An interview with Bernard MacLaverty.
Q: In what way, if any, did working as a lab technician at Queen's prepare you to be a writer?
A: It didn't really. But the origins of the writing began in my final year at school when we were taught by an English teacher called Father Conway, who was very enthusiastic and a good communicator. He introduced us to such authors as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Graham Greene, D. H. Lawrence, and taught us Macbeth. At the same time, I began realizing I had a love of words and actually enjoyed reading Roget's Thesaurus. I started writing very bad poetry and then began to lengthen the line and to write stories or paragraphs. One of the ridiculous things in those days was getting paper. You go to a bookshop now or a stationery shop and buy blank books, but in those days you couldn't get them and I had obviously no money, so I used to take exam pamphlets, or leaflets, out of examinations. You would seem like a genius ... you know, you'd lift four of these twelve-page leaflets to complete your exam and then smuggle three of them out in order to write short stories. At that stage, I was just putting words down and that would give me great pleasure. I lived a couple of doors away from an English teacher, a woman called Theo McCrudden. "Theo" is a man's name, but I think she was "Theodora." She must have said, "If you write anything and you'd like me to look at it, I'd be only too pleased to." If I wrote anything decent, I'd bring it to her and she'd read it. Finding that kind of encouragement two doors away was fantastic.
Getting back to the laboratory: I'd left school in 1960 and worked from '60-'70 in the laboratory. So circa '62, '63, I was writing this stuff and one of my jobs in the laboratory was to look after B.S.C. students. Medical students would come in and do a five or six-year course. Some of them, at-the anatomy level, could opt out and do a BSC in anatomy and I was put in charge of them. There would usually be about four or five of them. There was one guy who was a brilliant guy, Peter Paisley, no relation to Ian Paisley, and he played jazz piano and wrote. He was producing a magazine for the medical students called Snakes Alive. He asked me to help out; I think he knew that I was interested in words and stuff. So at one point, we put the magazine more or less together between the two of us. I wrote some art criticism, a half a short story, and did some cartoons and he wrote film criticism and a couple of articles.
He saw a short story that I'd written and brought it to Philip Hobsbaum's attention; Hobsbaum in turn wrote to me and asked if I would like to join the Belfast Group. This was very flattering to me. At that time there was no one in the Group of any status with regard to writing. Nobody knew anybody else and there were people like Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, and Stewart Parker. The best thing about it was being spurred to write something. Philip would say to me, "The slot eight weeks away, do you have anything for that?" And you would say, "Yes," and go away for eight weeks and you would work like hell and try and get something to fill that slot. The technique of the Group involved advance submission of your work, which was photocopied; these copies would then be posted out to members. Those who were interested would turn up on the Monday night and the writer would read his work out loud and it would be discussed. That would generally have been the first half of the evening. Then there would be a coffee break, no alcohol allowed was the only rule--ah, literary critics. After coffee, people would either read things that had moved them or that were just witty. That [part of the evening] was optional. After Philip went to Glagsow, the group carried on for a while with Seamus Heaney and Michael Allen as the organizers. We sometimes met at the Four in the Hand pub and sometimes at Seamus's house.
Q: In his recollection about the Belfast Group that Philip Hosbaum wrote several years ago in the journal Eire-Ireland. ((Summer/Fall 1997), he mentioned that you always had an ear for voices, and mentioned as an example that early story "Jim Scroggy" with the character Fire Watcher. Did the Group bring out your talent with voices?
A: Not really. The influence would have been more like listening to my Auntie Betty talk and meeting local writers. For example, Theo and I drove to Queen's University one night and listened to Michael McLaverty, who was a brilliant communicator and Very enthusiastic about the whole idea of the short story. He suggested that we read Chekhov, Eudora Welty, and Katherine Ann Porter. He must have known that I was writing because he talked to me briefly afterwards: he questioned me about the funnel and the tundish [in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man]. He wanted to know if I would use a local word like Stephen did or if I would be afraid of the English not understanding it. That weight of Northern Ireland speech is something I was always interested in. In The Anatomy School , the particularities of that speech are crucial to understanding the characters.
Those Northern Ireland rhythms and speech are drawn from my own background. When I was sick as a child I would sleep on the Sofa and listen to the old people talking. I was brought up with my father and my mother and my younger brother, Peter, and at some point, my grandmother and grandfather from my mother's side were brought to live with us along with my great aunt Mary, so there were three old people in the house. When you're a child, you just say, "That's the way it is," naturally. "Everybody has got three old people living in the house with them."
Q: Is there anything else about the Belfast Group that influenced you in any way?
A: Well, there was an enabling mixture of academics, writers, and artists. Some of the academics included Judy Hutchinson, who was my good friend. She was a graduate and a lecturer in English but she was also married to one of the BSC students that I had looked after, so I knew her from two angles. Another academic, Michael Allen, was brilliant at analysis. There was Stewart Parker, of course; Stewart was one of my best friends. To be in that ambience among those people was a good thing. You learned and you heard technique discussed, not at any great level. It was something, however, to be rubbing up against writers, and that contact made you believe you could become one too. My position would be somewhere between those taken by Longley and Heaney: the Belfast Group spurred me to write and gave me a measure of self-confidence about putting words on the page.
Q: Do you see yourself writing out of a Northern Irish, an Irish, or now, after thirty years here, a Scottish tradition? If there is even something like a Northern Irish literature, do you see yourself as being part of that?
A: I do see myself as a writer who comes from Northern Ireland. If you stick the adjective up front, then it becomes a different thing. Inevitably, I think that a lot of writers write about their background and places that they come from, the speech that they have. Someone like [contemporary Scottish writer] Alasdair Gray is very rooted also in place, yet he can turn round and do something like Five Letters from an Eastern Empire.
Q: Do you see yourself in the tradition that includes Michael MacLaverty, Louis MacNeice, and other writers from Northern Ireland?
A: Looking back on it, I would see that I was trying to emulate what Michael MacLaverty was doing because I admired him so much as a writer--that kind of tact that he had, that kind of slice of an accurate image that he would use every so often. For example, "In the duck's nest, the egg was as cold as a cave stone." You would say, "Oh, I wish I could do that." And therefore, you're digging away at that. But at the same time, you're reading Dostoevsky and Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot.
Q: In an earlier interview, you said that Lamb  was an oblique comment on The Troubles. What did you mean by that?
A: I think that the metaphor of someone destroying the thing he loves was there from the beginning. A kind of misdirected republican ideal--loving your country but at the same time destroying it. Michael Lamb does destroy the thing he loves for various reasons. The Provos and other people of republican extraction have said, "Well, we got it wrong. We shouldn't have been doing that." I was very grateful to hear them say such things decrying what they did: killing and murdering political opponents and innocent people, blowing the guts out of the cities and the villages. I didn't know how to write about that, and then I came across an original, terribly tragic story, in which a man murdered a boy. It just stuck with me as an idea, as well as an image, as a way of writing about what was happening in Ireland with these intensities, from one kind of event to another kind of event.
Q: Did you feel like you had to be more direct in Cal , with the IRA hunger strikes having recently occurred in Long Kesh prison and the intense emotions surrounding that and other related issues?
A: Yes. I thought, okay, I've looked at it obliquely.... [Now] "tell it slant." I thought that maybe I could write about an actual situation and the result was Cal. The intricacies of paramilitaries were secret at that time and very difficult to research because you're afraid to end up with a bullet in your head. Additionally, the Internet and its search capabilities didn't exist back then. So some aspects I made up. One of my students in Edinburgh gave the best definition of fiction I've ever heard: "It's made-up truth." I have used it ever since. You make things up and it results in some kind of truth. Of course, I did have specific knowledge about sectarianism from visiting where [MacLaverty's wife] Madeline was born and raised in mid-Ulster, in Magherafelt. If you were in sectarian situations in Belfast, it was a mono-culture. You were in a 100% Catholic working-class estate, for example. But in the satellite towns, you all knew each other, but still had this bigotry.
Q: What attraction do the novel and the short story hold for you?
A: It's something to do with the weight of the idea. When you pick up a thing, you know by the weight of it whether it's going to be a novel or a short story. At this very moment, I've just finished a five-page short story. Madeline was asking, "Would that not go in a novel?" I know that it wouldn't because to push it any more would be to pad it or milk it. When you start something like Lamb, or even Cal, you don't precisely know where it's going; it's an exploration. The Anatomy School was different because it was my first comedic novel. Tragedies reach an end, whereas comedies go on. Lamb ends like that; Cal ends at a point. The Anatomy School ends with the boy cycling through Shaftesbury Square [in Belfast]. You know he's going to go on; you know he's going to do something different. It's a very hopeful ending.
Q: You were known for more realistic short stories, but in some of the stories of Walking the Dog (1994), you have these playful little sketches that explore the nature of the short story. I like them because they give you a break from stories like the somewhat grim title story. Did you think of them in this way?
A: Well, I thought of that. The stories all seemed to be very grim and very bleak and I thought it might be interesting to put in sorbet, between courses, to show that I wasn't a complete horror. I think they came from doing [public] readings. Poets would be there and could read a whole lot of short things. Whereas when I stood up, people would say, "Jesus, 25 minutes of this!" Then I thought that I could write a number of short things. I was actually working on those and had notes, then the concept of "your man," as an Irish character, came to me, and he seemed to work as a substitute for "our hero." They were funny ways of dealing with form. Like the one in the train ["By Train"], which is one of those stories that are enveloped within stories that are [in turn] enveloped within stories. I wanted to end up with the most complicated punctuation mark that was possible. There were about eight bracketed inverted commas.
Q: What inspired the character Catherine McKenna in Grace Notes ?
A: It began with talking to a feminist writer. She said to me, "It's alright for you. You don't have to have the babies." And I thought, "You're right." There's a baby [MacLaverty's grandchild] screeching off right now. [laughter] Then it occurred to me--I have had a deep interest in music since I was about sixteen--that it might be interesting to see how another artist might work. I've always found it difficult to write about writers, but thought it might be possible to write about a creative person who was creating in a different discipline. It's easier to do that than for me to write about a civil engineer inventing rubber tires!
In the beginning, however, the book had different origins. I remember writing half a dozen pages about an Irish woman who had been wrongfully imprisoned because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. At that point, there was something like seventeen people who were imprisoned for something they had never done. I wondered how awful that would be. When I went back to work on the book, I subtracted the prison and the political elements, focusing on mental imprisonment instead. The specifics of it were culled from various musical works. For example, there's a lovely passage from [Czech composer Leo] Janacek in a letter that I used.
Q: Is Catherine a figure of the artist? Her situation reminds me of Brian Friel's Frank Hardy in Faith Healer: sometimes he can heal and sometimes he can't, and he knows when he can't. Catherine, however, knows when she's going be able to write music.
A: Yes, there were some aspects of that. One of them is that ordinariness. There's a very conscious decision at the opening page of the book to convey that. it's so many pages in before music is mentioned, yet her world is filled with sounds--for example, the sawing going on in the airport. It takes you the whole journey to get back, until someone in the house with rubber gloves on asks, "Do you still play the piano?" [laughter] She says, "yes," and then you begin to realize that people's lives can be dominated by creation.
Q: I see Joyce's influence everywhere in The Anatomy School. How much was Stephen Dedalus, for example, on your mind when you were writing the character of Martin Brennan?
A: Not at all. I think Martin is pretty stupid. There's a sort of comedic autobiography in there somewhere. It's the school I went to and all of those things, but it's that made-up truth again. There were about five or six of us who were friends at that time; I narrowed them down to three and they are kind of compartmentalized, portmanteau characters. Martin's not too bright; therefore he needs help on his exams, like I did. I ended up failing my A-level in English literature and staying on a year, like Martin, and passing it the second time, by about two marks, whereas other friends of mine went on.
Q: You said that Martin's not very bright, but he's going to be a photographer. He's got that gaze.
A: Well, a novelist doesn't have to be super-intelligent, although there have been super-intelligent novelists, no doubt, like Joyce and Thomas Mann and people like that. You can be a novelist because of the way you see the world. Consider the scene in the library where Martin looks at the girl in the reflection of the display case. He's also looking at a photograph by Cartier-Bresson in the case--that one of the heel about to break the surface of the water. It's not about intelligence but about being able to appreciate form in the way that Martin does.
Q: Catherine rejects her faith and Martin does too, but does their Catholic upbringing enable their creative thinking in any way?
A: That language becomes your mental furniture of exotic and little things that people your mind as a young one. I've said before that it introduces you to imagery and to symbol. You know, you grow up as an altar boy. At eight years of age, you know that the black vestments are for death, the white are for hope, and green for something else. I think that I have rejected Catholicism, yet I understand how as a child you can be introduced to the biggest and hardest problems in the world through it, to concern for other people, to try and save lives.
Q: How do the stories in Matters of Life and Death continue to explore the concerns raised in your earlier work?
A: They are stories gathered over a number of years; the only thing that holds them together is that they all touch on matters of life and death. As always there are twelve-year-old boys, old women, violence, Belfast, republicanism, and Loyalism. I hope they are more focused and better written than earlier stories.
Q: In this age of terrorism, why should we keep reading your fiction?
A: I've no idea. All I know is that if I walk down the street and a fight starts I will watch it with fascination and try to work out what it's about. I show violence to utterly deplore it. It solves nothing. There are other things going on in the fiction I write--human things. For example there is the old woman in "The Assessment"; the exploited boy in "The Trojan Sofa"; the poet pining for his girlfriend in "Winter Storm"; the bullying sister in "The Wedding Ring"; the joy of talk in "A Belfast Memory"; the sex urge driving the young father in "A Trusted Neighbor"; the sadness and childlessness of the doctor's wife in "Learning to Dance"; the value of writing and love in "The Clinic."