Dan Vyleta’s third novel, The Crooked Maid, opens with an encounter between a pair of strangers, the sole occupants of a hot, stuffy compartment on a delayed, overly-long train journey.
It is 1948 and the two passengers, Anna and Robert, are making their way home to post-war Vienna in fraught circumstances.
It’s a scenario that, on the face of it, might seem eerily familiar. Dan Vyleta, though, makes it fresh. “In good hands the conventions are flexible,” he says.
The opening owes something to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot while Dan declares his love for “those big fat Dickens novels with a corpse in the first chapter”.
The Crooked Maid holds back on the quick fixes of genre fiction, its elegant prose creating instead a carefully unfolding picture that seethes with tension – in family, in relationships and in a city recovering from war.
Dan’s writing has atmosphere in spades. He picks out characters in sharp detail, including the crooked maid of the title whom we meet in Chapter Two...
“It was her back that was twisted: not hunched, but spun like a twist of hair around a finger. It was as though she’d been caught in a perpetual pirouette, one hip higher than the other, the right shoulder leading, an odd sideways prancing to her ever-shuffling feet. If she could but unscrew herself: throw her chest out, gain some range of movement in that stiff and leaning neck; tuck in the shoulder blade that stuck out like a broken flipper.”
For Dan, whose debut novel in 2008 was the highly regarded Pavel & I, writing is an exploratory process. “It’s almost like you meet these people and then you get to know them,” he explains, insisting that he doesn’t like to write “in a state where I have figured it out”.
As the characters reveal themselves to him, so their stories become both clearer and more interesting.
That’s why The Crooked Maid is set in Vienna with some of the same characters from Dan’s 2011 novel, The Quiet Twin, reappearing.
“When I finished The Quiet Twin, I wasn’t done with their world,” he explains.
The second book, set nine years after the first one ends, explores characters from the periphery of The Quiet Twin, although Dan is clear that The Crooked Maid does not need to be read as a sequel.
Since completing it, he has been working as a lecturer in creative writing at Durham University. He is also in the middle of a new novel set in England and about which he is cagey, saying only that it is completely different.
Brought up in Germany’s Ruhr Valley to Czech parents, Dan Vyleta studied for a first degree and later a PhD at Cambridge University before moving to Canada and the United States.
The Quiet Twin was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize while The Crooked Maid was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, one of Canada’s most prestigious prizes.
Moving on wasn’t necessarily easy and I sense his exploration of the Viennese setting is not over.
“The characters are with you and just because the questions you or the reader had about them have been answered, it doesn’t mean you have lost interest in them,” he says.
“The danger in writing is that when you finish a book and you are very involved in it, you almost want to write it again. It is hard, once you have put things in motion and they have a lot of momentum. You have a lot of plates spinning and there is an almost built-in breathlessness. The ideas just come tumbling. But you don’t want to be overly indulgent.”
Now, though, Dan is in the clutches of a new storyline. “When you start a new book, you feel vulnerable,” he says.
“You have to feel your way forward. You wake up with it, you go to bed with it. But once you’re in the middle of it – well, lots of writers talk about the pain of writing but I have to say I really enjoy this stage.”
Dan is soon to take up a new post at Birmingham University but you can still catch him with fellow Durham author Lauren Owen at the Durham Book Festival on October 11.
- The Crooked Maid is published by Bloomsbury at £12.99.