Part whodunnit, part political intrigue and part a touching exposé about autism, X’Seta’ Ġralu lil Kevin Cacciattolo? promises to keep readers guessing. Ramona Depares asks writer Mark Vella about what prompted this debut novel. An edited version of this interview was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.
This month sees the release of publisher-turned-author Mark Vella’s debut novel, X’Seta’ Ġralu lil Kevin Cacciattolo?
Essentially a mystery, the tale is presented in two parts. The first is set against the backdrop of a government school in the 1980s, at the height of the political chaos, perfectly encapsulating the zeitgeist of the times. “It’s a time that should have been mine,” Vella, who is a reluctant child of the 1990s, explains.
The second part fast-forwards to sometime in the early 1990s Malta, introducing us to the journalist who takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of what could have happened to the protagonist of the title, Kevin.
Like the daily scholastic tribulations of Kevin, the saga that is life in a newsroom is also described suspiciously vividly by Vella in this second part. Admitting that this newsroom – fraught as it is with politics, both at a small and at a higher level – is based on various real life models, he adds that details are nonetheless fictitous.
The debut novel has seen the printed light of day mostly thanks to #abbozz, a national competition organised last year by Merlin Publishers in a bid to give first-time authors an opportunity to get published. While Vella’s name has always been tied to the local literary scene, his participation came as a surprise to many.
“The first two chapters were conceived in 2009, as I was attempting to write a teenage novel for a different competition. I always had Kevin in mind and he stayed as is until 2014. Nevertheless, I had dropped the idea as I felt it would preclude me from exploring uncomfortable themes, due to the obvious auto-censorship one has to exercise for an instituitional competition,” Vella explains.
Then came Alex Vella Gera’s Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi. The novel, which also explores controversial themes within a semi-fictional political setting, encouraged Vella to go ahead and pursue the political angle.
“Alex’s themes coincided with my interest in the way we narrate our political past, and how the personal and the political can mesh so intricately in Malta. #abbozz was the fortuitous break I needed to close the novel.”
Vella’s participation was facilitated by the fact that he was an active member of NaNoWriMo, an online challenge which spurs writers to finish a novel throughout the month of November, and which safeguards from the issue of procrastination.
I note that crossing the divide from publisher to writer must have been interesting, particularly for someone known for saying that he “became a publisher to publish the books I would have loved to read – and write”. Vella agrees, adding that although he took the most torturous road to become a writer, he is also happy to have his vision about Maltese literature crying to be heard perfected to a tee by Merlin Publishers.
“You do feel the pressure on the other side of the fence. To perform, to walk the walk, to be in some sort of limelight… I must say it’s much harder than I thought.
“Not that Kevin’s tale is the first to be penned by Vella. Before settling on this novel, the writer had intended to publish an anthology of short stories, one of which has already been published on Leħen il-Malti with another one scheduled for the journal’s next edition.
“I feel that my ‘real’ style would be in these stories. But Kevin Cacciattolo has been an experience in dealing with different tones and voices, especially in the first part that relates to the boy’s thoughts. I would equate the book’s final part to my actual style, if any. In fact, this part was a draft of yet another aborted project, which I retrieved it from the cutting floor in order to close the novel.”
The book gives a very interesting voice to Kevin, with detailed descriptions that almost bring to mind a condition like autism. However, it does so without actually giving this behaviour a name. It is impossible not to wonder whether Kevin finds his inspiration in a real life person. “This has been mentioned to me by many who read the manuscript. I have always been fascinated by books and movies about children and teenagers, coming-of-age stuff, ranging from Stand by Me to The Catcher in the Rye, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, to darker stuff like We Need to Talk about Kevin. Kevin is a mixture of many people, including myself, and also a couple of adults whom I’ve observed who demonstrate these traits.”
Vella adds that, while he didn’t specifically research autism for the purpose of the novel, what is written is mostly borne out of observation and lots of empathy.
Equally effective are Vella’s descriptions of school in the 1980s, descriptions that are sure to resonate with many male readers.
“I was a student and a teacher, so I’ve lived most of my life in schools. Something does rub off, and I believe that even if one attempts to conceal one’s life experiences from one’s own fiction, this same fiction is still informed by what has been perceived in life,” Vella says.
Many situations, he tells me, are invented, while many others happened in some form or another, becoming raw ingredients that were then cooked up in diverse ways.
What about Vella’s own memories? School, he tells me, is what we interpret it to be. Referring to the second part of the book, which focuses on the journalist investigating Kevin’s disappearance, Vella highlights how memories are relative and open to re-interpretation according to context.
With the first half of the book centring around Kevin and his schoolmates, and the second on the journalist’s investigations, the novel almost exclusively focuses on male characters. What effect, if any, is this likely to have on female readers?
Next on the writer’s schedule? Getting those short stories done and dusted, something Vella is intent on achieving as soon as possible.