Lucy Caldwell and Paul McVeigh discuss The Good Son
You can take the child out of Belfast: two writers explore the challenges and rewards of using a child narrator
Lucy Caldwell and Paul McVeigh: authors who have both written novels with child narrators set in their native Belfast
I wanted to talk to you about child narrators. There is nothing more cloying or grating than a child narrator done badly – lots of people point-blank loathe them – but when they’re done well, they can be brilliant literary devices.
You can have such fun with voice, you can use the upbeat, resilient energy of a child to counter dark subject matter, and maybe most interestingly of all, you can really play with subtext – the extent to which the reader has to work to piece together what’s really going on between the lines, or above and beyond the awareness of the narrator. This can be used for comedy, to dramatic effect, for poignancy – you manage all of that, and more.
Mickey, the narrator of The Good Son, is 10 and the narrator of my first novel, Where They Were Missed, is six when the story begins. A couple of years before beginning my novel I had read and loved Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, and it seemed to me that using a child narrator would allow me to have a fresh take on Belfast, and the Troubles; it would allow me to question things, show the absurdities of things, not take things for granted. Did you feel the same?
I love reading novels with child narrators. I learned the benefits from a writer’s perspective while working on The Good Son, by trial and error. I played with the idea of the author having a conversation with the reader about the child. There’s the “He doesn’t acknowledge any impact from this event but we know he’s not going to get away with this, life’s not like that” and that shared knowledge/secret, I think, knits the reader into a complicity with the author . Almost like the author and the reader are the child’s parents privately discussing their worries. The “unknowing” of the character also emotionally engages you because you fear for the kid. You want to protect them but, of course, you can’t. The more believable the character, the writing, the deeper and more authentic your feelings can become. It can be very potent.
I too read and loved Paddy Clarke but I was writing comedy shows and stand-up back then so I experienced the novel as a reader not as a (prose) writer. Years later, when I wrote my first short story, the voice of Mickey came out of nowhere and it was clear he wasn’t leaving any time soon. I wasn’t thinking technically when I began writing the novel; honestly, I had no idea what I was doing. I went from writing to be performed to writing to be read – from my first piece of prose of a couple of thousand words, to writing a novel. I followed my nose. Got lost many times. What kept me going and directed me was that this little boy had something to say and I felt a personal investment in writing his story. I had some major knocks along the way and the novel was left in a drawer for years – and not just once.
I came to some understanding of technique about 10 years after I started writing prose. I was able to look at what I had written and use what I had learned to improve it. Later still, I could use the child narrator not just writing “in character”, writing instinctively and being a conduit of his voice, but to assert my authorial voice including what I wanted to say about the world and that extraordinary time.
Yes - Where They Were Missed was the first story I started writing, too, and I learned a lot through trial and error. I have written a lot of child and teen characters narrators since, and so these questions have the benefit of all of them, too. With Where They Were Missed it was the often clear, urgent quality of the child’s voice that kept me going, that persuaded me that I had something to say about the place and times I grew up in, too. But unlike The Good Son, I couldn’t sustain my child narrator for the whole novel – the second half is set 10 years later, when she’s 16.
Quite often when people talk of child narrators, they actually mean young adolescent narrators, narrators on the cusp, coming of age (the narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, for example, is 15; the narrator of Black Swan Green is 13) or they mean an adult narrator looking back on their childhood self (To Kill A Mockingbird). It’s relatively rare to have a true child narrator. There is an interesting article by John Mullan on this, with specific reference to Hideous Kinky, here and for readers who might be interested, the opening of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a masterclass in this: he grows his narrator up from baby to young boy in a virtuosic few pages.
But back to The Good Son! It seems to me that the first challenge, as a writer, is being in control of exactly how old your narrator is. Mickey begins his story: “I was born the day the Troubles started. ‘Wasn’t I, Ma?’ says me. ‘It was you that started them, son,’ says she, and we all laugh, except Our Paddy. I put that down to his pimples and his general ugliness.”
Right from the outset, you establish his age, his place in the family, the family dynamics – can you talk a little about this?
For the outset I had a frame for the story – I don’t know where it came from but it helped me immensely. It would start on the last day of primary school and end on the first day of secondary school. During this “last” summer this boy would grow up. There were lots of plot points that hung on that and originally the end was very different and took place at school – mirroring the first chapter. Most people would know this meant Mickey was 10 or 11 and I say early on he was the youngest in his class, which indicates 10. I establish him in the hierarchy of the family and his feelings towards his older and younger siblings by the end of page one.
I really enjoyed working out how to get information across without saying it outright. I find it pleasurable as a reader, figuring things out makes me invest. I liked the idea of finding out bits and pieces as you go along and this seemed authentic in the first person, present tense narrative. Young boys aren’t big on description anyway. I was concerned that by introducing a physical description later in the novel there was a risk of annoying or disappointing the reader as they may have already built up (and attached themselves) to a picture in their minds, which is an investment in a character or place. So I cheated a little by giving a physical or psychological feature as a signpost on the map of my story for the reader to refer too when that name came up. For example, when Measles first appears (I used names to help give a visual or psychological attribute too)she pops her head out the door “a tumble weed of ginger hair”.
Your characters are brilliantly vivid – Mickey’s playful, idiosyncratic vision brings them all to such Technicolor life! I loved that Mickey knows he is “different”, in his own words, but he’s just young enough for that difference not to have to be dissected or labelled. He wants to go to America and tap-dance – he wants to be on stage – he’s never had a girlfriend but “lumbers” with a girl because that’s what you do, but feels it’s wrong – it’s a joy to read about a character exploring other ways of being, exploring gender, sexuality, in such an upbeat way. The poignancy, I suppose, comes from the fact that we as readers know how hard it is going to be for him in a couple of years, being any kind of different in such a closed and tight and suspicious community that doesn’t tolerate any kind of presumed “deviance” from the norm. But you hold this at bay for Mickey, and it’s intensely moving.
Thank you for saying that. In the early drafts of the novel the story was much bleaker and the toll on Mickey was severe. When I returned to the novel, after a long break from writing, I found the story harrowing and devoid of hope. The grim outcome had been intentional. I mentioned earlier about following Mickey’s voice as my process but I did also have a goal, an underlying intention or philosophy, if you like. I wanted to show, in a realistic a way as possible, the plight of children in poverty and the day-to-day tyranny of life as the “other” in a prison-type environment like the barricaded ghettos of Belfast. I believed this was giving voice to the unheard and asking society to observe the huge part it plays in the events and outcome. The major rewrite I did about four years ago was due to my life experience and my philosophy changing. I decided to bring hope into the story: after all, wasn’t I the “other” and now happy? I wanted to say “fight the bastards” if not on the outside then in your head, in your heart and spirit.
So if my first motivation was to say “they will destroy you but I will tell everyone what they did” then the evolution was “they will damage you but see how you can fight them”. I guess I was talking to the tortured little boy I was.
For me, the definition of a hero is a character who refuses to give up while the world tries to batter her into submission.
I made Mickey into a hero, not a victim. Again, we know he will not come out of these experiences unscathed, on top of everything he goes through he also does something pretty extraordinary that we know will come to define him. He takes on the Troubles, his Da and the other kids, uses everything in his power to protect himself and the ones he loves. And he is determined to get what he wants in the face of all-round opposition. He’s not completely altruistic, by any means, and there’s a hint at the end that poses the question “did he do what he did solely for his Mum or because he will get what he wants too?”
Well, that can be a fundamental problem with child narrators: they can too easily be too passive – they can observe, but it’s hard to arrange things so that they have any agency, effect any change. Mickey fizzes with energy, is utterly full of good intentions, hare-brained schemes, which goes a long way towards offsetting this, but still, a deeper degree of agency in the adult world is still essential, I think. You pull this off – I don’t want to spoil the plot by saying how – but I wanted to ask, was this a struggle when you were writing Mickey? The marrying of his childish world and capacity to affect the worlds around him, the immediate family and the wider world?
In order for Mickey to be a hero he had to have power – acquire it or realise he had it all the time. I played with this by him believing he has super powers at the beginning. This fizzles out when he has to get serious in the later part of the book, when he starts growing up and utilising his real powers. He turns to his ingenuity and intelligence, away from inventing a fantasy world and hare-brained schemes and into providing for his family and plotting to save them. To pull this off I used this switch, this evolution in his head – the same skills pointed in a different direction. This is why the end is (I hope) that great expression “an inevitable surprise”. Mickey knows he has to grow up and get real but he does it in his own way. Referring back the previous question, I didn’t want to him to be destroyed by the world, I wanted a hero. A modern, pragmatic one, who has to make hard decisions and do morally complex things to become one.
Another, related problem with child narrators can be shaping the story. Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark circumvents this very cleverly: it is narrated retrospectively, from an adult perspective, with no concessions made to childish vocabulary or syntax, but formally it recreates, quite brilliantly, the feeling of childhood memory: it’s written in snapshots, with the opening segment subtitled “February 1945”, the second “September 1945”, then nothing until “November 1947”, then “June 1948”, and then the memories begin to cluster thick and fast.
But if you’re writing in the moment – in the first person, present tense, as I did, or like Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which is first person past tense but a very close past tense, that reads almost as present, with very little perceptible distance between the events occurring and their narration – then you have the problem that they can be quite prolix, and it’s too easy to let that run away with you, not just on a sentence-by-sentence level but with the narrative as a whole. It helps, I think, to have quite a tight timeframe – The Good Son takes place over the course of one summer, with the clock counting down to the day Mickey will have to start at the rough, tough, much-feared new secondary school – and the story is written in quite tight episodes. David Mitchell says in his Paris Review interview, “Get the structure wrong and you blow up shortly after takeoff. Get it right and you save yourself an aborted manuscript and months and months of wasted writing.”
The Good Son has a simple structure – but did it take you much trial and error to settle on where to begin and where to end your story, what to include, what to omit, how to order it?
I did have the top and tail, start and finish line, but unfortunately I wasted a huge amount of time making mistakes. I found I had written, slightly more trendy now, a linked collection of short stories, not a novel. If I had known what that was and if that had been a “thing” back then I might have gotten away with it. When I figured out what I’d written (and I did want to write a novel) I rewrote with cause and effect in mind. I also added the week count down structure creating a ticking clock. Both these changes brought tension to the story. They also helped me order my thoughts and made moving events around much easier.
I was the same when I worked in theatre. If given an open brief I floundered. When given some shape, boundaries or structure, I thrived. I would explore every corner of that box, push against all of the walls and bash them into my own shape. Maybe this is because of the hemmed-in environment I grew up in. Jesus – that’s never occurred to me.
They say writing is never wasted. Or is it good writing? I know I wasted a lot of time which a little instruction would have helped save. I don’t think I’d write another novel without planning in out for the reason Dave Mitchell mentioned. I don’t think I could stomach all that waste again.
Form can never be separated from content, can it? We’ve both worked across different forms – novels, theatre, stories – and I always think that it’s being in control of the form you’re working in, the specific limitations and possibilities of it, that’s the key to success. I can see the influence of your theatre background in The Good Son, and although I didn’t know that you’d worked in stand-up and comedy, too, that makes complete sense. One of the greatest pleasures of The Good Son for me was your use of language – your sheer joy and delight in catching the rhythms of speech and the slang is evident on every page.
I hadn’t actually read Frances Molloy’s No Mate for the Magpie when I wrote Where They Were Missed – didn’t read it, in fact, until relatively recently. (I think a lot of our women writers, such as Frances Molloy, Una Woods, Anne Devlin, are criminally under-read, but that’s a whole other conversation.) But it’s a brilliant book, sharp, scabrous, bleakly hilarious, and one I’d definitely recommend to readers who enjoyed The Good Son.
“Way a wee screwed up protestant face an’ a head of black hair a was born, in a state of original sin,” it begins. “Me ma didn’t like me, but who’s te blame the poor woman, sure a didn’t look like a catholic wain atall.” It’s written colloquially, the spelling and grammar capturing the accent and patterns of speech of the narrator, like The Good Son. It’s a real feat to pull this off – to stay truthful to the narrator’s voice without overdoing or caricaturing it. Can you talk a little about finding this balance with Mickey? Did his voice come to you in a flash, or did it take a lot of work?
I haven’t read Frances Molloy but the early drafts of The Good Son resembled the quote above. I got a lot of feedback from other writers and industry folk that they found the dialect tough going as, being in the first person, there was no let up from it – when writing in the third person you can restrict the dialect to the dialogue and give the reader a break. A good compromise.
Being realistic and authentic was important to me, I wanted the narrator to speak as working-class Belfast people did. This also meant a lot of swearing. In the end I made a compromise I was happy with. I toned the dialect down and lost the phonetic spelling of every word but kept the speech patterns, introduced a recurring sibilant “says she” which added flavour, kept some regional words which I explained before using. Here’s an example of how I did that, introducing two new words quickly.
“I’m completely scundered. I take a massive redner, my face burning like a slapped arse.” In context Mickey has just gotten a compliment from a teacher he’s is in love with. His face is burning so we know it is red (like a slapped arse), we go back to “redner” and know in Belfast this is “blushing” and these descriptions and the context tells us “scundered” is “embarrassed”.
Getting the balance right took a long time. I knew the reader would have to work at the text but I wanted them to stick with it. The story was emotionally (and action) packed, so I didn’t want tire them out trying to translate every sentence too.
When I was a younger writer I was of the “I am an artist” ilk. Art, and the world, needs experimentation and refusal to compromise. As I have gotten older I’m more inclined to be kinder to the reader. Life is exhausting enough as it is. I still want to be challenged and made smarter when I read but I want an author/reader relationship, not me paying with money and time to facilitate someone’s ego.
Mothers get a hard time in Irish fiction – just look at monstrous Rosaleen in Anne Enright’s latest, the queen of them all – and I loved the fact that Mickey’s Ma is strong, determined, a real survivor – she may be sharp-tongued and quick to whack the back of her wains’ legs but she is loving, and has a very close bond with all of her children, Mickey in particular. You explore the mother-son relationship in refreshing and sensitive ways in your short story Tickles, too, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Can you talk a little about writing mothers, or that mother-son bond?
The equation seems to be, an Irish son’s love is equal to how bad the father was, added to the resulting hardship the mother experienced. I am drawn to writing about mothers and mother/son relationships. In The Good Son, Mickey’s Ma is a tough cookie (you wouldn’t want to mess with her) but she has her weaknesses that are so out of character, like an abusive husband she loves and chooses over her kids. We all have these incongruous weaknesses, I think, if we’re honest.
Ma loves fiercely but her inner boundaries are smudged, which means sometimes she’s just fierce. I wanted to show that being in an environment like the Troubles meant you had to put up shields and make weapons but sometimes that meant your loved ones came under “friendly fire”. And those shields could end up being permanent, protecting you but also keeping your loved ones out.
Ma also needs to toughen her son up. She knows what will happen to him in the street and in school if he doesn’t. This is a crucial time. What Mickey could get away with before, eg playing with girls/his little sister and his high-pitched voice, are losing the last threads of credibility and his difference is about to be exposed in devastating ways by the increasing masculinity of his pubescent peers and “big” school. Mickey and Ma have a parallel complex mix of naivety, knowingness, combativeness and fierce love and loyalty.
In the original draft of The Good Son (it had a different name and focus) the mother was a small character. She was much more one-dimensional as we never saw beyond to her motivations. This was intentional, in that, as I was so in Mickey’s viewpoint he couldn’t have understood – he didn’t see, so we didn’t. By becoming a better writer, I could use the child narrator – stay authentic but cheat, or rather use my new skills – to allow the reader to see behind the shield and lashing out while still believing in Mickey’s naivety. It meant spending more time with her in the novel. Being older, returning to the novel after a number of years, I tried to look at the cliche through the prism of all I had learned as a person too. Treat the character’s mistakes with kindness. I decided to no longer look back in anger but rather look back with empathy. These two things transformed the novel and gave me a book I was finally happy to say was finished and ready to send out into the world.
Lucy Caldwell's latest book is Multitudes (Faber), which will be August's Irish Times Book Club choice. Throughout July, we shall explore The Good Son from many angles, not just with its author but also with contributions by several other well-known writers, including Laura van den Berg, whom Salon.com called “the best young writer in America”; Alison Moore, Booker-shortlisted author of The Lighthouse; Lucy Caldwell, winner of the Dylan Thomas & Rooney Prize; Danielle McLaughlin; Paul Burston, author of seven novels and founder of The Polari Salon & Prize; as well as Sarah Hutchings of City Reads Brighton; and his British publisher, Jen Emery-Hamilton. The month will culminate in a podcast in which the author will discuss his novel with Martin Doyle, assistant literary editor of The Irish Times. This will be published on July 31st and recorded at a public event in the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin, on Tuesday, July 19th, at 7.30pm