Exploring their fears, ambitions and jealousies


John P. Portelli interviews the author, DAVID SAMUEL HUDSON to delve into his debut novel, ‘M’


David Samuel Hudson’s debut novel M (Malta: Horizons, 2024) offers a pleasant and swift read. Written in excellent and flowing English, each chapter ends with an event or commentary that makes the reader move on to the next chapter with interest and engagement. Narrated in the first person of Damian Theuma, the main character, the novel presents us with the intrigues of a writing group originally formed to support each other by providing commentaries on each other’s writing drafts. The meetings lead to a series of mischievous or vicious moves by two of the young ambitious writers, a love affair between two of the members of the group, a betrayal, and a case of plagiarism attributed to the wrong person. M also provides a refined kind of criticism (spiced up occasionally with satire) particularly about the present way of life in Malta. The letter “M” could reasonably stand for Malta, malicious, meetings, morbid or marelli. But the most suited word is mediocrity, which emerges as the major theme of the book, and in my view, rightfully so. Hudson’s style gave me a sense of calmness that positively sucked me in and made me want to know more and more.


I extend my congratulations on your debut novel, which I would describe as a minimalist narrative with critical-realist elements. Would you agree with this characterisation?

I set out to write a spare novel about young artists in Malta. Given that the story is told from the perspective of an aspiring writer who has a high opinion of himself, I could have opted for a florid style that belongs to an inexperienced writer. In other words, I could have opted for a more metafictional approach. But by the end, Damian learns his lesson – he cannot pen the best novel ever written about Malta; he comes to this freeing conclusion – so M is not his attempt at writing this imagined masterpiece. It therefore reads like a very plain documentation of an episode in his young life in which he falls in love, learns to hate his country, learns to love it again, mends a fraught relationship with his father, and so on. The novel is about these things rather than novel-writing; although that’s the conceit or leitmotif that keeps cropping up throughout. I would agree that it’s a minimalist novel and one that tries to be as real and as raw as possible. It’s this rawness that makes Damian a redeemable character, I think.


Another significant aspect of your novel involves critiques, including elements of satire, regarding the current lifestyle in Malta. What prompted this?

I think that in Damian’s mind, it’s not satire at all. He can be dramatic, sure, but in his young mind, Malta is as bad as he makes it sound. This keeps changing throughout the novel and I hope that it doesn’t come off as monophonic. At one point, Damian meets a celebrity author and this is perhaps the most satirical or caricaturised aspect of the novel. This celebrity author is a type: a dilettante, in love with himself, ultimately mediocre. Damian depicts him according to his own perception. If it comes across as satirical and exaggerated, it’s because it is; the celebrity author is satirising himself. I myself have encountered bewildering behaviour from the artistic circles in Malta and I would have missed a massive opportunity had I not touched upon this in a novel about Maltese writers.


Speaking of Maltese writers, since my youth I have always been amazed with writers’ cliques in Malta, and how exclusive they can be. Moreover, many are also unable to accept any form of criticism at all. Regarding criticism, some might critique your novel for its focus solely on a specific segment of Maltese society, potentially giving the impression that it represents the entire populace. What are your thoughts on this?

In general, I’d rather be criticised for what I got wrong in what I wrote rather than the aspects I didn’t explore. M is written from the perspective of a young and inexperienced student. He thinks he’s better than everyone but, like most people, he’s wearing blinders. He has a very narrow view of the world and, to top it all off, he’s self-centred. In his defence, he has no obligation to write a panoramic novel about Malta though perhaps that’s the initial intention. The fact that M does not turn out to be the masterpiece he thought he was capable of writing or the novel that best represents Maltese life, his admitted failure, shows that he himself is condemning his initial arrogance. Perhaps that’s why the novel is called M and not Malta: he has only managed to capture one aspect of Maltese life. That being said, if any local writers are ruffled or inflamed over criticism, then they are in the wrong business. Writers should live and breathe feedback; their job is to best express the obvious and the not-so-obvious, the seediness and the realities of life. All writing should hope to engender some form of debate or reaction.


I appreciate your frankness. Did you have a specific goal in mind when you wrote the novel? If so, could you elaborate?

I set out to write a novel about young Maltese writers and their fears, ambitions and jealousies. I knew from the get-go that, like Damian, I wasn’t capable of writing the best novel ever written about Malta because I, too, am inexperienced, I too have so much as yet to explore, and I’d like to think I’m more humble than my character. So what I wanted to depict was a young writer coming of age by realising he doesn’t yet have what it takes to write his country adequately.


And I think you indeed have very realistically characterised the psychological state of Damian. An aim and a moral are not necessarily identical. While you may disagree, I hold the belief that literature shouldn’t necessarily be crafted with a moral in mind, as its primary purpose shouldn’t be didactic. What is your view?

People, for better or for worse, are moral creatures and while they may not explicitly aspire to write a didactic novel, their moral compass or fibre comes through in the writing. Even Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which is perhaps a famous example of a genre of writing straying from the didactic tradition, inspired a generation of children to “be themselves”. Whether a novel intends to have a moral lesson or not, a reader will inevitably want to find one. I agree though – literature should not set out to be didactic. I don’t think I had some kind of moral quandary I wanted to answer with M.


The novel deals also with the issue of whether or not budding authors ought to write in Maltese or English. For me, this is not an issue as long as they feel comfortable writing in the language of their choice. For political reasons, I have opted to write literary works in Maltese and academic work in English. I know that your mastery of Maltese is excellent. So, why do you prefer to write in English? Do you think that writing in English reproduces the many colonial elements in Maltese society?

The answer to that question is quite simple: I feel more comfortable writing in English. When I was young, I read both Maltese and English literature and I found that I could run out of Maltese stories fairly quickly but the number of English books felt infinite. I turned to English stories and read voraciously. What inspires me the most is English writing so it makes sense to me that I write in that language. I don’t feel that I am betraying my home country if I write in English though the question of language choice comes with a lot of political baggage and references to our colonial history. I think there is enough historical distance now to feel that my choice has no political point to make. It’s simply a personal decision.


Your novel is written in impeccable English, and I truly congratulate you on this. However, in the dialogue you include phrases or terms in Maltese which again, a certain middle-class group of Maltese (traditionally characterised as tal-pepe) use. Do you do this to satirise this group? Or is it an attempt to be realistic? I personally found this style overused, although I can see an argument for its use

I agree that the style is overused. Perhaps the right word here is exasperating. And unnecessary maybe? However, I don’t think a local work of fiction, in either language, has ever answered this question: does it make sense for a Maltese writer to write a novel in English while avoiding very Maltese phrases, especially in the dialogue? In my mind, it had to be addressed. Maltese people today, more often than not, speak a mixture of Maltese and English and this is a real aspect of Maltese society that I wanted to capture in M.


And I believe you have captured it well. One of the qualities that I truly appreciated in your writing is that with succinctness you managed to create unique and very well-developed characters. May you comment on the process of character development?

I love listening to people. Everyone comes with a personal history. Each person has his or her own affectations, cadences of speech, mannerisms, styles. I observe these minutiae and idiosyncrasies in earnestness. I devour details and fall in love with people’s quirks and peculiarities in a very unguarded way. What happens is that, almost without fail, I empathise to a degree where I start mirroring these people. To accommodate them perhaps? Looking at and listening to people and attempting to understand their story is how I stumble upon characters. I’m not saying that my characters are real people but their idiosyncrasies are what I’ve observed in others. Rupert is the more real of my characters and it’s no surprise that readers have responded so well to him.


Another laudable characteristic of your work is that each chapter ended in a way that kept me engaged and wanting to know more and more. Although I consider myself to be a slow reader, I managed to read your novel in a very short time. Yet, I expected the conclusion to be more dramatic or more extraordinary. This is a matter of subjective preference. Any insights on these aspects?

I feel that a novel that ends with a question cannot end with a bang. Damian looks out to the sea and finds that there are more possibilities available to him than he previously thought. The ending of M is not a conclusion but a beginning for him. Coming-of-age tales rarely end explosively or even decisively. The character is on the cusp of learning about learning, that he has far to go. A character only learns the method of experiencing the world and not the world itself. Hopefully, it’s communicated that Damian has learned to slip out of the arrogance that he previously shielded himself with and that he’s no better than most young artists his age. This is all he learns and it doesn’t take much for him to come to this conclusion because he’s young – every experience to him is absorbable and life-changing. Again, the title perhaps is a reflection of this conclusion. M is not a conclusive or incontrovertible novel.


I appreciate your clarification. Before we bring this conversation to some conclusion, I have to note that I truly appreciated your characterisation of the culture of mediocrity which has plagued our country since I can recall. And you manage to depict it in a variety of contexts including the university. In this regard, I find your novel to be very current and deserves to be read and further analysed

Thank you. The celebration of mediocrity is ultimately a product of a political and societal crisis. We often think that the reasons for mediocrity are because of our size and because we can’t do better. I think this couldn’t be further from the truth and not just because there are multiple case studies of nations similar to our own who have transcended this but also because Malta has had its fair share of excellence peeking out of the wings from time to time. To have a select few writers controlling the Maltese literary canon simply because of nepotism, connections, friendships and so on is a crime and a massive disservice to the readers who clamour for a brand new and top-quality narrative. These select few writers even have the gall to blame potential readers for not reading. I often contend that the best Maltese writings are in bedrooms (as yet unpublished) and not on bookshelves. The literary industry will never get the funds it requires if its representatives are simply not good enough. So what we need is more: more opportunities for marginalised voices, more publications that champion quality, bold projects that encourage diversity. Courage is often hard to come across. I am proud of embarking on some exciting new projects to create more opportunities for lesser known writers. Some other publications are doing the same. Hopefully, things are changing.