The Malta Independent 22 July 2024, Monday
View E-Paper

My contribution to my nation and to my mother tongue

Tuesday, 8 May 2018, 14:08 Last update: about 7 years ago

John Bonello, author of the hit Irvin Vella series, speaks about his passion for writing and for the Maltese language, and now he has so successfully merged the two

Merlin Publishers has just published your third book in Irvin Vella series, Il-Każ tal-Gżejjer tat-Teżor. Who is Irvin Vella? What happens in this latest instalment?

Irvin Vella is a 19-year-old aspiring private investigator, intrigued by unusual cases and events that are out of the ordinary. He is not your typical teenager: he's not interested in social media, nightlife or partying, he's not into football or gym. His main focus is investigations. He gives his all in every new case he is entrusted with, persistently chasing every clue until he gets to the bottom of the mystery. You can rest assured that he'll follow a trail of bread crumbs to the edge of the world. And of course, he would not be able to do it without the help of his twin cousins Luca and Laura.

In this third instalment, Irvin is asked to investigate the strange circumstances that led to the premature death of a Maltese lawyer who dies in an accident in Gozo on New Year's Eve. The victim's sister engages Irvin to retrace her brother's last few hours so that she can put her mind at rest that nothing was amiss. Irvin takes up the job, and soon makes an amazing discovery about the dead lawyer and why he had been spending the end of the year in Gozo.


Who is the target reader for this series? Is it a book for children only?

The target audience for the Virtual Investigator series is children of 10 and over. However, I've been stopped in the street by many adults who have enjoyed reading these light detective novels, and asked me for more!


You write both for adults and for children. Do you need a different mind-set to do so? How do you go about it? Which do you find is the most rewarding?

The mind-set is definitely different when writing for adults and children, but generally you choose the target audience as soon as you start thinking of the plot, so when you're writing you won't need to consciously think about your audience all the time. The creative process of any book I write is rewarding, the difference is in the feedback. From children you get an enthusiasm and honesty that is lost or, at least, obscured in adults. This is why I frequently visit schools to talk to children about books and writing, because the energy they transmit makes me want to write even more. 


Are you a full time writer? If not, what is your day job? And how do you manage to fit in your writing?

I have a day job, since writing novels, especially in Maltese, can only ever be a passion for many authors like me. The market is so small that no one author can make enough sales to live off writing. Fortunately for me, my daytime job also involves a lot of writing since my role is that of a Creative Writer within the gaming industry. 

Managing my passion, time with my family and my full time job requires a lot of discipline. I write every single day, and to do so during weekdays I wake up very early in the morning and dedicate at least one hour to my personal projects. On weekends, of course, I am able to write for longer stretches.


Do you have good days and bad days when it comes to writing? Do you follow a writing routine - most authors have superstitious rituals - what is yours?

No superstitions I'm afraid. And my only ritual is more of a method, where I go for a short walk to brainstorm ideas. I've never suffered from writer's block and cannot say I have ever experienced bad days. Being a positive person by nature, I tend to find the best in any situation. So if I'm stuck somewhere in a novel I'm writing, I just switch to a different part of the story, or to another project entirely. Then I can go back to that part later, when I've got a clear idea how to proceed.


Do you subconsciously write about people you know? Do you think authors tend to do that?

Not subconsciously, but often very consciously. It is much easier to write a new character when you give them attributes of a real, living person, or a person you knew. And the more you know that person, the better the outcome. This is the case for some of the characters in the Virtual Investigator's world, like for example Luca and Laura, and Inspector Montebello, the good-natured policeman who lends a hand to Irvin when the situation is critical. 

Having said that, sometimes, a character is inspired entirely from fictional people I 'meet' in novels or on screen, and this is case of Irvin Vella. He is not just one person, but an amalgamation of various characters that I've come across. He has a bit of Peter Falk's Lt. Columbo, a bit of Enid Blyton's Frederick 'Fatty' Trotteville from the Five Find-outers and a bit of other classical detectives as well. His love for food is completely his own though. 


What inspires you? Who are your favourite authors - Maltese and foreign?

Everything I read, everything I watch and hear, places I visit, people I meet and random conversations with strangers are all inspiring to me. It is one of the most popular questions students ask when I'm doing creative writing workshops, and I like to give examples, such as what inspired me to write this third Irvin Vella novel. For 'Il-Każ tal-Gżejjer tat-Teżor, the main inspirations came from an all-time favourite book and a '90s video game. Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island was one of my favourite stories ever. My parents bought me a ladybird edition in Maltese (Il-Gżira tat-Teżor) when I was just seven, and since then I've read the story many times. Recently I re-read it to my own children and was amazed to discover that it still got a hold on children's imagination. I think that sowed the first seed for a treasure-driven novel.

As for favourite authors, I have plenty. My Maltese favourite authors include Pierre Mejlak, Rita Saliba, Mark Camilleri, Alfred Sant and Mark-Anthony Fenech. Foreign all time favourites are Tolkien, Robert Jordan, Patrick Rothfuss, Andrea Camilleri, Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams and David Mitchell.  


Is our education system churning out readers in Maltese?

Our education system pushes children to read but teachers are faced with real challenges. The way we digest information, especially visual media, has created an urgency in our need to satisfy our curiosities as quickly as possible that conflicts with the pleasure of slowly discovering a plot in a novel. People don't have the time or patience anymore. Books need to be shorter, faster-moving, more and more flowing, and engaging from the first sentence. If I had to re-write novels like It-Tieleq Qamar today, I would probably have to take a different approach to make it more relevant to modern audiences. And this is a novel I wrote just 10 years ago. So hats-off to the patient Maltese teachers who still believe in our language and promote reading in Maltese. They are doing a great job even though the odds are all against them.


The media was recently awash discussing the possibility floated by the government about the possibility of Maltese being taught as a foreign language for weak Maltese students.  Few Maltese authors made their voices heard. What is your view?

If it happened, it would be a disaster for the Maltese language. Our language is the core of our identity, of who we are as human beings. If that core is weak, everything you build up from then on is weak. Should Maltese authors make their voices heard and involve themselves in politics? I cannot speak for others, but for me it would be wasted energy, energy which I prefer to invest in writing my next Maltese novel. That is my contribution to my nation and to my mother tongue.  


Do you feel Maltese authors should speak out more on current political events and be more alive as voices for the community like authors abroad tend to be?

Not really, at least not in a political system like ours. Politics in Malta are a dangerous thing. We are a country of opposites, of black or white, red or blue. As soon as you come out and declare that you're in favour of something or against something else, you're done, labelled forever. You can put as many disclaimers as you want, but you'll be quoted, roasted, accused, glorified, punished, insulted for the rest of your career. And that is not what I want. All I ever wanted was to write, to create stories for myself and for others. I do not really believe in our political system, so why should I ever want to be involved in it? And not being involved means also not criticising, not participating.


Is there a future for books? How can we ensure that?

Books will be until the end of times. When eBooks were invented, many thought that they would be the end of the printed books. But this did not happen. Some readers find eBooks convenient, others don't like them. It is probably a similar situation to what painters and artists experienced when photography became a mainstream practice. But one form of art does not kill another. They can co-exist. 

Recently, I made an experiment. I self-published two books, did them both as an eBook and as a paperback. It was a test to see what people preferred, if there's really an eBook market for authors to explore. The results of this test were clear. The majority of readers continue to prefer the touch of real paper, even younger ones. A reader builds a relationship with a printed book that cannot be replaced by an electronic device. And why should it?

Local publishers like Merlin are instrumental in ensuring that the Maltese book retains its place on the bookshelves. Each year, they publish a great number of books, experiment with design, try out new features to make books more appealing. This has perhaps created a new purpose for books which are now being considered as collectibles by many. The National Book Council has also been actively promoting books across different media, empowering authors, creating events that help increase awareness and visibility of books published in Malta. Schools are also doing their part, educating our children and teaching them to love literature and books.

  • don't miss