Interview with Bernard MacLaverty:

Language, Rhythm, Music

Interview conducted during UK lockdown, Mar/Apr 2020. Bernard's biography and details of all of his books & publications can be found on his website:

TCB: I’d like to start by asking about your most recent book, the novel Midwinter Break (2017) – in an interview with the Irish Times around the time of its publication, you were quoted as saying:

“If a reader believes the intimacy and truth of the world described, then they’ll believe in the inner accuracy of what you’re trying to do.”

Do you think this principle is what made the novel such an artistic and critical success? Was the truth of everyday experience an even more important component of this book than earlier novels, or has this always been something you’ve strived for in your work?

BM: I don’t know, is the answer to your question. The book seems to have done well – sales, reviews, translations, an Irish book prize, but to what do I attribute it. It took a long time to write. I was not aware of a change in my approach to the page. I write short story with the same concentration as I write a novel – only for a longer time.

One of the people I admired when I began to read/write was a namesake – Michael McLaverty, a novelist and short story writer. Heaney quotes him in a poem, Fosterage, from ‘North’ (1975) , ‘Description is revelation.’ The truth of the world described reveals something about the people who inhabit that world. If we trust the writer to describe the world’s surface then it is more likely that the reader will believe his/her vision of what lies beneath. Flannery O’Connor says it differently but, I think, means the same thing. An old woman returning some stories O’Connor had written says of them "Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do."

TCB: A quotation from that newspaper is given in the inner sleeve of my copy of Midwinter Break:

“It is hard to believe that writer Bernard MacLaverty left Northern Ireland in 1975 to take up a job and raise his family in Scotland. His is a voice that is so distinctively from here … He has not lost the true sense of who he is; his accent; his warmth; his sincerity.”

I’m intrigued by the idea of voice and accent in your writing – both that it can so easily be detected by reviewers back in Ireland, and also the implicit suggestion that these could have been lost on account of changing your country of residence. I remember reading Edwin Morgan once remark on the “marked un-Englishness of the tone of voice” of Samuel Beckett’s fiction, despite Beckett not relying on a phonetic representation of speech in his work. Do you think of yourself as working in a distinctively Irish voice in the same manner? Does it strike you as strange that some Irish journalists seem surprised by the “marked un-Englishness” (or in this case, ‘un-Scottishness’) in your work?

BM: I’ve been accused of using ‘an Irish turn of phrase’ but then why wouldn’t I? I’m from Ireland. The last novel has two Irish people in Amsterdam so the writing and thinking and talking will be Irish. The phrase itself, ‘a turn of phrase’ is interesting. English turned on its head? Words brandished in a different order. But this is the way I learned the world. Listening to the speech of those older than me. In the current crisis my mother’d have said, ‘After this virus the world will have to sit on an egg less.’ And my Aunt would talk about bored children under lockdown as ‘lying around with the arses above them’.

It might be something to do with Gaelic constructions. It’s only a couple of hundred years since my family thought in Irish. I have retained my accent. There is no reason why the Irish shouldn’t retain grammar and constructions that make English sound individual and new minted. I think a similar thing has happened to Jewish writers. People like Malamud and Bashevis Singer write with Yiddish underlying their English. And wonderful it is too.

TCB: I’ll return to the beginning of your writing career: I’m aware that you attended some of Philip Hobsbaum’s writing groups in Belfast and Glasgow, making contact with (amongst many others) Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon, and then James Kelman and Alasdair Gray. How influential were these groups with regard to your own development as a writer?

BM: For the record – I only attended the Group in Belfast from 1964 till it ceased in the early 1970s. But yes, when I moved to Scotland I met James Kelman and Alasdair Gray who had been along to the Glasgow version when Hobsbaum took up a post here.

I thought the Belfast Group was a most valuable experience. But in some ways I was a special case. I was not a student or a member of staff. I was a lab technician who was doing a lot of reading and some writing. I published a story in a University magazine – those were the days when student editors would publish anything they could get their hands on – and Hobsbaum read it, liked it and invited me to come along to the Group. This acceptance was very important. It was a great encouragement to be taken seriously.

The format of the weekly meeting was that work was read and reacted to. Hobsbaum chaired, waggling his pencil, cocking his head to one side – almost invariably supporting the writer when he/she was criticised. Nobody had published anything but there was an abundance of talent to rub shoulders with. Mostly poetical. Seamus Heaney. Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Frank Ormsby, Joan Newman, Paul Muldoon, Stewart Parker, and many others. Much of the enrichment was not from the top down but sideways – Stewart Parker (playwright & poet) and I used to swap stuff to read and make suggestions – and I know this kind of thing happened all the time for others. The acceptance that you could become a writer from the beginning was a real boost. No mockery, no raised eyebrows. The Group took the business seriously.

TCB: James Kelman mentioned to me in conversation a while back that you, he, and Iain Crichton-Smith did a couple of stints together as writers-in-residence in Dunoon, 1980 – what was that experience like? Were you already aware of both artists’ work before this opportunity arose? And what are your feelings about the teaching of creative writing as a subject, having done so at various courses and institutions since that time? Can someone of little knowledge of the art-form be taught/guided toward becoming a great writer?

BM: Yes, I remember Castle Toward well – a week about reading and creative writing for sixth year pupils. I think I had met both writers at various readings – maybe the Collins Annual Scottish Short Story collections – and admired their work.

There was a great atmosphere among the sixth year students. It seemed like the week they grew up. They got things and wanted to sit up all night talking about getting such things. The writers-in-residence were doing the same kind of things in the staff room. I remember asking Iain if he had anything ‘in the pipe line’. And he laughed and finally admitted to having thirteen books waiting to come out at the publishers. But then he wrote in both English and Gaelic. He wrote poetry, short stories, novels and books of criticism. He seemed never to stop working – and laughing. He was a great man for a pun. His ambition, he said, was to give the keynote address at Yale. We were three very different writers and I felt that the students went away with widened horizons.

I feel at this tyro stage it is a great thing to be introduced to the possibility of the student being able to write. Equipment – an A4 pad and a biro. They become aware of their own uniqueness and realize they have a story to tell. The difficulty is how to tell it. I think the best a tutor can do is provide some awareness and insights, some short cuts, some what not-to-dos - create enthusiasms, point to texts that will enrich, recommend the work of giants and giantesses. I was very keen at that time (I still am) on Flannery O’Connor’s book Mystery and Manners. She writes with insight and wit and sarcastic charm about the short story and how to go about writing one. But there is no book that I know which will guide you to becoming a great writer. The best a tutor can do is to get students out of the starting blocks. But many of the good ones can get up and running by themselves.

TCB: I attended an event back in 2013 at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh when yourself and the playwright Jo Clifford were discussing the adaptation of work for the stage. Can you tell us a little about this process – how you go about distilling a prose work into a playscript? And, considering that you wrote the screenplays for the movies of your novels Cal and Lamb, does adapting work for stage differ from doing so for film?

BM: It is all about stories. An oversimplification is this. A writer writing for the page gets sound and sight and the other sense pictures of the story he wants to tell and somehow gets the words and emotions down on paper. A reader reads the words and translates them back into pictures and sounds etc., which evoke similar emotions. The same story can be told in various media. Stage play, radio play, TV play, screenplay. Opera, which is different again. The same story is being recounted but each needs a different craft approach. I have only done one stage play. Phonefun Limited. And that was very early on in my writing life when it was put on in the Tron, Glasgow at lunchtime (1982). In the last ten years or so I have written libretti for Scottish Opera which have to wrestle with the same problems. Things to be acted out live in front of an audience.

An example was a story I had written early on, ‘My Dear Palestrina’. It was a long story but not long enough to be a novella. I showed it to a friend who worked in radio drama. She said it would make a radio play. I showed it to another friend who worked in TV drama. He said it would make a TV play. So I did both without the BBC knowing. And realized that the medium shaped the story. The two versions were the same but different. And both versions won prizes.

It is a very difficult and complicated matter of craft to explain why. It would take pages. Slide shows. Video clips. Maybe someday I’ll tease out the differences. It would need a whole Q&A to itself.

TCB: While doing some research on your writing career, I kept encountering the name of James Joyce. In many reviews of Midwinter, the snowfall scene in the airport is likened to the end of The Dead; I saw your book The Anatomy School in review being compared with Portrait of the Artist as a fellow bildungsroman novel (and in terms of you having a similar “moral imagination” to Joyce); there is the importance of the story of Icarus and Daedelus in Lamb; the continual discussion of the man and his work in your brilliant short story ‘Hugo’ (Secrets, 1977), etc. Like yourself, Joyce was equally skilled and adept in both the novel and short story form – how important a writer was/is Joyce for you, both as a reader and as an artist?

BM: Totally important. I am in awe of him. Almost all writers in Ireland are. He left very little that can be bettered. A diet of masterpieces. Dubliners – as a book of stories, Portrait of the Artist & Ulysses as novels – what an enrichment to the world’s library. To admire is not the same as to aspire.

TCB: Some of your best and most well-known short stories – I’m thinking specifically of Walking the Dog, A Trusted Neighbour, and my personal favourite, On The Roundabout – do examine the Troubles, but not from the perspective of someone actively involved in the politics or the conflict; they focus on how it was all impacting upon ordinary people, civilians. The stories are clearly drawn from your experiences of Belfast, but how true to life were they? Was writing a way of coping with or making sense of what was happening in this period? And what is your impression of the renewed focus on the Troubles in fiction in recent years; I’m thinking of books such as Milkman by Anna Burns?

BM: I was writing before the present Troubles started (but not much published). So if you are a writer and this maelstrom descends upon your country you don’t write fictions about growing celery. You write about what is happening around you. You write about what is making people weep. And maybe laugh too. In 1918 poets were sent to war and, understandably, they wrote the atrocity of war.

I thought Anna Burns’ Milkman was superb. It was so fresh about something which had gone stale. It’s one of those books which underlines that it is not the subject of the material, but the treatment of the material which is important (I refer my right honourable friend to the answer I gave some moments ago, Ulysses). I had not read her work before and will certainly seek it out in future.

TCB: It’s clear to anyone who has followed your career that music has always been a huge part of your life – evident not just from your literary work, such as the novel Grace Notes, but from the libretti you wrote for Scottish Opera, and also from your time on radio hosting a classical music show. Do you think your love and understanding of music has informed or influenced your ability to write prose? Do you see a connection between the construction and the flow of two such different artistic mediums?

BM: I have always felt that rhythm is very important to prose. It’s a way of building up intensity, a way of changing pace, slowing things down, a way of focusing on emotion. In Grace Notes, Catherine’s walk on the beach with her baby, her taxi ride home from the airport, the bell ringing section in Kiev – all depend on rhythms. But in a novel about music that becomes integral.

I like mixing up the artistic mediums. Writing about a painter painting, a composer hearing new work coming alive inside the head.

I have been interested in music since I was at school. At first jazz and blues – then as I worked fruitlessly for my A level exams, listening to someone playing Chopin on the wireless. Then discovering, along with my mates, Beethoven and Mahler. Symphonies and chamber music. And of course opera.

Scottish Opera provided an opportunity which came along some time ago to become involved in music. They teamed me up with composer Gareth Williams. In opera it is the composer who does all the heavy work. The librettist has a job to do but nothing compared to the hours the composer has to put in. Later the writer can kid himself on that he wrote the music. You turn up at rehearsals and luxuriate.

My last outing was when Scottish Opera commissioned me to write a fifteen minute opera to open the refurbished foyers at the Theatre Royal. I wrote a version of the finale of Grace Notes for ten musicians, Lambeg drummers, soprano and spiral staircase. The music was by Samuel Bordoli. The opening night was cancelled because of a nearby conflagration. But it did get its launch eventually.

I very much enjoyed my time as a classical music DJ at BBC Scotland. The programme was two hours long and went out on a Sunday afternoon. To fill that yawning space I interviewed writers and musicians about how they came to listen to classical music. I remember asking one Slovenian composer who had driven from Ljubiana to the Highlands of Scotland how long that actually took. ‘All the Mahler symphonies,’ he said.

TCB: So to the present and the future – Midwinter Break really was such a brilliant novel; it has left many readers (myself included) hopeful of a new book someday soon. I’m sure I read in the Belfast Telegraph online you saying that you were thinking of writing a novella – is this something you’re working towards now? Or are you enjoying a well-earned break after the success of Midwinter?

BM: Good of you to say so – about Midwinter Break. Since finishing it I have been working on short stories. Maybe there was a story that set up notions (which have now disappeared) of it developing into a novella. I love the idea of a novella – a thin book. But substantial. Not a failed novel, not an overblown short story. But in itself, just right. Some examples. Brian Moore’s Catholics, Charlotte Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych, Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener.

TCB: Do you have any personal favourite writers or specific books that you’d like to recommend to our readers? What does a great writer like to read after a career of creating and consuming literary art?

BM: When I was at school one of the books dealt out round the class had short stories written by Michael McLaverty (mentioned earlier). The name rang a bell. I loved his stories and still do. He in his turn was always recommending Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Illych’ (which I’ve classified as a novella above). Flannery O’Connor not only writes peerless stories but she has that book of essays Mystery and Manners, many of them on the nature of writing fiction and on the short story, in particular. There are three Irish writers, Flann O’Brien, Myles NaGopaleen and Brian O’Nolan, who are all the same person and he has provided me with so much pleasure and laughter – the funniest writer I know. I could go on but everyone finds their own way through the thickets of literature and comes out with a different list. ●

You can now follow Bernard on Twitter: @maclavertyB