Paul McVeigh Q&A: ‘It’s ironic the two books I did the most research for I ended up not writing’

‘When I read Anaïs Nin’s exposing personal enquiries into emotion and excavations of the truth, it transformed my concept of the territory of the written word’

 Paul McVeigh: “When I finish a book I want it to look like it’s been through an experience with me. I also like to write in books – I know, sacrilegious to some people, but for me, I love underlining a sentence or asking a question. I feel like I’m having a conversation with the book, engaging with it, sometimes the character, sometimes the author”

Paul McVeigh: “When I finish a book I want it to look like it’s been through an experience with me. I also like to write in books – I know, sacrilegious to some people, but for me, I love underlining a sentence or asking a question. I feel like I’m having a conversation with the book, engaging with it, sometimes the character, sometimes the author”

 

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

Fluffy Bum the Cat by Spike Milligan. Milligan was a comedy genius. I loved his irreverance. As a very young, working-class boy, without a book in the house, I felt books were this alien thing, not of my world. I remember picking up this book in school and thinking: “Are you allowed to write this?” It would be no surprise to me if I journeyed from this memory along the pathways in my brain and it would lead me to where I started writing comedy in London 20 years later.

What was your favourite book as a child?

I don’t remember a favourite but I remember I loved fantasy books. I read Tolkien over and over, and Ursula LeGuin. I loved nonfiction books. Particularly huge, heavy, hardbacked slabs of information proving the world wasn’t what it seemed (unexplained mysteries etc). I felt how I saw the world was very different to how everyone around me saw it but I was convinced I was right. Or if they were right, there was something else going on at least. Something these books proved. Something there was no point trying to explain to other people because they just didn’t get it.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

For the last few years I’ve immersed myself in short stories. I love Junot Diaz, Karen Russell, Kevin Barry and my favourite book of the last couple of years is George Saunders’ Tenth of December. If you haven’t read his work or even if you don’t normally read short stories, I highly reccomend this collection.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?

I don’t get on with ebooks. I prefer print. The feel of the page, and the bend of the spine. The solidness of an e-reader makes me uncomfortable. Too careful and aware of the thing. When I finish a book I want it to look like it’s been through an experience with me. I also like to write in books – I know, sacrilegious to some people, but for me, I love underlining a sentence or asking a question. I feel like I’m having a conversation with the book, engaging with it, sometimes the character, sometimes the author. I read a lot now for work, and for interviews particularly it helps me on a practical level to remember things I want to discuss.

Where and how do you write?

I write at home. I’ve tried to work in cafes and on the beach here in Brighton on sunny days but I can’t concentrate. Any flicker of movement and I’m gone. I have no control over my eyes. Or ears. No matter how long I prepare in advance to make sure I have eveything I need with me, I always find something I want that I’ve left behind. All nonsense, of course, but I usually last about an hour before practically running home to my desk and the nothingness of the backs of houses out of the window behind my computer.

What book changed the way you think about fiction or what book influenced you the most?

Strangely, it was a diary. I read the diaries of Anaïs Nin when I was in my late teens and a volume called Henry and June, about her relationship with the writer Henry Miller, had a huge impact on me. Coming from a background where everything was kept quiet, (from the “huge unexploded bomb” type secret, to “Mum buying a new blouse and having to pretend to my Dad it was old” type) and when I read these exposing personal enquiries into emotion and excavations of the truth, it transformed my concept of the territory of the written word. To this day I cannot write anything unless I’m certain of its absolute emotional truth.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

It’s ironic the two books I did the most research for I ended up not writing. One was about Irish pirates and the other, well… I may end up doing something with it so I’ll keep it close for the time being. It seems the more engagement I have with a story outside of my head the less likely I am to write it.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Don’t stop aspiring. Aspiration is forward-looking. It propels. It’s movement. Wanting to be better at your craft. Driving that work from your computer out into the world. Any writer worth their salt is taking a risk when they write. A risk when they ask other people to publish it. With risk comes rejection. There is no way to avoid huge disappointment. I let that stop me taking risks for quite a few years and I almost stopped writing completely. Don’t be a chump like me.

What weight do you give reviews?

Reviews are like writing itself. They can make your feel vindicated, elated but also deeply insecure and that you are what you always suspected – a talentless monkey. No disrepect to monkeys intended.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

I think I got my desire to live life to the full. To see the world. To take risks. To throw myself into new experiences. Most of these I now do without leaving the house.

What has being a writer taught you?

That I have to let go eventually.

What is your favourite word?

Reciprocity.

Paul McVeigh has written plays, comedy and short stories and is Director of London Short Story Festival. His debut novel, The Good Son (Salt Publishing), came out in April

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