Adding Maltese flavour to the sci-fi genre | John Bonello

Author John Bonello speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about ‘Unus Mundus’, his two-book series about the time-travelling adventures of an unlikely protagonist

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Teodor Reljic
24 December 2015, 7:44am
For those of us not in the know, could you give us the lowdown on what the ‘Unus Mundus’ series is about?

Unus Mundus is a voyage of discovery for the narrator of the story; a humble librarian who goes by the name of Steve Ebejer. Everything starts on his 35th birthday, when on his way back home from work, he is catapulted far into the future. Slowly, and painfully, he must get to grips with the why and the how and understand what needs to be done in order to restore the twisted dimensions he voyages through until in the end there is just one world, one reality, his unus mundus.

Along the way he meets a handful of others like him, Seraphim, or humans with the gift of travelling between multiple dimensions. Some of these he befriends, others are not so friendly.

How do you feel about publishing the second book of this particular series? Does it feel more of a relief since now you’ve rolled out the first part of the story, or do you feel a sense of pressure to live up to it?

Relief definitely – this was a hard, tough novel to plan and write. It was also one of those rare novels where the plot, setting and characters came to me during an inspired 45-minute period and I struggled for almost six years in total to bring out that story from the depths of my creative core, wherever or whatever that is.

As the author, I always perceived this story as one whole – I planned it all in advance, so the actual ‘lives up to it’ doubt was never a concern. It could not have been published in one book however. Apart from the fact that it would have been too big, I wanted a clear cut between the first installment and the second, to actively resonate the narrator’s gradual (yet brisk) character progression.

Having said that, a little pressure always builds up towards the end, when the book finally rolls out to the bookstores and is made available to the ultimate judges of the words I wrote in solitude. Questions like, how would this novel be received? Will it be accepted by the target audience? (I targeted a more mature audience for this duology, partly due to the complexity of the story and also due to the content).

This, however, is not your first book series, since it follows on to il-Loghba tal-Allat. How does it feel to get another series going, particularly one that is science fiction, rather than fantasy-tinged like your previous one was?

I wanted to do something different than the pure fantasy that is Il-Loghba tal-Allat, I wanted to ‘paint’ in a new style, using different mediums. I enjoy reading fantasy and thrillers, but also sci-fi, so these genres were more of a natural choice. And this is why I explored Unus Mundus in such a way – a surreal thriller with sci-fi elements that aims at a very dynamic composition, focusing on the conflict within the plot rather than on the characters or the setting. Given that I wanted the narration to be fast throughout, I started the tale close to its conclusion, so that it would not expand too much and overflow onto a third book. That was primarily my decision to make this a duology rather than a trilogy.

What’s it like to write works in this genre in the Maltese language in particular? Would you say Maltese lends a distinct ‘flavour’ to these works, the likes of which we’re so inundated with in English - not only through other novels but also in various media?

I am asked all the time why I choose Maltese over English. I really don’t even think about it – Maltese comes so naturally to me (as itshould be of course, I’m Maltese down to the DNA) and yes, I really think that Maltese words and phrases do add a distinct flavour to this genre. A friend of mine, a published English author of science fiction, read some translated sections of Unus Mundus (I did these myself to get his opinion). He described them as rather ‘purple’ in a positive way – and I attribute this comment to the richness of the Maltese language that got through to the translated pieces.

You’ve kept yourself quite busy over the past year or so - with even Irvin Vella appearing on the scene. How do you stay on top of all these projects? Do you have any particular writing rituals?

Rituals are indispensable and inevitable. I aim at writing something every single day, even if it’s just a few lines. I need to keep this momentum to keep my pen sharp and my focus sharper. I still write in long hand rather than on a keyboard, as I feel more inspired by the ink scribbling its way on paper than by the clicking sound of my keystrokes. It also gives me the freedom of writing wherever and whenever I want – on a beach, in direct sunlight, on location … not even a laptop can accommodate that. Also, I brainstorm while walking, an exercise I strive to do as often as I can.

What’s next for you?

I have many other projects in the pipeline – the next installments of Irvin Vella, Investigatur Virtwali are in the works, with book two of this series for children destined to be published early in 2016. I have also finished my first dystopian novel-with-a-twist and this is being scrutinized by my pre-readers at the moment, before being posted to my publisher/editor. And then, there is another high-level fantasy trilogy for young adults lurking in the shadows …

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Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...