An Interview With Bernard MacLaverty
by Dave Ramos Fernandes
Bernard MacLaverty has published four novels and five collections of short stories. The most recent novel was The Anatomy School, published in 2004, and the short story collection Matters of Life & Death in 2006. Born in Belfast in 1942, he worked as a university laboratory technician before studying English at Queens University. He moved to Scotland soon after, where he worked as a teacher before becoming a full-time writer. His first collection of short stories, Secrets and Other Stories, won a Scottish Arts Council Award, and was followed by his first two novels, Lamb and Cal, which were both subsequently made into successful films. His second collection of stories, A Time To Dance, won the literature prize in the Sunday Independent's Annual Arts Award. Two other collections, The Great Profundo and Walking The Dog were followed by his third novel, Grace Notes, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003, and also awarded the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year.
How influential have your former careers as a school teacher and a laboratory technician been to your writing?
I suppose they're part of your life, an extension of your knowledge, something to be written about. On a practical level teaching was a bolsterer of my confidence. One of my favourite lessons would be to take a short story of Hemingway or Malamud or somebody like that and read the story aloud to the class, get them to discuss it and do bits of writing out of it. Then, if there was time, read it again. So, it helped with my love of the short story. I had some really good classes when I was teaching at St Augustine's in Edinburgh. That was a joy, to analyse and talk about short stories.
With regard to the laboratory technician, it was a very important ten years for me, being a scientist. It was a strange life, to be working in a laboratory next door to a dissecting room with eighteen cadavers.
What I did in the first five years was histology, cutting wildly thin sections of brain and other stuff , then stain them before looking at them under a microscope. I moved onto the analysis of chromosomes and their abnormalities, such as Down's syndrome, which has an extra chromosome in each cell.
I didn't write about it until The Anatomy School . It's not an autobiographical book, but I tend to use locations and situations that are easy to research, i.e.: I didn't need to research. So the second half of that book is set in the laboratory of an anatomy department. Some of them are experiences I've had and some of them are fictional. The trick is to tell which is which.
Many of your main characters have been young boys. What is it about this age that fascinates you?
I suppose it's because I was a young boy. My father died when I was about twelve or thirteen. It was an enormous change in my life, especially at that age when you're coming into adolescence, hormones are changing, all of those things. I see it as a kind of fulcrum, from childhood into adulthood. It's a place worth exploring. That relationship between fathers and sons. It was only after I'd written a whole lot of stories that people said ‘why are you always writing about fathers and sons?' and then you realise why. And then that led on to wondering if I could write about mothers and daughters, which led me into the territory of Grace Notes .
Did you find it more difficult?
There was a whole lot of stuff that I thought ‘I don't want to go there': the contents of women's handbags, getting the right lipstick or blusher. That wasn't the femaleness I was after. It was the tenderness, all of those things that come out when she has the baby and when she is composing. The two are somehow in parallel and in opposition. The book got started when a female writer said to me, ‘it's alright for you, you don't have to have the babies', and the truth of that got me thinking. The act of having a baby is creative; the act of composing a symphony is creative; but the two get in each other's way.
When I was finishing the stories in Walking The Dog I had a story called ‘At The Beach' which is set in Majorca. The story begins with the husband but then slides into the woman's point of view. I felt the story took off then. It was successful when we were inside the woman's head, and when I finished the story I thought well, ‘I'm on female railway tracks here'. That led to Grace Notes .
Was it useful to approach the character from the angle of her being a composer?
It can be very difficult writing about a writer. I've been interested in classical music since I was about sixteen, and I had a short story about music called “My Dear Palestrina' ( A Time To Dance ) which seemed to go well. We'd made a radio and television play out of it. I thought if I revisit a creative person, rather than make them a writer, I'd make them a composer. As I wrote lumps of it, I began to feel good, and once I got into it, it seemed absolutely natural.
I like music so much but I'm so ignorant – I can't even read it. But maybe to know that things are in f-sharp minor or shift from four-four time blocks the whole process of writing about it. If you know what music does to you, inside your head, that's what's important.
There's a quote in Grace Notes , where a composer says he ‘does not grub around changing this note and trying that note instead. A composer hears the thing in his head and writes it down'. How different is that process from the way you write?
That was a direct quote from a composer's workshop I attended. He was a Chinese composer. I sat there amazed by the whole process. How different is that from the way I write? Well. I start to write and then I begin to find something, and then I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until I become aware of what it is.
The opening of Lamb - I remember writing the first scene, the one on the Larne to Stranraer ferry – has Michael, the religious brother, running away with the boy. He makes it clear ‘we don't want to draw attention to ourselves, we‘re just slipping out, nobody has to see us, no fuss', and he's bought the boy a sandwich and the boy is feeding it to seagulls, and this big seagull comes down and whaap! Whaaps the sandwich from his hand. The boy creates the most enormous fuss, and everybody looks round. That was the first day of writing, and I thought, I like that scene. And then I thought, I wonder what would happen if all birds in this book became threatening creatures. You begin to work with imagery, or a scaffolding of imagery. When the book was finished I thought I'm going to give that up, that kind of technique. But for each book it's different. What you do and the rules you set yourself and the creative spurs you make to drive yourself on are different every time.
Do you think age has brought about those changes, or has it been the differences in character or setting?
Age is a difficult one. As you've lived and chronicled things you know, you begin to discover other things. Although I could see myself writing a book about a young person, I'm terrified of that because I just don't know what young people think and listen to and say. It would be very weird to try. I see kids going up and down here from the local school and I wonder ‘what are they thinking?' They've all got their hair dyed blonde, they've all got the same tights, - it's a girl's school by the way - they go out on weekends, they do wonderful things, but I just don't know what it is they do. I missed out on drugs. I missed all of these things, except for alcohol and nicotine.
In Cal there's a tiny scene where Cal wakes Shamie with a note that's been shoved through the front door. I had him looking at the note very close. Now that was before my own eyesight went. I know there are some diseases where you have to do that, but I got it wrong, because he should have been holding the note away out there, at a distance.
Could the difference between a composer's creativity and that of a writer's be understood as one which is god-given, or perhaps inspired by god? Whereas a writer must write and rewrite until he is satisfied. A writer is his own maker. I'm interested, not only because you chose to write about a composer, but also because religion plays such a large part in your stories and novels.
Writing is a very lonely occupation. One of the drawbacks is that you don't learn. Maybe you learn a wee bit how to write better prose, but each story and novel throws up a new set of problems to you. The one that you've just solved is of no help in the one that you're facing. If you learn to build walls, you get better at it, but at the writing, it's difficult to know if you get better. I suppose you do get better, but I don't see how the process works.
I'm involved at the moment in teaching creative writing in Aberdeen, at the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies. I'm working with people who are able to label and analyse writing, whereas I'm terrified of doing that. I keep saying, ‘oh, it's just like painting, you put on a bit of mauve and it sits well beside that turquoise green'. It's the same with writing. You don't quite know how you do it, but it seems to be working, so I back off analysing what I'm actually doing myself.
Maybe that's just cowardice.
In an Independent interview, you mentioned that ‘the vast arc of a life that I started off as an altar boy with total belief, now…has taken me throughout my life to unburden myself of such superstition'. There's an emphasis of not only dismantling religious belief, but also this idea of you being the creative agent.
Well, that's just a factual truth. As an altar boy you were in a state of belief and the whole ritual or rubric was rich. You knew the different colours of the priest's vestments, red for martyrdom, white for hope, black for funerals and death. There would be symbolic things at Easter, ‘Christ is risen,' and this is symbolised in a candle being lit at the back of the church. Then everybody gets a light off everybody else's candle and the light spreads throughout the church and you think wow! This is great. So you're raised in this very fertile ground of imagery and colour and light, and yet you're moving gradually towards saying, ‘all this is wonderful but I don't believe a word of it'.
I wonder where all the disbelievers of other religions are.
There's no story that deals with god explicitly, but god always seems present in each story. For example Annie in the story ‘The Wedding Ring' ( Matters of Life & Death ) who seems so adamant that ‘nothing unclean can enter the kingdom of heaven', to the extent that even a dead body must be washed and cleaned thoroughly before burial. It's a recurrent motif in your work, an awkward, fearful, but also hard-working and determined spirituality. How much has religion affected what you've written?
It's totally affected it. That's because of the way I was brought up. It has been an achievement for me to leave that behind, to reach a position of no superstition, that metaphysics doesn't exist. But if you're reflecting the society you're writing about then believers exist. I know priests and I've had good friends who were priests.
In a way you write from anger. In the first novel, the anger is against what the institutionalised church does to people, so that you end up with tragedy. The anger in the second novel comes from violence. They're spurs to your creativity, because as an individual you can't do anything to stop violence. You can try and write something. You don't ever think that you can change people's minds, but you want to state your case.
Do you think there are parallels between writing and religion? You've talked about religion being ‘wonderful' but ‘just not true'. It sounds like a good description of fiction.
I find when I am in a new place I visit the art galleries and the churches. You go to a church to see the way people centuries ago practiced their art: stained glass, architecture, sculpture, mosaics. Churches are free art galleries. I love all that, but I can love it as an atheist. What I'm looking at is the way people did things, the way people created, and you can feel that humanity in those medieval artefacts, the way they carved the choir stalls, the vibrancy and colours in the glass. All of that speaks across the centuries to you. It exists in the music as well, in Gregorian chants. I sit at night listening to the Earthquake Mass from 1490 and think wow, that's wonderful, and yet I'm coming at it from a totally different angle, as an unbeliever. But I believe in mankind and its creativity. You don't believe in god, but you believe in the people that made the things. It is the humanity of a mother and child group which moves, not their divinity.
I was thinking about the ending of Lamb , how it may be read as being religiously significant, as a form of reverse baptism. I'm curious as to how this may be read. Was this deliberate?
There was one kid in a class that said to me when he'd read it, ‘it ends with three seagulls coming down. Is that the father, son and the holy ghost?' I said no, it's just three seagulls. They're coming down to do something nasty, part of the bird imagery.
It reminds me of something Iain Crichton Smith told me, how he was teaching a writing class somewhere in America and he said to the boys, ‘have you finished your stories yet?' and this particular boy said ‘yeah i've almost finished it, I've just gotta go back and put in all the symbols'.
How important are aspects such as place, dialect and accent in your work?
Was it Graham Greene who said everything important happens to a writer in the first eighteen years of his life? Something like that. The first eighteen years of my life were in the North of Ireland, in that cauldron of sectarian stuff. Although, in my upbringing there were no deaths, but there were discriminations, injustices, all of those things. Somewhere deep down in your head there are rhythms and rhythms of speech, the way your Auntie Betty talked. You know it so well you're not actually quoting her, but making up lines for her and you know exactly how she would say them. Those local rhythmic things are what you can do to add a believable edge to a story.
I remember the first story I ever wrote about Scotland, ‘A Time To Dance', ( A Time To Dance ). I was frightened to leave my voice, so I made her a woman in Edinburgh who was from the North of Ireland. I knew exactly how she talked.
The sense of place I go back to again and again in short stories. I remember our school, St Malachy's college in Belfast. We had a huge playing field and the college was back to back with a prison. There was a huge sixty foot wall round it and we always wondered whether we were being kept out or kept in. There were always several guards with machine guns. B-Specials.
B-Specials were a police back-up force, like the territorial army, where people sign up for weekends, get to carry a gun and throw their weight around. All Protestants of course.They were still a part of the whole British establishment. But they were disbanded some time ago. I remember a story of mine, ‘A Silent Retreat' ( Walking The Dog ). In the story, I engineered a meeting between a pupil who aspires to be a priest and a B-Special who's guarding the prison. A football is kicked out of bounds and while the boy retrieves it they start a conversation. The stories come out of a place you know, about issues you know. They grow out of a craft you're learning or have learned.
Do you feel a responsibility for that sense of place, the accents and colloquialisms, the things that are specific to the place?
I don't see any harm in them. One of the writers I've admired throughout the years is Flannery O'Connor and she talks about ‘using the gifts of the region'. If she rendered her place as exactly as possible, with her dialogue exactly as possible, I'm going to get it even though I live in Belfast. You don't say, ‘oh, people don't talk like that' or ‘that's exactly right'. She said about a story that ‘that's just like what folks would do'.
If she makes vivid her sense of place, through the people and the way they talk, the issues they face and the humanity that surrounds them, then you're going to get it. It's so specific it'll become universalised. Whereas if you try and make it so that everybody will understand it, it'll become all fudgy and woolly. If you create your own place, your own dialogue and your own issues, then somebody in Cincinnati will pick it up and read it.
A quick question for those readers of The Barcelona Review who might not understand some local phrases. What does ‘catch yourself on' mean?
It means to pull yourself up short and face reality. It's telling you to stop doing something and become fully aware of the reality of the situation. Like, ‘why don't we go down the town and get ourselves a couple of birds and a couple of bottles of vodka? Ah, catch yourself on'.
I was wondering about the title of your recent short story collection Matters of Life & Death. How did you decide on that?
When I was just beginning to write short stories I thought it was really too delicate and too small a form to encompass a death, that if there was a death in a short story it would overbalance it. I've obviously come round to exactly the opposite point of view with age.
There's not much outside of that. Matters of Life & Death . I mean, it's like saying The Universe Etc. The only irony was the ampersand. They're all about growing older, about our attitudes to death, but there's also a lot of variety in the collection. The opening story, ‘On The Roundabout' is very short and brutal. There's no death in it, but there's a very real possibilty of one. There's a Victorian story, ‘The Wedding Ring', set in 1904 or thereabouts, about the death of young girl. There's also a possibility of death in the last story about a man caught in a winter storm in Iowa. Most of the other stories have a death somewhere in them.
In the story ‘Visiting Takabuti', there's a section where a woman imagines an old Irish folktale where the soul leaves the body, but is so sad to be parted from it that it goes back and kisses the body.
But it could have been another title I suppose.
Many of the stories are foregrounded by death in some way or other, but death does not seem to be the theme. Instead, the stories are surrounded by a sense of jeopardy, but this is contrasted with an ordinariness. What drew you towards this?
There are a number of really bad people in my stories. ‘Up The Coast' is one. It was a really difficult story to write because I kept on wanting to flinch away from it. It was on my desk for maybe ten to fifteen years. I wrote it in different ways, had different attempts, and this time I managed to finish it.
Death is going to happen to us all. We've got the summons, it's just a question of when it's going to be served on us, that's the difficulty. But there are positive things in life that keep us going, the love, the pleasures, all of those things that hold off death for as long as possible. A number of reviewers of the book have said ‘these are all stories about death, but they're not depressing' And I thought, thank god, well, I don't use that word anymore, but thank goodness for that.
The joy of living has got to be there as well.
In the story ‘The Trojan Sofa', although there isn't a death, there's a theme which seems to underscore the collection, namely the idea of characters hiding from each other or themselves, whether it's the boy hiding in a sofa, or whether it's like Annie in ‘The Wedding Ring', hiding behind a system of beliefs and values which protect her from feeling hurt. Would you agree?
I don't warm to people like Annie who have strict beliefs like that. I suppose they would tend to be my villains. But ‘The Trojan Sofa' is about a boy who is abused. The father uses him to help rob places. I suppose the story came from Trieste in Italy. My wife and I were there for the James Joyce Summer School and we were given a flat for a couple of days. This woman was showing us around and she said it was hardly worth showing us the keys as they'd rob us anyway. She told us this story about someone who was put inside a piece of furniture which was then sold as an antique with someone hiding inside. I tucked it away in my mind and thought, that's a good story. And then, when some people robbed banks in Belfast of millions of pounds, I thought, well, that'll fit together nicely.
But it's where the story takes you. You begin in darkness, in a way very much like the ‘bye-child' [a poem by Seamus Heaney which was subsequently made into a short BAFTA award-winning film by Bernard MacLaverty]. The child shut up in the shed; the child shut up in the sofa. ‘The Trojan Sofa' is a comic story, but it's a threatening one as well.
My favourite story was ‘A Trusted Neighbour' ( Matters of Life & Death ). It contrasted that sense of an ordinary, mundane surburban existence being threatened by a simple mistake or wrongly chosen word between sectarian neighbours. How much of the political problems in Northern Ireland figures in your work?
It could be solved some day, but up till now it seems permanent. I remember reading a smashing story called ‘Guests of The Nation' by Frank O'Connor. It was a story about the old IRA. They'd kidnapped two British soldiers and they set up in a farmhouse, playing cards and talking endlessly. They become friendly. Then word comes down from Dublin that something terrible has happened and these two British soldiers have to be executed. They had to take them outside and shoot them in the head. That story's as powerful today as it was when it was written in the 1930's. You have the sectarian problem, going right back to the British plantation of Ulster in the 1690's, and it's still with us to this day.
John Hume, a politician I admire, pointed out ‘look at Europe, the Germans are sitting down in parliament now with the French. They've been through two world wars. We can't go on hating each other'. But in the North of Ireland, it's a problem that has now reached a point where it's make or break. We have followed the hatreds right down to Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. If we get by now, then that is a tremendous thing for hope. But it doesn't look good. Even in the last few days, when Paisley's said ‘no, I'm not gonna sit down with these people until they swear blind that they will support the police,' there's no give at all. These are the problems I was reared with, as a boy throwing mud at Unionist politicians on posters. It was all a bit of fun back then. I was reared in a time of peace. I was born in 1942, and the troubles started in 1969. I was twenty seven. I was a fully developed, married man who'd had a couple of children, and my world blew up.
Bloody Friday, the day that's mentioned in the first story, ‘On the Roundabout', I was there. A pub about three roads away from me was blown up. It was so close that I jerked and cricked my neck. I was just coming out of a pub after lunch with my friend when another bomb went off, and then a third went off in the distance. I said to my friend ‘look here, don't be going back to your work' which was in town. At that time I was working in a medical biology centre which had eleven floors, and we took the lift to the top and looked out across the city. You saw a puff of white or black smoke, nothing else, and then, about two seconds later, you heard a big bomp. We just stood watching the bombs going off.
There were that many?
Yeah. Twenty-two bombs went off in the space of about an hour. They killed nine and seriously injured hundreds. People were taking refuge in the parks, wherever there were no cars. I was working with a woman at that time, and she saw one bomb going off over by the Cave Hill. That was the bomb which killed her sister. She actually saw it go off. She found out later in the day that her sister had been killed. There were awful, awful things like that - deeply disturbing. If you're a writer, it's going to find its way into your writing somehow or other.
What was it like living in Northern Ireland prior to that?
I remember it was gangs, fighting wars or battles. They'd built a power station round the corner from us and the clay ground was like playdough. We'd actually arranged to fight this other gang from down the road and everybody got mudballs and ran after each other. At that time it was a rivalry, equivalent to supporting a football team, like Celtic and Rangers, but then people started to get killed, and then retaliations for people being killed.
Governments have learned nothing. Bush and Blair have gone into Iraq and said ‘we'll make this place suffer, then they'll be on our side'. It's utterly stupid.
Do you think much has changed since 9/11?
At the time I had arranged to go to a writing festival in Ottawa. It was about three or four days after the bombing of the World Trade Centre and many flights were still grounded at the time. I phoned up the festival organisation and told them there was a flight and I was going to be on it. When we got there I found the audience hadn't been able to make it, but it was a good festival, there were small numbers and I thought, you don't allow bombs to put you off. I remembered doing exactly the same thing during a sectarian strike in Belfast. I'm more of a pacifist than anything else, but you try and carry on with your life as much as possible.
There was an interesting premise in a Jimmy McGovern play the other night where a guy was so miffed about all the trouble in Iraq and 9/11 that his career in the army in Northern Ireland seemed ‘as nothing'. He felt deprived and wanted to go out and kill people.
How important do you think it is for writers to be politically active or involved in the political process that surrounds them?
I think the very act of writing itself is political. Somehow or other, if you write like Enid Blyton, (whose stories I loved as a child) you show that you're middle class and just a bit smug. But when you write you're trying to say something about the human condition. And if you tell your stories truly then you're like a filmmaker or a documentary maker, you're revealing the world in some way to other people.
There's a sense of timelessness in the stories collected in Matter of Life & Death . Little attention is paid to the period in which many of the stories are set. They sit side by side often fifty or sixty years apart, and yet it's hard to tell. What was the aim of that?
I suppose it's the aim of universality. I wanted ‘The Wedding Ring', which is set around the turn of the nineteenth century, to be just as vivid as ‘On The Roundabout' which is much more recent. I suppose it's something to do with significant detail. You put detail into your stories, but it has to be significant to what the story is about, because if you put in details like the dust under your bed, it would clog the story up. You try to go for the kernel of the thing. An awful lot of writing wants to name the kind of suit you're wearing, things like that.
The kind of person you got in 1904 was a James Joyce-like person, and he's very much the same kind of human being you would find today. We can admire and utterly understand those stories in Dubliners or Ulysses .
But there is a story, ‘Visiting Takabuti' which is set in the fifties, where there is mention of the Suez Crisis and recalls the First World War. The old woman had lost the man she loved in it. I was reared with old people, Great Aunt Mary and Grandma and Granda, all in the house with me. I suppose all my life I've been trying to think back about what they were all up to. There was a very early story called ‘Secrets' [ Secrets and Other Stories ] about Aunt Mary and her postcards. A boy is collecting stamps and he feels he can go in and get the stamps on her old postcards, but these were all postcards from a lover. Well, you didn't have lovers in those days, they were more like attachments, but that generation had this thing that if you had loved somebody and they were killed in the war, it showed disrespect to go after someone else. So you ended up with droves of single women, spinsters, and Aunt Mary was one of them.
As a contrast to this sense of timelessness, what are your feelings about the way Great Britain, or the world even, has changed since you began writing?
I have been left behind with regard to popular music. I saw in the paper today that the biggest dead earner is Kurt Cobain. Who ? It seems to be so important to young people now. If you asked a hundred people, ninety-nine of them would want to be pop singers. I'm out of touch with that kind of thing. I've managed to keep up a bit with technology and I'm amazed and interested in all of that and how our lives have changed, even in ten years. If you'd asked me ten years ago if I had email I wouldn't have known what you were talking about.
But awful things like Iraq and Afghanistan, the wars that are going on in the world, there's no way that Bush and Blair are learning from what's happened in the past. They're out trying to stamp their opinions on other people.
My grandmother said to me once that she saw the first car in Belfast and she was still around to see the first man landing on the moon. Can you think of the arc of that? She didn't quite grasp what was going on with television. I think we got our first TV around the time Churchill died and they had Churchill's funeral on around three o'clock. They were all slow-marching behind the coffin. And then they showed the funeral again on the news at six o'clock, and my grandmother said, ‘Oh no, those poor men - they're not still slow-marching, are they?'
It's interesting that your reply to the last question began with music. Music is a common topic in many of your stories. How important is music to your approach to writing?
It's very important to me. Classical music, or art music – it's difficult to come by a definition of it – though I would include Jazz and folk or world music, but it's mostly classical music. I have some difficulty with modern avant-garde music, in that it's not something I'd do the ironing to. For new things, I find myself being driven back into the past. You begin to discover Haydn's quartets and the enormous creativity that he displayed throughout his whole lifetime. In the beginning, when I began listening, it would be the big hefty ones like Beethoven and Chopin, but then over the years and I began to look between the cracks. You find out that Haydn is as good as anybody. He was an enormous creative genius who opened up the symphony, the string quartet, was an affable man, yet was considered by the dignitaries and kings as just a servant.
That's interesting, because on your website* you mention that you don't like having to work to routines, having to release a book every few years. How do you feel about the contrast between the way Haydn worked and your own approach to writing?
Flannery O'Connor talks about ‘the habit of art', which is a good phrase – I don't adhere to it – but I can see what she means, that if you sit at your desk every day and work an hour or two habitually, the way you look at things, the way you feel about things, all of that will build up. And as she says, if something does come, at least you're there. I've said in the past that I like to be in the vicinity of the desk, in case anything happens.
You will find an enormous number of things distract you, like people coming to interview you.
I know. I'm sorry.
No, no. I'm only kidding. Catch yourself on.
I've thought it would be a nice to have a rounded number of books. Five books of stories and five novels. That would have a mathematical simplicity to it. So I am making notes towards something.
How different would Cal be today if you were to tell Cal's story again?
It's very different now that the Republicans have given up violence. Cal had become involved in something he didn't want to be involved in. He wanted to be non-violent. Today it would have to be a very different story.
I remember kids in schools always hated the ending of Cal because you as a writer take them as far as you want to go, and then let them think for themselves. But they all wanted to know, ‘what did he do when he got out? What happened next?' I suppose that's complimentary when people ask what happens next. Some of them suggested I write Cal 2.
What issues concern you as a writer?
I'm very concerned about good writing. I suppose it's something to do with craft. You build up narratives to be convincing and acceptable to the reader. Initially you the writer visualises and writes it down in words, and then the reader comes along and reads the words and then visualises what you've written. It's like converting it back, but it never really ends up in the same place. It's an approximation.
Over the years there have been so many people that you think are wonderful writers. I suppose it began after school. I'd been used to reading Biggles and somebody handed me The Brothers Karamazov . That completely opened by mind. It was a lynchpin book.
If that was your inspiration to read, what was it that inspired you to write? On your website you mention that you wrote poetry at school.
We had a very good teacher who introduced us to Gerard Manley Hopkins, so it seemed natural to try and imitate him. But the stuff I did wasn't good. I soon started writing paragraphs rather than down the middle of the page. I've a jotter with very early stuff in it, stuff where you follow a man into a wood and he's got a stick and it's autumn and he's walking through the leaves and he's listening and it's wet and you're wondering, well, what happen's next. Those sorts of things started to happen to me. I would write paragraphs, maybe finish a two page story. There was a woman who lived a couple of doors from me, an English teacher called Theo McCrudden. I must've said to her that I was trying to write and she said, ‘show it to me'. She encouraged me, which was very good, and eventually I finished stories and got one on the radio.
Another important moment in the mid 1960's was joining a writing group. There was Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Frank Ormsby and much later Paul Muldoon. But at that time nobody had published a word. You got your opportunity every ten or fifteen weeks to stand up and do your new piece. Everyone then would appraise or pick at it.
Was it comfortable putting yourself under that sort of scrutiny?
It was nerve-wracking. Philip Hobsbaum was the chair of the group. He saw a story of mine in a medical magazine and invited me along. The evening was conducted quite formally by Philip who would sit in his chair waggling his pencil as he defended the writer. There'd be coffee. The one thing that was definitely banned was alcohol – it doesn't mix well with criticising.
A local writer I liked was Michael MacLaverty (no relation), a writer of short stories and novels. I just loved his work. Then I came across Hemingway and wondered what the hell he was all about. It seemed his stories were almost too pared back, as if he had nothing to say, and then a year later I remember reading the same story and thinking, wow, he's a genius.
All of that was a learning experience. Between leaving school and my first book was seventeen years. That was a long time for an apprenticeship. But I didn't learn to write anywhere. Nowadays, people seem to think that they need to get on a creative writing course before they can have a go. My advice to anybody would be to just sit down and write. Do it.
How much of your writing is fiction?
All of it. I use events and things that happen in my life. I think it's perfectly okay to do that. An instance of that would be in The Anatomy School . The school described is the school I went to. But I had five or six friends which I boiled down to three. You fictionalise and edit. Once in a class we were trying to arrive at a definition of what fiction was and a girl said, ‘it's made-up truth' and I thought, wow, that's brilliant. There's the element of making up and the element of truth, and they become stirred into the same pot. You would hope that people couldn't distinguish which was which. The school in The Anatomy School is very real, the anatomy department is very real, but the events that go on in both places have been fictionalised.
Another example was when I tried to write a story about my Aunt Mary called ‘Secrets'. I had described her in very exact terms, her own room and the way she sat writing up figures in books, irises on the table, all of those things, and then in the middle of the story she did something my Aunt Mary would never do, but fiction said this was right, go ahead with it. She slaps the boy across the face. My aunt would never have done that, but it was right for the story.
Again, Flannery O'Connor has a story about a woman with a Phd and a wooden leg, but she says ‘I didn't know he was going to take her into the barn and steal her wooden leg until he did it', but it happens and you have to be aware of that.
Of all the characters that you've written, which most resembles you?
I think Martin Brennan is more me. He's the stupid one from The Anatomy School .
I wouldn't say he was stupid.
Well. He's not bright. Not as bright as the other two. His night of studying, when he tries to memorize his essay on Lady Macbeth, it's just the way I used to go about things, turning on the radio, thinking bad thoughts, idling. That lack of concentration is easy to achieve.
There were true elements in that story like failing his exams – that happened to me. Martin is put back a year and loses his friends who go on to university or teacher training college or jobs in the civil service. So then he has to make new friends, and to ensure they pass the exam next year they come up with this idea of having a look at the exam papers beforehand. But when Martin sees the papers it's no help because he doesn't know what to write anyway.
In your list of influential writers, you mostly name short story writers. Do you prefer short stories to novels?
I have a great fondness for short stories. But I would hope that I take as much care in writing a novel as I would in writing a short story. People often say that in short stories every word has to count, but I would say the same for novels.
When you finish a novel there's a sense of achievement. But a book of short stories has the same kind of weight. I talked about Haydn earlier, about how he expanded the symphony and the string quartet, and the difference between those two forms is similar perhaps to the differences between novels and short stories. Beethoven wrote the most wonderful symphonies, but his most personal work is in the string quartets, especially the last ones.
Sean O'Faolain once compared the novel to a jumbo jet. It takes a long time to get off the ground, it can carry a large number of characters and it can go for great distances. Whereas the short story is a bit like a hot air balloon. It can take off immediately, it can only carry one of two people, but it can go to vast heights.
Which of your books are you closest to?
Things fell into place for me in Grace Notes . The devices I used, the shifts in time, my interest in music; I felt pleased with that.
What mistakes, if any, do you feel you've made as a writer?
You always have reservations about your early work. But who walks out onto a squash court for the first time and plays brilliantly? If I was to rewrite a book I suppose I would want to rewrite Cal in some ways. I think it still stands up as a love story, but the research may have been a bit thin.
They're still reading it in schools. They read it in places like Germany, Sweden and Norway as an English text, not a translation, with explanatory footnotes on such Ulster lore as who the IRA and UDA were.
What are you reading at the moment?
Manuscripts mostly. I could talk for ages about how little I read now. That's a very bad thing. I'm reading a book at the moment about snake-handling in the Appalachians, called Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington. It's a fascinating book about religion and how bizarre it can actually become. There's a passage in the Bible that says something about believers speaking in tongues and taking up serpents ‘and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them'; So these people now use it as a test, they preach and handle rattlesnakes, drink poison, put their fingers into three pin plugs, and if they die it was simply because they weren't fully in tune with the holy spirit.
You'll remember what happened to witches in medieval times, where if they were drowned they were innocent, but if they survived that proved they were witches, so then they were burnt.
I'm also reading a very good collection of stories by Mary Beckett, a Belfast writer, called A Belfast Woman . And Morley Callaghan's Stories. He was a Canadian writer in the 1950's.
What are the disappointments of being a writer?
Work with no result is something in a writer's life that's very galling. About three years ago I wrote a screenplay out of The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins and it didn't get made. The money wasn't there. You work on something for about two years and there's nothing to show for it. Another one was Patrick McGill, with Children of the Dead End and The Rat Pit , two very good novels put together. It was supposed to make four hours of television, four one-hour episodes, and then at the last minute it was pulled as well.
Does working on scripts and screenplays affect your fiction?
Some critic said that I wrote Cal with a film in mind. I really didn't. But then I wondered, were there other things I could write that couldn't be turned into screenplay? Grace Notes hasn't been turned into a screenplay. It's very internalised. It's about avant garde music. They'd be running out of the cinemas screaming.
What keeps you going as a writer?
The idea of play. Writers, somehow or other, are people who have not lost the ability to play. When you're a kid you're always playing, and when adolescence comes you stop. But you go on making up, trying to arrange the world in your head, in a better or more tragic way.
The example I use is of me playing with tiny models using my mother's powder compact mirror, making a duck pond of it, setting up the farmer and his wife, cows and pigs. You're arranging this whole scene, you're even commenting on it, talking about each character and what they're thinking, playing this game out, and forty years later this is what I was doing with Cal .
It's the pleasures of telling a story, that's what keeps me going.
Is there a question you've always wanted to be asked but haven't yet?
Would you like to accept this thousand pounds?