Malachy Tallack is the author of four award winning books. His latest, Illuminated by Water, was shortlisted for the Richard Jefferies prize for nature writing in 2022
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What was your first story published and what did it feel like to have achieved that?
Most of the first work I published was journalism. In my teens and early twenties, I used to write bits and pieces for The Shetland Times, where I later worked as a reporter, and for Shetland Life magazine, where I was later editor. I was lucky that, between these and the New Shetlander (the longest-running literary magazine in Scotland) there were a lot of options for publishing locally, and for getting to know other writers in the islands.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you’d known when you started?
Like a lot of debut writers, I was originally propelled by the vague sense that, when that first book finally comes out, there will be some reward that is worthy of the great effort they’ve expended in writing it. Not money, necessarily, but something. The truth is that, in publishing, the rewards can be rather ephemeral. I’ve learned, over time, to find more pleasure in the process of writing. If you don’t have that, it might not be worth the bother.
Does writing affect how you think about the future?
Writing is part of how I think about the future: sometimes explicitly – writing about environmental threats in Illuminated by Water, for instance – and sometimes implicitly. There is something innately hopeful in writing a book.
If you could spend a month writing your next book anywhere, where would you choose?
I’ve had a few wonderful writing trips over the years, and I do find that getting away from home can make me very productive. But I also tend to come back feeling like I’ve not really experienced the place at all, because I’ve spent all my time working. On the other hand, if I chose to be somewhere I really wanted to visit, I might not get much writing done. So perhaps the best place to go and write is somewhere wholly dull, where you won’t feel you’re missing much.
When you approach your desk in the morning do you ever feel like you want to run screaming in the opposite direction? If so, how do you get yourself to sit down and start writing?
I used to feel that way a lot, and I still do occasionally. Finding projects that really interest and enthuse me helps. I also remind myself that there’s more than one task involved in writing. If the words aren’t coming to me, I’ll go back and edit parts I’ve already written.
What’s your work schedule like when you’re writing?
I don’t have a schedule. When I’m in the middle of a book, I try to write near enough every day, and I get frustrated if other commitments make that impossible. I can be slow to start in the morning, but once I do, I’ll write for as long as I feel I’m making sense. Between projects, I can go a long time without writing a word.
Illuminated by Water details your passion for nature and fishing. Do you find similarities between fishing, contemplating nature and writing?
All require a considerable amount of time. To rush them is to miss the point.
Is the lure of the river or a body of water similar to the lure of a blank page? What drives you towards a new writing project?
Both fishing and writing, for me, are about curiosity. They’re about asking questions. A good writing project requires a lot of curiosity from the writer: What happens next? How does this idea relate to that one? How do I get from here to there? When I’m writing fiction, I don’t plan too far in advance. I want the writing to be driven by the questions, not by a fixed route.
Is there a book or author who inspired you to become a writer?
Most of the writing I did early on was songwriting. I was far more interested in music than in books, and the sideways step into prose, later, was to some extent accidental rather than inspired. I’ve just finished writing a novel – due out next year – which combines these two things, songs and fiction. It felt a bit like going home.
You’ve published fiction and non-fiction. How much does the writing process change for you, and do your prefer one over the other?
I enjoy knowing I can go back and forth between forms. Writing a book takes a lot of time and effort, and when I finish one thing I sometimes want to switch to a project that is completely different. Both have their challenges and pleasures, but it’s the contrast that I appreciate.
If you could take any author on a fishing trip, who would it be and why?
Well, I’d need to choose carefully. They’d have to want to go on a fishing trip, otherwise we might both have a miserable time. I think I’d pick my friend Silas House. He’s a wonderful Appalachian novelist and activist, who is also currently the poet laureate of Kentucky. I reckon Silas would appreciate a day beside the water just as much as I do.