Belfast author Bernard MacLaverty: ‘If it’s a really good short story, it can change your life in some way’

The award-winning author, Bernard MacLaverty, will be in conversation with Dr Eamonn Hughes, former Assistant Director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast, as part of the Look North! Festival.

ernard, a former medical laboratory technician and teacher, is author of several novels and short story collections, as well written versions of his fiction for other media.

He assures us that we aren’t interrupting his writing.

“No, I don’t do that too often,” he jokes.

“It’s not a matter of getting up at seven in the morning and writing to midday.

“When I gave up the teaching, I said to myself, ‘Well, I’ll not work to deadlines’ although in the first instance, I was so nervous about money that somebody asked me to write a book for primary schools,” he says.

“I kind of jumped at the chance and I think it was a fee of £80. After that, I said to myself, no, I’ll just work at my own speed and that’s what came about.”

Many would have come to Bernard’s work through school. I studied Lamb at secondary level and found, and loved, novel Grace Notes as an older teen.

What does he make about his novels popping up on curricula?

“I don’t think about it too much. It did come up about 10 years ago, in America there was some kind of group that had got together to try and have Cal banned from schools.

“I think there was a sex or love scene in it that unnerved them,” he laughs.

“I taught for five years in Scotland and did my teacher training in Belfast, so I knew the territory and the kind of excitement that you get from teaching. I found teaching short stories was great. A double period where you could read the story to the class and snare them and talk to them about the story and get their views on what they thought the story was about.

“All of that seemed to be a good kind of educational unit and then to get them to go home and either think about writing the story themselves or writing about stories.”

Remembering his own experiences, he talks of a ‘maroon covered book’, Fact and Fiction, and a story by American writer Ambrose Bierce.

“The class read An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and I was kind of knocked out by it,” he says.

“I also read stories from Michael McLaverty, The Poitin Maker and The Wild Duck’s Nest, that really grabbed me.

“The short story then became a very interesting kind of thing for me. When it came to writing you would try to describe things and try to think about the nature of the story.

“My first book was [short story collection] Secrets and Other Stories, and everybody said to me, ‘Oh, you’ll never get anywhere with short stories, you have to start with a novel’. I did it the other way around.

“There’s something amazing about the short story in that averagely, it takes about 15 pages [to write]. Somebody can sit down and read it in an hour. If it is a really good story then it changes your life in some way and that’s in an hour’s reading, like Joyce’s The Dead or Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich or Frank O’Connor.

“Flannery O’Connor was someone I came to love too. I came across a quote of his recently: A story is a way to say something that can’t be said in any other way. And it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”

Bernard’s latest collection of short stories, Blank Pages and Other Stories, has been acclaimed for his ability to create a universe within each tale.

“All the writing that I do has to nod towards rhythm,” he says.

“There’s a rhythm somewhere. I don’t actually sit and read it out loud, but at some point, the rhythm is worth rearranging some ways.”

Calling himself ‘creative,’ he comes from an artistic family — his father was an ‘artist and letter person’.

“To make things comes from my father, watching him painting. I don’t know how it came about, and listening to my Auntie Betty, who was very witty and funny. I started keeping a notebook of the things she said, some of them were wonderful.”

When asked if writing makes him happy, it’s clear from Bernard that not only is it enjoyable, but it’s also necessary — he can’t not write.

“To be creating out of that, to make something that has never existed before… there’s an element somewhere in it of walking on snow, when you get up at seven in the morning and you look out in the snow and nobody’s walked on it,” he says.

“And then the idea that you can imprint into the language, something that will be seen. Nobody has ever done it before in that way. All of that is a kind of quiet excitement.

“In this last book, when it was finished [Blank Pages], my wife Madeleine, well, maybe I shouldn’t blame her, but she said, ‘You don’t need to write anything more’, but it never leaves you alone. You start to think and wonder what would happen if and what if. You listen to people on the streets or on the bus, and they say something, and you say that’s interesting.

“You’re working all the time, building the walls so that you might come back into the house from a bus and then start writing stuff down on a page.

“It may never be used, but on the other hand it might be so that would be good.”

He reminisces of a trip to Grez-sur-Loing in France — after receiving a fellowship from the Scottish Book Trust — to finish Blank Pages.

“It was a lovely experience to work in a strange place and lovely place and go on walks and talk. Robert Louis Stevenson had lived there and other famous painters, artists and writers.”

Despite living in Scotland for over 45 years, Bernard still sounds every bit from Belfast.

“It’s like riding the bike, you just don’t think about it,” he says of his accent.

“It was the worst of the Troubles when we left in 1975 and my first job teaching was in Edinburgh and the kids came and looked at me and one of them said, ‘Sir, what part of America do you come from?’”

He laughs. “Madeleine, my wife, is from Moneymore originally and the two of us are like a wee island of the north of Ireland, poking up a bit above the sea in Scotland.”

It’s clear that homelife in the city inspiration for his work.

“Graham Greene said that everything important has happened to a writer before he or she is 18,” says Bernard.

“That’s in you and you can carry it out around the world with you wherever you go.

“And the other thing is that listening to the family speak around you is a very important thing and you can never nail it down to any one thing.

“When I was brought up in Atlantic Avenue up the Antrim Road and in the house, there was my grandfather and my grandmother, my great aunt and my mother and father and my brother and me.

“Listening to the old people talk all the time, it just kind of prepares your brain for that. You know how people would talk.

“You know what order the words come in. You know that behind everything there’s a wee bit of a smile or a joke or inquisition or a trap, all of those things. And so that sort of 50, 60, 70 years later, when you’re writing, those are the rhythms that you think in.”

Bernard MacLaverty will be in conversation with Dr Eamonn Hughes as part of the Look North! North Belfast Festival on February 26 at 11am in Clifton House. For more information on the festival, see https://northbelfastfestival.com/. Blank Pages and Other Stories, published by Jonathan Cape, is available now

Belfast Telegraph