Bernard MacLaverty: ‘You must want to write but anger spurs you on’

Bernard MacLaverty:  “I tend if I sit down at the desk to have thoughts and pictures from the north of Ireland”. Photograph: Robert Burns

The award-winning author of Midwinter Break on BLANK PaGES, his first short story collection in 15 years

Many short story collections by established authors remind me of albums, several of whose tracks have already been hit singles. The first thing that struck me about Blank Pages, Bernard MacLaverty’s brilliant short story collection, his sixth but his first in 15 years, is that not a single story had been published elsewhere before.

“I don’t send them away anywhere now,” the affable Belfast writer tells me over the phone from his Glasgow home. They just sit on his desk until the pile is sufficiently high to send to his editor at Cape, fellow author Robin Robertson, to turn into a book.

“I would use him as a kind of touchstone in a way. He was pleased with this one. I don’t know magazines in the same way. What’s the one with the spider in the title in Ireland? [The Stinging Fly.] In the beginning I used to keep a big chart of every story I sent away. In one column there’d be ‘no reply’ or ‘never heard from again’. Maybe I’m afraid of that happening again.”

There is surely little risk of that fate befalling this master of short fiction, “simply the best that has come out of Ireland in the last 50 years along with that by the late William Trevor and the late John McGahern”, according to critic Richard Rankin Russell.

He is no slouch at the longer form either. His first two novels, Lamb (1980) and Cal (1983), were adapted by him for film, starring Liam Neeson and Helen Mirren, respectively. Grace Notes (1997) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and his late masterpiece, Midwinter Break (2017), won Irish novel of the year.

First Fiction winner Aaron Finnegan, Emerging Poetry winner Louise G Cole, Hall of Fame inductee Bernard MacLaverty and Emerging Fiction winner and Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year Manus Boyle Tobin at the 47th Annual Hennessy Literary Awards. Photograph: Brian McEvoy
First Fiction winner Aaron Finnegan, Emerging Poetry winner Louise G Cole, Hall of Fame inductee Bernard MacLaverty and Emerging Fiction winner & Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year Manus Boyle Tobin at the 47th Hennessy Literary Awards. Photograph: Brian McEvoy

I grew up with MacLaverty’s fiction so it was a pleasure to say a few words when he was given a Hennessy New Irish Writing Hall of Fame award in 2018, recalling how I had gone with a Protestant girlfriend to see the film version of Cal, about a Catholic’s affair with the widow of an RUC man who he had helped murder: “a great novel, a fine film but a terrible date movie”.

Despite having left Belfast for Scotland with his wife and young family when the Troubles were at or near their worst in 1975, early memories are still the main source of his inspiration – “I tend if I sit down at the desk to have thoughts and pictures from the north of Ireland” – and even his writing style is identifiably Northern – Tom Adair praised its combination of lavishness and restraint as “the ultimate Northern Irish prose style, all Catholic curlicues and Calvinistic sparseness”.

In Blackthorns: County Derry 1942 (his birth year), the final story in the collection and one of its finest, set in the North during the second World War, a doctor’s wife hosts a US officer to dinner: “Myrtle took no account of Brad’s unfamiliarity with local Irish words or constructions or expressions”. MacLaverty similarly delights in Northern words such as midden and glory hole and turns of phrase – “You’re some pup!”.

“I think it’s OK, in the same way Flannery O’Connor writes with such a Deep South drawl and words. The responsibility is on the reader, the duty to go away and see what’s indicated here.”

Participating in the Royal Dublin Society’s lunchtime discussion, A Writer’s World, were Maeve Binchy and Bernard MacLaverty and (right) Sean Hogan of the RDS. Photograph: Paddy Whelan
Participating in the Royal Dublin Society’s lunchtime discussion, A Writer’s World, were Maeve Binchy and Bernard MacLaverty and (right) Sean Hogan of the RDS. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

He is, however, unsentimental about the North. The doctor in Blackthorns and his US army counterpart together save the life of a Catholic man with the help of a new wonder drug, an antibiotic made by Pfizer (a nod to the present pandemic), but the scientific breakthrough stands in constrast to their unenlightened sectarian and segregationist beliefs, a cure for which is still to be found.

Similarly, in Sounds and Sweet Airs, Lisa, a young harpist on a ferry from Belfast to Scotland, asked what she misses about home, replies: “I miss the hatred. And the bigotry. Oh and all the flegs”.

“That’s where I come from,” MacLaverty says simply. “That’s where you come from too. What was your piece, Dirty Linen? That was full of it. It is a bigoted place. The 30 years of the Troubles were awful. There was a fear on the 100th anniversary of the state people might want to celebrate it but I don’t think it was a good thing, yet another wrong turn of the British empire, the desire to rule the roost, the gentry who lived off the everyday Orangemen who think that they rule the place.” He scoffs at the BBC’s attempts to appear evenhanded. “They would compare Ian Paisley and Bernadette Devlin – one was a bigot and the other was a working-class intellectual. Coming to Scotland, it was a joy to be away from it. Working-class, left-wing people – that would be my territory, so much better than conservative, unionist.”

He went on some of the smaller civil rights marches, including one in Belfast after Bloody Sunday, but he wasn’t a great activist, he says. He was very fond of John Hume, “a huge politician”. “You must want to write but anger spurs you on, you know it’s not going to change anything but you might communicate something, help someone else with empathy.”

MacLaverty has always been a writer. He remembers a teacher, Gerry Treacy, at his primary school in Belfast giving him a sixpence for his essay, A Rainy Day, and reading it out to the class. “That tanner was my first literary money, the only thing I think my mother was ever proud of. She used to say, ‘I pray every night, son, that you’ll not write anything dirty’.”

He went on to St Malachy’s but didn’t shine, even failing his English A level. “I enjoyed school but I wasn’t a really smart kid.” He is proud of its literary heritage. however. “I think there are four novels which feature St Malachy’s: The Feast of Lupercal by Brian Moore; Call My Brother Back by Michael McLaverty; Ripley Bogle by Robert McLiam Wilson; and my own The Anatomy School. I don’t know how many schools can claim that.”

He went to Queen’s University, not as a student but as a laboratory technician. However, he began writing for student magazines and Philip Hobsbaum invited him to join his writing group along with Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and Stewart Parker. His near namesake Michael McLaverty was another influence. His handwritten tribute to Heaney, displayed in the Laurel Villa guesthouse near the HomePlace in Bellaghy, is worth seeking out. “He had a certain rooted loftiness – a down-to-earth brilliance.”

MacLaverty’s handwritten tribute to Heaney, displayed in the Laurel Villa guesthouse near the HomePlace in Bellaghy, is worth seeking out. “
MacLaverty’s handwritten tribute to Heaney, displayed in the Laurel Villa guesthouse near the HomePlace in Bellaghy, is worth seeking out. “

Born three years after Heaney, he escaped Belfast three years after him too, in 1975, having qualified as a teacher. “I was married and had children. Belfast became so dangeorus and unacceptable and filled with hate, I thought I don’t want to live here any more. I wanted to remain somewhere Celtic, and the only place I had ever been out of Ireland was Edinburgh, to learn about chromosomes.

His first job was in a big Catholic comprehensive, St Augustine’s “or, as we nicknamed it, St Disgusting’s”. The it was on to the isle of Islay (the y is silent, he explains), from where on clear days you can see Ireland. “When I first went there, the only TV signal you could get was from Northern Ireland, so we were bombarded with [ads for] George Best and Donnelly’s sausages, a reminder of home. On rueful days, you felt like Columba.”

Eventually, he settled in Glasgow, where he still lives, sharing a postcode with all his children and grandchildren. Gregarious and good-humoured, he found likeminded friends in Tom Leonard, Jim Kelman and Alasdair Gray, several of them also Hobsbaum proteges. He also delights in his adopted city’s rich classical music tradition, a love which inspired Grace Notes, as well as several short libretti.

He reckons, though, if he had not become a writer, he might have been a painter. His father was a commercial artist and he has illustrated a book of bedtime stories which he wrote for his own children.

MacLaverty has been a fulltime writer for 40 years now, having quit teaching in 1981. “I said to myself if I earned as much as a teacher then that would be OK, I could put cornflakes on the table for the family.” Adapting his work for radio, television and film helped, starting with My Dear Palestrina, a long story which won a Jacobs award as a TV play. “At the awards ceremony in Dublin Madeline felt an impostor till she met a man at our table who bought the figs for the fig rolls.”

The finest story in Blank Pages is the truly superb The End of Days: Vienna 1918, about the deaths from Spanish flu of the artist Egon Schiele and his wife. It is also the last story written for the collection. “I felt when the pandemic came, the world might not be interested in pre-pandemic stories. I had great affection for the work of Egon Schiele. I had seen that drawing he did of his wife the night before she died. I had writen an earlier story [Life Drawing from A Time to Dance (1982)] about an artist who comes home and draws his father on his deathbed. I revisited that emotional material. I felt it was in a way ushering in the pandemic, paying attention to the suffering it’s inspired.”

Schiele the artist is ruthless, drawing his wife Edi dead even as he grieves for her, before having second thoughts and burning the work. (There is a devastating moment when he realises the sound he hears, “the beat of trains over tracks”, is his unborn child’s fading pulse. Edi’s “body being both cradle and coffin with in a minute”) MacLaverty’s description of Schiele, looking repeatedly up at his subject then down at the page, “like a bird drinking”, could be his own manifesto. “Sometimes the line is like the human voice. It sings. Variations and complexities... Accuracy is what he was after. Accuracy and an intensity of awareness. Paying attention with his eyes.”

How ruthless an artist is he? Is everything fair game? “I would say you can use stuff that you know provided it is sufficiently distorted. When I was teaching, we were trying to establish what fiction was. A girl in third class said, ‘sir, sir, it’s made-up truth’. I thought that was a wonderful definition.”

John Kavanagh and his wife Anne with Bernard MacLaverty at the launch of Grace Notes in the Dublin Bookshop, Grafton Street
John Kavanagh and his wife Anne with Bernard MacLaverty at the launch of Grace Notes in the Dublin Bookshop, Grafton Street

It is striking how autobiographical the inspiration for these stories is. Some are inspired by a news item, a historical fact or a work of art but many spring straight from memory. The Dust Gatherer stems from teenage memories of the mortal danger of an overhanging slate and an aunt with varicose veins who cut her leg on the jagged edge of a bucket.

Like MacLaverty, whose father died when he was only 12, a harsh and lifelong lesson in the fundamental unfairness of being, the boy in The Dust Gatherer lost his father young. “It was traumatic,” he says. “I didn’t know it was happening. If anyone ever spoke about it for years after it would make you want to cry. You gradually get over it and realise we are all going there. He was a well-loved and -liked person.”

“You’re a writer... You’re supposed to notice,” the protagonist in Blank Pages, the title story, is told. And MacLaverty is all-seeing, observing for example the “cold sandpaper roughness” of frost “which had covered the inside of the glass with feathers”. A Love Picture: Belfast 1940 is ostensibly about a woman grieving for her son – “Great gulps of air inflating her” – who is missing at sea, who someone thinks they might have seen on a Capitol cinema newsreel disembarking in Galway. But MacLaverty’s parents met at the Capitol. His father drew the posters, oblivious to the danger of lead and cadmium in paints, and died of cancer at about 45. Perhaps if you lose a parent young, even if you later lose your faith, you never quite lose hope in resurrections and miracle cures.

MacLaverty’s well of memories is old and deep but has still not run dry. The home invaded by the British army in Searching, Belfast 1971 was his family home. The cricket ball found by the officer belonged to his brother. Catholics don’t play cricket, the soldier says. “That shows you how little you know,” the mother replies.

The alcoholic in The Fairly Good Samaritan is reminiscent of Gerry in Midwinter Break, his late masterpiece which became a huge word of mouth success, a relatively quiet story about an ageing couple’s estrangement which slowly builds, like a night of steady snowfall, into something sensational. This new character is based on an old neighbour from Islay, a very witty, ex-public school down-and-out, who had lovely phrases, but was so led by drink. “We were very good friends, we would occasionally go drinking together, always a dangeorus thing.”

MacLaverty is comfortable writing female characters, be it Catherine in Grace Notes or Stella in Midwinter Break. “There was a story I wrote called At the Beach in Walking the Dog, about a couple on holiday, much like Midwinter Break. It began in the man’s voice then I decided I’d switch, that she leaves him in apartment and wanders around at siesta time. I felt her voice sounded right. It was the last story in that collection and I then went on to write Grace Notes to keep that female twang of the voice. I’ve tried the female voice or empathy on the page whenever I feel like it now.”

You write whatever comes along, MacLaverty explains. “You think of a sentence and write it down and it might please you, then you write another one beside it. It builds up like a wall, you make a house of it then you go into the house and look out the window. It leads you, you don’t know where you’re going, you follow the words, then you begin to shape it forward and backwards, intensify it and subtract, all that. With a dozen stories, you have different nuances, some are more intense, some slightly funny, a kind of range, I hope.”

Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty is published by Jonathan Cape on August 5th