What is Malta to Teodor Reljic?
“If I could answer that in a sentence, I wouldn’t have written the book,” he says.
Two’s Malta, seen through the eyes of a young boy, William, who has just moved here from the UK, is an assortment of sights, sounds, smells and textures.
Fleeing the economic depression that war had brought to Serbia, the Reljic family came to Malta when Teodor was seven – which, for him, was a time of new discoveries.
“I had a view of Malta which was different to the one native people would have, and I felt I had to explore it, in a way. A lot of the book was a point of discovery for me, and I’m still discovering a lot.”
It is a different Malta to the one authors Alex Vella Gera and Ġużè Stagno speak of – both authors he respects.
“I do want to explore something a bit more basic, more elemental, to do with the colours, the textures, the idea of the island, without descending into history-kitsch or the temples or the knights and so on. The pulsating mystery is what I want to explore, because I don’t know what it is,” Reljic says.
Published by Merlin Publishers, Two is divided into two parallel narratives – a real-world narrative told in the voice of a young boy, and the story of Vermillion, a boy living in a faraway land William’s mother made up for her child – and herself.
The narrative is interwoven with threads from Maltese folk tales
Using a child’s voice served as a way of corralling Reljic’s own “writing excesses”.
“My default mode in writing is to be baroque and florid; it tends to be very ornamental in style. William is an opposite to me in that sense,” the author says. Apart from challenging him creatively, the limited vocabulary a child had also served as a “positive limitation” in that he felt safe that he wasn’t “indulging too much”.
But childhood is not just about innocence and wonder in Reljic’s view. “I didn’t have a particularly tumultuous childhood, apart from moving countries, but as a child you’re vulnerable, you’re powerless,” he says.
“Maybe other children didn’t feel it or people don’t remember it, but that’s something I definitely felt. William in the book definitely amplifies that.”
William’s story in the book does have parallels to Reljic’s life.
“Quite a bit is autobiographical: moving to Malta is, the nationality of the parents isn’t, the occupation of the father, the situation of the mother – my mother’s been in a coma for three years,” Reljic says.
“The creepy thing was that she wasn’t in a coma originally when I first started writing the book, but that element was already there. It hadn’t happened to my mum by that point,” the author says.
“The book then became a way of processing all that, in some ways.”
Essentially, he says, Two is about “storytelling, escapism”.
“It’s about the mother telling the son stories in order for her to deal with certain things which are revealed later on; and about him remembering those stories for him to process what’s happening.”
Reljic has appropriated more than the sights and sounds of his adoptive country, and the narrative is interwoven with threads from Maltese folk tales, such as the ‘well of secrets’, a device which he finds has a deep resonance with Malta’s relatively small community.
Scottish author Alison Louise Kennedy advises those wishing to write literature to avoid, if possible, having a job that entails writing, as it may adversely affect style and the sense of joy about their personal writing. As a full-time media writer himself, Reljic seems not to have been paying attention to her tips, but found that his job only impacted the time he had free to write in.
“It’s hard to write after writing. There is a risk of oversaturation, but there is a distinct separation between the two in my case. It’s more a question of schedule. I didn’t do much writing during the work week, which is one of the reasons why it took me so long to finish,” Reljic says.
Two goes back to 2010 when Reljic wrote the germ of it – now worked into a chapter – in a flash fiction piece for the Malta issue of Schlock Magazine, the online magazine Reljic co-founded. He then expanded the idea for Nanowrimo (where aspiring novelists try to finish a first draft of a novel in the month of November) and belted out the first draft of three in a month.
By then, he had found a way of writing around his job; he’d print out a chapter on Monday morning, go to a café, go through it on paper, write and rewrite, then transcribe on Tuesday.
“By that point I already had something – before, it was quite chaotic,” he says.Writing a novel was a process of discovery in more than one way.
“I discovered I hate Microsoft Word,” Reljic says, “it’s clumsy, cumbersome, it’s got so much going on.” He found himself using a simple text editor or writing longhand in some parts, but that also led to another part he hated – the transcribing.
“The parallel narrative was a massive headache, I found out,” he says. “I thought that was going to be a way of splitting the load and keeping my attention span there, by alternating between writing a real chapter and a fantasy chapter,” he says.
But because he was only writing at the start of the week, he found himself forgetting which part he needed to update or change.
Indeed, it might appear that Two, ironically, might be the one novel with Reljic as its author for a long time. “I might write another novel, but at this point it’s so hard to tell, because I didn’t quite enjoy the long haul process, I must say,” he admits.
“What they tell you is that you should write short stories and then attempt a novel, and I can see why that is so, because writing a novel is fraught with insecurities, and you need to know you can see it through,” Reljic says.
To him, “it never gets easier” is the “worst piece of writing advice” he’s ever heard. “Experience does make you more confident, and psychologically it does get easier. Having finished this, I feel I can go for broke and just do it.”
What he is doing now is immersing himself in collaborative projects: a comic, a co-written short story and a play – to counter the solitary experience of writing a book. Do expect to see his name elsewhere, though.
“I do intend to keep busy with writing; that’s what gives my life meaning. I’m not religious, I don’t have any plans to start a family or anything like that, so I exist from project to project, as depressing as that may sound.”
Two will be launched at the Wignacourt Museum, Rabat, on Friday at 8pm.
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