Just because I’m paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.” In my novels Company of Liars and The Owl Killers, both individuals and the groups are driven by fear.

I’m fascinated by how people react when they are afraid. Not just isolated moments of fear, but a threat that continues to build day after day. I had a glimmer of that living in Nigeria during a bloody civil war. I experienced the terror of lying awake every night listening the talking drums and knowing that any moment I might be attacked. Soldiers in prolonged combat are only too well aware of the effects of prolonged fear.

We react to fear and threat no differently now than we did centuries ago. In recent years we’ve seen modern communities, when faced with the threat of HIV Aids, Bird Flu and Swine Flu, behave exactly as they did in the Middle Ages over the plague. Ordinary decent people will do desperate things when they are terrified and I think most of us are capable of doing things through fear that, when we are in our right minds, would appall us.

For me the effects of fear, both on individuals and communities, is one of the most interesting things to explore in fiction, because it reveals the dark-side of the soul which lurks beneath the civilised surface in most of us.

I read in an interview that you're dyslexic. How has dylexia aided you--and challenged you--when it comes to writing fiction?

Curiously many well-known actors and novelists are dyslexic. There is a much higher proportion in these professions than in the population as a whole. Dyslexics seem to be hard-wired to become fascinated, even obsessed, by words.

Dyslexia is one of greatest gifts a writer or actor could be given. It allows you to make unusual or even unique links between words, patterns and rhythms in language. Your brain weirdly connects unrelated words and images.

Like many dyslexics, I taught myself to read and write as if the written word was an entirely separate language which had no connection to spoken English. So I learned to tell to stories rather than write them. Now when I approach a novel, it’s as if I am telling a story to a friend, rather than writing on the page. Of course, I do write it down. (I don’t dictate it or use a ghost-writer, as some people imagine.) I write straight into a computer, but the story appears first as a series of visual images in my head. I see the scenes played out in my mind. I hear the voices of the characters as if I am in that place with them. I smell the vegetation, and feel the heat of the sun on my skin. I hope this helps readers to experience the scene rather than simply read about.

Grown up with dyslexia made me conscious of being different. Like most novelists I tend to write about people who are slightly at odds with the world in which they find themselves. After all, if you wrote about Mr and Mrs Average who were well-adjusted, perfectly happy, respectable citizens, they would be the most boring characters in the world to read about. So for various reasons – race, disability, sexual orientation, beliefs – my characters inhabit the margins of society. They are the outsiders looking in and in effect that is exactly what a reader is doing when they read a novel.

What made you decide to write novels? What is it about the format that appeals to you?

I was a strange little child who loved going to bed and insisted on having all the lights put out. In total darkness I could tell myself stories and disappear into the worlds I created, without the ‘real world’ interrupting me. I’d invent people whose adventures would continue episode after episode for weeks. Even at that age I think I knew that there was something wonderful about creating characters who’d start off under the author’s control, but eventually come alive and do things the author never expected of them.

When I was a little older, I had a tiny radio I’d smuggle into bed and listen plays such as the Mystery of Black Tor and other chillers, all totally unsuitable for a young child. Having only sounds to work from really fired my imagination. So writing novels is only an extension of a childhood game.

There is often more truth to be found in fiction than you would ever find in any non-fiction book. Non-fiction only teaches facts, and fact and truth are not the same thing. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, is an enthralling adventure, but along the way the reader is able to explore and learn far more about themselves and about human behaviour – greed, love, loyalty, leadership, the effects of power – than you find in any psychology textbook. I think this is why most religious leaders have used stories to communicate and since ancient times, folk tales have taught us how to deal with the challenges of life.

In Company of Liars, I used the format that is one of the oldest forms of art known to man, a narrator who sits down and tells his audience or in this case the readers, about their life and adventures. In The Owl Killers, I employ five first person narrators, who each weave their stories through each other like whispers in the dark. They have different interpretations of the same events, and believe different truths, as people do in real life. But in both novels, the narrators, like any storyteller, constantly throw the tale open to the reader and asks the reader – what do you make of this? What do you bring to this tale?

The thrill and joy of any novel is that it is a unique reading experience for each individual reader. No two readers read the same story, because only half the story is written by the author, the other half is completed by the reader who brings their own unique experiences, personalities and imagination to it. In contrast, non-fiction is set up to say – this is how it is; take or leave it.

In the Middle Ages, people didn’t divide things into real and unreal, fact and fiction in the way we do now. Angels and demons, werewolves and sea monsters were as much part of everyday life in their minds, as cooking beans and ploughing the fields. They saw stories in the stars and omens in the flames of the fire or the way a bird flew across the sky. It is that way of looking at life I want to get back in my novels, the old tradition of telling a story where we don’t ask – Did it really happen? Could it really happen? – but one which each reader finds their own personal space to explore what the tale and the characters mean to them. Truth, not fact.