Earlier this week I reviewed The Beginning Woods by Malcolm McNeill, a début novel that turns out to be one of the best books I’ve read this year, about a boy who is forced to choose between the real and the imaginary, between the happy world of his dreams, and the complex challenges of actual life.
An unusual novel for the 21st century teen book market, with its deeply philosophical heart and baroque writing, I was keen to find out more about its author and the book’s journey to publication (and simply to sing its praises from the rooftops!) and so today, on the book’s official publication day, I’m truly delighted to bring you an interview with Malcolm McNeill, encompassing everything from hedgehogs and foxes to Dahl and Dungeons and Dragons, drawing on a hypothetical biographical bookshelf illuminating different points in Malcolm’s life along the way.
A good starting point when talking with any teller of stories about their life and work has to be the tales they first remember enjoying. For Malcolm this was listening, aged 5 or 6, to his father read Aesop’s Fables from a big hardback collection “with a rooster on the front“. It was, however, when Malcolm was a little bit older that he discovered (in his local library) a series of books that would have a particularly profound influence on him: old hardback editions of the fairy tales told by Ruth Manning-Sanders.
“I was very interested in these books! I remember being fascinated by the strange proportions of those amazing Robin Jacques illustrations, the stout ogres with the giant heads and ridiculous legs. They all wore waistcoats and shoes with buckles – I found that very surprising, that ogres had these fine clothes. All the stories were like that, in fact. Little men carried about “currant buns” and there were “flasks of wine” all over the place. All this was very mysterious to a little boy.
The stories themselves were just brilliantly told, with this direct energy, that kept alive that all-important fairy tale “now listen to this” vibe… reading these was like being told by a wise old woman about a mysterious time in the past that she had touched and I would never be able to. Except through a story.”
And thus we meet the first book on Malcolm’s biographical bookshelf: ‘A Book of Enchantments and Curses’ by Ruth Manning-Sanders. “I owe a big debt to Manning-Sanders stylistically. Whenever I “hear” fairy tales, I hear them in her voice, with its simple prose, curious repetitions, and sudden declarations like “Not a bit of it!” or “Just you try it!” that give the whole thing a feeling of being spoken. I used her voice a lot in The Beginning Woods.”
Books and stories were not only enjoyed by Malcolm, they also played an early and decisive role in the practicalities of Malcolm’s life, inspiring him to chose to leave the family home in Glasgow and attend a boarding school in Edinburgh. “It was Roald Dahl’s horror stories about his education that got me interested in the concept of boarding schools. I was so intrigued by Dahl as a writer and a character it felt like I was following in the man’s (large) footsteps.”
It was at this school that a history teacher asked his class of 14 year olds what they wanted to do when they grew up. Malcolm replied that he “wanted to live in a small room and live on bread and honey and read lots of books.”
Given this early connection between writers, books and creating the sort of life one wants to lead, you might be forgiven for thinking that Malcolm was interested in writing from an early age, but he never saw a career as an author ahead of him. In fact, at school, for many years he was seen, and saw himself, as a scientist, perhaps with a future in neurology or geology.
Things, however, gradually changed as Malcolm became more and more involved in school drama productions, including a version of ‘Peter Pan’ by J.M Barrie, the next book on Malcolm’s biographical bookshelf.
“I co-directed this play with Mr Selby, a history teacher. The previous year we’d done A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it was these two plays that really addicted me to theatre as a place of discovery, collaboration, artistic endeavour, and investigation.”
It transpires that Barrie’s authorial voice also seeped into Malcolm’s mind and heart: His first attempt at writing a full-length children’s novel (“very whimsical, about a boy who strayed into the forest at the bottom of his garden“) was written “very much under Barrie’s spell“, and echoes of Barrie, as with Manning-Sanders, can be heard in The Beginning Woods.
Alongside discovering the thrill of theatre, it was also at school where, for the first time, Malcolm experienced language which really made his spine tingle. The book in question was John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost IX and X’. “This book was brought to life for me, and peeled apart intellectually, by my English teacher Mr Williams. I think this was the first time I saw literature being used to directly address philosophical questions such as free-will, and the value of reason over the emotions.” As soon as Malcolm told this to me I could see a bright thread leading from this experience at school with Milton through to The Beginning Woods, which likewise isn’t afraid of asking big questions and exploring intellectual and philosophical issues.
Now it’s not often a conversation can move seamlessly from 17th century poetry to 20th century fantasy role-playing games, but that’s precisely what happened next in my conversation with Malcolm, as he shared the fourth book on his biographical bookshelf – one that, perhaps surprisingly, I’ve heard other authors also credit with fuelling their imagination and honing their ability to tell stories: ‘The Dungeon Master’s Guide’ from Dungeons and Dragons.
“I always desperately wanted to play D&D when I was a kid, practically foaming at the mouth to play it. At boarding school, I became a Dungeon Master myself but I never planned out a campaign or an adventure like you’re supposed to — I just made it all up as we went along. I noticed it was actually possible to create what appeared to be a deliberate plan, or sense of an unfolding plot, by constantly referring backwards to things that had happened so far. You could end up with the most astonishing “coincidences” and collisions of imagery in this way, simply by thinking backwards, not ahead, and making use of what you had already laid down. It’s a bit like how footballers score goals, by making proper use of opportunities that come their way, and behaving in a way that maximise these opportunities. I used this method to plot The Beginning Woods, which I also “made up as I went along”.”
By now in our conversation it is clear to me that books and stories were clearly always swirling around Malcolm, and yet it seems to me that a split between science and art continued to create tension for him – something I find fascinating, as it is a central theme in The Beginning Woods. Aptitude tests taken at school told Malcolm science was the route for him, and yet his instincts told him otherwise. It all came to a head when “an extraordinary French teacher, a diminutive and terrifying French woman who had total authority over the boys” was categorically dismissive of Malcolm’s uncertainty over A Level choices: ‘“You are not a scientist!” she declared. “You are an artist!”’
The French teacher’s words clearly had an effect. Whilst studying for a degree in English Literature at York University, Malcolm spent more time putting on and acting in plays than concentrating on academic work and indeed his first years in the adult job market were spent in London, acting whenever possible, supported by jobs in cinemas or working as a postman to make ends meet. Whilst mostly acting with friends, Malcolm also appeared in Jonathan Meades‘s surrealism documentary. “I loved Meades, he was hilarious to work with, and he has a dazzling intelligence. I played various roles: Prince Philip, an asylum lunatic, odd things like that. If you’re very quick-eyed you can see me in suspenders and a corset, blindfolded with an orange in my mouth.”
Given Malcolm’s passion for acting, it’s wonderful that next up on his biographical bookshelf is a(nother) play script – Harold Pinter’s ‘The Caretaker’. “I put this on with two friends — I played Aston. I’ve done a few Pinter plays and loved every one of them. Pinter is a master of the comic placement of words. Even simple words like “duck” become rich with enormous comic potential for an actor. I like writers that have their own atmosphere. Dickens and Sebald, for example.”
Whilst living in London Malcolm was a member of the Friends Meeting House on Euston Road. And the next book on his shelf is the Quaker pamphlet ‘Advices and Queries’, a short text Malcolm carried about for years. “I think most moral positions are based on common sense, moderate thinking, tolerance, level-headedness — the Quakers are very good at discovering these and describing them in accurate, close language, setting them out in a non-doctrinaire style for our consideration. Reading them now and again is very refreshing — things aren’t as complicated as they seem.”
As time went on, the draw of writing began quietly to take hold. Malcolm had starting writing a novel whilst at school, and during his university degree continued writing, at that time focussing on jazz lyrics, comic verse and picture book stories. Once in London, living on a shoestring, constantly fighting battles with debt collectors, Malcolm started an anonymous online diary, “a kind of exercise in self-exploration. I used the internet cafés on Tottenham Court Road to post my entries. One day I put up a very early section of my book, and one of the readers, Deana, a fellow diarist and American high school student, contacted me to see if she could read more. It was one of those moments that drew me out of myself a bit, and made me see that perhaps there was something I could make happen, if I chose to. I’ve never been very good at this “making things happen”, but it’s absolutely key to mature, successful, adult life.”
Realising that he couldn’t find the jobs he wanted in acting, and starting to realise his nature was indeed “perhaps more disposed to writing“, something possible in any location, he left London behind and started travelling the globe, using teaching English to fund stays (sometimes of several years) in Slovakia, Siberia, Saudi Arabia, as well as Vietnam and Germany. (After living away for so long, Malcolm was asked by the Quakers in London if he was ever going to return; If not, his membership would be cancelled. “I was a bit saddened, but I said that was fine. So I was ex-communicated for the very dull Quaker heresy of not being there.“)
And so began several year of travelling, teaching and continuing to write whenever possible. With a peripatetic, ascetic lifestyle, I wonder out loud how Malcolm actually sits down to write; He doesn’t strike me as one of those authors who has a dedicated shed at the end of the garden, full of mementos and biscuits and a gerbil or a dog. And sure enough, his approach to getting words on paper is more about his mental state than any physical set of conditions.
“I don’t really have a routine or any special system. I just sit down and try to do it.
Emotional calm is very important for my writing. If there’s any kind of mental upset — forget it.
I find it very useful, while I’m brushing my teeth in the morning, to visualize that I’m about to start writing. I usually start writing about five minutes after I get out of bed. I find it almost impossible to write in the afternoon. It has to be first thing or late at night. The afternoon is for practical stuff, admin, that kind of thing.”
As we chat it becomes clear that teaching – something Malcolm enjoys a great deal, something he appears to approach with great creativity and thoughtfulness – is also important for his writing.
“Teaching is a very good counterweight to the otherwise rather solitary existence of a writer, but it also feeds into it. Over time it’s brought me into prolonged contact with a great variety of people, of all ages, from many different cultures and backgrounds. The contact isn’t superficial – there is a kind of intimacy in teaching, a psychological intimacy, first of all in the sense that students are psychologically a little vulnerable, and you have to be mindful of that, but also because as a teacher you are looking at someone and watching what they’re doing very closely, and it’s not often we do that, in other areas of life. You have to pay attention to people to learn about them, and teaching forces you to pay attention to people, for hours a day, every day. And people are very interesting to watch in this way!”
And stories inevitably played an important role in Malcolm’s teaching. “My personal favourite was John Burningham’s ‘John Patrick Norman McHennassy’ – the boy who was always late. The kids loved this story, especially the marvelously-drawn teacher, and the mysterious existence of this boy with his solitary walks to school each morning through a (largely) peaceful landscape. Anything different from their own experience absolutely captivates children.
I would also often used spoken stories on YouTube, such as the Storyteller uploads, Yuri Norsteyn cartoons, John Lewis Christmas ads (the kids absolutely adored these – I think I’ve introduced an entire generation of Vietnamese children to Aurora), Shane Koyczan poems like To This Day, or Troll. And I had a couple of my own stories to tell them, because children are often very curious about their teachers. Some of them were even true!”
At this point in our exchange I find a magical moment when several disparate threads cross and have to tell Malcolm about another book being published by Pushkin Press (the publishers of The Beginning Woods), a book precisely about a teacher telling his own stories to his class, where the boundary between what is in the story and what is really happening in the life of the teacher becomes increasingly blurred: The Song of Seven. It makes me think that Malcolm couldn’t have found a better home for his début novel than this amazing publisher who specialises in translated fiction, but broke their own rules in order to publish The Beginning Woods – their first book which isn’t a translation.
Except, translation does play an important role in how The Beginning Woods has arrived on UK shores; it was actually first published in German two years ago, and it was the German language translation which caught the eye of Pushkin Press, who then decided that they wanted to bring it to an English-reading audience.
The book-nerd in me (does that come as a surprise?) is curious to know how the published English language version relates to the German language version. Is it a translation of the German? A re-written version of the original text translated into German?
“I think it’s different enough for me to say that the translation is of the book that will now never be published — that has, in a sense, disappeared. This is all thematically extremely pleasing! I think it’s a general rule that if you ask any writer to sit down with any book three years after they last worked on it, they’ll make changes. Most of it was just general rewriting along standard principles (tightening language and description and so on). One of these changes was for entirely whimsical reasons — I eliminated one character entirely only because he’d been disappearing from the story for years, and now it was time for him to completely Vanish.
But the book still “means” the same thing and contains the same ideas…. although…there are also some significant changes to the ending.
The main thing, I think, that you get from an editor is the gentle pressure to look at the story with fresh eyes, when you’re possibly extremely fed up (I was). After being alone with it for so long, you get a little cognitive shake. It’s not that they say, Do this, or Do that—they actually don’t give you ideas directly. But a good editor can give you a kind of renewed energy, a desire, to re-examine, or look at something from a different angle. I remember I was very nervous when I first FaceTimed the new editor, Hannah Featherstone, from Pushkin, potentially ready to fight my corner and so on, but when her face appeared on the screen she had this big, friendly smile, and I knew at once it was all going to be OK. We just talked, and it was lovely.”
Talking about the nitty-gritty of the book, Malcolm introduces the penultimate book on his biographical bookshelf: ‘Russian Thinkers’ by Isaiah Berlin.
“If I had to choose one book that contributed to my thinking behind The Beginning Woods, it would be this one. I can’t remember much about the reading I was doing at the time, because it was so long ago, but I never forgot The Hedgehog and the Fox. I love essays, and Berlin in particular was a great thinker and a great essayist. What struck me most about his essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, was how much could be gleaned, by analysis and association, from a simple line of poetry. You can just keep going on and on, deeper and deeper. The entire story of ‘The Beginning Woods’ comes from an analysis of the question: Why would somebody Vanish?”
It’s not just Berlin’s approach to analysis and delving deeper that influences The Beginning Woods. If I were to sum up the entire novel in just a (shortish) phrase, I’d perhaps say it is about the tension between the simple and the complex, the desire to irreducibly explain everything at the same time as the impossibility of doing so, and the Hedgehog and the Fox in Berlin’s essay represent exactly this. You don’t need to know anything about these mammals or Berlin to enormously enjoy Malcolm’s book, but hearing about how important the essay by Berlin is to Malcolm, I can’t help but feel a sense of lightbulbs suddenly turning on in my own head and the satisfying click of connections being made.
And so as our conversation slowly draws to a close, here we stand, on a new threshold where more exciting connections will be made: the day of publication of the English language edition of The Beginning Woods. Malcolm is currently back living in the UK, working on something “completely different, something inspired partly by the example of Chuck D, Janis Joplin and Emily Dickinson,” but I suspect it won’t be long before Malcolm is off again exploring the world, not least because, as he confides in me, “I miss teaching.”
And if he could go off exploring a storybook world (other than his own), a fictional landscape or plot before going back on the road in the real world waiting out there for him?
“I read a lot of David Eddings and Terry Brooks when I was a kid. Both those worlds (their Belgariad / Shanarra series) were great. There’s even a little tip of the hat to Eddings in the Beginning Woods (a character sneaks in briefly). In his world, I’d quite like to go for a walk in the Vale of Anduin, and perhaps go see Belgarath in his tower. Terry Brooks’ world was also absolutely wonderful, very dark, and the characters suffered horribly, which was great. (Boris I think is an echo in my mind of the Dark Uncle.) I’d like to go have a few words with Allanon in his gloomy lake.
Definitely the most fun storybook plot to be in would be one from Piers Antony’s Incarnation of Immortality series. They’re a lot sexier than Brooks and Eddings, a bit more adult. I’d quite like to be chosen as the new Incarnation of Evil, Death, or Time.”
Before we part, Malcolm shares the last (or perhaps more accurately, the most recent addition) to his biographical bookshelf: ‘A Gentleman from San Francisco and other stories’ by Ivan Bunin.
“I think if I could write like anyone, I would write like Ivan Bunin. He just has this marvellous restraint and delicacy of language.”
What I can say about Malcolm’s writing is that it is intricate, rewarding, and full of shafts of dazzling beauty. From single phrases up to the multilayered luxurious plot, via eye-catching, heart-stopping characters and thought-provoking explorations of fascinating themes, The Beginning Woods has it all for me.
Thank you, Malcolm.